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  • Writer's pictureJustin Goode

Instant Photography For Beginners

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

In a world dominated by digital photography, there is something incredibly special about instant film photography. Instant photography is loved by both newbies and pros. They enjoy holding a photo right after taking it and watching it develop. The vintage look of instant prints adds to the appeal.

If you're getting into instant film photography, you're in the right place. This guide will help you learn the important things about starting photography. It will cover topics such as picking the right camera and film. Also, it will provide a little information on understanding composition and lighting.

So grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and let's embark on this exciting journey together.

A group of instant film cameras
A Variety Of Instant Film Cameras

The History and Resurgence of Instant Film Photography

Instant film photography, while seemingly a recent trend, has a rich history dating back to the mid-20th century. Polaroid, in particular, revolutionized photography with the introduction of instant film in 1948, allowing photographers to capture and develop images within minutes. It was the iPhone of its day!

However, with the digital age came a decline in the use of instant film cameras. The convenience and proliferation of digital cameras and smartphones, which provided unlimited photo-taking capabilities without the cost of film, saw the popularity of instant film photography start to wane. It even drove Polaroid out of business (briefly).

Despite this, in recent years, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of instant film photography. People fuel this revival not just out of nostalgia but also because they appreciate the tangibility, uniqueness, and unpredictability of instant film photos. In an era where digital images are ubiquitous and ephemeral, there's a certain charm in holding a physical photo that is one-of-a-kind.

The resurgence has also been fueled by advancements in instant film technology. Modern instant film cameras combine the best of both worlds, incorporating digital features like multiple exposures and different shooting modes while still giving users the instant, physical photos that make instant film unique.

So, whether you're an experienced photographer looking to experiment with a new medium or a novice looking to capture moments in a unique way, instant film photography is a great way to explore your creativity. But, how? Let’s take a look at choosing your instant film camera and film.

A Variety Of Instant Film Formats

Two instant camera brands, FujiFilm in Japan and Polaroid in the Netherlands, manufacture analog instant film and market their products worldwide.

Fuji Instax

FujiFilm offers integral film for their Instax camera line, including the Instax Mini, Instax Wide, and Instax Square. The Instax system is an excellent entry-level start into instant photography. The Instax cameras all include a built-in flash so you’re never without sufficient light. The Instax system is a great entry-level start into the world of instant. If you’re looking to capture candid images at a club, a party, hanging out with friends, this is a ideal choice.

The Instax Mini film produces prints about the size of a credit card, the Wide produces larger, rectangular prints, and the Square produces - you guessed it - square prints which are closer to the classic Polaroid format. People love Instax film for its bright, vibrant colors and sharp images.

Bill Bragg shot on Fuji Instax Mini Film
Bill Bragg - Former Voice Of Big Tex

Polaroid 600 Cameras

You might be thinking .. What about all of those other Polaroids cameras? Do they still make film for those? Thankfully, yes! Polaroid, formerly known as The Impossible Project and Polaroid Originals, offers integral film for hundreds of thousands of Polaroid cameras still in use. Polaroid 600 series, SX-70, and Spectra/Image cameras remain operational, despite the discontinuation of Spectra film (RIP, Spectra!). Polaroid has even reintroduced 8×10 instant film to the market.

A good starting point for shooting Polaroid film would be any of the Polaroid Now/600 series cameras. They are very easy to use and shoot color or black and white film. There is a large variety of vintage 600 series cameras available at your local film camera store or on eBay, but prices vary depending on the model and its collectibility.

The film for Polaroid cameras comes in two versions: 600 and i-Type. 600 film is compatible with both vintage and modern 600 cameras, and it has a built-in battery to ensure vintage cameras are always powered-up.

On the other hand, i-Type film is designed for the newer i-Type cameras which have built-in rechargeable batteries. The chemistry is the same, but taking the battery out of the i-Type cartridge will save you a couple of bucks per pack. Polaroid film is known for its rich, saturated colors and classic square format.

