Instant Photography

Instax vs Polaroid: Important things to know before you buy

Speaking of instant photography, most people think of “Polaroid”. And from this evolves much confusion over the use of the term. I have heard people refer to Instax camera as “Fujifilm’s polaroid camera.” or “take a polaroid with your Fujifilm camera”. In today’s blog, let’s tackle this Frankenstein gibberish and what you need to know before you decide which system to go into.

Why can’t we see the picture now?

Start with some history…In my opinion, without a doubt, Instant photography is one of the most mind-blowing innovations. Dr Edwin H Land, the founder of Polaroid, revolutionised the industry by integrating the whole darkroom developing and fixing process into the film itself, allowing the photos to be developed just minutes after the deciding moment of pressing the shutter button. Saving the guesswork and the disappointment of only finding out days later that you have missed the shot. 

This Polaroid legacy stemmed from an innocent question Dr Land’s daughter asked while they were on vacation in Santa Fe in 1943. Till today, the signature white square frame and the hypnotic way of the photos developing within minutes in front of your very own eyes, comes vividly into everyone’s head when anyone speaks of Polaroid.

Polaroid Originals vs original Polaroid?

With Dr Land achieved, seemingly at the time, an impossible task, most people today are still referring to any instant photo as “Polaroid”. Ironically, although Polaroid still exists and offers instant film today, they are far from the one Dr Land created. After being bankrupted and reformed twice, they are now owned by a Dutch company, the Impossible Project, which exists under the name of Polaroid Originals. During their struggles, a Japanese co-operative giant, Fujifilm, has risen to take over the instant photography world. So nowadays Polaroid to instant photography is merely like Hoover to vacuum cleaner, they were once so influential the brands essentially become synonyms with the product, though only the names stand the test of time. Polaroid still has instant cameras but, certainly, in today’s market, Instax is the new King.

Polaroid to instant photography is merely like Hoover to vacuum cleaner

Things you need to know

Phew, with some history lesson out of the way and getting the terminology right, we can finally be civilised and talk about other interesting things. 

1.   The Recipe

In analogue photography, the film plays a key part in how the photos look and feel. Since Polaroid went out of business in the 2000s, chemical companies whose sole business was to supply chemicals for Polaroid also closed for good. Polaroid Originals, therefore, has to re-develop their instant film formula. They have come a long way, but their formula still far from perfect. Apart from the long development time, reports of colour shifts, colour streaks and faded colours are not uncommon.

Fujifilm has been in the photography game for donkey’s year and with all the resources at hand, they seem to have nailed their instant film formula which produces a very consistent result. Although I once had a film that came out wrong, it rarely happens that made me wonder if that was caused by my malfunctioned brain rather than a dodgy film. Instax films also manage an amazing colour separation. They produce vivid images with a punchy contrast and incredible saturation. It is perfect for someone looking to have a system that does exactly what it says on the tin without any surprises. Although from a photography hobbyist perspective, you can say that’s a bit boring. Sometimes that little accident, be it a light leak or colour smudge, give the photo that unique charm that cannot be replicated.

bad film
A film that came out wrong. Although not sure if that’s my fault or a dodgy film

2.   One speed to rule them all…

Film speed is just about how sensitive to light the film is and most people know it as ISO. The higher the number, the more sensitive it is to light. You may want to know a little because it also picks up “noise” although nowadays everyone loves a bit of grain.

All Instax films come in only one speed, ISO 800. It is a good choice for indoor photography where the room is usually artificially lit. With the combination of an automatic flash that most Instax cameras come with, I took pride in somehow manage to mess one up. 

However, when you shoot outdoor on a sunny day, with ISO 800, the problem is reversed – there is too much light. With a fast film, it forces the aperture to close down small where diffraction becomes significant and soften the image (Yeah Mr White, yeah science…). If the fastest shutter speed and smallest aperture cannot compensate for the excess light, the film can get overexposed and “washed out”. Worst-case scenario, the film gets “blown out”.

Meanwhile, Polaroid offers 2 different speeds, ISO 160 or 640, ready for your tanning session on the beach or a drunken night out.

3.   Size doesn’t matter, it’s how you use it

Well… it’s a kind sentiment but in the photography world, size does matter. As we are discussing Instax and Polaroid, we will keep on topic. Instax has 3 sizes: Mini, Square and Wide. While Polaroid technically has two sizes their standard size and large format, as their large-format film needs an 8×10 film camera with a specific holder and processor, we will disregard it here.

A larger film means you can pack more into one frame. More people, more stories and possibly more freckles on show. In Fujifilm line-up, Instax Wide is the largest, providing a 1:1.618 golden ratio but still fall short of Polaroid signature gigantic 3.1×3.1inch square frame.

Instax and Polaroid film size

Apart from the picture size itself, I always think there is just something about a square format that pulls people in. From the good ol’ large format 4×5 and medium format 6×6 or 6×7 to the nowadays Instagram aspect ratio, they are more squares than rectangular. Maybe it’s the symmetry of a square that feels more natural to the eyes. With that, Instax came up with their square version back in 2017, basically a smaller version of a Polaroid film. It is understandable that Polaroid wasn’t well pleased about it and got some lawyers involved.

Verdict

To me, the ultimate winner for having more options in the market is always going to be the consumers. Both manufacturers produce great products and it is difficult to say if anyone has an edge over the other. Instax film has good colour and consistent results but Polaroid has their enormous picture size and their “artistic flair” that won them a very loyal fan base. My personal approach is to start with Fujifilm Instax to dip my toes in the instant world in a more controlled and consistent way. Now I am satisfied with Instax, I would love to get my hands on the legendary Polaroid SX70 and see what their diehard fans see. The whole concept is like a gateway drug, once you are hooked by Instax, then experiment with Polaroid and you might understand the “inconsistency” might just be the way layperson interpret “character”.

Thanks for reading! Go check out my review on Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 if you haven’t already. Share your thoughts with me below, are you a fan of Instax or Polaroid?

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