Best Instant Camera of 2021
|Price||$100 List||$90 List|
|Pros||Vintage looking photos||Simple, inexpensive paper|
|Cons||Poor overall photo quality, few image modes, expensive film||Poor photo quality, very few image settings|
|Bottom Line||While nostalgic, this camera just can't compete with other offerings currently on the market||A good choice for kids, but definitely not a serious photography machine|
|Rating Categories||Originals OneStep 2 VF||Polaroid Snap|
|Image Quality (45%)|
|User Friendliness (25%)|
|Image Settings (20%)|
|Film Cost (10%)|
|Specs||Originals OneStep 2 VF||Polaroid Snap|
|Dimensions||5.9" x 4.3" x 3.7"||4.75" x 3" x 1.25"|
|Weight||460 g||218 g|
|Picture Size||3.1" x 3.1"||2" x 3"|
|Image Settings||2 exposure settings, self timer, flash on/off||normal, black/white, vintage sepia|
|Focus Distances||Fixed, 0.6 m - infinity||N/A|
|Focal Length||106 mm||N/A|
|Cost per photo||$2||$0.50|
Best Overall Instant Camera
Fujifilm Instax Wide 300
For larger photos like that vibe that retro style, look no further than the Fujifilm Instax Wide 300. During our testing, we consistently found it to produce the most quality results. It has an extra-wide format that more closely matches older cameras' photo size, producing keepsakes worth hanging on to. The body's size and aesthetics let people know that this is an instant camera, and it's an eye-catcher. It is simple to operate, with basic adjustments for the flash, light, and dark settings. It also includes two different modes for focus, allowing you to control your result more easily. It's pretty common with instant cameras for some shots to not turn out as expected and ultimately end up in the trash can. But in general, fewer shots ended up on the cutting room floor when we were using the Instax Wide 300.
The funky, exaggerated look of the Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 is something we like, but the size that comes with it can make it harder to handle. It's relatively lightweight, but you're still likely to notice it in your bag due to the amount of space it eats up. Because of this, it will probably not be the tool most people have on hand to grab a quick inspirational shot, but more likely to be brought along intentionally for a specific event. Unfortunately, some of the artsier options included on other cameras — like double exposures and colored filters — aren't offered on this camera. Still, we found ourselves using this one the most because we enjoyed the solid color composition and steady quality output of its photos.
Read review: Fujifilm Instax Wide 300
Best Mid-Size Film
Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6
Often in the world of instant cameras, you have one of two options: you can have a larger photo that comes with the caveat of an equally large camera, or you can have a smaller, more compact camera that outputs equally small prints. You may also have to choose between a technical camera that requires more knowledge from the operator but offers several image modes and creative opportunities or the reliable and classic point and shoot without any additional creative features. The Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6 is an excellent compromise for a variety of reasons. Without overcomplicating things, it includes just enough features to provide creative results. It also produces an in-between photo size, providing a bit more area to play with without increasing the size of the camera too much. Its styling hints at retro without going full out. If you're looking for a camera that can do a bit of everything without being too bulky or complicated, this is a great choice.
Taking a middle-of-the-road route means the Instax Square SQ6 might not check all your boxes if you're looking for something specific. For example, it will take double exposures and includes flash color filters, but it lacks a long exposure mode. The square prints also feel much smaller than the film that wide-format cameras use (though it does provide much more breathing room than the mini-prints). However, for many people, we think the Instax Square SQ6 will be a much more pleasant companion to bring along on adventures than a wide format camera and will yield a much more enjoyable product.
Read review: Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6
Best Bang for the Buck
Fujifilm Instax Mini 9
The Fujifilm Instax Mini 9 is one of the best options for instant photos on the cheap. It excels at taking pictures in low light, making it ideal for parties and other social gatherings. It is also small and rugged enough that we had no qualms just throwing it in our bags just in case the right moment presented itself. Finally, it's quite simple to operate, allowing friends to easily pass it around to get some quirky shots.
Our main gripe with this camera is its performance in bright light. Almost all of the outdoor photos we took on anything but very cloudy days ended up looking washed out and overexposed. The images are small (about the size of a credit card), which may be a disappointment if older Polaroid photos are your reference point. The camera also lacks the creative adaptability present in some of its more expensive competitors. However, if you can live with those drawbacks, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 9 is a great and fun camera that can produce nice keepsakes.
Read review: Fujifilm Instax Mini 9
Best for Creative Shots
Lomography Lomo'Instant Wide
Many people are drawn to instant cameras because the format and flexibility are fun and offer creative opportunities. If you fall into this camp, you will get the most out of the Lomography Lomo'Instant Wide. This camera provides far more adjustability than its competitors. It comes equipped with interchangeable wide and macro lenses, color flash filters, a lens splitter, and the ability to take multiple and long exposures. Those extra features are backed up with good photo quality and an extra-wide format that more closely resembles the size of original Polaroids.
Like most of the cameras we tested, the Lomo'Instant Wide tends to overexpose photos taken in bright sunlight. It is also one of the bulkier models on the market and costs a bit more due to its premium creative features. But if you don't mind the extra size and cost, this camera offers the most in-depth and engaging instant photo experience that we've found.
