In preparation for the No Gear No Fear challenge, I purchased several of Ilford’s one-time-use black and white cameras, preloaded with HP5+ film.
Rather than just a normal review (because, let’s be honest, how much can I say about a single-use camera?), I decided to make this as detailed a guide as I could.
If you’re used to Googling film cameras and getting mostly potentially-useful results with a few eBay links peppered throughout, try Googling the Ilford single-use HP5+ camera. You’ll see mostly links to Amazon, Adorama, Alibaba and who knows what else. These things are still in production (they’re actually pretty new, having been announced in 2012)!
This made it difficult to actually figure out the things I wanted to know about them. What’s the shutter speed, the aperture, etc.? Is the lens remotely sharp? Does the viewfinder match the resulting frames even remotely? Will the flash capacitor incapacitate me if I short its contacts accidentally while opening this thing up to develop the film?
So I dug through as much useful information as I could find, took some measurements and tried a couple things with the intention of sharing.
The Ilford HP5+ “disposable” (I put that in quotation marks because one-time-use cameras aren’t necessarily trash once they’re done) camera is super simple. It has to be.
There’s a lens, a viewfinder, a flash and flash button, a film advance and frame counter, and a shutter button. That’s it, man!
It comes preloaded with a 24-exposure roll of Ilford’s famous HP5+ black and white film, though you’ll get 26 or 27 exposures in this camera. Why? Because the film is loaded into the camera in the factory where the leader shouldn’t be exposed (or not much). And it’s loaded in a funky reversed way — all the film is out of the cassette and wound around the take-up spool. When you “advance” the film, you’re really cranking it back into the cassette one frame at a time.
The shutter button is fairly self-explanatory, and the frame counter next to it counts down, showing how many exposures remain. The flash is turned on by means of a button on the front of the camera, and a tiny red LED by the viewfinder indicates when the flash is charged and ready.
According to Ilford, the lens has a 30mm focal length and the aperture is f/9.5. The HP5+ film is, obviously, ASA 400.
There’s no focus, no exposure to calculate, etc. Just point and shoot (and maybe pray a little).
It’s a single-use camera, how great can it look?
Well, it looks better than most. The clear polycarbonate on the front protects the paper wrapper and keeps the camera looking good even when it’s covered in gaffer tape and dog saliva.
But I added this section for a reason — because I have a beef.
There is a tiny gap in the paper label on the front, at the bottom, below the lens. Through this gap you can see the copper end of the AA battery inside (though it’s not a Duracell). It shouldn’t be a big deal.
Except that walking around with the camera, waving it at arms length, sunlight flashing off the shiny battery blinded me several times — and at first made me think the flash had gone off and I had wasted a frame.
It hadn’t and I hadn’t, but the first time it happened it wasn’t a great user experience. Also, it made me wish I’d been wearing sunglasses.
The flash button on the front of the camera is supposed to turn the flash on when you hold it down for 1-2 seconds. Mine wasn’t terribly reliable, though, and I wound up holding the button down right up until I’d taken the picture.
I measured the focal length and aperture when disassembling my first HP5+ camera, and found that the published specs don’t quite mesh. The focal length I came up with is about 29.7 millimeters, and the aperture measured up at about 2.78 millimeters, giving a real-world aperture of about f/10.7. That’s about a half-stop slower than the publish f/9.5 (but probably a tiny bit sharper, too).
In theory, the lens has a focus range from about 5 feet out to infinity — pretty much like most box cameras, and consistent with an aperture around f/11. I didn’t find it particularly sharp in any instance, but things in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 feet away seemed sharpest. Infinity, for some reason, was sometimes the least sharp. and it wasn’t even consistent from frame to frame. The sharpness is inconsistently mediocre, in other words.
Actually, the sharpness of the lens is also highly reminiscent of a box camera. The lens is sharpest near the center, especially if the subject is in that “group shot” distance range, and loses sharpness quickly toward the edges. Given the way the loss of sharpness at the edges also seems to elicit some ghosting or shadowing effects, I would guess that chromatic aberration is a major culprit.
Published specs on the shutter were much more accurate. I ran mine through a series of tests after disassembly using my digital shutter tester and found that, on average, the actual speed was around 1/108.5 seconds, ranging generally between 1/105 and 1/116.
Given the published specs, I realized that on a bright, sunny day, the camera would likely be overexposing by three to four stops. So I added a Nikon R60 red filter (a filter factor of 8, which should reduce light by three stops) to the front with a special adapter made from gaffer tape and wishful thinking.
