Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture
Instant film has made a big comeback in recent years. Even though Polaroid has been shuttered for years now, Fujifilm's Instax business is thriving, offering (relatively) low-cost analog capture, and the Impossible Project has worked to keep old Polaroid cameras loaded with film, albeit at a premium price.
There are lots of reasons to reach for an instant camera. The ability to hand off a photo to someone right after you've snapped it can't be matched with digital capture. Instant film is a big hit at weddings and parties because of this, and it can be a great way to capture moments for posterity in a way that is very different than just another smartphone image. And you can't discount the artistic crowd, drawn to the allure of making their work stand out in a crowded landscape.
Instant Film Formats
Getting your head around the varying instant film formats is important in making a buying decision. Let's start with the most popular, and oddly enough the smallest in size, Instax Mini. Developed by Fujifilm, Instax Mini film is about the size of a credit card when you take its border into account, and has an image area that is 2.4 by 1.8 inches (HW) in size.
Mini film is available in color or monochrome, and is compatible with a slew of cameras from Fujifilm, Leica, Lomography, and Mint. Our favorite entry-level model, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 9, sells regularly for about $65. If you're a more serious shutterbug, consider the Lomo'Instant Automat, which has a wider angle lens (for selfies) and supports multiple exposure images.
Color Instax Mini film is pretty affordable. If you buy in packs of ten you'll pay a bit of a premium, about $0.90 per shot for color and a dollar a shot for black and white. Fuji doesn't offer monochrome film in bulk, but you can buy color film in quantity and cut the cost to about $0.60 an image by moving up to a four-pack (40 images).
Mini film typically has a plain white border. Fuji offers a wide array of more stylized borders, including matte black, multicolored, and a sundry of prints. You'll pay more for a fancy border, up to $1.50 an image.
If you prefer a bigger image, you can opt for the Instax Wide format, currently only available in color. The image size is about double that of Mini—basically two mini shots side-by-side at 2.4 by 3.9 inches. But it's not double the cost of Mini—it costs about $1.20 a shot if you buy a single pack, but you can cut that to $0.75 if you buy a two-pack, and bulk shooters can get a 10-pack (100 shots) for $70.
For some photographers, instant film is Polaroid film, which means a square format is must. Fujifilm has launched its Instax Square format this year, at a film cost of about $1.59 an image. The only camera to support it, the SQ10, is a hybrid model that captures images digitally and prints them on demand, so the high cost of the film is somewhat ameliorated.
But what if you've got an honest-to-goodness Polaroid camera? Impossible Project makes film for SX70 and 600 cameras. It's expensive—a three-pack of color film, with each pack holding eight shots, sells for $67, about $2.80 per shot, and the price climbs closer to $3 an image if you buy it by the pack.
Black-and-white film is also available, but only in single packs, for the same price as color film. And there are many variations available, including duotone film in yellow, red, or orange tint, film with colored borders, and even round-frame film. All packs for 600 and SX70 cameras feature built-in batteries, which provide power to the camera and flash.
Impossible also makes a new camera for use with its Polaroid format film. The I-1 didn't rate highly enough to earn a spot on our list, but is out there for devotees of the film format. You can save a few pennies on film for the I-1, as the camera has its own battery. A three-pack of color film (24 shots) sells for about $57—$2.37 an image—and a single pack of monochrome is $20—$2.50 an image.
Impossible's color film is not on the same quality level as Instax. The company has worked hard to reverse engineer the Polaroid process, but changes in availability of chemicals and some other factors have led to images that must be shielded from light as they develop, take up to 30 minutes to fully form, and don't have the same level of color saturation as you'd expect from modern instant film. The black-and-white film is a lot better, developing more quickly and showing strong contrast, but it does have a tendency to acquire a sepia tint over time.
Impossible also offers film for Polaroid Spectra cameras, and 8-by-10-inch instant film for large format cameras.
Converting Digital to Instant
If you have a favorite image that you shot with a digital camera and want to preserve it on instant film, you're in luck. You can print any photo stored on your smartphone onto Instax Mini film using the Instax Share SP-2 via a Wi-Fi connection.
Impossible's Instant Lab Universal works with any of its 600, SX70, or I-1 film packs, and uses your smartphone's screen to project an image onto film. It's more copy stand than printer, and is a lot of fun to use.
Despite it being a very digital age, you have a good number of instant cameras and film formats from which to choose. If you've got an itch to shoot film again, and don't want to have to find a local lab to develop your shots, instant film will scratch it, and deliver results that almost match digital in their immediacy.
Bottom Line: Whether you're looking for a new creative outlet or just want to share physical images with friends and family, Fujifilm's affordable Instax Mini 9 camera delivers.
Bottom Line: The Lomography Lomo'Instant Automat Glass instant camera has a sharp glass lens with an ultra-wide view that makes it a great choice for landscape and travel.
Bottom Line: Instant film lovers will fall for the Lomography Lomo'Instant Wide thanks to its manual control options, multiple exposure capability, and support for off-camera lighting.
Bottom Line: The Lomography Lomo'Instant is a fun instant camera with a wide-angle lens and support for multiple exposures.
Bottom Line: The Lomography Lomo'Instant Automat improves upon the original, adding automatic exposure control for easier snapshots.
Bottom Line: The Fujifilm Instax Mini 70 is a fun instant camera with a selfie mode, but fully automatic operation may disappoint shutterbugs.
Bottom Line: The Instax Square SQ10 is a new type of instant camera, blending digital capture with true analog film output, but images are difficult to share online.
Bottom Line: The Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 is a simple camera that takes photos using instant film, and can be a lot of fun to use.
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.