Few analogue technologies have been mourned louder than the death of photographic film. Forget the ease and convenience of digital; analogue junkies love the warm tones of film and feel the random imperfections of a film print make each image, and each reproduction of it, unique and beautiful in its own right.
So strong is this feeling that analogue has made a significant comeback. The shelves aren’t groaning with 35mm film stock just yet, but fans of instant photography – popularised by Polaroid in the 70s – now have an embarrassment of riches. Instant cameras, which produce chemical prints directly, with no processing, uploading or development, are huge fun, a little unpredictable and, for photographers of the digital age, a great experience. With the cost of a single print ranging from around 70p to nearly £2, images that look like opportunistic grabs need to be thought about quite carefully. Otherwise, you’ll just waste cash.
There are some really good, really novel instant cameras out there, and here are the best you can currently buy.
How to buy the best instant camera for you
How do instant cameras work, anyway?
Great question. When you press the shutter release on an instant camera, a single frame of film is exposed. The difference between this frame of film and a frame of 35mm film is that the film in an instant camera has all the chemicals needed to develop and fix the image built-in. Some cameras produce a finished image straight from the rollers; others, such as the Polaroid models, produce a print that’s initially black but that develops over 15 minutes. To answer the inevitable question, you do not need to shake a Polaroid picture to help it develop. In fact, shaking a Polaroid picture can damage the image, as the shaking causes the film to separate.
What other features should I look for?
Today’s instant cameras range from cheap-and-cheerful chemical-only models to digital hybrid models that allow you to reprint images on demand from their built-in memory.
The key things to look for are the lens and the range of shutter speeds supported. Not all instant cameras have variable shutter speeds, which means that when the light drops you’ll need the flash to fire to get a decent image. If you’re feeling creative and want to do things such as painting with light, you’ll want a camera that has a wide range of shutter speeds or, better yet, a bulb mode, where the frame of film is exposed for a chosen period.
Some cameras have other creative options, such as a double-exposure mode. This analogue throwback means exposing a frame of film, but then exposing it again before printing it, allowing you to create bizarre, abstract compositions.
You should also pay attention to the battery life. Cameras with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have the advantage of being rechargeable from the mains – often without needing to remove the battery – but might take a long time to recharge. Cameras that allow you to use AA batteries are a little more expensive to use (unless you bring rechargeable and a charger with you), but you can nearly always get hold of more AA batteries, which is a real advantage if you suddenly run dry.
What kind of film do I need?
Now there’s a good question. There are a few common formats of instant print, with Fuji’s Instax mini perhaps the most common. This film has total dimensions of 86 x 54mm and an actual image size of 62 x 46mm. It’s cheap and widely available – at the time of writing the 20-pack represented the best value at £13.91, or about 70p per frame. Instax mini film also has the advantage of being available in different styles; arty types can opt for black-bordered film, while the kid-friendly Candy Pop borders add a bit of pizazz. Expect to pay around £8.99 for a pack with one of Instax’s novelty finishes, which works out to about 90p per shot.
Other types of film are available, most notably Polaroid’s i-Type film. Compared to Instax mini these prints are huge, with more than twice the total area and an image size of 79 x 77mm. This makes a Polaroid picture a far more substantial product than an Instax shot. That’s reflected in the price, though, with i-Type film coming in packs of eight shots for around £14.99, or a substantial £1.87 per print. A triple pack, which includes two packs of colour film and one monochrome pack for a total of 24 frames, costs £42.99, or a slightly cheaper £1.79 per print.
Polaroid’s modern instant cameras are also compatible with Polaroid’s 600 film. This brings added benefits including a few more artistic options, such as pink or blue duotone films, or black and white film with frame edges of assorted colours. However, 600 film was used to power the cameras it was installed in, which makes it expensive – expect to pay £17.99 for standard colour or monochrome film, which works out to about £2.25 per print.
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The best instant cameras to buy
1. Fujifilm Instax Mini 9: The best for instant newbies
Price when reviewed: £66 | Buy now from Amazon for £66.00
Cheap, cheerful and ever so fun: that’s the Fuji Instax Mini 9 in a nutshell. Forget bells and whistles; this camera is great at churning out images fast without requiring much in the way of photographic nous. The lens is a fixed 60mm f/12.7 and the shutter is fixed at 1/60sec – easy enough to handhold, though not fast enough that you’ll be able to shoot people who are moving around. The lens and shutter speed combo mean you’ll often struggle to get enough light into the camera, so to that end the flash fires every time you take a picture, whatever the light is like. Indoors this is handy; if you’re shooting landscapes it’s a waste of battery life.
