Disposable cameras are making a comeback. Like so many other pieces of 90’s nostalgia, these “wind and click” cameras are iconic throwbacks to a simpler time. Since most people have zero experience with “real” film cameras, they may have questions about how long disposable cameras last.
Disposable cameras can last several years (well beyond the printed expiration date, even) if they are stored properly. Still, they should last for at least two to three years before you notice any difference in photo quality. Even 10 years later, you should still be able to get photos from the film.
Do Disposable Cameras Expire?
In most cases, disposable cameras will come with a pre-printed expiration date from the manufacturer. However, it doesn’t mean that the camera will simply stop working when you reach that date.
The expiration date is more like a “best if used by” date. It’s the time frame which the manufacturer chooses for optimal quality for use and for the finished product. Even if you’ve passed that date, the camera should still work just fine if you’ve stored it properly.
If anything, you may notice that the images aren’t as sharp or clear as they should be, or there could be shadowing or grainy effects on the photos. Changes in the photo’s color is a typical outcome with older film.
Still, if you’ve stored the camera in a cool, dark place, the film should be fine within five to eight years. If it’s far beyond that time frame, you may have to send the film to a specialist for processing.
If you’ve already used the camera to take your photos and you toss it into a drawer for several years, you should still be able to have the film developed and get decent pictures. The reason is that exposed (used) film tends to hold up better over long periods than unused film.
The type of film and camera brand can also have an impact on how long your disposable camera will last. Some brands are better quality than others and are more likely to hold up over time.
The only other issue could be with a disposable camera that has a flash. In that case, the expiration date could also potentially reflect the expected battery life for the flash and the light bulb.
How to Store a Disposable Camera
If you have a disposable camera and you don’t plan on using it for a while, there are some things you can do to help preserve the film’s integrity. The same goes for a camera that you’ve already used but aren’t going to develop right away.
Keep your disposable camera somewhere dark, cool, and dry. It’s critical to keep the camera and film safe from exposure to moisture and humidity. The same goes for heat. Heat can quickly degrade the film’s quality. For that reason, some people choose to keep their film or disposable camera in the refrigerator.
If you put yours in the fridge, make sure you seal it in an airtight bag or container so that no moisture can get in. It’s also a good idea to wrap it in something dark to keep the light out.
If you leave the camera in a car, or anywhere else it might be exposed to direct sunlight, heat, moissutre, or humidity, chances are that the photos will be noticeably impacted. Your pictures may have color banding or color shifts, or the image could be completely washed out in severe cases.
What Causes Disposable Cameras to Go Bad?
There are certain factors that have the biggest impact on disposable cameras and photo film in general. Understanding what conditions may accelerate the breakdown of your disposable camera can help you know how to best preserve your memories captured on the film.
Age: The first factor is the camera’s age. Typically, photos from newer cameras turn out better than photos from older cameras.
That’s why it’s better to take the photos on newer film and wait to develop them than to take the photos on old film. If the film or camera is black and white, it will last for much longer than color photo film.
Temperature: The temperature at which you store your camera has a big impact on the film and photo quality.
High temperatures are not good for cameras or film, so the cooler the better. Your photos will also potentially come out better if you store the camera closer to the floor versus high up on a shelf (because heat rises!).
Camera Brand: Some camera and film brands hold up much better over time than others. For example, some professional photo processors have reported that Fuji brand film does not typically come out very good once the expiration date has passed. On the other hand, Kodak typically processes very well even after longer time periods.
Humidity: Moisture and humidity can be hard on camera film, but it’s not always a ruiner.
In fact, film that was stored in a cool, damp basement is likely to turn out better than something that was stored in a hot, dry attic. Humidity usually goes hand-in-hand with heat, which is really the big problem for your photos.
Radiation: Radiation will impact your film over time regardless of where you store it. This will occur just from being exposed to the environment.
As long as you’re storing the camera correctly otherwise, the radiation damage should be minimal, but certain brands are more susceptible than others.
How Do You Develop a Disposable Camera?
Once you’ve taken your photos, you should try to get the camera developed as soon as possible for the best quality images.
You can drop it off at one of your local drug stores or a retailer like Wal-Mart. If you go that route, you should expect it to take at least a week (though it could be up to 4 weeks) to get the pictures back.
If your disposable camera is already pretty old and you’re concerned about the film’s quality, it might be best to let a dedicated photo processing lab handle it.
There are several online photo labs out there which might be able to do the processing for cheaper and provide you with better quality pictures.
The Bottom Line
A disposable camera will last at least two to three years with no problem, and you should expect the quality of photos that the manufacturer intended within that time frame.
However, many people don’t use their disposable camera right away or they don’t get it developed for a while. Or, you may have just found an old disposable camera in a drawer and you want to find out what pictures are on it.
Don’t despair if you’re well past the date printed on the camera. If you’ve stored it in a cool, dark place (like a drawer or box in a closet), then the film is probably still good. In idea conditions, the camera should be fine for 5-10 years, depending on the brand and the specific conditions.
Even if you’re uncertain about the amount of time, it’s still a good idea to have the camera developed.
You never know what kind of memories you might be missing out on otherwise! Plus, with all the technology today, there are plenty of photo processors that deal specifically with old or expired film, so don’t give up before you try!