Probably The Cheapest Lens You Will Ever Use

Photographic enthusiasts will invariably amass an extensive collection of lenses, and in their communities there are near-mythical and sought-after lenses that change hands for incredible prices. It’s probably the oldest photographic adage though, that the best camera in the world is the one in your hand when the scene presents itself, and probably one of the simplest cameras in the world remains the disposable film camera. Their tiny plastic lenses are not in the same league as the pricey ones, but can they be used by a more serious photographer? [Volzo] set out to find out.

Disposable cameras aren’t the most environmentally friendly items, and he rightly points out that a cheap compact camera can deliver the same in a more sustainable package. There’s also the point to make that the flash capacitor if it has one can deliver a nasty shock, but once past that it’s easy to remove the lens itself.

A single element lens brings with it some significant distortion, and it’s a surprise to find that the focal plane of a disposable camera is curved to take account of that. His first 3D printed mount and adapter for a Sony mirrorless compact camera uses a small aperture to reduce the distortion effects from the edge of the lens but he’s not out of tricks yet. Using a pair of the lenses back-to-back he halves the focal length but further corrects the distortion and delivers a consequent wider angle. Take a look, in the video below.

The result is a usable lens for the toy-camera look on your digital camera, and since the files can all be found at the link above it’s something you can try too. If a disposable camera comes our way, we certainly will.

This isn’t the first disposable camera lens project we’ve brought you.

23 thoughts on “Probably The Cheapest Lens You Will Ever Use

    1. I’ve made a makeshift pinhole by pinching my fingers together! Can work quite well, actually, better than a low quality lens in some instances and quite broadband.

    2. The cheapest ‘lens’ I’ve dealt with was a pinhole in a tinfoil sheet set in a hole ccut in the side of an old cylindrical oatmeal package. For ‘film’, load a sheet of 8×10-inch photo paper whilst in a darkroom. Now take it outside, set it firmly somewhere, and lift the pinhole’s covering flap for several seconds to record the scene as a negative image. What you do with it then depends on your personal taste. Display the negative, or use it to contact-print another sheet of photo paper, or whatever. Enjoy.

      1. I have too. From a RedBull can. I have pressed the sheet with a needle, not pierced. Then polished with 3m sanding pads (1000, 2000, 3000 grit) until a hole was made. I scanned it, it is a perfect circle. Then blackened on the inside with a lighter. It makes perfect pictures, no reflections. I made a housing out of black foamcore for 180 degree shots.

  1. There are many other sources of lenses, like phones and webcams, rifle scopes (I’ve got a lot of rejected/worn lenses from a gun repair shop to be used in my own (non lethal!) projects), binoculars etc. Some are usable macro lenses.

    1. The cheapest lens we use often is about 10 cents from laser pens.

      We (with the open science hardware community), basically tape these lenses to phones with kids to turn their phone into an ultra quick microscope. Full details here:

      But here’s the recipe if you are interested!

      “Here’s the simple open source recipe to turn any phone into a quickie microscope for like 10cents, based on @wildlivesclass @GOSH   workshops!

      1) purchase cheap laser lenses in bulk for like 10 bucks

      2) use a bobby pin as a lens holder

      3) tape the lens over the widest angle camera lens on the back of your phone”

  2. I still shoot the occasional roll on film, I do have a cheap point and shoot but for what its worth if someone wants to scratch that itch Lomography do a simple reloadable camera you can send the film in and reload it if you want.

  3. While the public viewed these as “disposable” cameras, the industry term is “single use”, and it’s not just marketing or self-delusion. At the height of their use, a higher percentage of Kodak single-use cameras were recycled than were aluminum beverage cans. How can that be? Because the vast bulk were delivered by the customer to processing labs, which in turn shipped the cameras back to Kodak. The cameras were disassembled and the bulk of the parts were reused, not merely ground down to be remelted. Only the optical parts (the lens and viewfinder) and the flash battery were always replaced before being reloaded, relabeled, packaged and sent back out.

    The focal plane was indeed flat in Kodak cameras – the camera had an aspheric lens to improve image quality. The lens was injection molded from molds that had a ¼ wave (~150 nm) tolerance over the entire form. The tolerance for the frame mold, which determined the distance from the lens to the focal plane, was .00001″ across the parting line, which is pretty astounding esp. considering the complexity of the mold.

  4. That word of warning is legit!

    Curious child me once took apart a single-use camera and as I was dismantling it my hand wrapped around to get a better grip and I took a pretty solid hit from the flash capacitor.

    Was worse than the time I stuck phone wires in my mouth because I wanted to know how much voltage made the bell ring but I didn’t have a meter with a fast enough refresh.

    1. did anyone actually call? or did did the taste of copper wire became awkward and boring after hours and hours of waiting for the phone to ring? Please, let me know, the suspense is killing me, you on the other hand weren’t killed by the current, boredome or copper poisoning (which I conclude from you typing the initial comment, unless you are still waiting for the phone to ring and were typing the comment with the phone wires still hanging out of your mouth.

      1. 48VDC is available on the line, ringing or no ringing. Found that out as a (younger) lad while spraying down a friend’s porch in bare feet with a phone jack near the floor. You don’t need to wait for a call to get an unpleasant tingle.

    2. Ha ha – worst I’ve had was from from a 9 inch monochrome CRT which acts like a big capacitor. I’m told the high voltage needs to be 1KV per diagonal inch for a monochrome tube, so 9KV. Pain in the elbow from hitting the wall was just as bad as the shock 😁

  5. Any high voltage sources connected to a capacitor are dangerous. Know how to safely handle or risk death. Capacitor charge is retained after the circuit is disconnected. The capacitor should be discharged for safe handling. Use a jumper and keep one hand behind you. All strobe circuits are the same design essecently can be 500 or more volts there. Beware crt tubes they have a capatance and some are driven with 60,000 v supply! They must be grounded carefully. I had a tool jiged up for that. Cheap lens? Surplus Shed! They have lenses and lenses and 22mm Kodak old stock as well as many others.

  6. Disposable cameras are mad expensive these day I noticed.
    You can get a good quality CCTV lens for less than one disposable camera, so this trick is a bit too late to be used by anybody but thieves near a disposable camera storage place with poor security.

  7. The first real shock I got was from one of these cameras when I was maybe 10 or 11 trying to pry the thing apart to get at the guts when I found the capacitor… with my fingers. Man did it hurt! Learned my lesson then and there.

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