With a smartphone, showing a photo to hundreds of your followers is as easy as pressing the share button. But if you want to create something tangible and more exclusive to share with those close to you, an instant film camera can add a fun and welcome dose of analog charm to your digital world. The best instant film camera we’ve found is the $93 Fujifilm Instax Mini 50S.
What Is an Instant Camera?
Instant cameras use packs of film emulsion that include all the chemical developers and substrates needed to print a photographic image within minutes of pressing the shutter button. Each film pack includes the negative to capture the image and the positive paper needed to produce the finished print.
As the print emerges from the camera, the development process begins. Soon, a blank sheet turns into a color photograph.
As the print emerges from the camera, the development process begins. Soon, a blank sheet turns into a color photograph. Film packs come in bundles of 10 exposures and the cameras have countdown windows that let you know how many shots are left before you’ll need to swap in a new pack.
Referred to most commonly as a “Polaroid” (after the company that popularized the technology) the instant camera foreshadowed some of the convenience that digital cameras would later bring. With an instant camera you could see your photograph within minutes of taking a picture instead of having to take a roll of film to the lab and wait for it to be developed.
Although digital cameras have made the instant camera obsolete in almost every way, there is an undeniable charm and whimsy to pressing the shutter button and having a physical print emerge from the camera, watching an image develop right before your very eyes. Even for a photographer like myself who remembers spending hours in the darkroom, the whole process still feels like magic. No, you won’t get the brilliant colors and wide range of highlight and shadow tones that even an entry-level digital camera can offer, but each print is a one-of-a-kind memento that can be physically passed around and shared in a face-to-face, rather than virtual, environment.
Who Is This For?
The primary allure of instant cameras is that they’re fun to use. A great conversation starter, an instant camera is an easy way to coax even the most camera-shy subjects into posing for a portrait. And, you’re likely to draw a crowd of curious onlookers as you wait for the prints to develop. I have two kids who have been raised on digital cameras; for them, watching an instant print develop is far more exciting than scrolling through images on the LCD screen of a digital camera.
Great for parties, weddings or just evenings at your favorite bar, instant cameras are well suited to gatherings where you want to document your friends and surroundings in a casual and inclusive manner. The toy camera-like appearance of instant cameras puts people at ease more than a serious-looking camera would. Add to that the fact that you can’t share an image to Facebook at the touch of a button and people are only too happy to offer up great, uninhibited poses. And in this age of bits and bytes, which are easily duplicated, there’s nothing quite like taking someone’s picture and then moments later sharing the only version of it in the world with them as a gift.
Instant cameras are a decidedly retro proposition of course, with a limited set of features. You don’t have a zoom lens, the viewfinders are tiny and less than precise at close distances. And you don’t get an onscreen preview of how lighting and contrast will affect your photograph, so you never know exactly how the photo will turn out. But these shortcomings are usually part of the charm of shooting with an instant camera. If you’re not interested in a product with these limitations, a digital camerawould be a better choice for you.
How Did We Pick?
Instant cameras were niche items even in the film days, and the overwhelming dominance of digital cameras has meant that just a handful of instant camera models are still being produced. Because authoritative editorial reviews of instant cameras are scarce, we started our quest for the best by talking to a number of photographers who work with the instant format about their preferences.
Foster Huntington, a vanlife friend of ours and author/photographer of The Burning House: What Would You Take?, reflected a common sentiment, saying “Instax is the way to go. Fuji’s colors are great and predictable.” Although everyone associates the Polaroid brand with instant cameras, when it came to recommending a current model, the resounding call from our photography experts was for Fujifilm models. It wasn’t even close.
Fujifilm produces an Instax and Instax Mini line of film and cameras. The primary distinction between the two film/camera types lies in the size of the print each can produce. Fujifilm makes a “wide format” film designed exclusively for the Instax 210. The resulting image measures 4.25 x 3.4 inches, very close to the Polaroid prints of old. The rest of Fujifilm’s cameras use a smaller Instax Mini format that gives an image of roughly half the size at 2.4 x 1.8 inches.
Based on our expert recommendations, we chose three Fujifilm models to test in-house: the Instax 210, Instax Mini 50S and the brand new flagship Instax Mini 90. All three offer retractable, fixed focal length lenses, exposure control, a short-range flash and options for close-up focusing. The film cost can vary between 70¢ to 80¢ per exposure depending on the camera type.
We spent a couple of weeks using each camera to shoot both indoor and outdoor scenes, comparing image quality and usability while exploring the effectiveness of key camera features in real-world conditions.
