HandMade Photographic Images

Reloading and Adapting Single-Use (Disposable) Cameras

Howard Wells sandwell@earthlink.net

A Disclaimer for My Friends on the Pinhole List:

This handout grew out of several workshops I gave to various audiences a few years ago. I have not taught those workshops since 2000 as my teaching evolved into a course on “Taking Better Photographs.” I pass this handout to students who seem artistically or experimentally inclined. So the text has not been updated, and while I know that the Konica 17mm Panoramics mentioned in the text are no longer readily available in this country I do not know whether the other Konica SUs still use a standard 35mm cassette — one of the things that makes them easy to reload.

My interest in S-Us grew out of the creative possibilities inherent in that 2-element 17mm plastic lens. (A couple examples of that work can be found at http://home.earthlink.net/~sandwell/ work.html ) Turning the S-Us into pinhole cameras was inevitable given my love for pinhole and the fact that it was an easy and inexpensive alternative for teaching pinhole without a darkroom. However, I don’t use S-Us for pinhole work at all, the cameras are too light and I prefer an actual mechanical shutter for 35mm work to a piece of tape since I work mostly in the f90 to f128 range in 35mm. Bodycap pinholes either homemade or from Finney or Stroobant combined with extension tubes serve me well on both rangefinder cameras and SLRs. That said, some of my students are still using pinhole S-Us with great satisfaction and results. I hope this handout is of some use to some of you. Your collective wisdom and inspiration has ben very important ot me over the years.

Why Use Disposable Cameras?

Several reasons both philosophical and practical. We live in an age where it is harder and harder to look behind the curtain and see the wizard. Simple cameras expose the technology and allow hands-on access for understanding and experimentation.

Simple cameras also allow you to see without the encumbrance of technology; in the constraints of a box camera can lie a new freedom of expression. An oatmeal box with a pinhole punched in a piece of foil loaded with a single sheet of 4x5 B&W film is perhaps the simplest camera of all but it is cumbersome and you need a darkroom. The roll of 12, 24, or 36 exposure film from your single-use (S-U) camera can be handed over to the nearest drugstore or one-hour lab for processing and printing.

Simple cameras also encourage a less solemn, less high-art approach to image making, both in the image-maker and in those you photograph. When you point a tape-covered plastic camera at someone, the reaction you get will be very different from using a high-tech motor-driven autofocus camera with a strobe. People are disarmed and perceive the S-U camera as less threatening.

Why use S-Us? They are fun. They are inexpensive. They are capable of producing striking photographs.

Which Cameras Work Best?

Konicas are the easiest to reload. The so-called panoramics have a 2-element 17mm lens, by far the best lens found on a single-use camera. Kodak panoramics are also easy to reload and have a 2-element 25mm plastic lens but require enlarging the film chamber if you want to use 36 exposure rolls.

I prefer the cameras without flash. I don't use flash much and the capacitor that powers the flash can give you a nasty shock if you aren't careful. However with normal precautions discharging the capacitor with an insulated screwdriver the cameras with flash make very versatile snapshot cameras, especially when loaded with 800 ISO color negative film. Any S-U camera can be reloaded given enough time and effort many of them use special cassettes and require quite a bit of work to reload. (See Dave Read s excellent, exhaustive article available at http://www.daveread.com/aquashot/reload.html. A search on the Web will also turn up tips for reloading other cameras including the single-use' Polaroids.)

How Do You Reload Them?

