In an age where smartphone cameras are fully capable of billboard-qualities results, and computers provide all of a film lab’s power. It would seem like there’s no room for such a relic as film photography. And in 2008, the photography world stood in awe at Polaroids’ second bankruptcy. And it seemed like the end of a tradition would follow. But, luckily, that wasn’t the end. And the demand continued. So strong that manufacturers took the stands to revive the tradition. And these days, Instant and Polaroid film cameras are in a formidable comeback and a renaissance of sorts.
Today’s instant cameras continue the much-loved tradition. And they’re quite similar to the initial polaroids of the late 1940s, where each print exposes and develops before your very eyes. And while smartphones and digital cameras are unquestionably powerful, there’s still something widely appealing about the physical photographs they produce.
Not to mention the immediacy and the nostalgia they bring to the table. And unlike the clunky Polaroids from the last century, today’s models are pocketable, fashionable, and quite capable. And they’re a great companion, especially for travelers looking to document their lives journeys and capture precious memories. So despite our heavily digital world, these cameras hold their value.
Table of Contents
So much so that today’s market now has plenty of exciting modern options to serve as hip replacements to their digital counterparts. And it looks like analog’s back in style and here to stay. But, with so many instant cameras available these days having subtle differences, it may prove challenging to find the best option for your needs. Not to mention, you’ll also want to consider the film type, autofocusing, and general usability.
With that, we’ve compiled a detailed guide explaining the different types of cameras, films, and features available. And we’ve also compiled a list of the best instant cameras on today’s market.
The Polaroid Now is their latest release following the brand’s revival. And it’s a well-rounded modern take on a classic design.
It uses i-Type and Polaroid 600 film. And new for this release is a dual-lens design, ranging from 94-102mm with a minimum shooting distance of 60cm. One lens is for standard distances, the other for close-ups, and the camera automatically switches depending on the subject’s distance. This camera also now supports autofocus, a headlining feature that significantly simplifies acquiring focus and getting sharp images. And this addition thoroughly eliminates any of the guesswork with fixed-focus cameras. Other bonuses include a self-timer, a rechargeable battery, exposure compensation, automatic flash, and double exposures.
Overall, the Polaroid Now streamlines the popular Onestep2 and adds helpful autofocusing abilities to create an even better camera. While it lacks the more advanced features of OneStep+, it delivers a grassroots Polaroid shooting experience that’s hard to beat. And it’s an excellent choice for enthusiasts looking for an iconic, albeit bulky, throwback with a straightforward feature set.
Impossible Project I-1
The Impossible I-1 is a revolution amongst the industry. Sure, it’s a strange-looking camera with an unorthodox design, but under the hood lies a powerful feature set.
It uses authentic Polaroid film manufactured by Impossible or traditional I-type and Polaroid 600 films. And it has a variable 82-109mm f/10 lens with a minimum focusing distance of 30 cm. However, the most striking element of the design is the advanced ring flash surrounding the lens.
This addition provides more uniform lighting than competitors and allows the I-1 to take flattering portraits. Plus, it’s substantially more powerful and offers a longer range. The lens also has a 5-zone autofocusing system, giving you more control over the camera’s focus. And you even get full manual control via the accompanying I-1 smartphone app. And connecting via Bluetooth unlocks the camera’s self-timer, remote trigger, and noise triggers, along with remote shooting, filters, and multiple exposures. Other bonuses include a bulb mode, light painting, photo scanning, and an included strap.
Overall, the I-1 brings authentic Polaroids into the 21st century, with a rare vintage-looking design. But it also simultaneously revived this potentially dying industry. And it makes an excellent choice for advanced photographers desiring high-end functionality and authentic Polaroid images.
Kodak’s Smile is one of the latest digital hybrid cameras to bridge the analog and digital gap with style. And it’s a straightforward option. But one that sways with a user-friendly design.
It uses Zink technology, which prints 2×3-inch adhesive-backed smudge-proof images, perfect for scrapbooking or hanging on walls. And the camera uses a fast 32mm equivalent f/2.8 lens with a slide-out protective casing to prevent accidental damages. It also has a rear LCD for image preview or printing. And you can use the display to edit photos and add filters, borders, and effects. Like most hybrids, it also stores images to a MicroSD card, ensuring you always have a digital backup when needed. Other bonuses include a rechargeable battery, the photo booth mode, a self-timer, and an automatic flash.
Overall, while the Smile isn’t the most powerful instant camera, it’s undoubtedly convenient. And it’s smart, compact design and discrete form factor make it an ideal option for on-the-go creators and first-timers or beginners looking to learn the basics.
