Point, Shoot, Toss Yes, single-use cameras are convenient. And they now take great pictures as well.
By Scott Medintz

(MONEY Magazine) – First things first: Do not call these cameras "disposable." True, you buy one pre-loaded with film, hand over the whole contraption to the shop that's developing your photos and never see the camera again. But the people who make these cameras want you to know that they're committed to recycling the parts--a message they've attempted to convey by calling their products "single-use cameras."

Well, cameramakers really needn't worry about an image problem: Americans generally persist in referring to these cameras as "disposable" but still bought some 95 million of them last year.

The reasons for this popularity are, of course, price and convenience. Because single-use cameras are so inexpensive--most range in price from $4 to $13--you can take photos at the beach or on a rafting trip for barely more than the cost of film without worrying about damaging expensive photo equipment.

You might assume that such benefits come at the expense of quality--and to some extent that's true. But these days, thanks to better film, it's less true than ever before. Kodak and Fuji, which together sell about 80% of single-use cameras, now load most models with an improved 800-speed film that reduces the risk of underexposed shots without producing the graininess once associated with high-speed film.

What's more, single-use cameras let you try out the new APS photo system if you're intrigued by this technology (which allows you to switch between normal and panoramic shots) but aren't ready to spend $80 or more on a nondisposable version.

Photo finish

With the overall quality of single-use cameras on the upswing, we wondered whether some are better than others. To find out, we had several amateur photographers on the MONEY staff spend a weekend snapping photos using 16 different single-use cameras--including indoor, outdoor, panoramic and APS models, as well as a Polaroid--taking several pictures of the same image. We also tried an inexpensive conventional camera. So we could compare the finished photos more accurately, we had all the film processed by the same people. Then we asked our photo editors to judge the results. Here's what we found.

The first thing that struck us was how differently the pictures turned out, even those taken of the same subject in the same light. If a single generalization is possible, it's that Fuji cameras tend to produce photos with richer, more vibrant colors than Kodaks do. That richer look, however, can come at the expense of truer, more natural colors--a trade-off you may not want to make, even if our panel did. As one judge said, "I'd rather have good pictures than accurate ones."

The basic picks

For outdoor photos--taken with cameras without a flash--our judges unanimously selected the Fuji QuickSnap Outdoor ($4.65) as the best of the four models we tested. The runner-up: the Kodak Max Outdoor ($5.99), which, like the Fuji, uses 800-speed film. The two that finished out the group--the Kodak Fun Classic ($4.39) and the lesser-known Focal OneTime Daylight camera ($4.99), the latter of which produced pictures with a pink tint--use 400-speed film.

The high-quality 800-speed film in most Fuji and Kodak models was designed to function well in a wide range of light conditions--and, generally speaking, it does. But for taking pictures indoors using a flash, our test found that neither a name brand nor high-speed film ensures the best shot. Our judges preferred the sharpness and truer color in the photos taken by the Focal OneTime model ($6.49). The runner-up--despite the garish messages ("New Girl in Town!") that appear at the bottom of each photo--was an "It's a Girl" Message Camera ($8.99 for 18 photos) that we bought at K Mart. Again, the Fuji QuickSnap Flash ($5.99) produced the richest color, but in this case the effect--a yellowish skin tone--was too extreme. The Kodak Max Flash ($6.99) was worse, rendering our subjects' skin green.

Special formats

Purists complain that single-use panoramic cameras are no such thing. Yes, these models capture only about half the 120-degree view generally considered "panoramic." And though they use somewhat wide-angle lenses, the pictures they produce are little more than enlarged and cropped versions of ordinary snapshots. The same is true of the panoramic format on APS cameras.

None of this really bothered our judges, however, who felt the elongated photos have more than enough inherent appeal to justify their higher cost compared with other single-use cameras.

No clear consensus emerged as to whether the Fuji QuickSnap Panorama ($12.99 for 27 exposures) or the Kodak Max Panoramic ($9.99 for 15 exposures) took better shots. Your best bet, therefore, is to go for more shots for the money--which in this case means the Fuji. The judges again split over the Kodak Advantix Switchable APS camera ($10.99 for 25 exposures) vs. the Fuji Smart QuickSnap APS Multiview camera ($12.99 for 25). Here the Kodak offers the better value.

Another specialized single-use camera now showing up on store shelves is a Polaroid. It provides the instant gratification that makes the brand unique, and our judges were all impressed with the 2 1/8-inch-by-2 7/8-inch photos. At $18.95 for 10 photos, the Polaroid Instant Popshots seems pricey. But you get a $4 rebate for returning the camera, and a conventional Polaroid and 10 shots' worth of film costs more than $40. You can buy eight disposables before an investment in a conventional model would pay off.

Cameras to keep (for a while)

If you'll use more than, say, 10 disposables in a year, your money would be better spent on a sub-$50 conventional camera. Cameras in this price range have several advantages over single-use models: higher-quality lenses, multiple flash settings and automatic winding. According to Gary Eisenberger, manager of B&H Photo in New York, the wide 29-millimeter lens on the Nikon Fun Touch 5 ($45) makes it good for group shots. If kids will be using the camera, he suggests one with an oversize viewfinder, such as the Yashica EZ View AF ($55).

Finally, for distinctive photographs on a shoestring, check out the Holga 120S, a reusable camera that even its manufacturer admits "looks like (and is) a cheap carnival toy." How cheap? At online retailer www.freestylesalesco.com, the Holga sells for $14.95, or $12.95 each for six or more. The cult of Holga users includes many professional photographers, who love these inexpensive plastic cameras because of their faults: Light tends to leak into the camera, creating interesting effects. Plus, Holgas accommodate both conventional 35mm film and 2 1/4-inch film used by pros.

Surprisingly, even though the Holga manual admits that "these cameras are cheap, they break," it says nothing about recycling. At last, a true disposable.