The basic procedure for the Konica is:

  1. Assuming you have exposed the roll inside the camera, pry off film hatch on camera base and remove exposed film cassette. If you are removing unexposed film from a camera, and wish to reload that roll after altering the camera, simply cover the lens so that no light reaches the film and fire off shots until you reach the end of the roll. Don't wind on the extra turns that pull the film leader back into the cassette, or you will have to extract the leader with a leader retriever. Note that all S-U cameras wind the exposed frames into the cassette unlike most cameras which pull film out of the cassette as you take pictures, and then have to be rewound before you can take the cassette out for processing. Note also that these cameras are plastic held together by a tab and slot system. A slotted screwdriver with light pressure is all it takes to get them apart. Heavy-handedness will break the camera. Take time and look carefully at where you are placing the screwdriver blade. If it seems to require a lot of force you may be prying at the wrong place.
  2. Pry off lens shade, and strip paper covering from camera the paper is glued in places.
  3. Remove the back of the camera by prying from the bottom.
  4. Remove the front of the camera by prying and breaking off the tabs on either side of the lens.
  5. Remove and discard film counter wheel. It has to be reset each time you reload and only works for a 12 or 24 exposure roll. You won't know how many exposures you have left unless you keep track of your shots (jotting on a piece of tape on the back of the camera works) but most people just wing it. There are a couple of parts that may come off at this point if you are not careful the rear lens of the viewfinder and the film transport sprocket are the usual suspects.
  6. Fit the front carefully back on to the top of the camera and snap it back on.
  7. Check the shutter by thumbing the film transport sprocket to the right until you hear a click, then holding camera up to the light and pressing the shutter release. Light should come through the aperture.
  8. Tape front to secure it.
  9. Insert film leader into spool, go into changing bag or darkroom with camera, back, film hatch, and wind all the film out of the cassette onto the reel, insert into camera, wind a couple frames to make sure everything is working, replace back and hatch and go into the light and start taking pictures. Touch the film only by the edges when you are winding it out of the cassette onto the spool.

With some individual variations this is how you reload any S-U. Tools beyond a screwdriver aren't really needed unless you are trying some of the more exotic modifications, and then you only need an Xacto knife and maybe a drill bit or two.

A Few Necessary Terms:

ISO International Standards Organization. The universal method for rating film's receptivity to light. Also called film speed. Films with low ISO ratings (25, 50) require more light they are slow and have to be used in good strong light (or with flash) or be exposed for long periods of time. Films with high ISO ratings (400, 800, 1600) are fast and can be exposed in lower light levels such as indoors. Speeds are logarithmic to base 2, meaning that the numbers double or halve in sequence. An ISO 50 speed film is half as fast as an ISO 100 speed film and takes twice as much light to correctly expose it. 200 ISO is 4 times faster.

F-Number Numerical expression of the relative aperture, or opening, of a lens. Also called an f-stop. The number is obtained by dividing the focal length of the lens by the effective aperture. A common sequence of whole f-stops would be f2, f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, f22. The larger numbers represent increasingly smaller openings, letting in less light. As in the film speed rating these are logarithmic: f4 lets in 4 times less light than f2 and so on.

Shutter Speed The amount of time in fractional seconds that your shutter is open to let light through the lens to the film is one-half second, 1/125 is one one-twenty fifth of a second and so on. Modern cameras are set up so that each speed represents a halving or a doubling of the previous speed just as the aperture system and the film speed system.

Correct Exposure An exposure that produces an image with the tones and colors the photographer wants, or at least more so than that produced with an increase or decrease of exposure.

Stop A stop is a single whole step in the sequence, either up or down, of film speed, shutter speed, or aperture. Each stop represents a doubling or halving of the previous whole stop.

What Film Is Best For Reloading. Most S-U cameras come loaded with fast color negative films 400 or 800 ISO. There are a couple reasons for this. The first is that color negative film sometimes known as print film can be processed and printed at any minilab in the world. The second, equally important reason, is that color negative film is very forgiving of under and over-exposure especially compared to transparency or reversal (slide) film. This latitude is very important when your camera is not adjustable.

The general rule is 1-2 stops under and 3 stops over but acceptable results can sometimes be had with 4 stops either way. So our 400 ISO film can be used as a 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 ISO film with some sacrifice in quality at the extremes. I use Fuji NHGII which is a professional 800 ISO film available only in 36 exposure rolls. Kodak makes a similar film.

