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How to Find the Right Instant Camera

How to Find the Right Instant Camera
The Instax Mini LiPlay is easy to travel with and takes great photos.
Credit: Laura Casner
Thursday February 24, 2022

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 months 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.

instant camera - get the classic experience and some modern updates with the polaroid...
Get the classic experience and some modern updates with the Polaroid OneStep+.
Credit: Laura Casner

Step 1: What Are Instant Cameras Good For?

We've met a lot of people who like the idea of buying an instant camera but aren't sure if/how much they'd actually use one. And, with so many different types of cameras these days, it can be hard to determine the proper fit. To that end, we're going to lay out some of the situations where we think a top-notch instant camera really shines to help you decide if it's worth spending your hard-earned money on one.

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.

instant camera - the fujifilm instax mini 11 creates nice wallet-sized mementos and...
The Fujifilm Instax Mini 11 creates nice wallet-sized mementos and can be enjoyed by all ages.
Credit: Laura Casner

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.

instant camera - the emotional connection to a photo taken in the moment, during a...
The emotional connection to a photo taken in the moment, during a special event or on a trip, is often a bit more special than the thousands of digital files we all carry around with us every day.
Credit: Laura Casner

Getting Creative

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. Most instant cameras have fewer adjustments and settings than their digital counterparts, and working with less often forces you to think differently and develop new skills. Although many models have added some updated features and a few controls, even the digital hybrid instant cameras still push you to think more about your composition and lighting conditions, improving your overall photography skills.

instant camera - digital hybrids like the canon ivy cliq2+ offer a few settings but...
Digital hybrids like the Canon Ivy CLIQ2+ offer a few settings but also encourage the user to get creative.
Credit: Laura Casner

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 photo itself and do not include the white border that surrounds the photo). The digital hybrid models from Kodak and Canon produce wallet-sized photos that are about the same size as the Fuji Mini film, but these photos are digital prints, not film.

instant camera - the square film used by the fuji instax square sq6 is a nice middle...
The square film used by the Fuji Instax Square SQ6 is a nice middle ground between wide format and mini film.
Credit: Laura Casner

Most people feel that larger photos make for better keepsakes and generally look better when displayed. However, larger film necessitates a larger camera. Some of the cameras that use the larger format films can be quite heavy and clunky, to the extent that they are harder to travel with, and it can be tempting to leave them behind.

Smaller pictures certainly don't pop as much as the larger ones, but they do allow for the camera to be much smaller. Many digital instant cameras are small enough to fit in a pocket, and you won'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.

instant camera - the kodak smile instant print creates smaller photos that are...
The Kodak Smile Instant Print creates smaller photos that are convenient, but the quality also isn't quite as good.
Credit: Laura Casner

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.

instant camera - the fujifilm instax wide 300 is good for capturing textures and rich...
The Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 is good for capturing textures and rich colors, as well as stunning black and whites.
Credit: Laura Casner

Step 3: Fully Analog vs. Digital Hybrid

In recent years there has been a blending of the classic point-and-shoot instant cameras with the convenience and control of modern digital cameras. Many analog models now have settings to help the camera adjust to different lighting conditions and encourage creativity, while others have kept everything as basic as can be and stick with the classic experience that's known and loved.

On the flip side, the newer digital hybrids are more compact, and most offer a wide variety of features. While it can be nice to have the added benefits of digital storage, app compatibility, or a review screen, it also drastically changes the experience. Also, several digital hybrids use a printer that creates digital prints instead of film photos, which don't have the same timeless look and feel.

instant camera - the kodak printomatic may be cute and pocket-sized, but its digital...
The Kodak Printomatic may be cute and pocket-sized, but its digital prints aren't as nice as film photos.
Credit: Laura Casner

But, even though several options offer the best of both worlds, few actually do, and there is almost always a trade-off. Many of the fully analog machines that offer some controls take beautifully vibrant pics but are bulky and can be a bit awkward to shoot with. Most of the hybrid models are easier to carry but can be more difficult to use and aren't as consistent with their output. That's not to say that the perfect mix can't be achieved, as there are cameras of both types that have found a nice balance and check (nearly) every box.

Really, this comes down to the experience. Do you like having the ability to view, edit, and save your photos like with a digital camera, or do you enjoy the wabi-sabi attitude and one-and-done nature of classic instant cameras?

instant camera - the fujifilm instax mini liplay offers the best of digital and film...
The Fujifilm Instax Mini LiPlay offers the best of digital and film together in a sleek and compact design
Credit: Laura Casner

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 will have too much trouble figuring out the controls once they start shooting. A few models are more geared towards shutterbugs and force you to manually select most settings, making things a bit more complicated, but these cameras are definitely the exception, not the rule. The most difficult models that we tested were those with a compatible app, which takes more time to get set up and familiar with due to their integration with the user's phone.

instant camera - the instax mini 11 is super easy to use, just point and shoot - the...
The Instax Mini 11 is super easy to use, just point and shoot - the camera takes care of the rest.
Credit: Laura Casner

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 adjustments. Here, 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 many possibilities.

instant camera - the polaroid now is simple to operate but also includes an...
The Polaroid Now is simple to operate but also includes an adjustable flash and double exposure setting.
Credit: Laura Casner

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.

instant camera - long exposures and light painting are available on the polaroid...
Long exposures and light painting are available on the Polaroid OneStep+ via its compatible app.
Credit: Laura Casner

Finally, you might want something that offers some sort of colored filter for the flash. Again, this leads to more opportunities to experiment and can often yield great results when used in conjunction with a double exposure mode.

instant camera - the kodak smile instant print has the ability to add filters or a...
The Kodak Smile Instant Print has the ability to add filters or a border to prints
Credit: Laura Casner


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 instant cameras. If you're wondering how we decided which cameras we like best, you can check out our entire testing process.

instant camera - a collage of photos from some of test cameras - past and present -...
A collage of photos from some of test cameras - past and present - showing the variances in size and clarity.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

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