Because this was a title before it was an article, let me just start by saying the only thing you need to know about Fujifilm instax cameras is that they are a fun and easy way to enjoy instant photo prints. Instax pushes out a print that self-develops within a few minutes of its emergence from the camera. In the digital era, there is little in the way of practical uses for this system, but since when does photography have to be practical? Use it to experiment, use it to enjoy good times with friends, at weddings or parties, and use it to show your kids that you can actually touch a photograph. Of course, as soon as I wrote that, I realized there might well be a few instances in business or even in film and photo production where an instant print might still be of use; however, I don’t think instax would be the choice tool for that function. But please do let me know if you use instax for practical applications.
Two film formats are available for instax cameras—instax mini and instax WIDE. The wide and mini cannot be mixed and matched; they are designed for specific camera models. The wide format, which measures 3.4 x 4.3" with an image size of 2.4 x 3.9", fits the current instax WIDE 300 model. All other instax cameras use the 2.4 x 1.8" instax mini format, as do the Polaroid 300 cameras. Size is another reason these prints are less appropriate for practical applications. The mini print, which is basically the size of a credit card with the white borders included, is too small to reveal much in the way of intricate details, and while the wide is closer in size to “standard” 3 x 5" or 4 x 6" prints, it is still not a preferred method for instant documentation. In addition to the standard white-bordered prints, instax offers prints with playfully designed borders, including the multi-colored rainbow pack. Both formats are housed in disposable black plastic cartridge that contains 10 sheets. The cartridge inserts easily into the back of the camera.
Integral film, the kind of instant film used by instax, works because it contains layers of emulsion dye and layers of developing dye sandwiched within its “sheet.” Developing and fixing chemicals are stored in the “sack” of white border on the bottom of the image and when the film is pushed out of the camera the developing process begins. For instax there is no need to peel off the negative image and no shaking or putting it under your arm (for proper temperature) required. Within an ambient temperature range of 41-104°F, just wait about two minutes and your image will appear, although it would be fun to experiment with different development temperatures.
Both sizes of film are daylight balanced, ISO 800 with a 10 lines/mm resolving power, and can expose indoor and outdoor shots equally well. However, if you are expecting the saturation of a Velvia film stock or the dynamic range of the X-trans sensor, you’re in the wrong article. Given the minimal amount of exposure, aperture, and flash control offered by the cameras, be prepared for (and excited about) lo-fi image quality with a glossy surface. With minimal experience, the right light on bold color and proper distance to subject, you can expect pleasing results.
The instax mini Lineup
Currently, B&H offers four distinct instax mini models, three of which are available with color choices. In order of their complexity, from very simple to quite simple, there is the instax mini 8, with a range of candy-color options, the instax mini 25, the instax mini 70 and the instax mini 90 Neo Classic.
Based on ease of use and color options, it would seem that the mini 8 is earmarked for the kiddies, although it does offer a nice black model for the “serious” shooter. There is little one needs to know about the camera, as it offers only the most basic adjustments. It features a fixed 1/60-second shutter speed, a built-in flash that always fires and, like all minis, it has a 60mm f/12.7 lens. On the side of the lens there are four aperture settings, which correspond to Indoor light, Cloudy/Shade, Partly Sunny, or Bright Sun. There is also a “high key” mode setting. Figuring out which to use is pretty straightforward, although there will be a margin of error. When I shot on a sunny but cloudy day the first time, it became clear that the proper exposure should have been Cloudy/Shade. Fortunately, you can immediately see the result of your exposure choice and adjust accordingly.
One aspect of the Fujifilm design, compared to Polaroid, is that the power source for the camera and film is in the camera and not the film pack. The mini 8 uses two AA batteries, whereas the mini 25 and mini 70 use CR2 batteries, and the mini 90 uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.
The instax mini 25 is slightly smaller than the mini 8, uses two CR2 lithium batteries, and features more control over exposure, including auto-variable shutter speed, exposure compensation, flash control, and a motor-driven close-up lens setting. It also has a small mirror next to the lens for easier composition of selfies.
The instax mini 70 has a fully retractable lens and is the most compact of available models, even slightly resembling familiar point-and-shoot digital camera form factors and colors. It is marketed as ideal for selfies and also provides a mirror next to the lens. It features a Selfie Mode, which automatically sets appropriate brightness and focus distance. A self-timer mode and tripod socket are also featured. Auto shutter speed varies from ½- to 1/400-second. Focusing options are more advanced on the mini 70, with three distinct modes including a “macro” mode that focuses as close as 11.8". An LCD screen displays the exposure count and shooting mode.