Some S-Us are loaded with a black & white version of color negative film known as chromogenic.These 400 ISO films are available from several manufacturers. Ilford XP2+, Kodak 400CN are readily available Agfa and Konica's versions are less so. These excellent films produce monochrome images ranging from sepia to cyan to almost pure black and white when developed and printed by a minilab and yet the negatives can also be printed as a standard black and white. Great films for reloading S-Us same latitude as any other color negative film.The film makers promise good results from 50-800 ISO.

Regular black and white films can also be used in S-Us with good effect if you have access to processing and printing. Black and white film is somewhat less tolerant of underexposure than color negative film, so under conditions where you might get by with a 400 ISO color negative film, you would need a faster black and white film. I have used 1600 ISO black and white films Fuji Neopan and Ilford's excellent Delta 3200 with good results in single-use cameras.

Choice of film depends on what you intend to photograph and under what conditions. Slower films tend to be sharper and have richer, more saturated colors and higher contrast. Many of the pictures in National Geographic are taken with ISO25-64 films. Slower color negative films are also less expensive. As a general rule, use the slowest film you can for the conditions.

Exposure Considerations If you know the shutter speed (usually 1/100 for S-Us) and the aperture of the camera you are using, you can tailor your film selection to the lighting conditions you expect to encounter. Our Konica panoramics have an aperture of f13.5 and a shutter speed of 1/ 100 of a second. On the box Konica says that we can take pictures on fine or slightly overcast days but not indoors. Average home interiors require exposures of approximately 10 stops more than basic daylight. That would call for a 16-second exposure with our Konica, impossible.

The Black Cat Exposure Guide (see the Resource section) is a great help in working these things out because you can see all the relationships but the little charts on the film packages also contain a great deal of information. These charts are based on what is called the Sunny 16 Rule. This rule says that on a sunny day from 2 hours after sunrise to two hours before sunset proper exposure for a frontlit subject of average reflectance is a shutter speed of 1/ ISO at f16. In otherwords if your film's ISO is 100 the basic daylight exposure is a shutter speed of 1/100 at an aperture of f16. This rule extends in both directions: In extremely bright conditions of sand or snow in full sun we close down an additional stop to f22, open up one stop for hazy sunlight f11, one more for cloudy bright f8, and three stops to f5.6 for open shade or heavy overcast.

For a practical example. Let's say you want to take your unaltered Konica to the park on a clear sunny day. We know that the shutter speed is 1/100, and we'll round the aperture up to f11. The Sunny 16 Rule says that under these bright conditions we can use a 50 ISO film with an aperture of f16 and a shutter speed of 1/50. This combination is equivalent to our f11 camera (one stop larger than f16) and 1/100 (one stop faster). So you can load your Konica with a 50 or 100 ISO film, though it might be wise to pack another camera loaded with faster film just in case it clouds up, and you'll need to stay out of the shade. An ISO200 film would give you more wiggle room and still be sharper and cheaper than a 400 ISO film. Experiment and keep records.

Conversions and Adaptations

Converting Your S-U to a Pinhole Camera. The standard S-U shutter speed of 1/100 is too fast for the small apertures of pinhole work which often call for exposures of seconds or longer. We need to construct a shutter suitable for long exposures. The first step in the conversion to pinhole is removing the existing shutter. The instructions assume you have made a pinhole with a #13 needle which gives an aperture of approximately f64 or have purchased an optimal pinhole (approximately f128) for the 17mm focal length of your Konica S-U.