Man Behind A Leafy Tree, shot on Polaroid Film
Rude Polaroids at PolaCon NYC on Polaroid 600 Color Film

A Sculpture In A Hotel Lobby Taken on Polaroid Film
Hotel Lobby on Polaroid 600 B&W Film

Polaroid SX-70

The Polaroid SX-70 cameras are a favorite among many instant photography enthusiasts. In fact, These are some of my favorite Polaroid cameras to use. They are really fun to operate. And because they are SLR cameras, what you see in the viewfinder is what you get. But most of the various SX-70 models go anywhere from $50-400 depending on its condition and whether it’s been serviced/refurbished etc. Polaroid still makes SX-70 film for vintage cameras, it produces some awesome results! How awesome? Check out the work by photographer Joep Gottemaker!

Man posing for picture taken on SX-70 Polaroid film
Ranger shot on SX-70 film - Photo by John Eric Munez

Polaroid SLR680/SLR690

Last, but certainly not least, is the Polaroid SLR680/SLR690. These were top of the line Polaroids that shoot 600 speed film. I’ve seen these online anywhere from $100-$800+, again, depending on the typical used-camera variables. These are designed based on the SX-70 and are fitted with a switchable on/off flash, along with an auto-focus feature.

Finally, we should note that all of these formats include color film and monochrome film (Black & White).

New York's Flatiron Building
The Flatiron Building Shot With Polaroid SLR680 - Photo by Daniel Rodrigue

Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts On B&W Polaroid Film
A. Savage Taken With SLR680 - Photo By Daniel Rodrigue

Tips for Buying a Used Instant Film Camera

When looking for a used camera, check for signs of damage, ensure the lens is clean, and inspect the rollers to make sure they move somewhat freely. If you bring an empty film pack with you, you can check the camera's ejection mechanism by sliding a darkslide into the empty pack, putting it into the camera, and closing the film door. If everything is functioning properly, the darkslide should eject out.

Certain cameras may seem lethargic or slow-paced if they have not been used in a while. Actuate the shutter a few times to help move the gears and get the juices flowing.

Of course, you could take out all the guesswork and just buy a new camera from either Fujifilm or Polaroid.

Understanding the Basics Of Instant Film Photography

Ok, now that you have your camera and film, it's time to understand the basics of instant film photography. Here are some key concepts to keep in mind:

  • Lighting: Instant film LOVES light. Lighting is crucial in instant photography, as the film has a limited dynamic range and is sensitive to changes in light. Natural light is always the best option, so try to shoot outdoors or in well-lit indoor spaces. Avoid direct sunlight, as it can cause overexposure and harsh shadows. Instead, opt for soft, diffused light, such as during the golden hour or on a cloudy day. If you’re shooting indoors, make sure your camera has a flash and always turn the flash on!

  • Composition: Composition is the arrangement of elements within a photograph. Pay attention to the rule of thirds, leading lines, and framing to create visually pleasing images. Also, consider the background and foreground of your image, as they can add depth and context to your photograph.

  • Focus: Most instant cameras have a fixed focus lens, meaning that the focus is set at a specific distance and cannot be adjusted. Make sure to read your camera's manual to understand its focus range and shoot accordingly. For example, if your camera has a focus range of 0.6m to infinity, anything closer than 0.6m will be out of focus.

  • Exposure: Exposure is the amount of light that hits the film. Most instant cameras have an automatic exposure setting, but some also have manual controls for adjusting the exposure. Experiment with different exposure settings to see what works best for your scene.

  • Flash: Most instant cameras come with a built-in flash, which can be helpful in low light situations. However, be mindful of the flash's range and its effect on your subject. For example, if you are taking a portrait, make sure the flash is not too harsh on your subject's face.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The key to becoming proficient in instant film photography, like any other skill, is practice. Take your camera everywhere you go and shoot as much as possible. Experiment with different lighting conditions, compositions, and subjects. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, as they are an essential part of the learning process. Remember, each instant photograph is unique and cannot be replicated, so embrace the imperfections and enjoy the journey.

Final Thoughts

Instant photography is a fun and rewarding hobby that allows you to capture and share moments in a unique way. Whether you choose a Fuji Instax or a Polaroid camera, remember that the most important thing is to enjoy the process, take good care of your instant film, and create memories that will last a lifetime.

Happy shooting!

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