Whether you think it’s hipster or not–let’s be frank, instant film cameras are cool. Who cares if they’re hipster? There are ways that you can make them seem much less so. But even if you have that stigma, the cameras are still capable of producing beautiful work that editors, models, and people in general love. Heck, an entire app was created to emulate the looks of these cameras!
Picking the right one though isn’t so simple. There are many options available both old and new–and you really just need to get the right one for you. That’s much easier said than done though.
Here’s our Guide to Instant Film Cameras and picking the right one for you.
Manufacturers and Cameras
Wanting Pro Quality
The most traditional amongst the manufacturers to develop instant film cameras was Polaroid. Indeed, they’re the one that is perhaps best known for the medium. But Polaroid no longer focuses on these cameras and instead the success that was started by the company has been taken over by Fujifilm, Lomography and the Impossible Project.
To start with you should know that almost any medium format SLR camera can be adapted to use a Polaroid Instant Back. In fact, many of them are available on the market if you browse eBay, Craigslist, B&H Photo, Adorama, and KEH. Have a Hasselblad 503C camera? Or a Bronica ETRs? Or even a Mamiya RB67 camera? Well guess what–you get the benefit of being able to shoot both instant and negative film. Years ago, these cameras had instant backs so that the photographer would be able to see what the image looked like before they actually went into full-on shooting. This saved precious 120 film, hours of processing, and money on the amount of Advil that the photographer would need to alleviate the headaches otherwise. But today, those backs can be used on medium format SLR cameras to create beautiful images that you might not otherwise be able to create with many of the more lo-fi options from Fujifilm and Lomography–or even vintage Polaroid cameras. The reason for this is because the SLR cameras were developed for professional use and therefore had better quality in their lenses. Mamiya, Hasselblad and Bronica lenses (as well as those from Kiev) are all very highly regarded.
That isn’t to say that Polaroid never made any cameras for the professional–indeed they did, but they’re much better known for their offerings to the amateur world. The company developed the Polaroid Land Camera 180, 185, 190, and the 195. These cameras had bellows, a fast aperture (for medium to large format) lens, and Zeiss rangefinders (in the case of the 185) to focus on an object. They also had no slot for batteries unlike many of the other Polaroid Land cameras. In fact, they didn’t need batteries at all to operate.
One of the best instant film cameras meant for professional use was Mamiya Universal Press camera, which you can read about over at Steve Huff’s website. But dollar for dollar, your best bet is to go for a medium format SLR of some sort. If you get the right one, you can not only shoot positive and negative film, but you may be able to adapt digital backs onto them too.
That Lo’Fi Instagram Look
Usually, if you’re going for an Instant film camera, chances are that you want to embrace the whole lo’fi look. Folks love it. And there are even more options for you out there if you want a camera like this. One of the most famous is the iconic Polaroid SX-70. This is an SLR camera that folds up into itself. If you get one in great condition, hold onto it and never let go.
But if you can’t get a hold of one of these, there are many more options that you can score. Continuing to talk about the Polaroid Land Cameras, many of them were automatic in their functionality. These also require batteries which are hard to find but the Impossible Project sells. Some have been modified to accept newer batteries, but they’re often tough to find.
If you happen to walk into a store and the owner is selling one, then be sure to check the battery port. If they tell you that the camera doesn’t need a battery, then open the film back, cock the shutter and see if it fires. If it doesn’t, then move on.
There are also loads of other cameras that are even simpler to use. Some even have autofocus like the Polaroid 600 series of cameras. That will make their use even simpler for most people. But if you don’t mind manually focusing, then go for something a bit more high end like the SX70.
If you don’t want to go through the hassle of getting your hands on one of these cameras, then there are a couple of modern options made by both Lomography and Fujifilm. Fujifilm has offerings from their Instax line that is very much like what you’re probably going for.
These cameras can be nice and small to tote around in your bag or at a wedding, or they can be bigger and use a wider film.
At the moment of publishing this article, Lomography has created and is starting to sell their brand new Lomo’Insta. They’re the most affordable option on the market and are built pretty darned well. In fact, we really like the form factor, but we’re not the biggest fan of the image quality of these or the offerings from Fujifilm. But that’s just us–most of the world tends to love what these cameras can put out.
Of course, using these cameras require film to create photos. While the types of film on the market are dwindling down, there are some films still being used widely.
Fujifilm also still manufactures 100C: which is the ISO 100 film designed to be used in the instant film backs for medium format SLRs. It also works in the Polaroid Land cameras. If you can get your hands on 3000B; which is the ISO 3000 black and white film, hold onto it. It was beautiful and isn’t manufactured anymore. These films tend to be 3″ x 4″, and require a bit of overexposure to make the best of them. They’re best known as the peel apart film that requires you to shoot the image, pull the shot through some rollers, wait a certain amount of time based on the temperature, and then peel it apart to get the photo.
The cameras that have the most diverse types of film though are the consumer oriented vintage Polaroid cameras. These often come from the Impossible Project; and the diversity is the result of much research. These films come in color, black and white, sepia, and selenium tones. They’re by far the funnest and can produce the best results. In fact, much of their larger format emulsions are really, really gorgeous.
If you’re looking to purchase a brand new camera, it’s really just a matter of figuring out how much control you want. If you want a bit more manual control, the Fujifilm has a couple of options with the Mini 90 and their Instax wide cameras. But otherwise, total manual operation isn’t possible. If you want full automatic operation, Lomography’s Lomo’Insta may be the best bet due to its affordable price, selection of lenses, and compact build.
They’re all going to produce roughly the same images, so it will be more about style than anything.
Where the purchasing gets complicated is with the more professional models and vintage cameras.
If you’re going to purchase one of these cameras, we’re going to start out by suggesting that you shop locally instead of doing the entire transaction online. Sometimes, the people selling these cameras don’t know very much about them or the cameras can just be problematic. Then when you consider the fact that you may have bought film for the camera and the camera that you purchased may not work, then you’ll be even more disappointed.
First and foremost, do your research into the camera. Go on Google and look it up, and even go onto YouTube and watch videos about the camera. Someone is bound to have made one. Get your heart dead set on a camera before you go purchase one.
Some of these cameras were passed down from person to person with the original batteries inside. These batteries will have corroded and exploded–therefore damaging the internal areas. You can pay a lot of money to have these repaired or you can go back onto the hunt for the working cameras again. Indeed, getting your hands on a perfectly working one can be a journey.
Make sure that the shutter and apertures are working. We encourage you to open up the back and peer into the back of the lens. Test the apertures, and also test every shutter speed to see if it seems accurate. You can clearly tell the difference between two seconds and 1/500th of a second. If the camera isn’t even firing, then it probably needs batteries or there is a problem with the mechanism inside.
If the camera has bellows (like the SX70 or the Polaroid Land cameras) then be sure to thoroughly check them. Bring a flashlight and a magnifying glass, then shine the light close to them. Look inside and if you see lots of light seeping in, then you have damaged bellows. This will affect not only the image quality, but may also make the camera completely useless. If you want to pay to have the bellows replaced and reconditioned, then by all means go for it. But don’t expect anyone to do that for an affordable and cheap price.
If you’ve found the camera that you really, really want and have already bought the film, then ask to test the camera to ensure that it works. If it does work, then thank Edward Land that you’ve found the one for you. If not, then pick yourself up and continue the search.
And as always, send us an email with questions to editors[at]thephoblographer[dot]com. Our Editor in Chief went on a one and a half year hunt to find the right camera for him.