  1. Remove the back and the front of the camera. Don't lose any pieces the winding wheel will fall loose as well as the gray spindle and the little toothed wheel in the film transport area as well as the rear viewfinder window.
  2. Looking at the camera from the front you will notice that the lens is held in an assembly. This block is a sandwich with the shutter in the middle. We want to remove only the top of the assembly exposing the shutter below. At the bottom right of the assembly is a tab. Carefully pry it up and the top of the lens assembly will come off.
  3. The shutter is a piece of gray metal held by a spring. Remove both and save for future use.
  4. Now take the lens block and using your finger gently push on the front of the lens. It should pop out the back along with the black aperture plate. Set aside the lens for future use.
  5. The size of the hole in the aperture plate is what gives us our f-stop of 13.5 for our 17mm focal length. (See Helpful Formula Section below.) We need to tape our pinhole plate trimmed to appropriate size over that aperture.
  6. Now replace the lens block without lens or shutter. Put the rest of the pieces back together and note that as you turn the toothed wheel in the film transport area you cock the shutter that is no longer there. You can't wind to another frame without pressing the shutter release. This allows you to wind film frame by frame but because your pinhole is always open no shutter in place you need to find some way of letting light in to the film and then ending the exposure. A piece of black tape will work for a shutter.

The method I use to expose film in this adaptation is to wind a frame, expose by removing my tape flap from the front of the camera, replace the tape after the exposure, press the shutter release, and wind to the next frame. It helps prevent double-exposures if you develop a set routine for exposure and film advance, though double exposures can be fun and serendipitous.

Zoneplates. A zone plate is a series of concentric rings with alternate zones or rings darkened. Think of the annular rings of a tree and imagine they alternate clear and opaque, or the rings of a target.

Zone plates for scientific use are etched on glass; for photographic use drawings are photographed and reduced on litho film. Zone plates produce a much softer dreamier image than pinholes, are much faster than pinholes, and can be focused. I use commercial zone plates sold by Pinhole Resource (in the Resource Section) and have had best success using them with medium or large format cameras and film, though 35mm zone plate is certainly workable.

Making a Faster S-U. This is the conversion where you enlarge the effective aperture of the camera increase the f-stop to produce interesting distortions and other effects.

We need to be at Step 4 of shutter removal above, where we have the camera open, the shutter off, and the lens pushed out of the lens block. All we are going to do is drill out the aperture in the circular black aperture plate to whatever size we want.

Note that hole under the shutter blade is much larger than the hole in the aperture plate. When we enlarge the hole in the aperture plate beyond that of the hole under the shutter we have to begin enlarging the shutter hole to match or the shutter hole will dictate our effective aperture. The size of the hole in the aperture plate is limited by the area the shutter blade covers approximately 7mm.

For initial experiments I suggest drilling out a minimal amount. You can always enlarge the hole further as needed. Reassemble and shoot at will. If you know the size of your hole you can determine what your effective f-stop is (see formula below), so you can have an idea what your exposure range will be.

Infrared Film: The basic daylight exposure for Kodak's B&W Infrared film is 1/125 @ f11 through a red filter. That exposure is very close to what our S-U gives us each time we press the shutter. Tape a red filter behind the lens and go. This also works with Infrared Ektachrome though you use a yellow filter.

Filtering: Gel filters available in 3 and 4 inch squares can be cut and taped to the front of the camera or behind the lens. They are expensive. A good alternative is a sample swatchbook of cinematic and theatrical gels available from the sources below. They are not optical quality but are more than adequate for our purposes. For that matter any reasonably transparent colored material will work given sufficient light.

Tripod Socket: For the long exposures typical of pinhole you may want to have the camera on a tripod. Epoxy a flanged nylon 1/4-20 nut to the bottom of the camera. Screw it on to your tripod. I like to glue a few of these on to the bottom creating feet for when I just want to jam the camera down on a flat surface without using a beanbag or other conformable support.

Helpful Formulas

Determining F-stop: To calculate the f-stop of a pinhole or any other aperture divide the focal length of your camera by the diameter of the aperture. Our pinhole made with the #13 needle is approximately 0.30mm. We know the focal length of our camera measured from the film plane to the pinhole is 17mm. 17 .3 =56.666. Our f-stop is approximately 57. Which we can round up to f64, the closest whole stop. (Here again the Black Cat Exposure Guide is a great help in determining where you are in the f-stop range)

F64 is four stops smaller than f16. Our Sunny 16 Rule says that with 100 ISO film our basic daylight exposure is 1/100 over f16. Four shutter speed stops away from 1/100 (1/50, 1/25, 1/12, 1/6) is approximately 1/6 second. Which if we were using a shutter we would round to the closest available speed of 1/4 on a modern camera. That is pretty fast for removing and replacing a piece of tape. But as we know overexposure is fine with color negative films. Practice with an empty camera until you can do it fast and without moving the camera.

