Instant cameras making a comeback might sound like a strange idea, but few analogue technologies have been mourned louder than the death of photographic film. Forget the ease and convenience of digital; analogue junkies love the warm tones of film and feel the random imperfections of a film print make each image, unique and beautiful in its own right.
So strong is this feeling that analogue has made a significant comeback. The shelves aren’t groaning with 35mm film stock just yet, but fans of instant photography – popularised by Polaroid in the seventies – now have an embarrassment of riches. Instant cameras, which produce chemical prints directly, with no processing, uploading or development, are huge fun, a little unpredictable and, for photographers of the digital age, a great experience. Although, with the cost of a single print ranging from around 70p to nearly £2, images will need to be thought about quite carefully.
There are some really good, really novel instant cameras out there, and here are the best you can currently buy.
How to choose the best instant camera for you
How do instant cameras work, anyway?
Great question. When you press the shutter on an instant camera, a single frame of film is exposed. The difference between this frame of film and a frame of 35mm film is that the film in an instant camera has all the chemicals needed to develop and fix the image built-in. Some cameras produce a finished image straight from the rollers; others, such as the Polaroid models, produce a print that’s initially black but that develops over 15 minutes. To answer the inevitable question, you do not need to shake a Polaroid picture to help it develop. In fact, shaking a Polaroid picture can damage the image, as the shaking causes the film to separate.
What other features should I look for?
Today’s instant cameras range from cheap-and-cheerful chemical-only models to digital hybrid models that allow you to reprint images on demand from their built-in memory.
The key things to look for are the lens and the range of shutter speeds supported. Not all instant cameras have variable shutter speeds, which means that when the light drops you’ll need the flash to fire to get a decent image. If you’re feeling creative and want to do things such as light-painting you’ll want a camera that has a wide range of shutter speeds or, better yet, a bulb mode, where the frame of film is exposed for a chosen period.
Some cameras have other creative options, such as a double-exposure mode. This analogue throwback means exposing a frame of film, but then exposing it again before printing it, allowing you to create bizarre, abstract compositions.
You should also pay attention to battery life. Cameras with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have the advantage of being rechargeable from the mains – often without needing to remove the battery – but might take a long time to recharge. Cameras that allow you to use AA batteries are a little more expensive to use (unless you bring rechargeable and a charger with you), but you can nearly always get hold of more AA batteries, which is a real advantage if you suddenly run dry.
What kind of film do I need?
Now there’s a good question. There are a few common formats of instant print, with Fuji’s Instax mini perhaps the most common. This film has total dimensions of 86 x 54mm and an actual image size of 62 x 46mm. It’s cheap and widely available – at the time of writing the 50-pack represented the best value at £34.95, or about 70p per frame. Instax mini film also has the advantage of being available in different styles; arty types can opt for black-bordered film, while the kid-friendly Candy Pop borders add a bit of pizazz. Expect to pay around £8.99 for a pack with one of Instax’s novelty finishes, which works out to about 90p per shot.
More recently, Instax also introduced its square format film. Here, the total dimensions are 86 x 72mm, with an actual image size of 62 x 62mm. This format has proven to be hugely popular and gives that classic instant photography look thanks to its square shape. Here the best value is at £39.99 for a 50-pack – that’s about 80p per print.
Other types of film are available, most notably Polaroid’s i-Type film. Compared to Instax mini these prints are huge, with more than twice the total area and an image size of 79 x 77mm. This makes a Polaroid picture a far more substantial product than an Instax shot. That’s reflected in the price, though, with i-Type film coming in packs of eight shots for around £14.99, or a substantial £1.87 per print.
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The best instant cameras you can buy
1. Fujifilm Instax Mini 9: The best for instant newbies
Price: £60 | Buy now from Amazon
Cheap, cheerful and ever so fun: that’s the Fuji Instax Mini 9 in a nutshell. Forget bells and whistles; this camera is great at churning out images fast without requiring much in the way of photographic nous. The lens is a fixed 60mm f/12.7 and the shutter is fixed at 1/60sec – easy enough to handhold, though not fast enough for fast-moving action. The lens and shutter speed combo mean you’ll often struggle to get enough light into the camera, so to that end the flash fires every time you take a picture, whatever the light is like. Indoors this is handy; if you’re shooting landscapes it’s a waste of battery life.
Images emerge in about a minute and a half, and the Mini 9 takes Instax film, which is economical and comes in plenty of flavours to keep your images jazzed up. Be wary if you’re photographically ambitious; the Mini 9 doesn’t have much room for creativity, and with no double-exposure mode, no bulb mode and that permanent flash your images could end up looking samey. As an instant camera for those just setting out, however, it’s hard to beat on value for money.
Key specs – Power source: 2x AA batteries providing up to 100 shots; Lens: 60mm, f/12.7; Shutter modes: 1/60sec fixed; Flash: Always-on; Print development time: 1m 30s; Dimensions: 116 x 68 x 118mm; Weight: 307g
2. Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic: Best for manual junkies
Price: £119 | Buy now from Amazon
If you’re looking for an Instax but hunger for more manual control, the Neo Classic is the one for you. With exposure compensation, shutter speeds ranging from 1/8sec to 1/400sec, along with a bulb mode, the Neo Classic offers the most control of any camera in the Instax range.
The user-selectable modes allow you to preset the focus for macro, standard, or landscape shots, with viewfinder parallax correction while shooting macro. You can also force the camera to select the fast 1/400 shutter speed in “kid mode” should you want to capture some faster-moving action. The flash can be manually turned on and off, or set to “party mode” where it’s paired with a longer shutter speed to get more background detail in low light shots.
