Twin lens design for precise manual focus. EV compensation control. Manual aperture control. Bright focusing screen with magnifying loupe. Built-in flash. Free film program. AA battery power.
Expensive. Nailing exposure can be tricky. Landscape shooting is impractical. 35mm field of view not as wide as Instax cameras.
- Bottom Line
The Mint InstantFlex TL70 2.0 is an instant camera with a throwback design and a premium price, but it lacks true manual exposure control.
By Jim Fisher
Mint Camera, a small company based in Hong Kong, made its name in the camera community by offering repair service for classic Polaroid instant cameras. That extended into designing and manufacturing a new piece of hardware, the InstantFlex TL70, the first instant camera to use a Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) design. We're reviewing the refined, second version of the camera, the TL 70 2.0 ($389), which features a brighter focusing screen. The manual focus experience is excellent, with a large waist-level viewfinder, just like a classic Rolleiflex. It's expensive compared with other instant models, but its old-school design will charm the right photographer.
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The InstantFlex TL70 isn't flashy. It features an understated black design with two lenses. The top lens directs light to the viewfinder for focusing, and the bottom actually makes the picture. It measures 4.0 by 3.2 by 5.6 inches (HWD) and weighs 1.2 pounds. It's about the same size my old Rolleiflex, and could be mistaken for it at a distance.
TLRs have fallen out of fashion, but they have their advantages. You get a big viewfinder that never blacks out, and a very quiet leaf shutter. The lack of finder blackout isn't as big of a deal with instant film as it is when shooting negatives—you'll know what you shot as soon as the image emerges—but it's reassuring to know exactly what you shot as soon as you hear the shutter click.
The size of the viewfinder is also a palpable benefit; in the case of the TL70 it's the same size as the Instax film, and there's a magnifying loupe to make sure you've nailed focus. It's located at the top of the camera—opening its protective cover also turns the InstantFlex on. The finder itself is square, but there are lines marked to show you the picture area.
I never shot with the first version of the TL70, so I can't speak to how much brighter the screen in version 2.0 is. I'm able to see it clearly and focus accurately in typical indoor home lighting—I think it's safe to say that if you have enough light to make an image, you'll have enough light to focus. If you haven't shot with a waist-level viewfinder before you'll need to get used to one big thing—left and right are reversed. Moving the camera left to pan to something that shows up in the right of the finder can take some getting used to, but your brain will figure it out with a little practice.
There's one other issue with the waist-level finder—it's not made for shooting in landscape orientation. With an old-school TLR that wasn't an issue, as the film was square, so it didn't matter in which orientation you held your camera. The Mint has an eye-level finder option that can be used to shoot in landscape mode—it works like other TLRs.
Focus as normal using the waist-level focusing screen, and then press the front area of the finder (with the Mint logo) inward. Put your eye up to the small cutout at the rear and that will approximate the frame. To put the finder back to normal, just squeeze its sides and the front will snap back into place. Framing with the rear cutout window isn't as accurate as framing a shot using the focusing screen, and it's still a little clunky to hold the camera sideways.
Physical controls are pretty limited. The shutter release is a red button at the bottom right corner, beneath the lenses. Aperture—it can be set from f/5.6 through f/22 in full-stop increments—is controlled by a wheel directly under the taking lens. There's an additional aperture setting, marked by a star. Mint puts different special effect aperture designs in its cameras. Depending on which one you get you'll be able to capture out-of-focus highlights with a different shape. Some users have reported getting a star shape, matching the icon, but our review unit came with a swirly shape.
You'll find the focus control wheel, EV compensation switch, and film eject button on the left side. EV can be adjusted by one stop in either direction, and focus is available from 18.9 inches (0.48-meter) to infinity. Because you need to press a second button to eject film and begin the development process, the TL70 is capable of multiple exposures. There is a flash, hidden behind the InstantFlex logo on the front—a button on its left side pops it open. Finally, you get a switch, to the left of the viewfinder, right behind the flash, to switch between automatic and bulb exposure. Bulb shooting keeps the shutter open for as long as you hold the button down, making long exposure photography possible.
There's a standard tripod socket on the bottom, which is a feature you don't get on every modern instant camera. Batteries also load in the bottom. The InstantFlex is powered by three AA cells, so you can easily grab a new set of batteries as needed. Mint doesn't tell you how many shots you'll get on a set of batteries—I imagine it will vary based on how often you use the flash. I shot four packs of film and had no need to change out the batteries.