Fujifilm Instax Square SQ20
The Fujifilm Instax Square SQ20 is their latest 1:1 square digital hybrid camera. And it’s ideal for those wanting to harness the popular square format.
It uses the Instax Square film and a 33mm equivalent lens with a fast f/2.4 aperture. As a digital hybrid, the SQ20 has a 2.7-inch rear screen that saves both photos and 15-second videos to a MicroSD card. However, it has the new screen grab feature, which allows you to select images from a burst. So you can print only the best moments. Fuji’s even added a 4x digital zoom, an unusual feature that gets you closer to subjects whenever needed. Other bonuses include a selfie mirror, time-shift collage, split images, automatic and double exposures, a rechargeable battery, and the bulb and sequence modes.
Overall, the Fujifilm SQ20 is a welcomed improvement over the original SQ10. And it offers appealing reshooting features that make it ideal for those nervous about committing to an image immediately. And its collage, frame grab, and sequencing features stand apart in this segment.
Polaroid Originals OneStep+
The Polaroid OneStep+ is the latest entry into the Originals lineup, borrowing a classic design from the initial OneStep of the 1970s. But, now with a modern twist.
It uses either Polaroid 600 or I-Type film. And it now has a dual-lens system, with both 89 and 103mm lenses. Switching between them modifies the camera’s focusing for either sharp portraits or landscape shots and drops the minimum focusing distance down to 30 cm. In quality, the OneStep+
gets dangerously close to nailing the acclaimed Polaroid look and delivers much-needed nostalgia in today’s age. But, despite its retro appeal, it’s equipped with modern luxuries and a downloadable iOS and Android app that dramatically expands its creative possibilities. Through the app, you can order more film, scan images to share online, light paint, and remotely trigger the shutter. Other bonuses include a tripod thread, a self-timer, a rechargeable battery, manual flash control, exposure compensation, double exposures, noise trigger, and full manual control.
Overall, the Polaroid OneStep+ pairs a timeless design with a modern twist. And it’s an excellent option for experienced photographers who want more control and app functionality light-years above rivals.
Polaroid Snap Touch
Polaroid’s Snap Touch melds traditional instant printing and digital photography into a single camera. And it’s quite a rare combination and a strong mid-point between technologies.
It prints 2×3-inch adhesive-backed photos with Zink technology. And the camera uses a 13MP sensor and a large 3.5-inch touchscreen to capture images in great detail. But, this also lets you preview and print only the best moments, saving precious paper. Connecting to Snap Touch Android or iOS app via Bluetooth also unlocks additional creative options. And now, you can make collages, apply stickers, filters, borders, print images, and even upload directly to social media.
Plus, you can freely take photos or HD videos without film and have a safe copy with its built-in internal storage. Other bonuses include a selfie mirror, a tripod thread, a self-timer, a rechargeable battery, photo booth mode, burst mode, a microphone, and a magnetic lens cap.
Overall, the Snap Touch offers a modern edge that rivals lack. Many shy away from digital storage. But, it presents a new twist on the traditional instant camera. And it’s an excellent choice for beginners wanting the best of both worlds and reassuring backups.
Leica’s Sofort is a high-end luxury option that takes instant cameras to the next level.
It uses either Instax Mini or their proprietary Instant film. And it follows a similar design blueprint as Fuji’s Instax Mini 90, with a matching 60mm f/12 lens and a 60 cm minimum shooting distance. However, it offers a 3-zone manual focusing selector around the lens ring, varying the focus from macro to landscapes. And it also has a wealth of shooting modes, from double exposures, action or macro, and the bulb mode. Other bonuses include a self-timer, a selfie mirror, a rechargeable battery, exposure compensation, manual flash, and a settings LCD.
Overall, while the Sofort demands a substantial leap in price, it offers unmatched quality in this segment. It’s arguably the best looking instant camera to date. And it’s a relatively affordable choice for experienced photographers wanting a prestigious camera with that iconic red badge and excellent manual control.
Lomography Lomo’Instant Automat
The Lomo’Instant Automat continues capitalizing on the trend of professional releases and now with an iconic design.
It uses Fujifilm’s Instax film and a 60mm lens with a fast aperture of f/8, improving low light performance. It’s also one few instant cameras that boast interchangeable lenses. And the optional screw-on attachments cover fisheye, wide-angle, and macro photography, providing superior versatility than both fixed or dual-lens systems. Other bonuses include a selfie mirror, a tripod thread, exposure compensation, manual focusing, bulb mode, multiple exposures, remote shutter release, and colored flash gels.
