Tech, as with all things, eventually comes full circle. And so here we are, in 2017, talking about the best instant cameras - tech that reached its peak popularity in the 1970s before dropping off sharply.
Still, instant cameras are back for the Instagram generation, with a few different manufacturers offering their take on the format - you can even buy a modern Polaroid.
It’s a confusing process picking a camera at first, with a mess of different manufacturers, cameras, formats, and films to pick from. We’ve done our best to break it down for you.
Instant camera buying advice
There are a few factors to consider when you’re trying to buy an instant camera. First up you need to think about how complex you want the camera to be. Some, such as the Polaroid OneStep 2, are simple point-and-shoot devices that don’t give you much control beyond turning the flash off or setting a timer.
Others get more intricate though, adding in functionality like long exposures, multiple exposures, different focus levels, customisable brightness, and more.
Lomography instant cameras even come with a standard lens thread, letting you attach a range of different lenses for even more flexibility.
All of these advanced features are nice to have, but you have to think about whether you’re the sort of photographer who’s really likely to use them. If you want to play around with multiple exposures or shoot photos in varied conditions then they might be worth it, but if you just want to take photos of your mates at parties, a simpler point-and-shoot will probably be plenty.
Remember that if you don't want to get your head round a whole new camera, you don't have to - you might be better off buying an instant printer, which lets you print photos directly from your smartphone instead.
The next consideration is whether you want a full film camera or a digital hybrid like the Instax SQ10.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both. Digital hybrids let you export photos to other devices, and mean you can get the perfect photo before you hit print - saving you from wasting expensive film. They also often have digital effects and filters built-in.
The downside to that flexibility is that you lose some of the immediacy of a pure film camera. Part of the charm of using film is that you only get one chance - it saves you from fussy posing for the perfect shot. If you’re not going to commit to the old-fashioned appeal, why are you looking at instant cameras at all?
Plus, the quality you can expect from the digital photos you export is pretty low - nothing compared to what you could expect from the camera on a budget smartphone, let alone any of the best phone cameras around.
The final major concern is film formats. The market is dominated by Fujifilm’s Instax brand, which currently produces three sizes of film: Mini (small and portrait), Wide (large and landscape), and Square (mid-sized and, well, square).
Each camera can only take one type of film (with one notable exception, the Lomo'Instant Square), so make sure you know which size you prefer before you pick your camera. You should consider price too - the larger prints tend to cost more, so your choice will affect the long-term running cost of your camera too.
Some cameras from other manufacturers - such as Lomography and Leica - use Instax film. Leica also manufactures its own film, but Leica cameras can use Instax prints and vice versa.
The Polaroid OneStep 2 uses its own i-Type, which sticks close to the classic Polaroid prints - about the same size as Instax Wide, but square rather than rectangular.
1. Leica Sofort
- RRP: $299
Based on Fujifilm’s Instax Mini 90, the Leica Sofort is mostly a refinement, pairing Fujifilm tech with a Leica lens.
One refinement is the aesthetic, with a straight-edged design that toes the line between modern and retro. Available in white, mint, or orange, it’s colourful, sleek, and minimalist.
The 60mm f/12.7 lens accommodates two focal distances, with presets for macro, people, parties, and sports/action shots. You can also adjust brightness, flash, and a timer, along with bulb and double exposure modes. There’s a selfie mirror on the front to help you nail your self-portraits too.
The photos come out fantastic - the best across the instant cameras we’ve tested. The macro mode turns out great close-ups, while even standard settings produce strong portraits. The Sofort takes Instax Mini film, but Leica also sells its own prints.
The only question mark hanging over the Sofort is its similarities to the Instax Mini 90. The Sofort boasts a Leica lens and some slick style, but at £250/$300 it’s about double the price for an almost identical feature set.
Read our Leica Sofort review.
2. Lomo'Instant Square
- RRP: $199
- Buy from Lomography
The Lomo’Instant Square is the first instant camera so far to be compatible with two different formats of Instax film. It won’t use both out of the box, but Lomography sells a swappable back plate for the camera that lets you install Instax Mini film.
The most striking thing is the design, with a folding body that’s both unique in the current instant camera market and compact when it’s folded down.
In addition to the standard shoot-and-print Auto Mode, you can control the flash, raise and lower exposure, take multiple exposures on a single film print, and do an extended exposure of up to 30 seconds. You also get three set focal distances, a tripod screw for mounting the camera, a set of colour flash filters, and a 10-second timer. There’s a remote control for taking photos remotely, though it requires a battery. The camera itself needs two CR2 batteries, so isn’t rechargeable, which is the major downside.
