Thinking an instant camera might be a fun way to document your next night hanging out with friends? Enchanted by that retro-looking photo machine that popped up at a party and want to get one of your own? We've spent more than a month using the most compelling and popular instant cameras on the market, and have distilled all of the knowledge we gained into a step-by-step guide that will help steer you to the perfect camera for your needs.
Step 1: What Are Instant Cameras Good For?
We've run into a lot of people who really like the idea of buying an instant camera, but aren't totally sure if/how much they'd actually use one. To that end, we're going to lay out some of the situations where we think instant cameras really shine to help you decide if it's worth whipping out your credit card.
Giving Mementos to Friends
One of the most enjoyable aspects of using an instant camera is that it creates physical keepsakes that you can share with friends, right on the spot. With the current ubiquity of cell phone cameras, having a physical portrait of time spent with your favorite people (that won't get lost amongst the thousands of digital ones floating around your various devices) can be quite nice and, dare we say it, a bit heartwarming.
Documenting Trips and Events
Because instant cameras produce photos, well, instantly, they have an immediacy that printed digital photos just don't. For many people, there is something about a photo that was taken and developed on the spot that yields a more tangible connection to the moment it is documenting than a photo that was saved to a memory card, transferred to a computer (and likely edited), and then sent down miles of fiber optic cable before landing at a kiosk in CVS and finally becoming a real photograph.
For those that have made a hobby out of getting creative with their digital camera, there's nothing like a change in medium to push that creativity even further. Instant cameras inevitably have fewer adjustments and settings than their digital counterparts, and working with less often forces you to think differently and develop new skills. The inability to preview images, or to edit them in post-processing, also pushes you to think more about your composition and lighting conditions, again improving your overall photography skills.
Step 2: Photo Size vs. Camera Size
Instant film comes in a variety of different sizes. Fujifilm, the most prominent current manufacture of instant cameras, offers wide (3.9" x 2.4"), mini (1.8" x 2.4"), and square (2.4" x 2.4") sizes. Most of Polaroid's current cameras shoot a 3.1" square image (note: these dimensions are just for the photos itself and do not include the white border that surrounds the photo).
You can see how those sizes look next to one another in the photo below. Remember, the actual sizes of this photo will change depending on the size of the screen on which you're viewing it, so the size of the shapes won't match up to the actual size of the photos. However, you can still see how large each photo size is in comparison to the others.
Most people feel that larger photos make for better keepsakes, and generally look better when displayed on a cork board or in a similar fashion. However, larger film necessitates a larger camera. Some of the cameras that use the larger format films can feel quite large and clunky, to the extent that it can be tempting to leave them behind.
Smaller pictures certainly don't pop as much as the larger ones, but they allow for the camera to be much smaller. Many of the cameras that shoot the Instax Mini film are small enough that you probably wouldn't think twice about tossing one in your bag just in case. Also, the photos are conveniently credit card sized, meaning recipients of those little photographic jewels can easily store them in a wallet or purse, increasing the chances they'll make it home unbent and unscathed.
Some may find the Instax Square film to be the perfect, happy medium. It feels like you have a lot more area to play with than the mini film, but the cameras avoid the borderline ridiculously large bodies needed to fit the wide film.
Step 3: Do you Want to Take Lots of Outdoor Photos?
In general, instant cameras tend to struggle with bright sunlight. However, some are certainly better than others. If you'd really like to take outdoor photos, we'd suggest you take a look at all of the sample photos we've taken with our testing to cameras to figure out what would work for you. In our opinion, the Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 and the Lomography Lomo'Instant Wide offer the best outdoor shooting performance.
Luckily, most cameras provide at least reasonable results when used indoors (with some notable exceptions), so overall image quality only becomes a real concern outdoors. You can use our image quality scores as a guide, knowing that anything that scored at least 5 or above is going to take at least decent photos when used indoors.
Step 4: Consider User Friendliness
For the most part, instant cameras are fairly simple machines. While some are slightly quirkier than others, we doubt anyone is going to have too much trouble figuring everything out once they start shooting. There are a few models that are more geared towards shutterbugs that force you to manually select most settings, which makes things a bit more complicated, but models like this are certainly the exception and not the rule (if you'd like to avoid these models, they are generally the ones that scored below 5 in our user friendliness testing).
User friendliness is a bigger deal if you'd like a camera that you could just pass around at a party and end up with some good shots. In that case, you're going to want a camera without too many bells and whistles that could confuse people upon first glance, or at the very least one with a foolproof auto mode that allows the camera to make all of the necessary settings adjustments. Here again, you can use our user friendliness score as a guide. Generally, we feel that any camera that scored higher than a 7 could be handed to a newbie with little to no instruction, and still yield some good photos.
Step 5: Do You Want to Get Creative?
If you're looking to get creative with your instant film, you're going to want a camera that allows you to do some experimentation. At the very least you'll want a camera capable of taking a double exposure, or exposing the same piece of film twice. This lets you essentially layer two photos on top of one another, opening up lots of possibilities.
You might also want to look for a long exposure or bulb mode, which allows the shutter to remain open for multiple seconds. With this feature you can experiment with things like light painting.
Finally, you might also want something that offers some sort of colored filter for the flash. This again leads to more opportunities to experiment, and can often yield some great results when used in conjunction with a double exposure mode.
We hope this article has helped you decide if you want to get an instant camera, and if the answer to that question is yes, that it has helped you figure out what to look for. If you're looking to get a camera, you can read our comprehensive review of the market's best products here. If you're wondering how we decided which cameras we like best, you can check out our entire testing process here.