Aim, click, photo. We are used to taking photos this way with our phones and DSLRs, but… what’s this? A print emerging? Instant cameras give you that instant gratification of taking photos digitally, but the nostalgic feeling of holding a real, honest-to-goodness photo in your hand. The instant photography industry is growing quickly, and adding an instant camera is a fun way to shake up your photography. Plus, they are such neat souvenirs from your travels!
This article will cover a bit of background about instant cameras, current film choices, and my five recommendations for your first instant camera.
First things first-
Isn’t an instant camera just a Polaroid?
An instant camera (or the film it produces) is often called a Polaroid due to Polaroid’s grip on the industry for decades. Edwin Land co-founded the Polaroid company and manufactured the first instant film/camera combo in 1948. Polaroid patented everything they could and basically sued anyone that came close- they successfully sued Kodak in the 70’s and also picked a fight with Fuji in 2017.*
You know what they say, the one with the biggest lawyer wins infamy.
The tables turned when they went bankrupt in 2008- a result of the perfect storm of their patents expiring and digital cameras taking over.
*For more info on the fascinating history of Land and his Polaroid, check out the footnote at the end of this article.
Ok, so who makes instant cameras now?
Currently there are only two companies making both instant film and cameras- Fujifilm and Polaroid Originals (the new company that emerged from the ashes of Polaroid’s 2008 bankruptcy). The cameras themselves are quite different- Fuji makes cutesy cameras with bright colors that you would expect to come from Japan, whereas Polaroid focuses on nostalgic 80’s vibes. However, there are thousands of old Polaroid cameras still in existence- by the 1960’s over half of American families owned a Polaroid camera, and lots of these are fully functioning camera bodies that are still around. There are a few other brands that make instant cameras, including Lomography, Leica, and Mint.
What about the film?
I’m glad you asked. As far as style, Fuji’s instant film has authentic, bold colors that look relatively true to life. Polaroid’s instant film has that 70’s film look that made Instagram filters so popular (remember your photos in 2012? Like that).
It’s best to figure out what kind of film you want to shoot with, then figure out which camera you want to buy. There are three things to consider when choosing a film- size, cost, availability. Let’s run down the options:
Fuji Instax Mini
This is the cheapest and most widely available instant film around, but it’s also the smallest. You can buy Instax Mini film at Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Amazon, or any photography store. It comes in packs of ten and ranges from .58 per frame to $1.00 (depending on how many packs you buy). To get the best deal, I recommend get a pack of 60 online. This film also comes in black and white, and there are special edition border packs as well.
Fuji Instax Wide
This film is literally twice the size of the Instax Mini. It’s nice to have a bigger print, but that also means your camera is going to be significantly bigger. The film is more expensive than the mini, with each frame costing .73 to $1. It is more difficult to find in stores like Target or Wal-Mart, so I recommend stocking up online.
Fuji Instax Square
The square Fuji film looks a lot like the classic Polaroid film. You’ll pay extra for this nostalgic punch- the cheapest is .90 per frame in a pack of 100 and you’ll pay up to $1.25 per frame in a smaller pack. This film is also more difficult to find in stores and should be ordered online to ensure you have it when you want it.
This is the classic, square format instant film that everyone knows. Yes, it look cool, but if you’re considering using Polaroid film, you have to know a little bit about their story.
Basically when Polaroid went bankrupt in 2008, they took everything down with them. A small group of determined individuals bought one Polaroid manufacturing plant and called themselves The Impossible Project. They are trying to recreate Polaroid film, but it’s not what it once was. The colors can sometimes be weak, and you’ll often find streaks in your photos. Since they literally brought Polaroid film back from the dead, we’ll give them a little grace. The Impossible Project rebranded as Polaroid Originals in 2017.
Due to extensive research and development, film costs have gone down since they started. However, Polaroid film is still the most expensive film out there. It runs between $15.99 and $18.99 for a pack of 8 frames. Yes, only 8. The variance in price is a result of the three different types of Polaroid film – SX-70, 600, and i-Type (more on this later). It comes in color, black & white, and with speciality frames. This film is for the diehard, the rich, OR, like me, those who can ration it out for special circumstances. You can buy it at Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Amazon, or your favorite photography store. Note that this film is made in small batches, and it’s not always available every place that carries it. If you’re going on a trip or something special is coming up, make sure you have the foresight to get it at least two weeks in advance.
Although Polaroid film is the most expensive, it may be a good option for you if you already have an old camera laying around and won’t have to buy another one.
Note: There is another size of Polaroid film called Spectra, which is a bit wider. Those cameras are harder to find and are notoriously finicky, so I won’t mention them further in this article.
Ok, now that you’ve chosen a film you like, let’s talk cameras! These five are my top choices for getting into instant photography.
Fuji Instax Mini 9
The Instax Mini 9 is easily the best selling instant camera out there. It’s easy to use and comes in a variety of pastel colors with names like “flamingo pink” and “smokey white.” It uses the very accessible and relatively cheap Instax Mini film. Because of the availability and price of the film, this is the camera I recommend if you aren’t too picky and just want to play around with an instant camera. Settings are limited to “indoor, cloudy, sunny, very sunny.’ It also comes with a small close-up/selfie lens attachment. This camera is good for sunny daytime shots or well-lit indoor shots. Note that it is NOT good for night shots, evening shots, dark indoor shots (such as bars) or even extremely bright shots (the film is too sensitive for that- it has an ISO of 800).
Film Used: Instax Mini
Batteries: Two AA batteries. I shot exactly 15 packs of film (150 frames) before the two batteries that came with the camera died.
Flash: Yes, always on
Pro Tip: Check Facebook marketplace if you want this camera. They are abundant and you may be able to score a good deal with some film as well.