Images emerge in about a minute and a half, and the Mini 9 takes Instax film, which is economical and comes in plenty of flavours to keep your images jazzed up. Be wary if you’re photographically ambitious; the Mini 9 doesn’t have much room for creativity, and with no double-exposure mode, no bulb mode and that permanent flash your images could end up looking samey. As an instant camera for those just setting out, however, it’s hard to beat on value for money.
Key specs – Power source: 2x AA batteries providing up to 100 shots; Lens: 60mm, f/12.7; Shutter modes: 1/60sec fixed; Flash: Always-on; Print development time: 1m 30s; Dimensions: 116 x 68 x 118mm; Weight: 307g
2. Fujifilm Instax Square SQ10: Best for digital/analogue crossovers
Price when reviewed: £230 | Buy now from Amazon for £218.00
If we’re being honest, we think all instant cameras are interesting; we’re nerds like that. But the Fuji Instax Square SQ10 is a particularly fascinating little number, being the only digital hybrid instant camera in this group. It takes Instax Square film, producing a slightly larger image than that of Instax mini film, but in a 62 x 62mm square format. It’s perfect for those making the transition from Instagram.
Turn the camera over and there’s a bit of a surprise: a 3in, 460,000-pixel resolution TFT monitor, allowing you to review your pictures. There’s also a 3.7-megapixel CMOS sensor inside the body, enabling the SQ10 to create both analogue prints on its film cartridge as well as capturing digital versions for posterity. The last 50 or so images are saved internally, but you can add a microSD or microSDHC memory card to expand storage further. Images stored on the SQ10 can be printed at will, which is great for creating handouts for a group.
Creative modes put on a good show – you can create exposures up to 10 seconds using the SQ10’s bulb mode – while the self-timer and multiple-exposure modes are also welcome. This is a lovely, if somewhat pricey, way of both making and keeping your instant memories.
Key specs – Power source: Rechargeable battery providing up to 160 prints; Lens: 28.5mm, f/2.4; Shutter modes: Auto, up to 10s in bulb mode, self-timer, double-exposure mode; flash; Print development time: 12s; Dimensions: 119 x 47 x 127mm; Weight: 450g.
3. Leica Sofort: Best for manual junkies
Price when reviewed: £250 | Buy now from Amazon for £229.00
The most expensive camera in this group, sceptics could well be forgiven for thinking a good deal of the Leica’s price is bundled up in that prestigious logo on the front. However, the Sofort (German for “Immediately”, you know) is a great camera. The fixed 60mm, f/12.7 lens is a practical length for run-n’-gun snapping, and the Sofort is compatible with both Leica’s own film as well as packs of Fuji’s Instax mini films, including films with artsy borders.
Elsewhere, we like the Sofort’s wide range of shutter speeds – 1/8sec lets you shoot in very low light (albeit from a tripod), while 1/400sec is pretty good for freezing faster action. The built-in flash can be manually activated or left to fire automatically, while a double-exposure mode allows for abstract photography. We like the ten or two-second self-timer, and the Sofort’s focus modes are useful. For example, choose the selfie setting and focus is fixed between 30 and 60cm to help get better results at arm’s length.
The Sofort has substantially more bells and whistles than more basic instant cameras, and its compatibility with affordable Instax film is a distinct plus. Brand conscious photographers might also consider that the Sofort is probably the most affordable route to Leica ownership,
Key specs – Power source: Rechargeable battery providing up to 100 prints; Lens: 60mm, f/12.7; Shutter modes: Auto, 1/8sec – 1/400sec, self-timer, double-exposure mode; flash; Print development time: 1m 30s; Dimensions: 124 x 94 x 58mm; Weight: 305g.
4. Lomo’Instant Automat Bora Bora: Best for accessorisers
Price when reviewed: £129 | Buy now from Amazon for £119.01
Lomography, with its low-fi, imperfect aesthetic, is seen by many as responsible for the enthusiasm for modern instant cameras, so it’s good to see the company capitalising on the trend. Its range of instant cameras is huge, but the Automat Bora Bora, finished in classy white, is a particularly pleasing option.
It shoots Fuji’s Instax film, which makes it pretty economical, and for £129 you get a camera that’s easy to use while allowing enough headroom for more creative types to make images that go beyond simple retro-style portraits. For example, there aren’t many instant cameras that have interchangeable lenses, but the Automat allows you to buy its accessory kit (£49). This comes with screw-on lenses covering fisheye, wide-angle and close-up photography, as well as the fun Splitzer, which rotates to cover different areas of the frame while you shoot multiple exposures. Speaking of which, the Automat allows you to shoot not just double exposures but true multiple exposures, exposing the same frame of film again and again.
