The disposable camera is the ultimate tool for casual photography. It’s made for non-photographers, vacationers, first-time film shooters, and even experienced shooters looking to simplify their kit. But what’s really remarkable about the disposable camera in the digital age, is its enduring popularity – one can still find a disposable camera in nearly any drug store. The most common of these disposables (at least in the United States) is the Kodak FunSaver, which also happens to be the camera that introduced me to photography.
This wasn’t by choice; the FunSaver was just about the only camera that could be safely handled and operated (and dropped) by a hyperactive six-year-old. And it did as advertised – it made photography simple and fun, and helped me make countless terrible childhood field trip snapshots.
But it’s 2018, not 2001. Why is something as seemingly outdated as the FunSaver still around?
The Kodak FunSaver benefits from being made by the company that pioneered consumer photography. The FunSaver could fairly be considered as a spiritual successor to the OG consumer camera, the Kodak Brownie. First introduced 118 years ago, in the year 1900, Kodak pre-loaded the first Brownie box cameras with film, and these cameras were meant to be used and then sent back to Kodak for developing and printing just as we treat a disposable camera today. The Brownie was a runaway success, and judging by the persistent ubiquity of the FunSaver, selling strongly from the 1990s all the way to the present day, Kodak used the knowledge gained from the Brownie very well.
The Kodak FunSaver comes from a very different era of American consumer product design. Unlike the Brownie (specifically the wildly popular No. 2), which featured metal construction and a glass lens, the FunSaver is made from plastic, some paper, and more plastic. For better and worse, the FunSaver is completely emblematic of the philosophy of expendability that characterized mass-market design in the 1980s, ‘90s and early 2000s.
At first glance, the FunSaver looks like a toy. And with a design and a name more at home in a Toys R Us than at a camera store, the Kodak FunSaver is a toy. A closer look at the camera affirms this idea. Build quality is straight up consumer grade, complete with a loose shutter button made of flimsy gray plastic, a paper cover for the flash button, and a loud, rough advance wheel.
But who am I kidding? Knocking a disposable camera for its build quality would be as silly as criticizing McDonald’s for the quality of their burgers. And that would-be criticism would be missing the point entirely. Disposable cameras are all about simplicity and a carefree shooting experience, and the Kodak FunSaver brings those two traits admirably without any complication.
There’s a shutter button, a flash button, and an advance wheel. The camera is limited to a single shutter speed of 1/100th of a second, loaded up with Kodak 800 speed film, exposed through a fixed focus 30mm f/10 lens. There’s no way to adjust exposure besides holding down the flash button and hoping for the best in low light.
But even though the FunSaver wears its limitations on its sleeve, it’s actually capable of making great images in a not-too-limited variety of lighting situations. The speedy Kodak 800 ISO film found in the FunSaver possesses a wide exposure latitude, giving the FunSaver a versatility that other disposable cameras simply don’t have. The FunSaver does a surprisingly good job with just about any outdoor daylight scene, and can transition to indoor shots with the use of the built-in flash.
The lens of the FunSaver is also exceptional by disposable camera standards. The 30mm f/10 lens found in the FunSaver features two aspherical plastic elements, which helps it achieve a sharpness uncommon in disposables. The lens’ center sharpness is good, while the aberrations and vignetting that occur (quite rampantly) in the corners give a pleasant, casual character akin to those loved by Lomography weirdos. While the images it makes won’t hold a candle to any high falootin’ glass or multi-element lens, the FunSaver delivers a considerably better image than should be expected, even beating some of the cheapest fixed-focus, non-disposable point-and-shoots.
While the FunSaver’s above-average imaging qualities and relative simplicity make it a perfect choice for novice photographers, advanced photographers and even professionals can benefit from shooting a FunSaver. For advanced photographers looking to simplify or get away from their complicated pro- and semi-pro cameras, I’d happily recommend the FunSaver over other often-recommended “simplify your life” cameras like the Holga or Vivitar’s Ultra Wide and Slim. The FunSaver manages to be even simpler, more affordable, and more reliable than those obscenely cheap reloadable cameras, which gives the shooter a chance to focus on literally nothing but the composition. The images it makes will be sharper, and they offer a nostalgic ‘90s photo album look. Best of all, the camera never overstays its welcome – it’s gone as soon as it gets sent in for processing.
But possibly the most remarkable thing about the FunSaver is that it has endured in ways other film photography products haven’t. While film stocks disappear off of shelves, the FunSaver sticks around, offering just about anybody a chance to experience film photography. It’s also a true relic of a different time; the Funsaver was around back in the late 1990s in more or less the same form as it takes today, and to shoot one is to get a real taste of what consumer photography was like in the twilight of film’s heyday.
This may seem like an awful lot of praise for a consumer disposable, and let’s be frank, for photo geeks obsessed with quality and control, serious photographers who live and die by their Leica M or Nikon F6, the Funsaver simply won’t satisfy. But it’s also true that cameras like the FunSaver help keep film photography relevant (and possible) for anybody. It’s straightforward enough for the most casual of casual shooters, simple enough to shake inspiration-starved photo geeks out of a slump, and fun enough for children to use at a birthday party or wedding. A camera as welcoming and unassuming as that deserves to stick around, and for a long time yet.