I stand-developed the film in HC-110 at 1:110 and got excellent shadow detail. So much so that I think the film was still being over-exposed in bright sunlight. Darker scenes produced pleasing blacks. The contrast, consistent with HP5+, was good but not great (even accounting for a bit of lost contrast from the stand development).
I found after developing that the frame spacing was a bit uneven. Several frames were touching each other, although none overlapped enough to be a problem.
In addition, the images on the film were off in comparison to the viewfinder — shorter vertically than I anticipated, and longer horizontally (assuming the camera is held in the “landscape” orientation). Not by a whole lot, but it would help to give your compositions a little vertical breathing room in the camera. On the plus side, for as small as it is, the viewfinder is still big enough and bright enough that framing is fairly easy.
It appeared that the film leader had been exposed, and possibly damaged by the loading mechanisms at the factory. The edge of my last frame (remember, you’re running the film in reverse — the frame numbers on the film are even in reverse order) slightly overlapped the exposed area. It was dark, but didn’t seen as dense as an exposed leader usually does. There are some scratches near that end, as well, that look as though the emulsion was scraped off.
The shutter button is easy to trigger, and the little film advance wheel has enough gear reduction to chew through a frame in a single stroke, if you roll your thumb just a little while advancing.
All in all, a very satisfactory little camera. I was reminded while using it of the Kodak Funsaver cameras I used a bunch of back in my teens — in a good, nostalgic way.
It’s worth noting that adding a filter in front of the lens isn’t the only thing you can do with a single-use camera. There are tons of articles dedicated to so-called “disposable camera hacks.” PhotoJojo’s Top 20 Ultimate Ways to Use a Disposable Camera is a decent a starting point.
You can use disposable cameras as mini time capsules, or participate in camera swaps. There’s a huge community out there that loves these things. They even made Canny Cameras’ 10 Fixed Focus Wonders list.
Side note: Apparently Agfa/Rollei have some spiffy disposables on the market, too, including their own ASA 400 black and white version, though most are listed as back ordered on many sites and may have been discontinued.
Getting at the guts
Here’s the good stuff — how to open it up and what’s inside.
When you finish your camera, the winder just keeps going. Make sure to give your camera a few extra winds at the end of the roll so the leader is sucked in — there’s no real room for error here, because it uses up all the film.
You can’t really tell when the leader detaches from the spool in order to stop and leave yourself a bit hanging out of the cassette. Sorry.
There are several spots that look good for prying around the periphery of the camera. The important ones are at either end of the clear plastic cover, and the wide “flap” across the bottom of the camera.
The camera’s construction wraps the film path in a clamshell of two pieces of black plastic, with the battery, flash, and some other electronics mounted on the outside. These are then covered by the paper label and the clear front cover to complete the three-piece housing.
The “flap” on the bottom connects all three pieces of the shell together, so you’ll have to pry it twice to un-snap the front, and then the center, housing portions. Once the clear face is removed, the battery is hidden behind the flap and can be pried out with a small screwdriver.
You could use an actual pry bar or pick — in general, I’m an advocate for using the right tool for the job — but in this case, I found my Craftsman 1/8-inch by 4-inch slotted screwdriver (Part No. 41589 — not being paid, I just really like this tool) was perfect.
With the battery removed, the flash capacitor can’t be charged any more — but it probably still has some charge in it. Avoiding touching the contacts if you don’t want a zap.
By the time I got around the developing this film, the camera had been sitting without the flash charged for two days, but mine still had some juice in the capacitor. I opted to check and discharge it by carefully bridging the contacts with my screwdriver while shielding my eyes — just in case. There was a pop and a few sparks (akin to the sparks in a tin toy ray gun), and it was over.
While you’re here, check out the pieces of the viewfinder, and the lens (rotate the black ring around it and the lens assembly fells into your hand). The lens is smaller than a contact lens, and the viewfinder pieces are surprisingly thick. If there were such a thing as disc film slides, the viewfinder lenses might make a nice DIY slide viewer for them. Other than that I can’t think of any real reason to hang on to them, cool as they are.
Oh yeah — save the battery. It’s practically brand new. Mine measured 1.61 volts when I took it out of the camera. It’s an easy way to offset $0.25 worth of the camera’s cost. And who doesn’t need AA batteries?
With the flash rendered harmless, I proceeded to detach the rear clips on the bottom flap and pried open the film path. Once the back was removed, the film was easy to drop into my hand. Processing was as simple as with any other 35mm film cassette.
And there you have it. A pretty decent value for what it is, and great at being a single-use camera. It may not be fancy, but it’s cheap, replaceable, and will fit in your pocket.