Sometimes you need a break from toxic social media that’s filled with constant comparisons to how your friends are eating better, dressing better, and traveling to more exotic places than you. Well, there’s plenty of appeal in instant cameras. They have physicality since you can hold your mementos in your hand, and they’re a fun, unpredictable throwback to the analog days when you had to manually adjust the settings of a camera to get the best shot.
You’ve probably seen someone carrying around the Fujifilm Instax Mini, but there are a ton of other recent options out there as well, like the Kodak Printomatic, Lomography’s Lomo’Instant Square, and Fujifilm’s Instax Square SQ6. Some of them are analog, some of them are partly digital, but all of them are fun in their own ways. We’ve been testing them out for a few weeks to determine what the best one is in terms of photo quality, price, ease of use, and if it’s a camera that could make it out to the beach.
FUJIFILM INSTAX MINI 9
The Fujifilm Instax Mini line has been on the market for years, and there’s a reason it’s so popular. The Mini 9 is one of the most affordable instant cameras out there: $56 on Amazon. It comes in many playful colors, so you can buy something that perfectly fits your style. Plus, it’s clearly the cutest.
But what makes the Mini 9 adorable — its size — can also become a detriment. With the Mini 9, the place where you put your eye is small and can appear dark. If you have longer eyelashes or bigger eyes, you might take slightly longer to find the small eyehole and lose your chance for a good shot.
The settings for shooting in sunny, cloudy, and indoor environments are simple to figure out at a glance, with symbols like a sun, cloud, and house easily transcending language. But in practice, as with all cameras that you have to manually adjust, it can take a few attempts to find the right lighting for a quick shot. I used the indoor setting in a room with all the lights on, but even that wasn’t enough. I had to use the Hi-Key setting, which made it bright enough, but then my photo turned out blurry.
Still, Fujifilm excels at producing quality photos on a budget. Snapshots emerge lush and rich, like this one shot of my boyfriend in dim lighting. In multiple photos of Michele Doying, our stop-motion expert and post-production specialist, her pink hair gets reproduced super true to form.
Again, size remains the Mini 9’s biggest issue. Its compact body prints likewise compact film. Once you get accustomed to cameras that shoot in a larger square format, it spoils you to want more imagery for your buck and fit more into a scene.
Ultimately, the decision of whether you end up purchasing the popular Mini 9 or opting for a more expensive rival depends on whether its minimal features are enough for you. It does not have a manual focus like the Lomography’s Lomo’Instant, and your subject has to be about a foot to a foot and a half away from the camera to appear clearly. It also doesn’t have a black-and-white mode or film that doubles as stickers like Kodak’s Printomatic. But as a quick instant camera that’s intuitive to use, the Fujifilm Mini 9 stands up very well against its rivals.
GOOD STUFF :
- Cute appearance
- Intuitive to use
BAD STUFF :
- Small photos
- Few features
- Fixed focus
LOMOGRAPHY LOMO’INSTANT SQUARE
When I was eight, my parents bought me a guitar and a manual. I sat there for a week trying to teach myself, but then I gave up. A spider eventually crawled into the guitar and made its home, which was more use than I ever had for it. The Lomography Square Camera is a lot like that guitar and manual. It’s hard to pick up for beginners, and you may expect to take a good week or two to get the hang of it.
The full camera, with its leathery neck exposed, resembles an old projector or a camera from the 1900s. To turn on the Lomo’Instant and see the resemblance, you have to swing open the main flap of the camera, which is a hinge that opens with a disturbing crack. There’s no on button. Once you’ve successfully pulled open the camera, it’s on.
This is the camera you buy when you think of instant camera photography as the highest art form. You invest in it, take the time to learn it like it’s a beautiful musical instrument, and it will sing. With that mentality, you’ll consider its terrible complexity a challenge you’ve accepted and something you need to compensate for by growing your skill. The Lomography Square Camera isn’t a fun casual gift or a summer camera you sling around in your bag for quick snaps. It feels so much more serious than that. Even digital cameras have an automatic mode for beginners to shoot without stress over ISOs and apertures. The Lomography camera requires a lot of adjusting to get the photo just right and doesn’t give you an option to just point and shoot for easy photos.
To prevent this, you’ll need to embark on a series of quests. The Square Camera has a manual focus that can be adjusted from as close to 0.8 meters (2.6 feet) to as far as infinity. To focus your photo and make sure it doesn’t appear as an unidentifiable blur, you’ll need to note how far you’re standing from your subject and calculate (in the metric system!) the proper setting for your lens. This is complicated by the fact that, unlike a normal camera, you can’t preview the photo through a viewfinder and check if your focus is correct. Simply bringing your subject into focus is a difficult task with Lomography.
For experienced photographers, some of Lomography’s settings will be very familiar, but beginners looking for a fun instant camera experience may not know or appreciate them. The exposure setting is obscurely labeled EV, and you can press + if your subject needs more light, and – if it needs less. For many, that crucial setting that determines whether your photo’s subject is even visible can be less than obvious to use. Why not place a clear pictorial symbol for a sun and a cloud instead, like what the Fujifilm Mini 9 has? Another button, labeled MX, allows you to take multiple exposures, so the camera will hold the photo it’s printed and wait until the next shot to release the film, producing two images at once.
Then, as if the previous settings weren’t confusing enough, there’s a setting called Mode, and it simply lists A and B. I still can’t quite tell what difference A makes (it’s just the standard mode), but B will help lighten a particularly dimly lit subject. I also found that all indoor lighting appeared darker with this camera, even if there were bright spotlights on, so I had to compensate by ramping up the brightness setting.