The Neo Classic has substantially more bells and whistles than more basic instant cameras, giving adventurous photographers far more creative freedom.
Key specs – Power source: Rechargeable battery providing up to 100 prints; Lens: 60mm, f/12.7; Shutter modes: Auto, 1/8sec – 1/400sec, bulb, self-timer, double-exposure mode; flash; Print development time: 1m 30s; Dimensions: 113 x 92 x 58mm; Weight: 298g
3. Fujifilm Instax Square SQ20: Best for digital/analogue crossovers
Price: £169 | Buy now from Amazon
After the success of the Instax SQ10, Fujifilm has issued a slight upgrade in the form of the SQ20. The only digital hybrid instant camera in this group, you can use the rear screen to take digital shots which are printed out at your whim. It’s a great way to ensure that you’ve got the shot you need before wasting pricey film.
The digital images don’t stand up to close scrutiny, but are perfectly adequate for the small print size here. Other fun features include the ability to record short clips of video from which you can extract a frame to print – ideal for moving subjects such as pets or children.
There are also some creative options, such as long exposure and filters to choose from. Overall, it’s a great option for those who are feeling a little nervous about making the transition to traditional analogue photography.
Key specs – Power source: Rechargeable Li-ion battery, 100 print life; Lens: 33.4mm (equivalent), f/2.4; Shutter modes: Standard, double exposure, bulb, split, collage, time shift collage; Print development time: 90 seconds; Dimensions: 119 x 50 x 127mm; Weight: 440g (inc. film pack and memory card)
4. Polaroid OneStep+: For the best of old and new
Price: £112 | Buy now from Amazon
The Polaroid OneStep+ pairs retro styling with modern usability. From the outside it wouldn’t look out of place alongside its vintage counterparts; inside, however, things are decidedly more 21st century.
On its own, the OneStep+ is pure old school Polaroid, load the film, point, and shoot. You can brighten or darken your images using the exposure compensation slider, and opt to turn the flash off when it’s not required. It also features a handy secondary portrait lens accessed via a switch on the top that reduces the minimum focus distance to just 30cm.
Where the OneStep+ stands out is with the inclusion of Bluetooth, along with a companion app. The app gives access to a remote shutter and self-timer, along with light painting and double exposure modes. For the more experienced photographer, there’s also a full manual mode that allows you to set the aperture, shutter speed, and flash power independently.
One thing to bear in mind, however, is the cost of the film. Even when buying multipacks you’ll be spending just shy of £2 a shot, but, if you’re craving those classic white-bordered prints, there really is no substitute.
Key specs – Power source: Rechargeable battery providing up to 120 prints; Lens: 89-103mm; Shutter modes: Auto, manual (with app); self-timer; flash; Print development time: 15m; Dimensions: 150 x 111 x 97mm; Weight: 493g
5. Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6: Best for combining looks and performance
Price: £105 | Buy now from Amazon
The first Instax-branded fully analogue camera to support the Instax square format, the SQ6 is fun and quirky, but delivers very pleasing images.
Available in a set of appealing colours, as well as a Taylor Swift edition for all the mega-fans, the SQ6 is fully automatic leaving you to concentrate on just pointing and shooting. If selfies are your thing, you can use the small mirror on the front of the camera to help ensure you’re always in the shot, while there are other fun options like double exposure and different coloured flash filters.
As stylish as it is easy to use, it’s the ideal model for those who want the larger and more impactful square format Instax film, want it to be fully analogue, but don’t necessarily want the complication of more advanced models.
Key specs – Power source: Two CR2 Lithium batteries, 300 shot life; Lens: 65.mm, f/12.6; Shutter modes: Standard, Double Exposure, Landscape, Macro, Selfie; Print development time: 90 seconds; Dimensions: 118.7 x 128.1 x 58.1mm; Weight: 393g (Without battery or film pack)
6. Lomo’Instant Automat Bora Bora: Best for accessories
Price: £125 | Buy now from Amazon
Lomography, with its low-fi, imperfect aesthetic, is seen by many as responsible for the enthusiasm for modern instant cameras, so it’s good to see the company capitalising on the trend. Its range of instant cameras is huge, but the Automat Bora Bora, finished in classy white, is a particularly pleasing option.
It shoots Fuji’s Instax film, which makes it pretty economical, and for £125 you get a camera that’s easy to use while allowing enough headroom for more creative types to make images that go beyond simple retro-style portraits. For example, there aren’t many instant cameras that have interchangeable lenses, but the Automat allows you to buy its accessory kit (£49). This comes with screw-on lenses covering fisheye, wide-angle and close-up photography, as well as the fun Splitzer, which rotates to cover different areas of the frame while you shoot multiple exposures. Speaking of which, the Automat allows you to shoot not just double exposures but true multiple exposures, exposing the same frame of film again and again.
The Automat’s fixed 60mm lens is like that of the Fuji Instax Mini Neo Classic and Mini 9, but has a bigger aperture of f/8, allowing faster shutter speeds in low-light conditions. Shutter speeds range from eight seconds to 1/250sec, while the bulb mode allows you to make things up as you go. Unusually the Automat is powered by a pair of CR2 batteries – these are affordable but not as common as AAs, so it makes sense to stock up before leaving for the wilderness.
Key specs – Power source: 2x CR2 batteries; Lens: 60mm, f/8; Shutter modes: Auto, 8s – 1/250sec, bulb; flash; Print development time: 1m 30s; Dimensions: 150 x 70 x 100mm