A Closer Look

Digital Cameras Go Disposable (Almost)

By Daniel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 12, 2005

Digital cameras have now arrived in every segment of the film-camera market. In addition to pricey single-lens-reflex units, ultra-small fashion-oriented models and plain old everyday compact cameras, you can now buy single-use digital cameras that cost hardly more than their film counterparts.

CVS drugstores sell two models in this category, a $10 basic version and one that costs $20 and has a small color display. Both store 25 photos. Ritz Camera has similar products, charging $18.99 for the model with the color display and $10.99 for the one without.

Experience with film throwaway models may tempt you to call these cameras, made by Pure Digital Technologies, disposables, but technically they're rentals. You can't get your digital pictures "developed" anywhere and instead must return the camera to the store, which will transfer your photos to a data CD while you wait. The store keeps the camera.

That CD includes Windows software for viewing, printing and e-mailing the photos. You can pay CVS 30 cents for each print -- above market value these days -- or take the CD home to print out the shots yourself or upload them to a photofinishing site.

We bought both units at a nearby CVS for a test on a recent weekend. The camera itself feels fairly rugged and seems simple to operate, with an automatic flash and a timer. The color display is great for checking whether you want to keep or delete a photo -- which we often did, thanks to slight shutter lag that left many shots misaligned (although this lag was, surprisingly, less than on some pricier cameras).

That screen, however, can display only the last picture you snapped -- you can't delete earlier photos or compare two or more as thumbnail images. It also doesn't provide a preview of a picture, leaving only the viewfinder to compose a shot.

We'd still rather pay the extra $10 this model costs over its screen-less sibling. On that camera, it was impossible to determine whether a photo was framed properly -- especially with action shots.

With a resolution of 2.1 million pixels -- good for 4-by-6 prints but not much more -- our photos looked acceptable but hardly stunning. Some brightly sunlit shots appeared washed out, while photos taken indoors looked too dim, with harsh lighting from the flash. The miserly limit of 25 photos per camera left us little room for taking different versions of the same shot to see what might look best.

We found other glitches in CVS's implementation of this product. The store we visited did not have its self-service system working right and instead printed the pictures on the store's industrial printer. The prints looked worse than the images on the CD, but CVS insisted on charging $2.50 extra for the privilege, for $10 total.

These cameras can serve as an introduction to digital photography for novices leery of the array of features on most digital cameras and intimidated by transferring pictures to a computer. For people who are not confident around PCs, the comfort of watching the CVS clerk slide the camera into a large machine may be worth the price.

These cameras also could serve well in places such as a beach, where you might not want to take an expensive, high-end digicam. And if you've left your own camera at home, one of these might save the day. The worst use of a single-use digicam, on the other hand, would be any scenario that involves taking more than 100 photos, since that expense would cover the cost of buying a comparable multiuse digital camera.

And yet a certain group of tech-savvy digital photographers has been buying single-use digicams anyway. Some Pure Digital units have been turned into reusable cameras by users who have added USB connections and additional storage. These efforts have allowed for some intriguing uses, such as attaching a converted camera to a kite and having it snap a succession of pictures.

But with decent two-megapixel cameras selling for $150 or less, these projects are best left to people with a lot more time and hacker zeal than cash.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company