On a digital detox? Going back to basics and snapping some instant prints might be the way forward if you’re fed up of staring at your Instagram feed. And more than 70 years after American boffin and Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land first brought his game-changing cameras to the masses, instant snappers offer more choice than ever before.
The best option for you will largely depend on what you want to use the camera for, whether that’s a serious photography project or simply capturing snaps at a party (once lockdown has lifted, obviously). While some of the latest instant cameras offer automatic options to makes things as idiot-proof as possible, true photography aficionados might be looking for a little more creative control, such as the ability to capture multiple exposures. Your film preference also makes a huge difference and comes down to a fine balance between quality and cost.
One thing’s for certain, instant snapping isn’t as cheap as digital-only photography, so it’s important to take a good look at what’s available before you get stuck in. To make it easier, we put some of the latest instant cameras to the test – read on for our top recommendations.
What’s the best instant camera in 2021?
With this kind of product, a lot of it comes down to personal taste and what you want from it, but we reckon the best pound-for-pound instant camera right now is the Fujifilm Instax Square SQ1 (£111). As well as being incredibly simple to use, the SQ1 looks gorgeous, offers good-sized prints and gives you great results with pretty much every shot.
For those who want a little more creative control, the Lomo’Instant Automat Glass (£165) is an excellent option. With its fantastic wide-angle lens, remote control, manual controls and retro design, it’s the best instant camera for experimental photographers.
Also worthy of a mention is the Polaroid Now (£114), which combines autofocus with genuine retro technology. With its classic form factor and big square prints, it’s our top pick for vintage photography fans and also the best for snapping true Polaroids.
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Fujifilm Instax Square SQ1
WIRED Recommends: A brilliant all-round instant camera that’s simple to use and gives great shots every time
Film: Instax Square | Dimensions: 130.7 x 118.6 x 57.5mm | Weight: 500g | Focusing distance: 0.3m – infinity | Battery: 2 x CR2
Bringing the ease of Instax film to a bigger, square-shaped print, the Fujifilm Instax Square SQ1 (£111) is a real joy to use. It’s a bit of a unit, but the minimalistic design is cool, while the heft and matte feel of the plastic give it a nice feel. It comes in three Instagram-friendly hues – Glacier Blue, Terracotta Orange, Chalk White – and sports a twist-out lens, which also acts as the power switch.
The ‘One-Touch Selfie Mode’ involves rotating the lens round an extra click to set the best focus and exposure for your close-up. The mechanism smoothly slides into place with a satisfying click and that’s literally all you need to do to grab a great shot. A square selfie mirror next to the lens helps with framing while the autofocus also does a superb job.
Automatic exposure senses the amount of ambient light and chooses the best shutter speed and flash output, resulting in reliably good shots both indoors and outdoors. Photos are sharp and well-balanced, and we were particularly impressed by the result we got from black and white Instax film.
The shutter button is integrated into the grip which means you’re in danger of accidentally pressing it and wasting a shot if you’re not careful. A stick-on grippy thumb pad is supplied to attach to the back of the handgrip which makes one-handed shots at jaunty angles much easier.
The only real downside to the SQ1 is that there are no creative modes or even a timer, and there’s also no ability to turn off the flash. It’s also a shame that the prints are smaller than the classic Polaroid size, but on the plus side, it’s much easier to get sharp shots on every go.
Pros: Cool design; solid build; great results; easy to use
Cons: Uses non-rechargeable CR2 batteries (but they are included); no creative modes or timer; prints are smaller than Polaroid
Vintage experience with 21st century tech
Film: iType, 600 | Dimensions: 94 x 112.2 x 150.2mm | Weight: 500g | Focusing distance: 0.55m-1.3m; 0.6m-infinity | Battery: Rechargeable with supplied Micro USB cable
An evolution of the the original 1970s Polaroid OneStep with its distinctive rainbow stripe, the Polaroid Now (£114) is a 21st century take on the OG instant camera. The Now works with Polaroid i-Type or 600 film, both of which were previously made by Impossible Project and now sold under the Polaroid moniker. The film is very sensitive to light so it needs to be shielded as you take it out from the camera’s ‘tongue’ which unfurls along with the print to keep it covered. This makes shooting a slightly delicate process.
Controls are pleasingly simply – on the front, you’ll find the shutter button and the timer button which means you can snap hands-free selfies. The timer button also serves as a double exposure control – just press it twice and you can capture two shots on the same frame for an artsy effect. On the back, you have the power button, flash button, and an LED counter to show how many shots you have left.
Photos have the warm nostalgic tint that you expect from a Polaroid. The built-in autofocus decides which of the two lens is most suitable for what you’re shooting. It works well the majority of the time, through it can be a little temperamental, occasionally resulting in images being a little softer than we’d like.
The camera comes in classic black or white and there’s also a limited range featuring coloured accents. And for Star Wars fans there’s the Mandalorian edition (£170) with a finish inspired by the bounty hunter’s indestructible Beskar steel armour.
The Polaroid Now is unapologetically on the bulky side but it’s very satisfying to use and unlike its rivals, it gives you classic full-size Polaroid prints.
Pros: Classic retro design; easy to use; full-size Polaroids; built-in rechargeable battery
Cons: Pricey film; results can be patchy
What are the different types of instant film?
First launched by Fujifilm in 1998, Instax Mini (£29.50 for 40 shots) snaps offer wallet-sized prints measuring 54 x 86mm, while the actual picture area is a tiny 46 x 62mm. You get 10 shots in each pack and one pack usually costs just under a tenner. Instax Mini offers the biggest range of different films, including monochrome and scores of different coloured borders, many of which are limited edition. Takes around 90 seconds to develop.
