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The rise and fall of the Kodak Disc Camera
In the Eighties, my family got a camera to replace a camera from the Sixties we had inherited. Out new camera was a Kodak 110 and I was smitten. Despite my poor skill, due to being young, I volunteered to be the family photographer as often as possible. Unsurprisingly photos from this part of my family’s history are fairly terrible.
Kodak introduced the 110 film cartridge in 1972 to compliment their line of Pocket Instamatic cameras. These new pocket-sized cameras were a huge hit. Quickly supplanting other small format cameras that had come before it.
It triggered a boom in small format cameras that would push cameras toward picket sized convenience that would have shocked consumers just a decade earlier.
To embrace my enthusiasm for photography and more likely to stop me from taking all the photos, I was gifted a camera for Christmas by my Grandmother.
It was another 110 camera, this one had a built-in flash. I adored it and took many a bad photo with it over the years. I was excited to get it, but what I really wanted was a camera that was in all the commercials and the pockets of all the cool kids in my school, the Kodak Disc Camera.
The Disc Film format and the portable cameras that would use them are actually the stepchildren of cameras like the 110. Released in 1982, the camera was a huge hit. Kodak would sell 8 million of them that year alone.
They launched with multiple cameras that came in ascending in order of price and features, the 2000, 4000, 6000 and 8000. You might guess that the 2000 was the base model, and it was, but not in the United States. In the US, the base camera was the 4000.
The difference between the two was the battery. The 2000 used a 9v battery, while the 4000 had lithium batteries. These batteries were meant to “never be replaced” by the owner of the camera. Instead, if something went wrong, you would ship the camera back to Kodak and they would replace those batteries for you.
The 2000 was all black, the 4000 was silver, the 6000 was black and had a cover that folded over to protect the lens and a slide switch with a close-up lens. The 8000 was Kodak’s gold standard for disc cameras and had an actual gold finish. It was also a good deal more expensive. For that money, you got a 3-shot burst mode, a self-timer and a built-in LCD travel alarm clock.
All of the Kodak Disc cameras had a flash, capable of firing every 1.3 seconds, and a sensor that detected when it was needed. So no more fumbling around to engage the flash in low-light situations, the camera was now making the decisions for you.
Later Kodak would modify the 4000 turning it into the 4100 by adding the protective cover of the 6000 and 8000 while retaining the silver metal finish of the original 4000. They would also release a 3000 and a 3100 which were updated versions of the 2000, that used a 9v battery instead of lithium.
As you can see, the form factor for the camera was unlike anything on the wide market at that point. It was “flat.” This made for some compelling marketing. The Disc Camera looked like the 1982 vision of the future of photography. Looking at it you might think, it kind of has the dimensions of a mobile phone. Kodak often compared it to a pack of playing cards.
Perhaps Kodak had glimpsed the future?
Unfortunately, while the look and feel of the camera seemed futuristic, it has two really glaring issues. It was not that great to hold and more importantly, It took terrible photos.
To know why we need to look at the film of the camera and how it took photos. The film comes in the form of a flat disc, which is housed in a plastic cartridge. These discs each had fifteen 10×8 mm exposures. Those exposures were arrayed along the edge of the disc sort of like the setup on a View-Master reel. When you snapped a photo, the disc would rotate 24 degrees to the next exposure.
While the exposures are small, the Disc film did have an advantage. It was not on a spool. Instead, it was flat, which had the potential for greater sharpness over the bendy spool-based film formats like the 110 camera. Couple with promised high-quality lenses, the Disc Camera should have taken photos to at least rival that of other portables. Sadly when camera owners got their photos back, they noticed that the image quality was generally poor.
This was not all the fault of the smaller exposure. Instead, some of it had to do with the technology and process used to develop the photos.
Kodak created special 6-element lenses to develop the film, but most labs didn’t buy into the technology. Still, they wanted to take the money to develop the photos, so they used their standard 3-element lenses that worked on larger negatives. This was a huge gap in the product fulfillment process and the result was poor quality photos from a camera that cost more than its rival portables.
At the time of is release, Kodak was all in on the Disc format. The chairman of Kodak, Walter Fallon, referred to Disc photo technology as, “the new engine that will drive amateur photography.” So you might not be surprised to hear that other companies got in on the Disc film and camera business.
3M, Fuji, and Konica all manufactured film under their own brand. And a slew of companies stepped up to make cameras. Looking back the most surprising and innovative is the Minolta Disc-7. It was a camera with a small convex mirror on the front plate, which could, with the help of a telescoping stick, allow people to take effective self-portraits.
You read the correctly, in 1983 Minolta made a camera that not only could take “selfies” but also had a selfie stick! The Disc-7 has a bit of a cult following, but you can still find it for sale online at a reasonable price. Although, if you want one with the selfie stick, or as they called it, a stem, that can set you back.
Prices vary on eBay, but a fully boxed one on Amazon is currently going to for about $45 (shipping included).
You can find photos of the Disc-7 online, but not a lot of videos. Here is a video of the different, but similar Minolta Special Edition COURREGES AC 301, showing the mirror in action.
Experts at the time had mixed feelings about the Disc Camera. In the May 1982 issue of Popular Photography, they solicited feedback and as you can see, even in 1982, people saw the advantages and limitations of the camera.
The disc camera would continue to be manufactured by Kodak throughout the Eighties. Sadly because of poor picture quality reputation by the end of the decade, they would stop making hardware. To support existing products, they would continue to manufacture the disc film right up until the end of the Nineties.
Unfortunately for Kodak, they had sunk a lot into the Disc Camera system. According to the November 1993 issue of Popular Photography, they opted to get out of the 35mm camera business at the time. Eventually, they would get back into it with cameras manufactured overseas, but by that point, other companies had taken the technological lead on a format that had more of a future.
Disc Cameras in Film
While Disc Cameras would make appearances in movies and television show throughout the 80s and into the 90s, one would play a very important role in the film, My Cousin Vinny. In her Oscar-winning turn, Marisa Tomei employs a pink Le Clic Disc Camera (with its branding concealed), taking photos that help with the big court case.
The most unbelievable part of the film? How clear all the photos are when they are finally developed.
Disc Photography and EPCOT Center
In the 1982, Disney opened EPCOT Center. Because it was a park that embraced the future, it of course embraced the very futuristic Disc Camera. In fact, if you visited the park back then, you could buy film and borrow a disc camera for your time in the park.
On their now famous Kodak Wheel Guides, it was featured prominently. I have owned one of the wheels since my family visited in 1983.
Nowadays, no one is making Disc film. So anything you find online is remaindered stock. If you are a hobbyist, you might also find it challenging to get the photos developed locally. Although online, plenty of photo services are promising high-quality prints and digital copies.
Like cracking open a New Coke, pulling out and snapping a photo with a Disc Camera instantly gives you an idea of what decade you are in, the Eighties. They can get so wrapped up in nostalgia for the era that people can forget, or never learn, how quickly opinion turned against these flat cameras.
It was interesting technology, a risk by a company that always realized that portability was an important component of amateur photography.
Sadly, they did not reckon what a factor quality would play into it and no matter how “cool” something might look, it needs to get the job done. The Disc Camera just couldn’t cut it and now those of us who lived during its short run only have memories and grainy photos to remember it by.
Oh and amazing commercials.