Using Ilford Disposable Cameras for Candid Photography

If you’re reading this post, there are strong chances that you remember disposable cameras. My mother, who wasn’t that tech savvy at all, turned to them often when her Olympus camera broke. My college graduation was photographed on one in 2009 when I and many others had switched to digital point and shoots. My parents used them at events. So did my aunts and uncles. I always remember how fun they were–small, portable, and almost never reloadable until Lomography created their own reloadable versions earlier this year. So it was a complete blast from the past when I decided to try out Ilford’s disposable cameras.

In the past few years, we’ve seen an obvious resurgence of analog of film photography. Obviously, it’s nothing like what it was, but it’s still something that has started to take more of the forefront. With that comes the embrace of the lo-fi aesthetic that disposable cameras can produce.

Ilford’s disposable cameras come in two different flavors: HP5 and XP2 Super. The former is a tried and true option for many street photographers who swear by it. The latter is perhaps one of Ilford’s most forgiving black and white films–which is pretty much right up there with Tri-X 400. Ilford XP2 Super has the ability to be shot at ISO 50-800 all on the same roll. What? That doesn’t sound right. Nope, Ilford says so themselves. Want a film that has the versatility of ISO options the way that digital photography does? Then this could be the option you want. You’re bound to get mixed results too, but the images will have a lot more consistency than others out there. For that reason it’s almost the perfect film to use in a disposable camera.

The cameras have a 30mm f9.5 plastic lens. So if you’ve ever heard of the statement “F8 and be there” then that is pretty much what disposable cameras live for. What that means though is that you have to remember to give the camera more light when it needs it. For you to know that, you have to understand exposure–which is a skill that many folks lack these days. What do I mean by that? Look out your window now as you read this post. Your ISO is set to ISO 400. Now mentally, just by looking at the scene, figure out the aperture and the shutter speed if you consider that your camera has a 35mm f2 lens attached. If you’re familiar with the Sunny 16 system then you’ve probably got this. Otherwise, no one will have it. If you feel like you’re going to get a shutter speed lower than 1/30th at f9.5 and ISO 400 (in the case of HP5) then you’ll need to use the flash.

Understanding exposure when working with the Ilford Disposable cameras is fundamental since you only get 27 shots per roll. And for this reason, I want to equate it to a conversation that I had with a cabbie the other night. While I was heading home, we were talking about how some cabbies don’t know how to use the GPS on their phone to do the job. So instead they say “Can you direct me?” As a native New Yorker who remembers when cabbies would pull over to the side of the road and plot out a course on a map, I find it insane that they don’t use a standard feature on their smartphone. He, my cabbie, reasoned that they don’t know how to use the technology. But I argued that it’s part of your job: and a big part of any job is learning and understanding something in order to do it. If you’re a baker, you learn how to make dough. If you’re an electrician, you learn the difference between a wire that grounds and how to complete circuits. And if you’re the President of the United States, hopefully you know how to do your job (unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.) Bringing this all back to photography, you hopefully know how to not only take a good photo that is pleasing to a client, but also know how to work with exposure by yourself without relying on the light meter to get what you and your mind want and not what the light meter thinks you want.

But enough of the harping on getting the exposure right! When you’ve got an image snapped on the film, you simply wind over to the next photo and continue the process. If you need the flash, you hold the button, let it charge, wait for the red light to come on to signal that it’s charged up and ready, then shoot.

The way that disposable cameras work is different from standard film SLRs and point and shoots. Where on the other hand with more conventional cameras you load the film and then rewind it, disposable cameras require you to unwind the entire roll of film and then wind it back into the roll as you shoot and advance to the next frame. That means that when you’re done with the roll, that the entire thing is already packaged neatly into the film spool cartridge. You also load it upside down. It’s a very interesting and really fun process.

Due to the fact that these are disposable cameras, I wouldn’t really suggest taking them out into the rain. If you do so, be careful. I’ve actually taken them into the rain and they kept working even though they’re not designed to. It’s odd too because the front of the cameras have a plastic, hard covering on them that you’d swear makes them weather sealed. Alas, that isn’t the case. However, there are waterproof disposable cameras on the market, but they’re all made by Fujifilm. They’re also all color–come to think of it, Ilford film shot underwater would look really sweet. But I highly doubt that they’d do that; none of the company’s marketing centers around underwater photography.

What’s really nice about disposable cameras though is their very low profile look. No one expects or thinks that you’re going to be doing anything malicious with the photos. They’re not big, They’re not scary. In fact, no one takes them seriously. And perhaps that’s one of the best parts of using them. Instead, people will be more curious about them wondering if you’re indeed using a disposable camera. I mean, just think about how crazy it is that in 2017 that we’re talking about and dedicating over 1,000 words to a disposable camera.

So how are the images? Honestly,, they’re pretty darned nice when they’re well exposed, developed and scanned. When in any sort of doubt, I always suggest shooting the flash off as long as you remember that your exposure settings are always F9.5 and roughly, think about the idea of shooting the film at ISO 400 just to be safe. What that translates into it more flash usage than you’d probably figure otherwise if you’re a photographer that started with digital. The images that you’ll get with the Ilford disposable cameras are also of a truly analog and lo-fi aesthetic while still also offering a sharpness to the images–I generally think that this is a look that is incredibly difficult to get in digital photography and that nothing from Mastin, VSCO, or RNI Film can really give to you.

Many photographers will also probably want to develop the film all by themselves at home. Unfortunately, that’s not possible here with XP2 Super. That film is designed to be developed C41–so unless you’ve got those chemicals then you’re out of luck unless you take it to a lab. But HP5 can be developed at home in your bathroom or your own darkroom.

Now if you haven’t tried the Ilford disposable cameras, I really recommend that you give them a shot.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.