This formula can be applied to the faster or bored-out version as well. What is our f-stop if we bore out the camera to its largest effective aperture of 7mm? 17 7 = 2.4. An f-stop of 2.4. If we set our fixed shutter speed of 1/100 and our new aperture of f.2.4 (rounded up to f2.8) on a Black Cat Guide we see we can shoot in daylight with very slow film or shoot under very low light conditions with faster film.

Determining Optimal Pinhole Size: For every focal length there is an optimal size of pinhole. This optimal pinhole will create the sharpest pinhole image possible even adding a lens will not produce a sharper photo with that pinhole. The following formulas are useful when you build your own cameras.

The standard formula is A = 55F. A is the aperture diameter in thousands of an inch, and F is the focal length in inches. Say you are turning a film box into a pinhole camera and want to use a focal length of 2.5 inches, the square root of 137.5 (55 x 2.5) is 11.7. So the optimal pinhole diameter for your 2.5 inch focal length camera is .0117 inches.

While we are wallowing in mathematics lets find the optimal pinhole size for our 17mm S-U. 17mm is .663 inches. The square root of 36.46 (55x.663) is 6.04. So the optimal pinhole diameter for this camera is .00604 inches. Tiny indeed. The f-stop of this optimal pinhole (.663 .00604) is 109.7, or a couple stops smaller than our nominal f64. There are charts as well as calculators on the web that can help with all these determinations. And there are also suggestions as to how to actually measure these tiny holes without owning a microscope both on the web and in Eric Renner's book, found in the resource section.

Determining Coverage: Focal length of your pinhole camera determines the size of the image on your film. Image diameter is 3.5 times the focal length. So if I am using a 1 inch focal length, my image circle will be 3.5 inches in diameter. On 4x5 sheet film I will have a nice circular image, and it will provide complete coverage on 35mm or 120mm film.

There is a simple pinhole exposure chart on the following page. I encourage you to make your own, to experiment and to always remember that exposure times are not an exact science.

Simple Pinhole Exposure Chart
for 17mm S-U cameras based on the Sunny 16 Rulet
Conditions: f64
ISO 50 100 400 800
Time in seconds
ISO 50 100 400 800
Time in seconds
Snow or beach in full sun 1/8 1/15 1/60 1/125 1/2 1/4 1/15 1/30
Front-lit scene in full sun 1/4 1/8 1/30 1/60 1 1/2 1/8 1/15
Cloudy bright,hazy sun weak shadows 1/2 1/4 1/15 1/30 3 1 1/4 1/2
Cloudy bright no shadows 1 1/2 1/8 1/15 6 3 1.2 1/4
Overcast, dull no shadows.
Open shade on sunny day
3 1 1/4 1/8 16 8 1 1/2
Shade under tree or building 16 8 1 1/2 60 30 6 3
Interiors, medium to bright light 6 min 3 min 30 15 24 min 12 min 3 min 90


Resources: A less than exhaustive list of printed and internet resources.

Technical Books:
Pinhole Photography by Eric Renner, Focal Press, 1994. (The biggest and the best.)
35mm Film Source Book by Marc Levey, Focal Press, 1992. (Out-of-date but still very useful.)
Photographic Possibilities by Robert Hirsch, Focal Press, 1991. (Excellent reference.)
The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography. 2 vols. Little, Brown,1998. (Thorough up-to-date coverage, including digital, based on Adam’s work and theories)
Freeman Patterson’s excellent, inspiring workshop books. (Patterson has a degree in Theology)
Anything by Andreas Feininger, Michael Freeman, Joseph Meehan or David Vestal

Extremely Technical Books:
Camera Technology, The Dark Side of the Lens, by Norman Goldberg, Academic Press, 1992. Rich in detail and insight. Excellent for the camera builder or lens tinkerer.
The Darkroom Cookbook and The Film Developing Cookbook, by Steve Anchell, Focal Press. Useful even if you never mix your own developers, essential if you think you might.