The Instax Mini 50S combines best-in-class image quality with a small form factor that makes it easy to stow in a small bag or even carry in your hand for extended periods without discomfort. The film packs it uses are widely available online and inexpensive, costing less than $14 for 20 exposures. Loading the film, which is rated at ISO 800, is as easy as tearing open a foil wrapper and popping in a cartridge. While the camera’s metering does well in the most favorable lighting conditions, you can adjust exposure brightness by +/- ⅔ stop EV which can help prevent overly dark portraits or retain highlight detail.
A provided close-up adapter clips onto the lens housing and allows you to focus on subjects as near as 12 inches. The Mini 50S also has dual shutter buttons for easy picture-taking in both portrait and landscape orientation as well as a tripod socket. The Mini 50S is powered by two CR2 lithium batteries. While CR2 batteries pack greater power in a more compact form factor than standard AA batteries, the obvious downside is that CR2s are not as readily available. If your travels take you away from city centers and electronics shops, you’ll want to bring along your own spares. Fujifilm rates the batteries sufficient for 300 exposures and our real-world use of the camera was in line with this figure, though your results will vary depending on how often you use the camera’s flash.
In our field tests, we found prints from the Mini 50S to have rich contrast, nicely saturated colors and pleasing image detail.
In our field tests, we found prints from the Mini 50S to have rich contrast, nicely saturated colors and pleasing image detail. We actually found output from the Mini 50S to be virtually identical to the newer and higher-priced Mini 90, with both of the smaller format cameras well ahead of the wider format Instax 210. When shooting outdoor landscapes, colors on the Mini 50S prints appear richer and more vibrant than those of the 210, which look flatter and duller by comparison. With indoor flash portraits, the differences are somewhat less pronounced, but in side-by-side comparisons we always preferred the prints from the Mini 50S over those from the 210.
The Mini 50S is great for shooting portraits. The playful, toy-like design of the Mini 50S is a great icebreaker that can put your subjects at ease in a way that’s not always possible with a more intimidating-looking camera. Browsing the 78 user reviews from camera retailer B&H Photo (where the Mini 50S scores 4.5 out of 5 stars), it’s notable just how often the word “fun” pops up in users’ remarks.
I had similar experiences out in the field. Taking the Mini 50S to any social gathering meant an instant crowd of curious onlookers both as I shot pictures and watched them develop. The joy of seeing an analog print come to life in a tangible form is simply something that most people have not experienced in years or decades, if at all.
Prints from the Mini 50S, while small compared to old school Polaroid prints, are nonetheless large enough to see your subjects clearly and sharp enough to make out relatively fine details. When handing out the photos as gifts, the small size can actually be an advantage as the prints can be easily slipped into a pocket or small purse. And if you have an eye for scrapbooking, you can assemble several of these small prints on a single page to create a visual narrative.
There’s not much fault to find with the Mini 50S for the casual snapshooter who wants the best image quality possible in an instant camera. While the more expensive Mini 90 can offer additional exposure options and a more fashionable design, we think most casual shooters will get nearly as much out of the Mini 50S for exactly half the price.
For Wider Photos
For those of you do want a large, classic Polaroid-sized print, the only current model option right now is the Fujifilm Instax 210. Compared to the Instax Mini cameras, the 210 is almost comically big at 7 inches wide and 4.6 inches tall—that’s larger than a full frame DSLR (though its plastic frame is a much lighter 1.3 lbs.). You won’t be toting this around in a purse or coat pocket, but you are rewarded with a 4.25 x 3.4 inch print.
Jessica Zollman, a former member of the Instagram community team, says, “I went for the Wide for its larger images that capture more detail from the scene and resemble the size of an original Polaroid more closely. It just seemed like a no brainer to get the larger format. My Instax Wide has me falling in love with instant photography all over again. The images are reminiscent of the 600 Polaroid film days of yore, and its film is cheap and available in bulk and on Amazon Prime. If you carry around a bag often, or don’t mind just throwing a conversation-starter camera over your shoulder before you head out, the Wide is absolutely perfect.”
The Instax 210, like the Mini 50S offers exposure adjustment of +/- ⅔ EV, which comes in handy. You will give up a bit in print quality compared to the Mini 50S which, as we noted earlier, offers richer colors and more pleasing contrast. But a big selling point of the Instax 210 is undoubtedly its $63 price. You simply won’t find a less expensive current model entry into instant film photography that offers some form of exposure control.