Note: There is an almost identical, less popular model called the Polaroid 300, which uses Polaroid PIF300 Instant Film. This film is indistinguishable from Fuji Instax Mini film- both films can be used interchangeably with both camera brands.
Fuji Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic
This camera uses the same film as the Instax Mini, but offers a lot more control. This model has settings for double exposure, macro photography, darken/lighten, timer, and you can turn off the flash (you can’t on the Mini 9). The best thing about these camera settings is that they can actually be combined to get your desired look. This is the only Instax camera that allows you to combine modes. This camera is priced at double the Instax Mini 9, so you’ll definitely want to consider if those features matter to you. Another perk of the camera is that it is smaller and has a cool retro look, which is fun to look at and makes a great prop in photos.
Film Used: Instax Mini
Price point: $120-$130
Batteries: One rechargeable lithium-ion battery
Flash: Yes, manually controlled
Fuji Instax Wide 300
The Instax Wide camera is, of course, wider and bigger than the mini cameras. It only comes in black and looks a little clunky, so it doesn’t really have the ‘cute’ factor that comes with the Mini 9 or 90. However, it does take beautiful, brilliant photos and has a ‘lighten’ and ‘darken’ button, which allows you a bit of exposure control. It allows you to choose the focusing distance- less than 3 meters or more than 3 meters from your subject. Otherwise, it is a fully automatic camera. It comes with a selfie/close-up attachment.
I have found that even though the only controls are ‘darken’ and ‘lighten’, this camera takes significantly more accurately exposed photos than the Instax Mini 9.
Film Used: Fuji Instax Wide
Batteries: Four AA batteries
Flash: Yes, Auto or On
Pro Tip: The best deal for buying this camera new can be found at B&H- $100 for both the camera and 20 sheets of film.
Any classic Polaroid camera
I’ve used four old cameras that I have come across and three of them have worked properly (the fourth works but the exposure is a bit off). One is from 1972, two are from 1981, and one is from 2001. If you want a vintage Polaroid camera, I would suggest asking around (it’s amazing what people will keep for decades) or check Facebook Marketplace. Since I’ve had such good results with older cameras, I would feel comfortable buying one online. On Facebook Marketplace I have seen them priced as low as $10 and as high as $400. Personally, I would pay between $10 and $40 for a Polaroid. You may also be able to find them at thrift stores, auctions, or Ebay. If you want a refurbished, guaranteed model, check out polaroidoriginals.com, brooklynfilmcamera.com or mint-camera.com, but keep in mind these will be significantly more expensive.
Within these classic cameras there are two different main categories- 600 series and SX-70 series. The 600 series cameras use 600 film. These are usually the clunky 80’s models that people associate with Polaroid. The SX-70 line began in 1972 and folds up into a flat camera. They are the original camera that used the square format film and they look, well, they look really cool! However these are A LOT more expensive- if you can find one that works for less than $100, that a steal right now. Refurbished models from brooklynfilmcamera.com start at $295. Remember the SX-70 cameras take SX-70 film, which has a different ISO than 600 film. Both the 600 film and SX-70 film have battery packs housed within the film pack. Because of this unique design, it will be impossible to know if a camera works unless you have a pack of film to test it out.
Note: It’s very important to get the correct film. SX-70 film has an ISO of 100, and 600 film has an ISO of 600. This means that 600 film is much more sensitive to light. When you open the film cavity of your camera, it should have a sticker specifying what type of film to use.
I was very lucky and found an SX-70 with the original leather case and manual at an auction for $2 in 2015. No one else wanted it- I couldn’t believe it! I used it as a decoration until 2019 when I FINALLY got some film and discovered it works like a charm!
Film used: 600 or SX-70 film
Batteries: housed within the film pack
Flash: Some no, some yes with manual controls
Polaroid i-Type camera
The last camera on the list is the Polaroid i-Type camera, which is a line of cameras developed in the late 2010’s by Polaroid Originals. These cameras have the classic look of Polaroids but are brand new. They boast new features, such as double exposure, portrait mode, and manual mode, which can all be controlled within their app. Because they have a rechargeable battery, they do not need a battery inside the film pack. They use battery-less i-Type film, which is $15.99 (instead of $18.99 for 600 and SX-70 film). You can find them at polaroidoriginals.com and a few other stores, such as Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Urban Outfitters.
Film used: Polaroid i-Type film
Flash: Yes, manually controlled
Even though instant cameras were once a dying breed, their resurgence in the 2010’s has created a niche with plenty of film and camera options. Armed with your new toy, you’ll be able to take one-of-a-kind photos that will make your travels that much more memorable!
*Edwin Land was a brilliant scientist and inventor. His original work was on a thin piece of polarizing film between two pieces of glass that resulted in the first polarized sunglasses (hence the name “Polaroid.”) His inspiration for the instant camera supposedly came from his young daughter who, after having her photo taken, asked, “But why can’t I see it now?” Instead of writing her off as a whiny 3-year-old, Land used her comment as fuel for his most infamous invention. Also, if you’ve ever seen a cool looking folding camera that says “Land Camera” under the lens, its an instant camera and the word “Land”, or course, stands for Edwin Land.
About the author
Rose Trafford is a travel photographer and writer with a passion for finding the positives in people and places. She has traveled to over 40 countries and gotten herself into all sorts of strange situations, such as locked in a Korean ATM and questioned in a Chinese police station. She frequently travels using points and miles, saving an average of $9,000 a year. She has appeared in Money Magazine and the Iowa State Fair Photography Salon (which is more legit than it sounds). When she’s not traveling she enjoys taking photos of anything and everything- lately with a 35mm or instant camera in her hand. You can find her at @thecompass.rose, www.thecompassrose.co or www.roseconstance.com.