Read review: Lomography Lomo'Instant Wide
Why You Should Trust Us
For this review, we lean heavily on the expertise of our in-house photographer, Jenna Ammerman. Apart from her photo work at GearLab for the last three years, Jenna has spent well over a decade as a professional photographer. In that time, she has worked behind the lens, as a photo retoucher, and in an educational capacity, completing lifestyle, documentary, brand, and product photography projects both domestically and internationally. She even keeps a vintage Polaroid Cool Cam from the '80s in her bag for when the mood strikes. In the last three years, authors Steven Tata and Max Mutter have reviewed more than 100 photo and video products, including projectors, camera drones, security cameras, and dash cams, and have thus developed a keen sense for assessing image quality.
These test results represent more than 100 hours spent taking over 1000 photos in lighting conditions ranging from dimly lit bars to sun-soaked beaches. We also let our creativity run wild and took hundreds of photos using long exposures, flash filters, multiple exposures, and pretty much every other creative option offered by these cameras.
Related: How We Tested Instant Cameras
Analysis and Test Results
In a world where we increasingly rely on digital platforms to preserve cherished experiences, instant cameras offer refreshingly real, physical keepsakes of time spent with friends and family. To find the best analog machine for capturing memories, we focused most of our testing on overall image quality. We also carefully considered how easy each camera is to use, the different image settings and creative options offered, and how much the compatible film costs.
Related: Buying Advice for Instant Cameras
While instant camera prices occupy a relatively narrow range, there are certainly opportunities to maximize your dollar. If you're seeking the best price to performance ratio, our suggestion is the Fujifilm Instax Mini 9, a relatively inexpensive camera that offers most of the heavy hitters' performance at a fraction of the price. If you're after the best photo quality possible, we'd suggest moving to the middle-tier price of the Fujifilm Instax Wide 300. Even at its reasonable price point, this camera provided the most consistent, high-quality photos of all the tested models. If you have a background in photography and want to try a bit more experimentation, spending slightly more on the Lomography Lomo'Instant Wide will serve you well. It is the most reasonably priced model we've found for what you get, and it offers creative extras like flash filters, multiple exposures, and interchangeable lenses. For those seeking a compromise between all of these attributes, the Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6 presents a middle point, both in functionality and price.
We spent the majority of our testing time meticulously comparing photo quality. In doing so, we made sure to take photos that spanned the entire gamut of lighting conditions, from bright sunny days to the dimly lit parties and pubs. We then compared all of the resulting photos side-by-side, focusing on factors like clarity, color saturation, and exposure. We also paid attention to how consistently each camera produced usable photos versus a costly dud destined for the trash. The reality is that no camera was perfect, but some had more of a propensity to churn out toss-outs.
Earning the top score in this metric, the Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 provided the most consistent, high-quality photos in the broadest range of conditions. Its photos generally come out with vivid colors, good clarity, and proper exposure, all with that vintage analog patina that most people are seeking. It is also one of the few instant cameras we've found that can handle outdoor shooting on sunny days without washing out large areas of the image. Lovers of old Polaroid cameras will undoubtedly appreciate the wide film format, which more closely approximates those older models' size than many of its modern siblings.
Just behind the top scorer, the Lomography Lomo'Instant Wide provides similarly high-quality images and an extra-wide format. Its only shortcoming compared to the Instax Wide 300 is that it tends to wash out images when shooting in bright sunlight. However, it does offer a lot more creative modes that somewhat make up for this limitation.
Rounding out the top three in this metric, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic provides excellent clarity and color composition indoors. However, when used outside, the photos look noticeably washed out compared to the top two models. It can still produce good outdoor photos, but the results will be much better without shooting towards the open sky or when shooting in the shade. It also downgrades the image size to a smaller 2.4" x 1.8" (about the size of a credit card). This makes the film cheaper, but it may not be what some people are looking for in an instant photo keepsake.
Dropping just out of the high-quality tier and into the upper end of average, the Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6 again provides just what you want from an instant camera—sharp photos with that vintage aura when used indoors. However, shooting outdoors can be a bit more of an issue with this camera than the higher scorers, as it struggles with overexposing bright outdoor scenes.
Picking up the perfectly average score of 5 out of 10, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 9 excels at taking indoor photos, particularly when using flash. It also does a reasonable job outside as long as the sun isn't too bright and your subject is a darker color.
However, anything white lit by sunlight, including clouds, snow, and buildings, tends to become thoroughly washed out, with that overexposure often bleeding into darker areas of the image.
To earn a low score in our image quality testing, cameras had to display noticeable shortcomings in lighting conditions other than bright sunlight. The first such camera we came across is the Polaroid Originals OneStep 2 VF. We could get good-looking photos in ideal conditions (indoors without too much ambient light using a flash), but otherwise, the colors came out looking relatively flat and muted. It also tended to completely overexpose shots taken on bright sunny days, where they were often completely unusable.
Our least favorite camera when it comes to image quality is the Polaroid Snap. Instead of using film, it essentially functions as a mini, portable digital photo printer. This yields an odd graininess and vertical lines that look much more digital than analog. It also has a propensity to saturate red to the extreme, leading to some bizarre coloring if there is any red in your image.