Ways of Seeing and About Looking by John Berger, Pantheon Books. Art critic, novelist and scriptwriter, Berger’s books are a must for anyone interested in making or viewing visual art forms. Often used in college art courses.
Art and Fear by Ted Orland & David Bayles, Capra Press, 1993.
Right Brain/Left Brain Photography by Kathryn Marx
Anything by David Vestal.

Art & Art History:
A World of Art by Henry Sayre, Prentice-Hall, 2000.
Art Fundamentals: Theory and Practice by Bone, Stinson and Wigg, W.C.Brown, 1990
Any book by Rudolph Arnheim and any book about design based on the Bauhaus School.

Blind Spot, (212.633.1317). Several book length portfolio issues a year often showcasing new or emerging photographers. No advertising, no pay for photographers.

Camera Arts, (916.441.2557). Focused on the art and craft of photography. Perhaps the best most respectable general interest magazine. Shots, Wonderful newsprint quarterly devoted to showing the photos of its friends and subscribers. Send your best photos and get published in a national magazine. PO Box 390429, Minneapolis, MN 55439.

Lenswork Quarterly, Essays and articles on photography and the creative process. Once had the distinction of being the only photography magazine that didn’t have any photos. Intelligent and of interest to all artists. PO Box 22007, Portland, OR 97269.

View Camera, Devoted to “large format” photography in all its forms. (916.441.2557)

DoubleTake, Words and pictures. Thoughtful, human and humane, wonderful. (800.964.8301)

Note: The Internet is a fabulous resource for photographers. Links listed may have changed so be prepared to search.

Photo.Net: Philip Greenspun’s amazing exhaustive site covering all things photographic. Opinionated and informative. Good list of links to other photographic sites.

Infrared Film Use: Infrared Photography Handbook by Laurie White, Amherst Media, NY.

Pinhole and Zoneplate: Lots of interest in this low-tech area. The place to go first is Greg Kemp’s wonderful site Pinhole Visions. Pinhole Resource is an educational foundation dedicated to pinhole. They publish Pinhole Journal and sell books and materials. Star Rt. 15, Box 1355, San Lorenzo, NM 88041 (505.536.9942)

Toy Cameras: Again quite a bit of interest in these former carnival prizes. Dianas are the worst in the best ways, and hence the most desirable. They have sold for upwards of $50 to well-heeled artistes seeking funky images impossible with a Hasselblad. Shots magazine has devoted a couple of issues to Toy Camera work. www.toycamera.com

Film, Manufacturers and Misc:

Porters Camera Store, nice folks in Iowa who have an amazing selection of things photographic. www.porters.com, 319-266-0303.

Calumet Photo, The professional’s source, prices aren’t low but they have what you need when you need it. Their catalogs are a wonderful reference. www.calumetphoto.com,1-888-888-9083.

Photo-Eye Books, Photographic books both art and how-to, in and out-of-print. www.photoeye.com, 505-988-5152.

Shutterbug Magazine, great source of used equipment and collectables, at your local newstand every month.

Jim Lehman’s Black Cat Extended Range Exposure Guide is a great tool for figuring out what film to use under what circumstances.

Edmund Scientific, filters, lenses, tools, you name it. www.edsci.com

Two manufacturers of gel filters, both have swatchbooks. www.rosco.com, www.leefilters.com

The five major film manufacturers, great sources of information. Agfa and Kodak both have online photography workshops and tutorials. A tremendous resource: www.ilford.com, www.kodak.com, www.agfa.com, and www.fujifilm.com.

Use This Information Freely But With Proper Attribution.
©2000, Howard Wells