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Film and Image Quality
With an instant camera, you have two concerns when it comes to the quality of photos—the film itself and the lens. We've reviewed a bunch of cameras that use the Fujifilm Instax Mini format. The film is quite good, with color and black-and-white stocks available. I've always found the Mini size was a bit small—the image area is 2.4 by 1.8 inches—but I can see how designing a TLR around the larger Instax Wide format would be impractical. It would have to be a really big camera.
The taking lens is a 61mm with a triplet optical design. Its field of view is roughly equal to a 35mm prime on a full-frame camera, and while the maximum aperture sounds modest, it's capable of capturing images with a shallow depth of field, especially when focused toward its minimum 18.9-inch distance. It's a glass lens, but results aren't quite as crisp as the Lomography Lomo'Instant Automat Glass. You'll also have to accept some lens flare, though you may see it as a creative boon—the Lomo flares as well, just in a different way.
Exposure metering is automatic only. You can dial in a stop of compensation in either direction, but you don't have any ability to control the shutter speed—the camera sets it automatically from 1 to 1/500-second, depending on the lighting. The light meter is an ambient sensor, located just under the bottom lens, which can lead to some tricky metering situations. If you're shooting a subject that's backlit you'll want to brighten the scene, but even then you might face some trial and error in getting the shot you want.
There's also the possibility that an image is beyond the exposure the TL70 can capture. Because Instax film is so sensitive to light—it's rated at ISO 800—and the TL70's lens opens to f/5.6, you might not be able to shoot at its widest setting under bright sunlight. You can stop down until the viewfinder shows a green dot—the dot is orange if a shot is going to be overexposed.
Or you can add a neutral density filter to cut incoming light; Mint sells a pack of add-on lenses for $116. It includes three levels of ND, a close-up lens that cuts minimum focus to 7.1 inches, and a lens hood, which is useful for reducing flare. Without the hood, flare can show up when light hits the lens from an askew angle.
If you do add ND filters you'll need to take care to use one with the right amount of power. You can stop the lens down until you get a green light from the camera, which indicates exposure is in range, and use that to determine the number of stops of dimming power needed to shoot at f/5.6. I'd love to see Mint add manual shutter speed control to a future version of the camera, as it's the one aspect of creative control missing from the InstantFlex.
Digital photography has made film costs a thing of the past. But when you buy an instant camera, you're back to paying for every shot you take. Instax Mini film isn't expensive—prices vary from around $0.65 to $0.75 a shot, depending on the quantities you buy at one time—but if you use the camera a lot the costs can add up.
Mint has a program to give select TL70 owners free film in exchange for free advertising. You need to be an active Instagram user and Mint will have to approve your account. But once that's done, you'll get a free pack of Instax Mini film for every four posts in which you feature the camera.
You can get a manual focus instant camera from Lomography, but you'll have to deal with zone focus. The Mint InstantFlex TL70 2.0 is the only Instax camera out there with a focusing screen for precise adjustment. Coupled with a moderately wide-angle lens with a wide-aperture design and solid close-focus capability, you can capture instant shots with a shallow depth of field, just like you'd get with a digital SLR.
You can't understate the importance of being able to manually lock into the perfect point of focus for a shot, but it's a shame it isn't coupled with full manual exposure control. Being able to select the f-stop and having some basic EV compensation control gives you some flexibility, but it's no substitute for shutter speed control. Our favorite instant cameras for creative photographers, the Lomo'Instant Automat Glass and Lomo'Instant Wide, are also missing that feature, but neither carries as high a price tag as the InstantFlex, and both cover a wider angle of view, which isn't for everyone, especially portrait shooters. Add manual shutter control and the TL70's premium price tag is an easier pill to swallow. As it stands, the camera is a solid option for instant photographers who are intrigued by its design and feature set, but not an outstanding one.
By Jim Fisher Senior Analyst, Digital Cameras
Senior digital camera analyst for the PCMag consumer electronics reviews team, Jim Fisher is a graduate of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he concentrated on documentary video production. Jim's interest in photography really took off when he borrowed his father's Hasselblad 500C and light meter in 2007. He honed his writing skills at retailer B&H Photo, where he wrote thousands upon thousands of product descriptions, blog posts, and reviews. Since then he's shot with hundreds of camera models, ranging from pocket point-and-shoots to medium format… More »
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