Tech, as with all things, eventually comes full circle. And so here we are, in 2017, talking about the best instant cameras - tech that reached its peak popularity in the 1970s before dropping off sharply.
Still, instant cameras are back for the Instagram generation, with a few different manufacturers offering their take on the format - you can even buy a modern Polaroid.
It’s a confusing process picking a camera at first, with a mess of different manufacturers, cameras, formats, and films to pick from. We’ve done our best to break it down for you.
Instant camera buying advice
There are a few factors to consider when you’re trying to buy an instant camera. First up you need to think about how complex you want the camera to be. Some, such as the Polaroid OneStep 2, are simple point-and-shoot devices that don’t give you much control beyond turning the flash off or setting a timer.
Others get more intricate though, adding in functionality like long exposures, multiple exposures, different focus levels, customisable brightness, and more.
Lomography instant cameras even come with a standard lens thread, letting you attach a range of different lenses for even more flexibility.
All of these advanced features are nice to have, but you have to think about whether you’re the sort of photographer who’s really likely to use them. If you want to play around with multiple exposures or shoot photos in varied conditions then they might be worth it, but if you just want to take photos of your mates at parties, a simpler point-and-shoot will probably be plenty.
Remember that if you don't want to get your head round a whole new camera, you don't have to - you might be better off buying an instant printer, which lets you print photos directly from your smartphone instead.
The next consideration is whether you want a full film camera or a digital hybrid like the Instax SQ10.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both. Digital hybrids let you export photos to other devices, and mean you can get the perfect photo before you hit print - saving you from wasting expensive film. They also often have digital effects and filters built-in.
The downside to that flexibility is that you lose some of the immediacy of a pure film camera. Part of the charm of using film is that you only get one chance - it saves you from fussy posing for the perfect shot. If you’re not going to commit to the old-fashioned appeal, why are you looking at instant cameras at all?
Plus, the quality you can expect from the digital photos you export is pretty low - nothing compared to what you could expect from the camera on a budget smartphone, let alone any of the best phone cameras around.
The final major concern is film formats. The market is dominated by Fujifilm’s Instax brand, which currently produces three sizes of film: Mini (small and portrait), Wide (large and landscape), and Square (mid-sized and, well, square).
Each camera can only take one type of film, so make sure you know which size you prefer before you pick your camera. You should consider price too - the larger prints tend to cost more, so your choice will affect the long-term running cost of your camera too.
Some cameras from other manufacturers - such as Lomography and Leica - use Instax film. Leica also manufactures its own film, but Leica cameras can use Instax prints and vice versa.
The Polaroid OneStep 2 uses its own i-Type, which sticks close to the classic Polaroid prints - about the same size as Instax Wide, but square rather than rectangular.
Polaroid OneStep 2
It’s hard to have a conversation about instant cameras without Polaroid coming up - it’s the brand that popularised the format. To this day plenty of people still identify Polaroid with instant cameras, and so it’s no surprise that the brand is being used to capitalise on their revival.
The OneStep 2 is actually manufactured by Polaroid Originals, a company that up until recently was known as The Impossible Project, and began life by manufacturing film for vintage Polaroids - and eventually its own cameras - after the original company ceased production.
In 2017 Impossible's largest shareholder bought Polaroid’s brand and intellectual property though, and the OneStep 2 followed shortly after, bearing the Polaroid logo.
Even by the standards of instant cameras this one is driven by nostalgia. The blocky plastic design screams ‘retro’, though some of the chunky controls cross the line into ‘toy-like’ instead. It’s also massive, and at 460g without film you’ll always want a bag to carry this in.
The prints are big, which is the payoff for how large the camera itself is, allowing for a bit more visible detail than some of the alternatives. It’s also an instantly nostalgic size - these are Polaroid prints just as you remember them (or just as you’ve found them in your parents’ photo albums depending on your age).
In terms of feature this is dead simple: you can adjust the flash or set a timer, but that’s it. You just point and shoot and hope for the best.
Colours tend to be washed out and subdued - none of our photos really popped - but that’s arguably just another part of the nostalgia - these photos come with the sepia tones of age without any of the actual aging.
The film itself is expensive, at £14.99/$15.99 for eight prints when at full price - almost £2/$2 per print - though at £109.99/$99.99 the camera itself is in line with similar cameras in the Instax range.
The OneStep 2 might not take the absolute best instant photos out there, and the blocky design won’t please everyone. But if you want to make sure your polaroids really are Polaroids, this is the camera for you.
German camera company Leica is rightly legendary for its lenses, so it was a surprise to some when it ventured into instant cameras - not best known for pristine image quality. Though going by the Sofort, we’re glad they did.