Overall, the Instant Automat is not only stylish, but it offers quite a robust feature set. And it’s an excellent option for enthusiasts or advanced photographers craving a comprehensive platform with all the accessories you’ll ever need.
Fujifilm Instax Mini 9
Fujifilm’s Mini 9 is quite the fan-favorite and a successful release, particularly for beginners and first-timers. And it’s known for its simplicity, affordable pricing, and bold colors.
It uses Instax film and a 60mm lens with a 35 cm macro attachment to reduce the minimum shooting distance. Where this camera shines is in ease of use. And it offers a hassle-free point & shoot experience that’s arguably the most intuitive of any recent instant camera. And always-on flash, simple controls, and automatic exposure greatly simplify capturing memories in tricky lighting. Other bonuses include a selfie mirror and an included strap.
Overall, while the Mini 9 doesn’t provide as wide of a feature set or technical ability as rivals, it excels in ease of use and bold design. And with its simple controls, it’s the ideal option for beginners looking for an affordable easy to use camera to learn the basics.
Fujifilm Instax Mini 90
The Instax Mini 90 offers the most control in the entire Instax range. And it’s arguably their best instant camera, but surely the most popular.
It uses Instax Mini film and a 60mm f/12 lens with a minimum working distance of 30cm, great for close-ups or macro shots. The lens also has three ranges of focus to fine-tune the focus from macro to landscape. This is also one of few Fujifilm cameras with a rechargeable battery, good for 100 prints. And even less so with a monochrome LCD strip to keep track of chosen settings and remaining film. Other bonuses include a selfie mirror, a self-timer, a tripod thread, manual flash, exposure compensation, two shutter releases, double exposure, and the bulb mode.
Overall, the Mini 90 combines a premium design, analog aesthetic, with a modern feature set. And it’s a substantial overhaul to the Mini 9, that’s perfect for advanced photographers hungry for more creative control.
How to choose an instant camera
The biggest consideration when choosing an instant camera is which type of camera works best for your workflow. Instant cameras come in one of three major designs: Instax, Digital Hybrid, or Zink cameras. Let’s cover each in detail now.
Instax cameras use the same emulsion and dye technique used in Polaroid cameras. And they slowly develop after you take a photo, usually taking about 90 seconds until they’re finished. Each film consists of a positive light-sensitive paper, which reacts differently to incoming light and a separate chemical packet for developing and sealing. When the camera exposes an image, the image projects onto the film, causing the paper’s reaction. It also triggers the spreading of the packet’s chemicals using rollers. The camera then ejects the film. And after a few moments, the chemical reaction settles, leaving you with a developed image.
Compared to Zink, Instax printers aren’t quite as sharp. However, they have more character and are unique. The main downside, sadly, is that there’s no way of knowing you’ve underexposed or misframed a shot until it’s finished developing. They also tend to be bulkier than their Zink counterparts since they have to make room for the paper. So, they’re usually not pocket-friendly. Most manufacturers also don’t include dedicated internal storage, so there’s no way to store a file digitally for later use or backup. Instead, you only get a single printed copy. For some, this is quite appealing, considering our massively digital world. But, it’s concerning when capturing a fleeting moment.
These are a subset of cameras that fall into the middle ground as hybrids. These cameras use Instax film but offer a more 21st-century feature set. And their main benefit is that they allow image preview. Previewing an image before committing to prints saves money and prevents wasting expensive film. But, you do lose some of the instant film charm with these.
Nevertheless, digital hybrid cameras are a great choice if you want the best of both worlds. They deliver physical Instax prints with the modern luxuries of online sharing, filters, reprinting, and digital backups. The only real downside is that they’re more expensive than more basic instant cameras. And many offer image quality that’s behind most mid-range smartphones.
Zink, “Zero Ink” cameras are, in some ways, slightly less satisfying than Instax cameras. But, they still have several benefits.
With Zink cameras, the print develops internally. And it does this by heating the paper, which contains micro-crystals that create various hues depending on the intensity and heat duration. And when these combine, you’re left with the final image. With that, you lose the opportunity of watching a blank canvas develop before your eyes. Instead, they emerge from the camera fully printed.
The downside of Zink technology is that images tend to be less vibrant, have more noise, and have a textureless quality that gives photos a digital look. That said, they’re cheaper than Instax cameras. And the prints are also adhesive-backed so that you can stick them to virtually any surface, great for scrapbooks or cards.
And they’re smudge-proof and water-resistant too. Zink cameras, by their nature, are also quite compact, thin, and pocketable. Plus, many even include internal storage or external MicroSD slots, so you can capture images without paper and have digital backups.
