Even as the capabilities of sleek, thin, smartphone cameras expand, there's increasing nostalgia for a past era when the chunky Polaroid instant-film camera was the life of the party.
Unlike with digital cameras, you never know exactly what you're going to get with an instant camera until you see the finished picture. Because film costs money, you'll wind up counting your shots carefully and measuring each shot carefully. But hey, that's instant film — just like in the old days. Do not expect images to look like you shot them with a digital camera or your high-end phone. This is a different technology, with its charm derived from a vintage, imperfect, conceptual look.
We tested 11 cameras — from super-easy-to-use shooters with minimal controls to somewhat complex ones with more options — to get a handle on the best ones for you.
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Instant cameras are not exactly instant. You have to wait at least 90 seconds for the picture to "fill in" to view the finished result, but I often found it took several minutes for the completed image to fully bake, revealing richer color and sharper focus.
Know your film types. Most cameras use the ISO 800 Fujifilm Instax film cartridges, which come in several sizes and varieties, including the Mini (1.8 x 2.4 inches), Square (2.4 x 2.4 inches) and Wide (3.8 x 2.4 inches, more than twice the width of the Mini images). There's also various border colors and either color or monochrome processing.
Zink paper has caveats. A few of the cameras — the Polaroid Snap Touch, the Kodak Printomatic and the HP Sprocket — use Zink thermal paper instead of actual film. Zink uses heat to activate colors in the paper, whereas photo paper has chemicals that are light-activated. We found Zink prints tended to be less vibrant overall.
With its 38-millimeter wide-angle, multicoated f/4.5 glass lens, the Lomo'Instant Automat Glass gives you sharper images, better low-light performance and a wider field of view than its competitors. The cam comes with a little "Splitzer" gizmo that fits over the lens and divides the frame into different sectors, allowing you to split exposures among multiple shots. It also includes a lens for shooting extreme close-ups, up to a foot from your subject. The camera comes with tips on how to take better photos and a box of fiddly accessories to showcase your shots.
Auto mode lets the camera adjust aperture (f/4.5, f/22), shutter speed and flash output. The Automat has a remote built into its lens cap, so you can more easily take group shots or exposures up to 30 seconds. (It has a tripod mount, too.) Zone focusing helps measure the proper distance for the best shot, and we liked its optical viewfinder. The camera and remote use two different batteries, and you must purchase them separately. And if you want a neck strap, you'll have to buy that as well.
Photo type/size: Fujifilm Instax Mini (1.8 x 2.4 inches), sold separately
Size: 4.8 x 3.9 x 2.9 inches
Weight: 12.5 ounces
Battery: 2 CR2 batteries (3V); 1 CR 2025 (3V) for remote, sold separately
When you say “wow” after seeing the output from a camera, that sentiment automatically propels it to the top of the heap. At whatever distance I tried, pictures from the Lomo L'instant Glass Magellan were incredibly sharp, focusing at the proper distance, so it really delivered a unique output.
Its size made it convenient to carry around, and even though it uses the popular Instax Mini film, the Lomo'Instant Automat Glass shoots at a wide angle for street shots, landscapes, group portraits and other formats to deliver wider vistas within the small format. It performs well in low-light settings and did not even require a lighten mode to take some night shots in the yellow streetlamp of a park. The only issue I had was with the close-up lens, which was a bit stubborn when I tried to remove it.
Credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide
The Polaroid Snap Touch is actually a digital camera that uses Zink thermal photo paper to produce color glossy prints. The camera is small enough to fit into a pocket and comes in an assortment of bright colors. Smartphone users will be immediately comfortable with the Snap Touch's 3.5-inch LCD touch screen. It features three color modes — black and white, color, and vintage sepia — on sticky back paper, so every print can be converted into a sticker. It also records 1080p and 720p video, which you can store on a microSD card.
The Snap Touch features a 10x optical zoom and comes with a tripod mount. The camera can pair with your smartphone via Bluetooth and has an app (iOS and Android) that offers additional photographic options, like text, borders, emojis and stickers. Unlike other instant cameras, which will automatically pump out a print even if it's snapped by accident, the Snap Touch lets you preview, choose, print or discard any shot so you waste less precious paper.
Photo type/size: Zink (2 x 3 inches), 10 sheets included
Size: 5 x 4 x 1 inches
Weight: 7 ounces
Battery: Built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery
Using the Snap Touch's giant LCD screen, I was able to frame images better than I could with the small viewfinders on most other instant cameras. Images shot outdoors during the day displayed true colors and decent skin tones with plenty of detail, though some indoor shots came out a bit dark and muddy, despite the flash. Generally, close-ups looked better than long-distance shots.
The ability to dress up images with emojis and stickers and improve them with filters or digitally enlarge them is a bonus. You can also use the app to print images shot from your smartphone when connected to the camera via Bluetooth. Since the Zink paper is not film, if the paper jams, you can easily open the back of the camera to tap the paper into place and resume printing without causing any damage to the picture.
Credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide
The Lomo'Instant Square features a 95-mm (45-mm equivalent) glass lens that encourages creativity. Its old-school bellows design will be unfamiliar to most, but it folds flat to about one-third of its operational size, making it more convenient to tote.
A variety of manual controls include the ability to take multiple exposures and a long exposure mode that keeps the shutter open for up to 30 seconds. The camera has a self-timer, as well as a remote control that detaches from the camera (and requires its own battery). A tripod mount makes it easier to keep the camera steady during night shots and long exposures.
Also included are four gel filters to give different color casts to your images, cards that show what images will look like at various settings, and clips, stands, glue dots and magnet stickers to display your photos.
Photo type/size: Fujifilm Instax Square (2.4 x 2.4 inches), sold separately
Size: 6 x 4.8 x 1.7 inches
Weight: 1.1 pounds
Battery: 2 CR2 batteries (3V); 1 CR 1632 (3V) for remote, sold separately
Portraits have an evocative quality — clear, with soft flesh tones — while landscapes shot from afar provided pinpoint detail and pleasing colors, similar those from the Lomo'Instant Automat Glass. Night shots, with and without flash, and augmented with available streetlights, can make a storyteller out of any casual shooter.
The shutter — a square tab on the front — is extremely sensitive, so you have to watch how you hold the camera so as not to fire a shot accidentally. The shots from the glass lens are refreshingly sharp and clear, though focusing through the lens takes some getting used to. The camera has a bit of a parallax effect, so that what you see through the lens is an approximation of what you will actually capture. Photographers with an open mind and an experimental attitude will be more gratified with the images than those who crave control.
Credit: Jackie Dove/Tom's Guide