Forget your 18-megapixel iPhone 14 in all of its sapphire-clad glory and the endless filters you slap onto your photos. Nowadays, Generation Z and Rowland Hall students love the iconic, grainy, and overexposed look created by disposable cameras. These cheap cameras are a fun way to snap a quick picture with friends, but the fact that you aren’t really in control of how the photos will turn out adds an element of surprise and legitimacy to the photos. Whether or not the photos are ‘bad’ or out of focus, they’re authentic and wholly representative of the moment that you’ve chosen to capture. However, the cameras themselves aren’t impressive and can’t produce the same time-stopping images you’d expect of a professional camera. Even so, in a world where digital technology dominates, disposable cameras offer a refreshing change of pace. They bring a sense of nostalgia for the past and for a time when things were simpler. I’m curious to see why this latest craze in disposable cameras has piqued the interests of students around Rowland Hall, so I’ve interviewed some to get a better idea of why they’ve added this old tech to their vintage accessories.
The disposable camera is a relic of the 90s that produces images with a signature look. Even as the top-of-the-line cameras grow more advanced (and more expensive), some students prefer the classic look of film. Junior Brock Paradise, an avid film photographer, remarks that he finds the film look “iconic.” Film is a way for him to “stand out without spending $5000 on gear.” But it’s not just for accessibility reasons; he says that he prefers film because it “looks cooler and is the best way for [him] to express [himself] through photography.” He adds that “disposable cameras are also an interesting way to capture a moment without having to pull out a huge expensive camera.” He continues, “You can snap a few shots of the landscape and you also don’t have to worry about how your photo’s going to turn out. It’s a super cool way to take photos because you can get a unique look to them.” When I asked him about how this ‘film look’ has become popular and seemingly less unique in recent years with students all reaching for their disposables, he tells me that “even if other people are jumping on the trend, film gives your photos a vibe that’s different from digital. And with disposables, you get a rawness to your shots that definitely will make them stand out.”
While some prefer disposables and film photography for the look it gives their photos, others like it for the sensation of taking them. As sophomore Ashlyn Lieberman articulates, film “allows you to be in the moment, no matter what you are taking pictures of.” When I asked her why this couldn’t be achieved with digital photography, she said that “not being able to see the pictures you take until later allows for a greater feeling of freedom than when you’re trying to get the perfect shot every time.” Ashlyn argues the inability to know how your photo turned out makes you feel less bound to obsessively trying to get the ‘right’ shot. The uncertainty of film photography largely frees you from your expectations of how a photo ought to look.
Additionally, film photography forces users to be intentional about composing their photo. Disposable cameras, for instance, only have 27 exposures. Retakes when trying to get the perfect shot can be costly. Therefore, unlike any burst mode on the phone, disposables require photographers to be more precise about their composition. Brock agrees and adds that “I used to use a digital camera to take all of my photos, but I’m now only using my film camera. It’s made me aware of how many photos I might waste because I’m not paying attention to how I’m composing a shot.” While nailing the perfect photo is certainly harder on film than digital in many regards, Brock notes that the feeling of accomplishment when he does get the shot is all the better on film. He describes the feeling as “happiness, since [he] could really only hope that the photo turned out the way [he] intended it to be.”
Disposable film photography also adds a sense of nostalgia to a user’s photos. When I asked Brock about how he got into film photography, he said that he began shooting when his grandfather handed him a few rolls of expired film. After seeing how this film produced a look that reminded him of the 90s or something vintage, Brock started shooting exclusively analog. Artistically, using old film allows him to give the subject matters he photographs a more vintage touch. He states that he uses film to give viewers pause and make them wonder if the photo he took was from decades ago. Photos from disposable cameras, he remarks, “represent true raw emotion, and because [the photos] are taken on film, you get the impression that they were taken a long time ago.” He continues, “In reality, it may have just been taken the other day. But in my opinion, it’s really timeless and makes you think back to the past.” For many students too, disposable cameras appeal to their nostalgic desires.
When I stopped a few students in the hallway and showed them a couple of photos Brock and I took on disposable cameras, one remarked that the photos looked like they “could’ve been in one of [their] parent’s photo books,” or a “were taken in their early childhood.” Almost all of them told me the photos conveyed a sense of nostalgia. Like Brock was saying, these photos seem like they were taken a long time ago. While they might give the impression that they’re older than they actually are, film photos still capture the authenticity of the moment, just offering a different feel to the moment. Hence, these cameras enable students to transport into a different era and see how others might have captured the world.
Today, this interest in older or “vintage” pieces of tech reflects a broader trend among Generation Z for all things retro. The obsession with the old doesn’t stop at cameras, as Rowland Hall students look to clothing and accessories for the vintage aesthetic. Vintage apparel, for example, provides a way for students to stand out and express their individuality. Retro items all have a certain quirkiness and offbeat charm that can be appealing to young people. However, most can attest that vintage items have an undeniable, wholesome nostalgia to them. Retro accessories turn us back to a time when everything seemed easier and simpler. They might remind us of an era when we were free from our current hardships. Even if we’re just cherry-picking the past for only its good parts, that’s what makes nostalgia important. It allows us to relive our favorite memories and hold onto a comforting piece of our past.