Photography / Hands-on Review

Instant Camera Shootout

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It’s not news that instant film has been booming once again in recent years, and 2017 has proven to be a hallmark year for the genre, with new cameras and films being introduced. With a niche that has gone from near extinction to one of the most popular and fun format of photography today, and the subsequent overwhelming number of options on the market today, here’s a look at everything there is to offer.

The Cameras

While all grouped into the genre of instant-film photography, we can further split this into two sub-genres: instax and Polaroid. Besides brand, the reason for this distinction is more about the specific offerings and their history. Even though instax cameras and film are the more contemporary of the two, Polaroid-style cameras are their own unique entity that meshes the history of instant film photography with the newest efforts to restore this medium to its glorious past.

Polaroid Originals OneStep2 Camera with Black & White i-Type Film

In 2008, under the name Impossible Project, a push was made to continue the production of Polaroid film as we nostalgically know it. This group made strides in keeping 600, SX-70, and Spectra-type films alive for use with classic Polaroid cameras. In 2017, another shakeup occurred in which Impossible fully acquired the brand and intellectual property of Polaroid and relaunched the company as Polaroid Originals. In conjunction with this rebranding, the manufacturer also released a brand new instant film camera: the OneStep2. Designed to look just like the popular OneStep SX-70 camera from 1977, this camera is true point-and-shoot technology at its finest. And while Polaroid Originals (née Impossible) is best known for resurrecting old tech, this camera is all about the new, because it takes the company’s own i-Type instant film. This film is visually identical to 600-type film; however, it lacks a battery in the film pack to help lower the price for customers, and subsequently the OneStep2 has its own built-in lithium-ion battery to power the shutter, film advance, and flash. Beyond this, the camera’s simplicity is its beauty: it has a fixed-focus lens for working as close as 2' away, straightforward optical viewfinder, manual flash suppression, and a helpful LED dot-style indicator on the top to show how many of the eight shots per pack you have left.

Polaroid Originals OneStep2 Camera with Color i-Type Film

Working with this camera, it is best to align yourself with the simplicity of it and not think too much. Polaroid Originals tells you to use the flash always... and you should. The viewfinder is more of a suggestion of what your composition will be, and the clunkiness of the camera’s shape is fun and distinct, as well as cumbersome enough, at times, to remind you you’re carrying a large format camera. This isn’t unique to the OneStep2, however, since this has always been a trait of box-style Polaroid cameras, including the author’s favorite, the Polaroid 600 Barbie Camera. Compared to the OneStep2, this folding box-style camera has a sleeker design when not in use but, when you’re ready to shoot, it’s hard for any passers-by not to smirk at the bright pink-and-green contraption. You seemingly have a bit more control with this vintage camera, which has been refurbished by Polaroid Originals, but in the end, you’re left with effectively the same controls as the OneStep2.

If stealth is your aim, though, you had best look at one of the smartest-designed cameras of all time: the classic Polaroid SX-70, which Polaroid Originals has also refurbished. This camera uses an ingenious folding mechanism to spring open from a box the size of a VHS cassette to a triangular-shaped camera with a forward-leaning lens and protruding viewfinder. Distinct among most other instant film cameras, the SX-70 is a true SLR and it offers manual focus control for especially accurate composing and focusing. This camera takes its namesake SX-70 film, which is also like 600-type film, but a slower speed to accommodate the different lens and shutter capabilities of the camera. In use, the SX-70 is my favorite camera of the lot to work with; it’s a joy to use such a sophisticated design, and the manual focus control is refreshing in the world where most other options are simple fixed-focus designs.

Polaroid SX-70 Camera with Color SX-70 Film

Moving to the other side of the instant-film world now, Fujifilm’s instax cameras have been some of the most popular in photography in recent years, digital or film formats. Their popularity can be attributed to the fun designs, ease of use, and affordability. Whereas Polaroid Originals do appeal more to the photography enthusiast, an instax camera is as much at home in a karaoke parlor or a high school as it is in a professional photography studio. instax cameras are divided into three segments, with mini being the most well-known format.

Leica Sofort Camera with Sofort Monochrom Film

Fujifilm makes a series of instax mini cameras, including the ever-popular self-titled instax mini, now in its ninth generation, along with the retro-inspired mini 90 Neo Classic and the more feature-rich mini 70. Along with Fujifilm’s own offerings, the popularity of the format has even enticed a certain well-known German camera manufacturer to spawn its own instax mini creation: the Leica Sofort. Being familiar with the Fujifilm cameras, I took the opportunity to take the Sofort out to see if it was deserving of its Red Dot. And in short, yes... maybe no. It is certainly no M rangefinder, but the Sofort was still a luxurious camera for its class, and maintained the fun toward which the mini format is geared. Like other similar cameras, the Sofort has an optical viewfinder, built-in flash, two-step motorized zone focusing, and the ability to control the flash. Beyond these simple controls, it’s a true point-and-shoot, but with the Leica emblem on the front. And yes, the lens does say Leica on it (Automatik-Hektor, to be precise) but this is no hand-ground glass from Germany; it’s still just a plain, nice plastic lens that works.