WAY MORE OF A COLLECTOR’S ITEM THAN A CONTENDER
While the Lomo’Instant Square shoots in square film by default, you also have the option of switching over to mini film. If you’d like to shoot in Fujifilm’s Instax Mini film instead of the default wider Square film, you’ll have to purchase a $59 accessory kit, which includes an extra backing. You’ll need to carefully remove the back hinge from the camera, then install the new hinge along with film.
Of the dozens of photos I snapped with the camera, only a handful came out correctly from just plain guessing. But once I took more time to study the camera, I finally saw images emerge. Scenes of the New York City Pride Parade in June appeared overcast, looking Instagram-ready. The bright summer morning was transformed into a blistery-looking fall or winter afternoon just by the additional darkness Lomography cast onto the photo. And The Verge logo, not pictured because I’ve only just mastered it, has finally emerged crisp and clear, although I’m still convinced it could be focused slightly more.
If you have the patience and gentleness with hinges necessary to get the Lomography Square Camera to work, it can do a lot. It’s the first truly analog camera to use Fujifilm Instax film. But at $199 in full retail, the camera is way more of a collector’s item than a contender for best summer camera.
GOOD STUFF :
- Plenty of features
- Quality photos
- Ability to swap between mini and square film
BAD STUFF :
- Exorbitant price
- Steep learning curve
Kodak’s Printomatic is my favorite instant camera in terms of how sleek it looks and how intuitive it is to use. It’s basically a white rectangular slab, with minimal ports and settings. It feels more futuristic than retro, but its simple design is even easier to fit into a small pouch and bring anywhere. The Printomatic is a reskinned, more affordable version of the Polaroid Snap that was released in 2015. So like Fujifilm’s Instax Mini line, it’s been around for a while.
In every way that the Lomography camera is complex, the Kodak Printomatic is simple. When you press on, the camera lets out a high-pitched noise to confirm it’s on. When you press the shutter, a photo, with actual images on it, will appear. There’s a toggle on top for switching between color and black-and-white modes. Beyond that, it has a USB port and a slot for a microSD card. The entire design is minimalist, with only the essential features that you might need.
About the USB port: this camera is considerably more digital than analog. The Kodak Printomatic is essentially a point-and-shoot with a built-in photo printer and no screen. That makes the experience of shooting with it simple and decidedly portable. While on the go through the massive crowds at Pride, I could barely snap a photo on the other cameras, having to jostle them around my backpack. The Kodak was slim and agile at taking photos on the go. It’s almost too good at its job. You can easily press the shutter button too many times without noticing, and it will continue to print until it runs out of film.
Here’s where things get not so favorable. The Kodak Printomatic takes about half a minute to a minute to print a photo, which is longer than any of the other cameras I tested. All the photos have a purplish tinge to them that doesn’t look great. Even the black-and-white photos have a filter on them, which only worsens the look of already poor-quality snaps. The photo quality is definitely the worst of the bunch (think a low-megapixel selfie camera), and its colors are the least accurate.
Still, you could argue that if you’re using instant cameras, you may not be looking for the clearest and most precise-looking photos to begin with. And despite the long wait for each photo, the photos come out of the camera already printed, so you don’t have to wait for them to develop, unlike the other Fujifilm and Lomography cameras. Also, the small two-inch by three-inch Kodak film sheets are actually water-resistant stickers, so you can peel off the back of each photo and attach them anywhere, which are definitely points on the fun factor. At $69, it’s affordable enough to be a novelty gift or a casual beachgoing accessory.
- Minimalist look
- Easy to use
BAD STUFF :
- Purplish tinge to photos
- Low-quality printing
FUJIFILM INSTAX SQUARE SQ6
While the Mini 9 and the Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6 have a number of similarities, Fujifilm’s latest camera, its first square analog, also has more complexity, larger photos, and overall is a more premium offering than the classic Mini 9.
Its square-shaped body can be bulkier to carry around for beachside shoots, and it also comes with three plastic lens cap filters in purple, orange, and green, which are annoying to keep from getting lost. Verge reviews writer Stefan Etienne commented that it was the least aesthetically pleasing of the four cameras. I disagree and say the hypnotic-looking lens reminds me of a vinyl record. It’s gorgeous and a fitting throwback to the ‘70s.
I mentioned complexity. The SQ6 has a total of seven settings, including (thankfully) an automatic mode. The others include a selfie mode, landscape, double exposure, and toggles to control brightness. You can press L to make the photo lighter, and D to make the photo darker. All of the settings are pretty simple to understand, although you might need to consult with the manual at first to understand what L and D stand for. To switch between the settings, press the Mode button on the left-hand side, and you’ll find the SQ6’s lens will expand or contract. There’s also a selfie timer button and a flash suppression button to keep the camera flash from automatically firing. It also has a counter on the bottom right that displays how many photos you have left on your pack of film.
Since the SQ6 and the Lomography camera both shoot on 1:1 Fujifilm Square film, you can really see the difference between the simple- and complex-to-use immediately. At $130, the SQ6 is our second most expensive on this list. But for that price, you can trust it’ll produce enough memories and photos worth admiring, which is not something you can say for the Lomography camera unless you’re interested in photography challenges.
So which of these cameras can really make it to the beach in time for the last summer waves? For young children and scrapbook-making, the Kodak Printomatic is obviously the winner because of its stickers. But if you’re looking for the camera that’s the easiest to use while taking the best-quality photos, the SQ6 wins hands down. Its forerunner, the Mini 9, will do in a pinch if budget is a consideration, but there’s still something richer and more pleasing to the eye about square ratio film.
- Photos look great
- Simple to use
- Aesthetic square ratio film