Attempting to Develop 20-Year-Old Disposable Cameras (And Kind of Actually Succeeding)

A 22-year-old photo of a girl drinking a Diet Dr. Pepper.

So my mom texted me a couple of weeks ago and said she found some old rolls of film in a drawer and was mailing them to me. “Maybe you can develop it and see what you get.” Sure, I thought, why not? I had a small clutch of color film I was getting ready to home develop, so I’d just add these to the back of the batch and see.

A few days later here comes the mail with 5 old disposable cameras packed in. I’d never developed disposables before and wasn’t sure what was inside (turns out they’re just normal film canisters. Who knew?). Of the lot, four of the cameras were spooled with 800 ISO film, and one was 400-speed. All were Kodak except one was a CVS-branded canister, so still probably Kodak.

Beyond that, I didn’t know anything about these cameras or their vintage. I reasoned that they were at least 10 years old, and maybe even 20 or more — it’s been that long since we toted around cheap disposable cameras, but I used to have one in the glove box of my car pretty much all the time back in high school.

There’s a lot (and I mean a lot) of resources online about shooting expired film, but not much out there about developing old, expired stuff that’s been sitting around for decades. At least not that I could find with a quick Google search. I figured I would apply the same principles as shooting old — push the film a stop for each decade it was out of date. Of course I didn’t know how old the film was, so I just started with a best bet and put the 400 ISO film in the developing tank and went for it.

I have no idea who this is but the school basket of fries he’s holding is legendary. UPDATE: That’s Alex. Hi Alex.
Some guy and my super-ex girlfriend just having a time.
That’s 15-year-old me on the right, and half of Paula’s face on the left, and some dude’s ass in the background.

Not too surprisingly, the photos from the 400 speed film came out the best by far. The more sensitive the film, the more likely it is to degrade over time.

I developed all the rolls with the Cinestill Cs41 “Color Simplified” 2-Bath Kit that came in a powder and I mixed myself. I’d used it once before and like the results. I did my best to keep things at 102 degrees as recommended for best results (I don’t have a sous vide, but a pot of hot water has always done the trick), adding 2% to development time for each roll processed.

The 400 ISO roll was the 5th roll I developed with the chemistry, which is good for about 12 35mm rolls with 36 exposures, so the chemicals were already about half exhausted by that standard.

I pushed the 400 ISO roll 1 stop by adding development time per the Cinestill chart. The negatives came out pretty dense, but usable.

Next, I did a double batch of 800 ISO film, pushing 1 stop by extending development time. These results… not so great. The negatives were so dark I didn’t even think I had usable images on there, but once dried and put up to the light I at least got a handful of “good” frames off each roll.

Riding jet skis in Miami when I was, like, 14 I think? That would be about year 2000.
Somewhere in Miami. Probably as seen from a jet ski.
My step-dad Kevin at the Etowah Indian Mounds in Georgia. Date unknown.
Another shot from the Etowah Indian Mounds. Date unknown.
A “panorama” shot, a feature in the CVS-brand single use camera I pulled this film from. The film canister was also CVS-branded, likely Kodak. This is one of the few indoor photos that came out from any of the rolls.

The majority of the frames from these cameras were not usable. Too dark. Like way too dark. The negatives themselves were also very dark and hazy. I managed to get 7 “usable” frames from each on the these rolls, so 14 in total out of 48+ frames. Not exactly a great success rate. And I put “usable” in quotes because, well, you can see the results.

I’m not sure it the banding in the frames is from the condition of the negatives or the condition of my developer after processing 7 rolls, or some combination of both. The markings follow the sprocket holes. Maybe light leaks from sitting around over time? Maybe agitation or exhausted developer issues? Also, my scanner (an Epson V600) had a tough time making sense of things since the negatives were in such rough shape.

After getting these results, I wasn’t too optimistic about the last 2 rolls, but I figured I’d still give it a shot. The developer was getting tossed after this batch of film anyways so there wasn’t anything to lose.

I decided to push the last two rolls by 2 full stops to hopefully maximize my chances at getting readable images. And I’m glad I did.

That’s me, either 16- or 17-years-old, with a big yellow mohawk.
Also me, giving a big salute to one of the security cameras at my high school.
That’s my late homie Kamol kick flipping off a curb behind a tire shop in Hiram, GA.
The homies Ricky and Mark in the morning before school. Probably junior year of high school, 2002 or 03.

The first roll came out with heavy color shifts and that annoying banding stuff I talked about above, but overall I was pretty surprised how sharp and legible the images were (especially considering they were taken ~21 years ago, on high sensitivity film, and left in a desk drawer at room temperature forever). I had to boost the contrast a good bit in Lightroom on all of these rolls.

The results were still whacky and all over the place, but the entire film strip came out. I actually posted these on Facebook and got TONS of reactions from long-lost friends and new ones who thought my hair cut was funny. The real gems on the roll were photos of my late friend Kamol, who had a great spirit and passed away in 2010. It was a good, heart-warming find and the pinnacle of this project for me.

The very last roll…. Well… I can at least tell you who was in one of the photos, and also that we were on vacation somewhere near water. Where and when, exactly, only father time knows at this point

I guess I fell down or something? Probably on one of the jetties it looks like we were climbing around..
The negatives were curled so bad I had to put them under a piece of glass to get a scan, thus producing the Newton rings you see at the top of the image. I have no idea where this photo was taken.
Some buildings. Some where. Some time. Date unknown but I’m guessing close to 20 years ago (maybe 2004?) based off of some of the other images.

If you recognize any of the landmarks in the photos above, please post a comment below. I’d love to de-haze some of the fog from memory bank. Likewise, if you have any pointers for developing old film like this, or links to good resources, please leave them in the comments below.

Knowing what I know now, if I had to do it all over again, I really wouldn’t change much except I think it would have been a better idea to start with fresh developer. It’s hard to make other reasonable assumptions without knowing the age of the film in hand. So I started with the roll I thought had the best chance for success (the 400-speed one) and made adjustments as I went.

Hopefully this helps someone else who digs up old photos sometime down the line.



Clay Duda is a mariner, photographer, and writer living in Homer, Alaska.