Instant film is a success, so where are the decent cameras?
March 11, 2015
It may now be slower than digital photography at providing immediate gratification, but ‘instant’ film photography is still alive and well. Both Fujifilm and the Impossible Project, which famously took over one of Polaroid’s old factories, make a selection of films. However, the one thing that has long puzzled me about the medium is, why are the commonly available cameras so basic?
It wasn’t always so. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, Polaroid’s camera for enthusiasts, the Pathfinder, boasted ultra-sharp lenses, manual focus with a rangefinder, full manual control of aperture and shutter speed, rugged construction and a self-timer.
Yet by the time I bought my first instant film camera, a Polaroid 635 in 1986, they’d become almost totally point-and-shoot models. It was as if Polaroid were trying to compensate for the expense of the film by making the cameras as cheap as possible.
I bought the 635 in a hurry because I needed to send some location shots to a set designer for a history film I was making. It was fixed focus, and although it did the job, the shots were rather disappointing and it has spent most of the intervening decades at the back of a cupboard.
I brought it out of retirement only recently when trying some of the Impossible Project’s endearingly individual films, as their slightly hit-and-miss nature arguably suits an unsophisticated camera. I’ve now supplemented the 635 with a second-hand 635CL, which has the luxury of a slide-in close-up lens, although I still feel I’d use more instant film if I had a better camera.
Lomography’s Belair camera has interchangeable lenses, but it still offers too little control, while peel-apart instant films and backs aren’t the answer – the prints don’t have the classic border and look. Fujifilm’s Instax cameras are another option, but most of these models use Instax Mini film, whose credit-card-sized prints feel too small for most subjects.
However, the company has just launched the Instax Wide 300, which uses the larger Instax Wide film. The 300 has better styling than its predecessor, the 210, and I’ve found it can produce great prints, with satisfying colours, that look even better than Polaroids did in their heyday. Two autofocus zones work accurately from 0.9 metres to infinity, and there’s a slot-in, extra-close-up lens for subjects 40-50cm away that incorporates a handy mirror for aligning arm’s-length selfies.
Yet the Instax Wide 300 is still a frustratingly basic camera. The viewfinder is small and difficult to line up with your eye, and there’s no control over shutter speed and aperture. You can’t always switch the flash off when it isn’t wanted, or make long exposures, which can result in uneven or very dark pictures.
Fujifilm really should produce an enthusiast’s version that addresses these shortcomings and adds a more sophisticated metering system, a self-timer and even perhaps an external flash socket and interchangeable lenses. Instant film is far too good to be confined to economy-spec cameras. Please make some better ones.
Jon Bentley is a TV producer and presenter best known for Channel 5’s The Gadget Show