Based on Fujifilm’s Instax Mini 90, the Sofort doesn’t offer any revolutionary new features, but is instead a refinement, pairing Fujifilm’s tech with Leica’s own lens.
One of those immediate refinements is in the camera’s physical design. The Mini 90 was already Instax’s most attractive camera, but the Sofort is another step up, with a straight-edged design that delicately toes the line between modern and retro. Available in white, mint, or orange, it’s colourful, sleek, and minimalist - it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love at first sight.
The 60mm f/12.7 lens accommodates two different focal distances, and there are preset modes for macro, people, parties, and sports/action shots. If you want to get fiddlier, you can adjust brightness, flash, and a timer, along with bulb and double exposure modes for more challenging shots. Oh, and there’s a small selfie mirror on the front to help you nail your self-portraits too.
The Sofort takes standard Instax Mini film, but Leica also sells its own prints. Unsurprisingly they cost a bit more, but there’s no appreciable difference in quality - we can’t tell apart similar photos taken across the two film types, so feel free to stick to Instax.
As for the photos themselves, they come out fantastic - the best we’ve seen across the instant cameras we’ve tested so far, especially at shorter distances. The macro mode turns out great close-ups, while even standard settings produce strong portraits. Skin tones can be slightly washed out, and there’s a bit of detail lost in long distance shots, but colours are bright, vibrant, and have the warmth of the best of film photography.
The only big question mark hanging over the Sofort is its similarities to the Instax Mini 90. The Sofort may boast a Leica lens and some slick style, but at £250/$300 it’s just about double the price of the Instax for an almost identical feature set.
Lomography Lomo'Instant Square
Lomography’s Lomo’Instant Square represents a couple of firsts for instant cameras. For one thing, it’s the first fully analogue camera to use Fujifilm’s Instax Square format film (after Fujifilm’s own digital hybrid SQ10), but it’s also the first instant camera so far to be compatible with two different formats of Instax film.
Admittedly, it won’t use both out of the box, but Lomography sells a swappable back plate for the camera that allows you to install a pack of the smaller Instax Mini film, making the Lomo’Instant Square the ideal option for anyone who’s hesitant about committing to a single format but doesn’t want to worry about buying (and carrying) multiple cameras.
The most striking thing about this camera though is nothing to do with its functionality: it’s undoubtedly the stunning design, which takes its cues from vintage bellows cameras with a folding design that’s both totally unique in the current instant camera market and fairly compact when it’s folded down.
There’s an incredibly satisfying heft and click to the mechanism, a reminder of the charm we’ve lost in our world of seamless screens and touch controls. Together with the leather effect finish, the result is a camera that positively revels in its archaic aesthetic. It knows it’s not modern and it never wants to be.
Our review sample is all black, but Lomography also sells it in white or a stunning two tone red-and-silver design dubbed Pigalle. The original Kickstarter campaign also featured two other colour schemes, so we expect Lomography to offer more colour options down the line.
Lomography has always pushed its instant cameras for the camera nerds among us (photophiles…?), with a feature set to match, and this is no exception. In addition to the standard shoot-and-print Auto Mode, you can control the flash, raise and lower exposure, take multiple exposures on a single film print, and do an extended exposure of up to 30 seconds.
You also get three set focal distances, a tripod screw for mounting the camera, a set of colour flash filters, and a 10-second timer. Even better, there’s a remote control for taking photos, well, remotely, though it requires its own battery. The camera itself requires two CR2 batteries, so this isn’t rechargeable, which is arguably the major downside.
Instax Square is probably our favourite instant film format around, offering a great compromise between the nostalgia of the square Polaroid prints and the portability of Instax Mini, so it’s fantastic to finally have a true analogue camera that supports it.
That’s made even better by the ability to switch to Mini prints. This involves swapping out the whole back of the camera, though the screwless design makes that easy. Still, you can’t make the swap while you’re in the middle of a film pack, so you can’t exactly dart back and forth between formats, but it’s still great to finally have a camera that gives users some choice of print.
The wealth of shooting options mean that the Lomo’Instant Square will best reward people who are accomplished photographers already, but Auto Mode is as simple as you could ask for, making this a friendly entry point for anyone hoping to expand into more complex shots in the future.
Instax Wide 300
As the name might give away, the Instax Wide 300 takes photos that are wider than other instant cameras. The prints are double the size of Instax Mini photos and have a landscape orientation that makes them ideal for landscape shops or group photos, if less so for portraits.
The camera itself obviously has to be large enough to accommodate the bigger prints, and Fujifilm has committed to a chunk aesthetic all round, with a large grip and an absolutely enormous lens.