The Step Up
Fujifilm recently announced the Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic, a higher-end alternative to our top pick, the Mini 50S. Aimed at dedicated photo buffs who appreciate a bit of style in their gear, the Mini 90’s retro flair and two-tone color scheme echo Fujifilm’s X-series line of high-end digital cameras. Gone is the bulbous shape of previous Instax models, replaced by a much more sophisticated flat-edged design.
The Mini 90 also offers greater control over the exposure process with double exposure and bulb-shooting modes as well as a built-in macro shooting capability that doesn’t require a clip-on adapter, giving you one less item to keep track of. The Mini 90 includes a third exposure compensation setting which gives an additional ⅓ stop of light that is not possible on the Mini 50S.
We also like that the Mini 90 uses a lithium-ion rechargeable battery…
We also like that the Mini 90 uses a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, the same model found in many of Fujifilm’s digital point and shoot cameras (both the battery and charger are included). Fujifilm estimates that a fully charged battery is good for roughly 100 exposures and in our use, we found that to be reasonably accurate, although results will vary depending on how often you use the flash. Having a rechargeable battery is not only more environmentally friendly; it can save you money in the long run over the CR2 batteries the 50S uses. The trade-off, of course, is that should you run out of juice you have to find an outlet.
With the Mini 90’s $200 price tag you are paying a $100 premium over the Mini 50S, which, as we noted, delivers identical image quality. Photo hobbyists like options, though, and in an informal sampling of students taking a digital photography class I teach at the International Center of Photography, the overwhelming majority felt the additional exposure controls, sleek styling and rechargeable batteries were worth the extra cost. The Mini 90 is in several ways an upgrade over the Mini 50S, and should the price differential come down over time to the $30-50 range we could easily see the Mini 90 unseating our top pick.
Outside of the Instax cameras we’ve already mentioned, the competition is really thin. The modern Polaroid Z2300 is terrible. It is a bad digital camera with a mediocre built-in printer. We used it for a few days and found it loud and heavy, not to mention expensive at $180. It does produce instant images much like the Instax, but instead of the whimsical grain and nostalgic effect you get with the film-based Instax, you get an undersaturated, low-contrast photo that looks like it was, well, taken by a bad camera and printed by a mediocre printer. Another photographer friend of ours bought a Z2300 on a whim to shoot at a party he was hosting. He returned it the next day, complaining that the images were awful.
Older Polaroids, like the beautiful SX-70, need to use old Polaroid or special film fromThe Impossible Project. The cameras are about $300 and up at The Impossible Project’s website, but there are lesser models that cost $150. The problem is that the film is unreliable.
Huntington says, “I’ve shot a bunch of the Impossible film and it’s very hard to use.”Cole Rise, a photographer who designed the Instagram app’s icon and some of its filters adds, “The Polaroid stuff is, well, Polaroid, but the Impossible film is pricey and not very trustworthy. I’ve been using both the Spectra and the SX-70, but the results have just been OK.”
Part of the problem with the Impossible Project film is that you have to shield it from the light after shooting and handle it carefully in order to expose it well. But even if you do all this, there can be problems with the longevity of your prints. Zollman says, “I have six packs of Polaroid 600 in my fridge and most of it is expired and very difficult to work with. I’ve dumped hundreds of dollars into Impossible Project, which took fantastic photos once I learned the tricks specific to my One Step/Spectra/SX-70, only to discover that my Polaroids are ruined six months later even with proper storage.”
Rise notes that the vintage Polaroid Land cameras, like the 200 model, can be a good option reissued because they can accept sheets of Fuji’s Instax film. But these cameras are still large, relatively expensive at $200 and the steps required to load Instax film into them are not for the faint of heart.
What to Look Forward to
Fujifilm is making a photo printer for smartphones that prints onto Instax film. It’s called the Instax Share SP-1 and it arrives in May for $200. It’s the same size roughly as the Mini 50S and prints in 256 colors. We’ll try it out and see how it compares with our instant camera pick.
Wrapping it up
The Mini 50S is a great choice for the vast majority of casual photographers looking to experience the joys of instant camera photography. The prints look great, the price is right and the camera offers some useful exposure control. If you’re dead set on shooting larger, Polaroid-sized prints, the $63 Fujifilm Instax 210, while not quite up to the image quality of our top pick, is a decidedly better option than anything you’ll find either new or refurbished. And if you want more creative exposure options, a rechargeable battery or built-in macro shooting capability, the Mini 90 Neo Classic is a nice step-up if you don’t mind paying more for those features.