The Automat’s fixed 60mm lens is like that of the Leica Sofort and Fuji Instax Mini 9, but has a bigger aperture of f/8, allowing faster shutter speeds in low-light conditions. Shutter speeds range from eight seconds to 1/250sec, while the bulb mode allows you to make things up as you go. Unusually the Automat is powered by a pair of CR2 batteries – these are affordable but not as common as AAs, so it makes sense to stock up before leaving for the wilderness.
Key specs – Power source: 2x CR2 batteries; Lens: 60mm, f/8; Shutter modes: Auto, 8s – 1/250sec, bulb; flash; Print development time: 1m 30s; Dimensions: 150 x 70 x 100mm
5. Polaroid Impossible I-1: Best for creatives
Price when reviewed: £130 | Buy now from Selfridge
Incredibly, up to a few years ago it wouldn’t have been possible to write a roundup of instant cameras and even include Polaroid, so moribund were the company’s offerings. But then the Impossible Project got under way, designed to deliver a camera that would create a market for Polaroid film. A measure of the project’s success isn’t just the number of instant cameras now available, but also that the Impossible camera has been snapped up by Olympus itself.
The Polaroid Impossible I-1 is a unique pyramidal design, where the twin sights need to line up with each other to help you frame an image. The ring flash around the lens uses 12 LEDs, providing not just illumination but also information about remaining battery life and other status indications. As a bonus, the ring flash also produces distinctive highlights on portraits. Unusually for an instant, the lens is a zoom lens, shifting from 82mm at its widest setting to 109mm zoomed right in. This gives you a little flexibility when it comes to composition and depth of field, although we believe we can hear Polaroid purists complaining from here.
The camera itself uses Polaroid’s i-Type or 600 films, so the cost of running it is in line with the Polaroid OneStep 2: expensive. A pack of eight shots will set you back £14.99, so firing a single shot will cost you nearly two quid. In fairness the prints are huge compared to Instax mini shots, but even so, it pays to frame up carefully before pressing the shutter.
The Impossible I-1 is another camera where current-gen tech meets old-school cool. There’s no digital sensor, memory card or review screen, but there is built-in Bluetooth, which interfaces with the I-1 Camera app for Android and iPhone and allows a number of neat tricks. You can fire the camera remotely, or use your phone as a noise trigger, so the camera fires when you clap your hands. The self-timer is also controlled by the app, as is its light painting mode, where an ultra-long shutter speed allows you to record light trails onto the film. Double exposures are controlled in the same way.
At £130 the I-1 is a relatively expensive way to get into modern instant photography – particularly given the price of its film – but it’s a fabulous looking and deceptively ingenious device for those looking to bridge the gap between digital convenience and analogue charm.
Key specs – Power source: Rechargeable battery providing up to 120 prints; Lens: 82-109mm zoom; Shutter modes: Auto, manual, remote trigger, self-timer, noise-trigger, double-exposure with iOS or Android apps; 12 LED ring flash; Print development time: 15m; Dimensions: 145 x 110 x 108mm; Weight: 440g
Buy now from Selfridges
6. Polaroid OneStep 2: Best for the old-school
Price when reviewed: £109 | Buy now from Amazon for £99.58
Comfortably plonked in the mid-range of modern instant cameras, the OneStep 2’s middling asking price is only the beginning of your outlay on instant photography. With an eight-pack of colour film setting you back £14.99, working out to a little under two quid per frame, you’d better hope instant photography isn’t as addictive as they say.
The toy-like styling, all bright colours and rounded corners, calls back to Polaroid’s heyday. Indeed, the only sign that this is a brand-new piece of tech rather than something dug out of your dad’s college belongings is the micro-USB port on the back, which is used for charging rather than any digital skulduggery. Once charged, the OneStep is good for up to 60 days of use or 120 prints. Or, an unkind reviewer would point out, nearly £240 worth of the Polaroid’s distinctive 107 x 88mm prints.
The lens is a relatively long 106mm, making the OneStep 2 an excellent choice for portraits. On the downside, there’s no de facto double exposure mode – instead, you need to take a photograph, keep the shutter button held down, turn the camera off, release the button, then turn the camera on and take the second exposure. It’s not quite as elegant as other cameras, but if everything was totally polished it wouldn’t be a proper instant camera. This is one, and a great one, turning out classically proportioned prints.
Key specs – Power source: Rechargeable battery providing up to 120 prints; Lens: 106mm; Shutter modes: Auto, self-timer; flash; Print development time: 15m; Dimensions: 150 x 95 x 110mm; Weight: 460g
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