If the mini is too mini for you, Fujifilm can also go large with the instax Wide 300, which is a comparatively huge 3.9 x 2.4" image size, versus the 1.8 x 2.4" mini format. The Wide 300 is quite a large camera, and not the most convenient for packing, but the larger film size is admittedly impressive and something I have grown to really love. Besides the format difference, the Wide is very like the mini in operation in terms of zone focus control, tiny optical viewfinder, flash control, and a helpful LCD to display the remaining shots.

Fujifilm instax Wide 300 Camera with instax Wide Color Film

Saving the newest for last, in 2017 Fujifilm introduced its newest instax format, SQUARE, along with the newest camera the instax SQUARE SQ10. I’ve used the word “unique” already in this article to describe other distinct camera designs, but if any camera deserves the title of unique, it is the SQ10 because it is a digital camera at heart. Or it is a hybrid camera, as Fujifilm likes to call it, and uses digital capture in conjunction with true filmic output to produce 2.4 x 2.4" square images on chemically developed film. What I love most about this camera is also what I like the least, and that’s that I feel like I’m almost cheating by using it. Being able to shoot digitally and review my shots before printing them takes away from the spontaneity inherent in instant film, but at the same time I love that I’m not wasting my precious film on throw-away shots. As a digital camera, the SQ10 is somewhat shabby, but as an instant film camera, it is by far the most high-tech offering and something I found myself constantly coming back to or reaching for more often than I anticipated.

The Film

With the cameras covered, that leaves the more important part to discuss: the film. And just like the cameras, there are two distinct modes in play. Polaroid Originals makes film for its cameras and vintage Polaroid cameras, while Fujifilm produces the film used in instax models (although Leica does have two styles of its branded film, with “Leica” printed on the back that suspiciously came in Fujifilm plastic cassettes).

For Polaroid Originals, the film has been a sticking point for many since the demise of the original Polaroid Corporation. A slightly tweaked chemistry formula results in slower processing times, fewer sheets per pack (eight versus 10), and less consistent results than were possible in the past but, with the launch of Polaroid Originals, the company has revamped its film lineup and is now producing film that is faster to develop and more consistent from pack to pack. With 600 being the most versatile format, since it can be used in i-Type cameras as well if desired, there is a larger array of “fun” films including color and monochrome print types, with classic white borders or with bright, colorful borders, as well as pink and blue Duochrome films. SX-70 and i-Type films, on the other hand, are only available in plain color and black-and-white options with white borders.

Polaroid 600 Barbie Camera with Color 600 Color Frames Edition Film

I found myself very drawn to the black-and-white offerings compared to the color films from Polaroid Originals. These monochrome films felt much more consistent and accurate in terms of exposure and tone, whereas the color films displayed a tendency to color shift or be a bit dark at times when I wasn’t working in the brightest light. While nice results are to be had, it takes some experimenting and good light to find that sweet spot for the color films. Black-and-white, on the other hand, felt very flexible and also seemed to develop more quickly.

Polaroid instax SQUARE SQ10 Camera with instax SQUARE Film

Back over to instax, Fujifilm has built the entire system, comprising mini, Wide, and SQUARE, to be very consistent from format to format. The instax film performs very similarly in all sizes, and this is a good thing. Development is very quick and not quite as fickle as Polaroid Originals’ need to shade the film immediately after it is expelled from the camera. And in addition to classic color films for all of the formats, there are also black-and-white Monochrome versions available for mini and Wide (SQUARE doesn’t require a dedicated black-and-white film, since the SQ10 can simply print a monochromatic image on the color film). Furthermore, Fujifilm also dominates when it comes to fun frames with the mini format, with tons of border options ranging from Candy Pop, to NYC Edition, to Airmail, to even a Comic book theme.

Leica Sofort Camera with instax mini NYC First Edition Film

When shooting the instax films, it’s difficult to pick at certain faults, since the film feels so consistent from batch to batch, format to format. If I had any disagreements, it would be that the film also tends to produce darker-than-expected results in instances where I felt like there was plenty of light. Exposure can often be boosted in-camera, but with only 10 shots per pack you try not to make many mistakes. But overall I was pleased, and especially happy that I could shoot New-York-City-themed film in New York (although I’m still upset that luck didn’t have my image of Radio City Music Hall print on the Radio City Music Hall-bordered film).

What are your thoughts on the instant-film craze? Are you an instant-film photographer? Do you lean toward the popularity of instax or do you crave the nostalgia of Polaroid Originals? Let us know your thoughts, below.

2 Comments

I got interested in photography in high school using my parents' Polaroid Land bellows camera. They bought me a Polaroid Swing camera that I used as a teenager and took on some band trips. After college and marriage, I bought a Canon A-1. But I got my interest in photography with instant film.

I suppose, in many ways, digital replaces the need for new photographers to learn by instant film photography...but digital certainly doesn't hold the same magic as seeing a Polaroid come to life. Happy to hear you got inspired with instant film!

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