It’s probably fair to say that the Instax Wide isn’t the most attractive instant camera around. In fact it’s almost certainly the ugliest, which is a bit of a problem for a product category that’s driven almost entirely by aesthetics.
Still, it doesn’t affect how the camera actually functions, and the Wide 300 is pretty solid. Controls are simple: two levels of autofocus for the 95mm lens, basic flash settings, and the option to reduce or increase exposure slightly to brighten or darken photos.
Given the wide prints it’s no surprise that the Wide 300 excels at longer ranges, picking up more detail in landscape and building photos than any of its rivals, but struggling to focus on close-ups or selfies - though the additional included close-up lens does improve things somewhat.
Portraits can turn out great though, as long as you get used to framing for landscape, with warm skin tones - though you have to take care with the flash, which can overpower some shots. The new orientation is also great for parties - it takes a lot less work to cram multiple people into the same shot now.
Instax Wide prints cost around £1.30/$1.30 per print in packs of ten, but prices drop if you buy in bulk and it’s easy enough to buy them for less than £1/$1 per print even from Amazon. They’re only available in colour though - not black-and-white.
The Instax SQ10 stands out from the rest of the Instax range for a couple of reasons. First up, there’s the print format: these are square, much like official Polaroids, though are about two-thirds the size.
More interesting though is the fact that the SQ10 is a digital/instant hybrid - it’s essentially a digital camera with an instant printer built into it, which opens up a host of new options.
You can set the camera to print photos automatically as you take them - just like any other instant camera - but you can also set it to a manual mode, which gives you the chance to take multiple shots and pick the perfect one to print. That’s made easier by the 3in TFT display on the back of the body, which also makes it easier to line up shots in advance.
Before you do so, you can digitally alter images, using a selection of different filters and brightness adjustments. You can even zoom into a photo to print a specific part of it, or include a selection of photos in one montage to print.
There are also a few options before you take the photo. Beyond the standard flash controls and timer, you can take long exposure photos with the bulb mode, or double exposures to blend two images together.
The photos themselves are impressive. The SQ10 holds up best for close-ups and portraits, where it offers an impressive level of detail and bright colours - though it lacks some of the warmth of its true film counterparts.
That sense of compromise is also apparent in the digital photos. For one, there’s the challenge in accessing them: the camera itself stores 50 photos, but can be expanded with a microSD card. You’ll need that to transfer photos to a computer or phone, but we wouldn’t bother - the resulting shots are low quality and uninspiring. They might look great on a tiny Instax print, but on a computer monitor it’s quickly apparent that the SQ10 can’t compete with your smartphone on digital shots.
It’s the ability to perfect your photos before you print that’s the real selling point here, especially for those that bristle at the cost of the film itself, which is still around £1/$1 per print. Still, there’s a loss of immediacy here too, and it’s hard not to feel that in letting you pick the perfect shot, the SQ10 misses out on the charm of instant cameras in the first place.
Lomography Automat Glass Magellan
Lomography offers a selection of different instant cameras to fit each of Instax’s print sizes, along with an almost overwhelming set of different colour and design options.
We’ve tested the Automat Glass Magellan, which comes in a pretty snazzy black and neon orange setup, but you can find the Automat model in a variety of other designs on Amazon.
It’s pretty clear that Lomography’s focus is on people who are pretty serious about photography, and while this has some great point-and-shoot options, to get the most out of it you’ll want to play around a bit more.
It comes with a 38mm wide-angle lens with an f/4.5 aperture, but thanks to the standard lens threading you’ll be able to attach other lenses - for example, the included close-up lens, designed for photos at a range of 10cm.
The Automat uses Instax Mini prints, and captures impressive detail in portrait and landscape shots, but struggles a bit more in close-ups. Low-light photos aren’t great either - even with brightness adjustments, typically the flash either washes the photo out or fails to light it properly.
There’s a selfie mirror on the front of the body, but unhelpfully it’s built into the shutter button - so the moment you try and take the photo you lose sight of yourself, somewhat defeating the purpose. It’s the wrong orientation for the camera too, which seems a daft oversight.
Where this Lomography camera excels is when you get into more complex shots. The bulb mode is one of the best around, allowing you to expose the film for up to 30 seconds, while this is also the only camera we’ve seen with multiple exposure (as opposed to double), letting you expose the film unlimited times before choosing to print.
Entry level users are unlikely to get the most out of the Automat, and might find it pretty overwhelming at first. But if you’re looking for an instant camera that gives you more complex features to play around with - and think you know how to make the most of them - the Automat offers an awful lot for the price.