The instax mini 90 Neo Classic is available in black or brown and has a handsome retro design and two shutter buttons for convenient shooting in both horizontal and vertical positions. It, too, has a retractable lens design, but is the only mini to use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. All instax minis have a 0.37x optical viewfinder, but the mini 90 has parallax adjustment for macro shooting. Six shooting modes are provided, including bulb mode for up to 10-second exposures and a double-exposure mode. Modes are changed by rotating the dial around the lens or with the button and LCD on the camera’s back. Its advanced flash enables better lighting for its various modes and its LCD and button controls are more familiar to anyone used to a digital camera. Three focusing modes, including macro, are the same as on the mini 70.
The instax WIDE
The instax WIDE 300 Instant Film Camera is shaped like a DSLR with a large handgrip, and the shutter button and power lever ergonomically located on top of that grip. It also uses a ring around the lens to control its zone-focus system. The two motor-driven focus modes are 3.0-9.8' and 9.8' to infinity. Shutter speeds run from 1/64- to 1/200-seconds and exposure control can be set to automatic or adjusted with +/-2 exposure compensation control. The LCD screen displays the exposure counter (number of shots remaining), Lighten-Darken control, Fill-in Flash Mode and the WIDE 300 also comes with a close-up lens adapter.
Loading and Shooting the instax Cameras
Loading film into the instax cameras is about as easy as it gets. No sprockets or spools, no pick-ups or release buttons. Just open the camera back and place the pre-loaded black film cartridge into the camera. Well, there is one trick—make sure the yellow tab marked on the corner of the film cartridge is aligned with the yellow tab mark in the camera’s chamber. When the film cartridge is in place, not askew, close the film chamber door and shoot one exposure to remove the plastic film cover, which is ejected from the film slot the same way as the film. After the film cover is ejected, the counter will read 10 and count down after each exposure until you are out of film and need to reload. Remember, it’s best not to open the back of a camera with film in it, but with instax, even that is forgiven. I opened the back, even touched the film cartridge where it indicates, “No fingers go here” and nothing adverse happened. [Editor’s note: Professional photographer on closed circuit. Do not attempt.]
Shooting with instax is, by design, very simple. Yes, certain models give you some control over exposure, flash, and focal range, but the basic idea is point and shoot. As mentioned above, it will take you one pack of film to figure the proper exposure settings, which are controlled in broad strokes no matter the camera model. If you are only accustomed to digital photography and film is a new expense, well, unfortunately, the best way to get to know the capability of an instax is trial and error. Close focus is a welcome mode on some camera models that I encourage you to try. Keep in mind that the viewfinder is not showing exactly what the lens frames, but the difference will not ruin the experience. Focus range is different for the various models, but a good rule of thumb is that for best focus, exposure, and flash illumination, your main subject should be 2-8' from you, and bold colors work well. One caveat is that, while some of the models are a bit heartier than the others, they are all made from plastic and will break if dropped.
Perhaps the most interesting instax accessory is not even for the camera, per se, but a portable printer that creates instax prints from smartphone images. The instax SHARE Smartphone Printer SP-2 works through the free Fujifilm instax SHARE App and enables multiple copies of images, template changes, black-and-white and sepia adjustments, and social network sharing.
Fujifilm produces custom color cases to match the shape and color of your mini 8. Called the Groovy Case, this faux leather case holds your camera vertically with the lens fitting in a nifty custom-made groove. There are several bags available for carrying your Fujifilm instax cameras, including one from Skutr with a “puffy jacket” design and separate compartment for film. Fujifilm, Nifty, and Skutr also offer several variations on photo album books to display your prints.
Both Fujifilm and Holga market a set of filters for instax. There is also the Fujifilm instax mini 7S Close-Up Lens with selfie mirror, and Holga makes a telephoto/wide adapter lens kits, as well. Check for compatibility with your instax model.
However you choose to augment your instax, these cameras provide a nice combination of the pleasures of analog and smartphone photography, simultaneously fostering a more disciplined and a more lighthearted approach to the medium. Because you are limited by a finite number of exposures per pack and by optical capability, you need to concentrate your expertise before you just shoot away, but you are still provided with the almost immediate feedback and quench that digital photography bestows. As a bonus, you have the analog share-ability factor, better than that of a smartphone because it’s physical. And you can always scan and Photoshop your prints too!
Unlike some other instant camera options, the instax uses a relatively fast film, has few settings and no post-exposure effort; the whole process is quick and painless. As with any style of photography, one can approach it seriously or casually but, to me, the instax system is one to approach without anxiety, to embrace your mistakes, enjoy the experience and welcome a catch-and-release policy—gift the portraits to friends and family, exchange them like trading cards and display your snaps for all to see, perchance in stacks.