Bringing Instax tech to a bigger print, these square-shaped snaps measure 86 x 72mm with a picture size of 62 x 62mm. Like its Mini counterpart, Instax Square film (£17 for 20 shots) takes around 90 seconds to develop and offer 10 snaps per pack, with a price tag of around £15. The film comes in both colour and monochrome, and there are also a few options with different coloured frames.
Another of Fujifilm’s options, which works with the Instax Wide 300 camera. Double the width of Instax Mini prints, these Instax Wides (£17 for 20 shots) measure in at 108 x 86mm, with a picture size of 99 x 62mm. A pack of 10 prints costs around a tenner.
After Polaroid downed tools in 2008, The Impossible Project bought up its remaining factory stock and developed its own film. The Impossible Project later became Polaroid Originals, and now it’s gone full circle and is simply known as Polaroid. Designed to work with the latest Polaroid cameras, and not vintage models, i-Type film produces prints measuring 107 x 88mm with a 79mm square image. It takes 10-15 minutes to develop and you need to keep the film protected from light as soon as it pops out. Film packs are around £15 a pop for 8 shots and recent limited edition collaborations include The Mandalorian, Peanuts and Stranger Things.
Producing the same Polaroid-sized prints as iType, 600 film (£17.50 for 8 shots) can also be used with some of the brand’s vintage cameras. Because each film pack comes with a built-in battery to power the camera and flash, it’s comes with a pricey £18 price tag. You get 8 shots per film and it takes around 15 minutes to develop.
Polaroid also makes SX-70 film (£67 for 24 shots) which only works with its SX-70 cameras from the ‘70s. All of Polaroid’s SX-70, 600 and i-Type film is manufactured in the last of the remaining old-school Polaroid factories in the Netherlands.
Used in instant cameras and mini printers from the likes of Kodak, Canon and Polaroid’s digital line, Zink (£25 for 50 shots) produces borderless 50 x 76mm snaps. The film is embedded with dye crystals which are then activated and colourised by heat to produce the image. Most Zink cameras let you add creative borders your snaps.
Libby Plummer, WIRED contributor
Lomo’Instant Automat Glass
The instant camera for experimental photographers
Film: Fujifilm Instax Mini | Dimensions: 118 x 98 x 75mm | Weight: 400g | Focusing distance: 0.3m – infinity | Battery: 2x CR2, 1x CR1632 for remote
Sporting a slightly Soviet design, the oddly named Lomo’Instant Automat Glass (£165) is the first instant camera with a wide-angle glass lens. The 38mm lens gives you beautifully sharp images with stunning detail with the camera automatically adjusting aperture, shutter speed and flash for you. Though, crucially, the flash can be disabled whenever you want. What’s more, a handy exposure compensation button lets you override the ambient exposure – pressing it once makes images brighter while a second press makes them darker.
Switching from Auto to Bulb mode via a button on the back allows you to experiment with long exposures, night shots or light painting. Also among the manual controls is an mx button which enables multiple exposures. Other creative options include the bundled screw-on lens attachments – one for close-up shots and a ‘Splitzer’ which splits your shots in two so you can get creative. The supplied pack of gel filters can be slipped in front of the flash to change the hue of your shots.
The bundle also includes a clever lens cap that doubles as a wireless remote shutter control for self-portraits, rather than just hand-held selfies. There’s also a selfie mirror on the shutter release button, though weirdly it’s landscape-shaped when you’re shooting in portrait and vice versa so doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
It’s well worth veering away from the Auto mode to check out what the camera is really capable of, but you’ll inevitably waste quite a few shots in the process. However, once you’ve mastered the settings, you’ll be able to really take advantage of that fantastic wide-angle lens.
The textured rubber finish makes the camera nice and grippy while the tripod mount means you can keep it steady when shooting long exposures. Overall, the Lomo’Instant Automat Glass Gives the best results possible from Instax Mini film – the only shame is that the prints are so small.
Pros: Sharp, wide-angle images; lots of creative options for experimentation; good in low light
Cons: Uses slightly niche CR2 batteries (not included); selfie mirror doesn’t match orientation of photo
Fujifilm Instax Mini 11
Reliable instant snaps on a budget
Film: Instax Mini | Dimensions: 107.6 x 121.2 x 67.3mm | Weight: 400g | Focusing distance: 0.3m – infinity | Battery: 2 x AA
For budget instant snaps, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 11 (£69) is the best option right now. A rounder, softer and generally more friendly looking camera than its rivals, the Instax 11 comes in five fun shades – Blush Pink, Sky Blue, Charcoal Gray, Ice White, and Lilac Purple – making it ideal for kids. There are also a couple of interchangeable shutter button stickers for a bit of extra personalisation.
Just push in the button on the front and the lens will pop out ready for shooting. Pull the end of the lens out a little further and it snaps into selfie mode. The collapsible lens is a neat idea that generally works well though it does feel a little too flimsy for our liking. Overall, the build is quite plasticky, but then the Instax 11 is much cheaper than its rivals.
Framing shots through the tiny viewfinder can be a little hit and miss, though the selfie mirror on the front is actually pretty effective. Automatic exposure picks out the right shutter speed and flash output according to the ambient light so you need to fiddle with any settings. However, this does means you can’t turn off the flash.
The credit-card snaps pop out of the top and we got great shots nearly every time, though we found that we had a better success rate with the main setting, rather than selfie mode. The camera works well both indoors and out with the Instax film generally giving sharper results than Polaroid.
Build quality could be better but this is an excellent instant camera for youngsters or for parties where you don’t want to risk a pricier camera falling into the hands of a sozzled snapper.
Pros: Budget price tag, lots of fun; AA batteries
Cons: Flash can’t be turned off; slightly flimsy lens casing