The wealth of options mean the Lomo’Instant Square rewards accomplished photographers, but Auto Mode is as simple as you could ask for, making it a friendly entry point for anyone hoping to build into more complex shots.
Read our Lomo'Instant Square review.
3. Polaroid OneStep 2
- RRP: $99.99
- Buy from Polaroid
Even by the standards of instant cameras this is driven by nostalgia. The blocky plastic design screams ‘retro’, though some of the chunky controls cross the line into ‘toy-like’ instead. It’s also massive, and at 460g without film you’ll want a bag to carry this in.
It takes two types of film, i-Type or 600, both of which are made by Polaroid Originals and come in colour and black-and-white.
The prints are big, which is the payoff for how large the camera is, allowing for a bit more visible detail than some of the alternatives. It’s also an instantly nostalgic size - these are Polaroids just as you remember them.
In terms of feature this is simple: you can adjust the flash or set a timer, but that’s it. Colours tend to be washed out and subdued - none of our photos really popped - but that’s arguably just another part of the nostalgia.
The film is expensive, at £14.99/$15.99 for eight prints when at full price - almost £2/$2 per print - though at £109.99/$99.99 the camera itself is in line with similar cameras.
Read our Polaroid OneStep 2 review.
4. Instax Wide 300
- RRP: $129.99
As the name might give away, the Instax Wide 300 takes photos that are wider than other instant cameras - double the size of Instax Mini photos. The camera itself has to be large enough to accommodate the bigger prints, and Fujifilm has committed to a chunky aesthetic all round, with a large grip and an enormous lens - the Instax Wide isn’t the most attractive instant camera around.
Controls are simple: two levels of autofocus for the 95mm lens, basic flash settings, and the option to reduce or increase exposure. It’s no surprise the Wide 300 excels at longer range, picking up more detail in landscape and building photos than its rivals, but struggling on close-ups or selfies - though the included close-up lens does help.
Portraits can turn out great once you get used to framing for landscape though, with warm skin tones. The new orientation is also great for parties - it takes a lot less work to cram multiple people into the same shot now.
Instax Wide prints cost around £1.30/$1.30 per print in packs of ten, but prices drop if you buy in bulk.
Read our Instax Wide 300 review.
5. Lomo'Instant Automat Glass Magellan
- RRP: $189
- Buy from Lomography
Lomography's Automat Glass Magellan comes in a pretty snazzy black and neon orange setup, but you can find the Automat in a variety of other designs on Amazon.
It comes with a 38mm wide-angle lens with an f/4.5 aperture, but thanks to the standard lens threading you’ll be able to attach other lenses - for example the included close-up lens.
The Automat uses Instax Mini prints, and captures impressive detail in portrait and landscape shots, but struggles a bit more in close-ups. Low-light photos aren’t great either - even with brightness adjustments, typically the flash either washes the photo out or fails to light it properly.
Where this camera excels is more complex shots. The bulb mode is one of the best, allowing you to expose the film for up to 30 seconds, along with multiple exposure (as opposed to double), letting you expose the film unlimited times before choosing to print.
Entry level users are unlikely to get the most out of the Automat, and might find it pretty overwhelming at first. But if you’re looking for an instant camera that gives you more complex features to play around with - and think you know how to make the most of them - the Automat offers an awful lot for the price.
6. Instax SQ10
- RRP: $279
The Instax SQ10 is a digital/instant hybrid - it’s essentially a digital camera with an instant printer built into it, which opens up a host of new options. You can set the camera to print photos automatically but you can also set it to manual, which lets you take multiple shots and pick the perfect one to print.
Beyond the standard flash controls and timer, you can take long exposure photos with the bulb mode, or double exposures to blend two images together. You can also digitally alter images, using a selection of filters and brightness adjustments. You can even zoom into a photo to print a specific part of it, or include a selection of photos in one collage.
The photos themselves are impressive. The SQ10 holds up best for close-ups and portraits, where it offers an impressive level of detail and bright colours - though it lacks some of the warmth of its true film counterparts.
It’s the ability to perfect your photos before you print that’s the real selling point here, especially for those that bristle at the cost of the film itself, which is still around £1/$1 per print. Still, there’s a loss of immediacy here too, and it’s hard not to feel that in letting you pick the perfect shot, the SQ10 misses out on the charm of instant cameras in the first place.
Read our Instax SQ10 review.