You'd think when it comes to something like a cheap plastic camera there would not be a lot of quality difference. The cameras already have barely any features: a fixed focal length where everything is in focus, a fixed shutter speed and no metal anywhere to be seen. In the 90's they were giveaways for magazine subscriptions and practically disposable toys. We pretty much have the same options as we did back then, with some notable exceptions. Hopefully this guide will help you pick up a decent one.
I started my search for plastic cameras after a challenge by David S Allen. He said, "if you can take good images with a cheap plastic cameras you can take good images with anything." While it sounds like there would be a bunch of options it's actually a pretty limited field of cameras. You have the disposable cameras which have a problem of being one time use and then needing to be modded to shoot additional rolls. And then you have all the "oops I forgot my camera" so I need to pick one up from the drug store cameras.
When looking for these cameras you want to keep a ,few things in mind. You want the camera to be as dumb as possible, so no flash and batteries, no film advancing system and no metering. You basically want a plastic toy with a spring for a shutter. This is a camera that you'll throw into your bag and take out for snapshots. Can you use it more seriously? Of course, but these cameras were designed to be barely a step above disposable.
There are two cameras that lead the crop of focus free 35mm snap shooters. The Vivitar Ultra Wide 22mm and the Bell & Howell Promotional Camera with a 28mm lens. If you do a quick eBay search you'll notice that nearly all of the focus free cameras come at a 35mm focal length. While this is a great focal length having the lens be slightly wider gives you some advantages. First the images will look a bit different at 22mm and you'll be able to get closer to your subjects. The hyperlocal distance of a 22mm lens and a 35mm lens are 6.6ft and 16.7ft respectively. The shorter lens gives you a little more range and versatility.
Secondly these cameras were built well. I currently own a Bell & Howell and it's a great camera. Last year a I purchased a knockoff version that was made with much lighter plastic and felt like a hollow version of the original. The camera has has a sturdy heft for what it is and works wonderfully.
One thing to be aware of, the straps on the camera somehow is really attracted to the lens. It's such a small camera that it's really easy to cover up the lens. It's been such an issue that I'm thinking about cutting off the straps on both cameras so they don't get in the shot. Secondly, I'd recommend going with a faster film than the recommended ISO 400. An extra stop with a ISO 800 speed film is going to make shooting in shadows more possible and also give you a little bit more leeway later in the day. It can be a little costlier but I've been really enjoying Lomography 800 recently and find it to be perfectly usable and surprisingly great.
If you read this far you're probably firing up eBay to do some hunting or thinking about the next time you'll can scour a thrift store or garage sale for one of these cameras. I'd take the extra time and look for a good one. The cost to develop film make shooting a luxury and having a tool that is reliable and takes great images it something I wish I took more seriously in the beginning. So find one of these gems and start shooting your eyeballs out.
Are there some cheap fixed focus cameras I missed? Let me know in the comments.