Instant Camera Film
Outside of the type of camera, the next most significant consideration is the kind of film it uses. Its film dictates both the size and shape of the photos. It also determines how much it cost per print and, really, the cameras you can pick.
When it comes to film today, we have two major brands, either Fujifilm Instax or Polaroid. Let’s cover the sizes and types now.
Instax film comes in three sizes:
- Instax Mini – small and portrait orientation. These are the most common and measure 62x46mm.
- Instax Square – mid-size and square. These are Fuji’s take on the popular Polaroid square format and measure 62x62mm.
- Instax Wide – large and landscape orientation. These are twice the size of the mini format and measure 99x62mm.
Polaroid film comes in one of these styles:
- I-Type or 600 film – both are large and square-shaped, similar to the Instax square but measuring 79x77mm. The I-Type film is designed for newer polaroid cameras that have batteries. In contrast, Polaroid 600 film is designed for vintage Polaroid cameras.
- Polaroid Originals Spectra Film – these are large and rectangular shaped, similar to the Instax wide but measuring 103×101 mm.
- Polaroid Zink – these are credit card-sized and measure 2×3″.
Each camera takes one film type, so make sure you know which size it is beforehand. And keep in mind, larger prints cost more, so they’ll have high long-term running costs.
Speaking of which, let’s cover how much these cameras are, and they’re overall operational cost.
How much is an instant camera?
The prices of instant cameras vary from $50-$250. However, this only accounts for the camera’s price, not the cost to print each photo.
Cost Per Print
The cost per print will vary based on the paper and printing technique used. Instax prints average 50c-$1.50 per print, depending on the brand of paper. In comparison, Zink averages 50c per print or less. In general, it’s substantially less expensive to shoot and print photos from a digital camera with an instant printer or photo service.
And, unfortunately, even if you make a mistake, you’ll still have to bear the print cost. There are no free do-overs with these cameras, sadly. So, generally, if you plan on taking many pictures, it’s best to get a camera with a cheaper cost per print. They’ll save money long-term.
What to Consider When Buying an Instant Camera
Although most instant cameras are reasonably straightforward to use, there are quite a few things to consider before buying one. And while the style and the film format will ultimately be the biggest selling points, below are other factors that may separate options.
Size & Portability
The size of the camera and its form factor ultimately depends on the film it uses. The bigger the film, the bigger and heavier the camera. Most cameras are generally portable, but some mimic vintage designs or use large films. And these cameras are quite awkward when traveling unless you take them apart. However, while portable, smaller instant cameras are generally difficult to handle if you have large hands. However, many of them are pocketable. So there’s an interesting trade-off here.
Sadly, instant cameras aren’t quite instant. In general, most take 90 seconds for the photo to develop. And some can take several minutes to finalize the richest color and sharpest focus. Only the Zink cameras offer faster printing times. It’s also essential noting that hiding the film from bright light during this time is crucial to prevent blur or improper processing.
Many of today’s cameras use Fujifilm’s Instax cartridges. But, you can also find plenty of Zink and Polaroid options. Nevertheless, you’ll want to consider the cost per photo and factor in the overall running cost.
Traditional instant cameras print every photo taken. But, given the cost of the film, this is quite pricey. However, several recent releases have image preview functionality, which lets you decide if you want to print or not. And this feature saves money in the long run.
Some instant cameras offer internal storage that holds 4-10 images. And others provide external storage in the form of a MicroSD card slot, which can save hundreds if not thousands of photos. Having digital storage gives you reassurance knowing there’s a backup. And it also makes it easy to create a second print or share images on social media.
Some instant cameras provide a smartphone companion app, which connects to your phone via Bluetooth. These apps, generally, unlock more advanced functionality and widens the camera’s feature set. And they allow you to remotely take images, add stickers, filters, and much more.
Not all instant cameras offer rechargeable batteries or USB charging. Some use AA or proprietary batteries like CR2’s. And depending on where you live, getting a replacement set may be slightly inconvenient.
Not all instant cameras provide extra manual or creative control. Many only offer a simple point & shoot experience or only minor control over the exposure. While this makes them easy to use for beginners and newcomers, they’ll limit advanced photographers. Additionally, not all cameras have variable shutter speeds, manual flash control, or bulb modes. But, these are necessities if you want to have more creative flexibility. Some cameras also require a working knowledge of exposure and focusing.
Other bonuses include noise triggers, light painting, manual flash control, collage, bulb modes, to name a few. If some of the bonuses we cover in the top ten are essential to you, look out for them while shopping around.
Last Updated on September 22, 2023 by Photography PX Published October 2, 2020