Instant cameras shine in social situations. Thus, you'll want their operation to be simple enough that you could pass it around at a party and end up with some nice photos. If you're looking to get more creative with your camera and try out some advanced features like double exposures, the controls for selecting those modes need to be intuitive and straightforward. Every double exposure that goes awry because you didn't have the correct settings dialed in is wasted film and just a bit heartbreaking. To assess user-friendliness, we used every function on every camera, passed them all around to newbies to get their thoughts, and loaded dozens of film packs.
Of all the cameras we tested, we would consider the Fuji models (the Instax Mini 9, the Instax Wide 300, the Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic, and the Instax Square SQ6) foolproof enough for anyone to pick up and get a good photo with no instruction. All of these models offer basic point and shoot functionality. While they all also have some additional settings that can be fiddled with, they are clear enough that even a newcomer might pick them up the first go around, and even if they don't, it's unlikely the photo would be totally ruined.
Also offering an intuitive process is the Polaroid Snap. Its mostly digital design (essentially a digital camera with a small printer inside) allows for simple point-and-shoot functionality, so there is no need to fiddle around with settings beforehand. However, if you want to access some of its advanced features — like adjusting the border width or printing a grid of photos — you'll definitely need to read through the manual.
The Polaroid Originals OneStep 2 VF makes taking photos relatively easy, but you have to take extra care while developing. The Polaroid film must be completely covered during the developing process, either by putting the pictures face down on a flat surface or leaving them in the dark sleeve that pops out from the camera once they are taken. However, if you leave a photo in the sleeve, you can't take another picture for a couple of minutes while the photo develops. We often found ourselves out and about and wanting to take multiple shots in a row without any convenient flat surfaces to put developing photos, which is a bit of an annoyance.
The Lomography Lomo'Instant Wide is the only camera we tested that we might call somewhat challenging to use. This is because it offers additional accessories and more manual adjustments than the other models. The controls are reasonably straightforward, and they open up many more creative opportunities, but the camera takes some experimenting and certainly has a bigger learning curve than any others.
Many people choose to take photos with spartan instant cameras instead of intricate digital ones because, as the saying goes, "Creativity is the mastery of simplicity." Still, having more control over and options for your pared-down camera is going to let you flex that creativity muscle even more. For this metric, we evaluate how much each camera allows you to control and adjust the image it creates, and we considered any additional creative features like double exposure or colored flash filters.
Our hands-down recommendation for anyone looking to get creative with their photos is the Lomography Lomo'Instant Wide, which offers the most settings and image adjustments of any of the cameras we tested. These settings and features include long exposures, multiple exposures, a macro lens (which allows you to focus as close as 4" from your subject), an ultra-wide lens, color flash filters, the ability to slit one piece of film into multiple photos, and exposure compensation.
The Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic and the Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6 share a distant second place in this metric, offering a good variety of shooting modes. The SQ6 features auto, selfie, macro, landscape, double exposure, and light and dark modes. The Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic offers virtually the same features and a long exposure mode.
The Fujifilm Instax Mini 9 and Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 sit right in the middle of our image setting score sheet, offering different settings that allow you to adjust to specific lighting conditions but have very few creative modes. The Mini 9 takes a more instructive route with its lighting modes, offering Indoor/Night, Sunny/Slightly Cloudy, Sunny/Bright, and automatic settings. It also has a hi-key mode that makes colors look very saturated. The Instax Wide 300 takes a more manual approach, providing just dark and light settings. You can also force the flash to go off even if you're in a bright situation, but you can't manually turn it off.
Due to their relative lack of user input, the Polaroid cameras we tested were the worst scorers in this metric. The Originals OneStep 2 VF does allow for some minor control over the exposure, and the Snap allows for color, black and white, and sepia options. However, this is quite limited when compared to the creative control offered by most other models.
As we're all used to the nearly infinite nature of digital photographs, the cost of using actual film can add up much more quickly than expected. When calculating each camera's cost per picture, we assumed buying habits in line with someone planning to use their camera at least semi-regularly. Case in point, we assumed most people would buy a 60-pack of film at a lower per-unit cost as opposed to a higher-priced 10-pack. We also used color film as our main reference point, but you should keep in mind that black and white film (often referred to as monochrome) generally costs a bit more and frequently can't be bought in bulk.
Costing almost double the average, the Polaroid Originals OneStep 2 VF film is by far the least economical option in our selection. The Fujifilm Instax Mini 9, on the other hand, costs nearly half of the average, providing the best overall value we've found on the market.
Both the Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 and Lomography Lomo'Instant Wide's film costs come out to just above average. So while you are paying extra for better image quality and creative control, respectively, it's not too much of a premium.
An instant camera can add a whole new dimension to how you record your life and allow you to have some fun along the way. We've certainly enjoyed all the goofy poses these cameras can elicit and the nostalgic tokens they can create. We hope that this review has led you to a camera that will help you make some memories.
— Max Mutter, Steven Tata, and Jenna Ammerman