One of the biggest reasons I love instant film is the transformative effect it has on an image. To me, digital often feels like the equivalent of pointing a flashlight in somebody’s face, while film is akin to candlelight. The unpredictable aspects of instant film make it feel like a portrait or landscape is often ‘revealed’ to me through the image, rather than me simply trying to re-create what’s there.
Instagram and many other digital platforms have filters that create the analogue or ‘film look’ artificially, but I always find them wanting. There’s just no substitute for the real thing. Partially, that’s because the real thing is wildly difficult to control. Shooting film is embracing chaos, and chaos is hard to replicate accurately.
Like anything else, film photography is simply a tool. Knowing what it can do and how it can act up can help you achieve the look you want. To help you figure out how to achieve looks that you may have seen other photographers accomplish, or may have accidentally stumbled upon on your own, I’ve put together this list of defects, effects, and manipulations that one can achieve with instant film.
Most of these below effects are tied to Polaroid and Impossible Project film. Fuji Instax film is extremely stable, and not prone to many of these problems. However, some of them, like expired film and sun dot, do apply to Instax. Generally, however, if you want to make the most of instant film chaos, the Impossible Project is the best playground to do so. If you want to play it safe, Fuji Instax is a great place to get started.
Also, some of these are achieved with Impossible Project and Polaroid film types that haven’t been made in many years and are extremely hard to find now, if they can be at all.
Keep in mind that instant film adds several dimensions to photography that digital shooters may be unfamiliar with. Temperature, humidity, and even time are now major factors in how an image will ultimately turn out.
I highly recommend scanning within 12 hours of initially taking a picture in order to capture it in its optimal state. Then, if the picture changes, you still have record of how it originally looked. Also, if it changes, and you like how it looks, scan it immediately. It may keep changing. If you shoot instant film seriously, invest in a good scanner. Once you have one, scanning costs nothing, so scan often and be sure to capture your instant film image the way you like it.
I’ve organized the effects, defects, and looks below in alphabetical order, with photo examples above each one. By no means is this an exhaustive survey, and there is amazing work out there as photographers continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with instant film. I’ll continue to add to this as I find out more.
BLACK SUN DOT
Particularly powerful points of light turn can turn black rather than staying a pleasant white due to extreme overexposure. That’s why if the sun gets in a shot, it’ll turn into a black dot in the middle of the blown out portion. I’ve had lights cause this effect too. It’s not one that is particularly pleasant, so I generally avoid it when I can.
I’ve run into this effect most often on Fuji Instax cameras and film.
CAMERA EXPOSURE ERRORS
When the instant film camera can’t figure out exposure, it can do all sorts of crazy things. One of the more common is to leave exposure on for an extended period of time, resulting in blurry, ghostly images.
SX-70 cameras require a ton of light since the film only has an ISO/ASA of 70, compared to the ISO/ASA of 600 for 600-type film. With SX-70 cameras, environments that may seem plenty bright, like a well-lit interior, may result in the camera still thinking that there isn’t enough light, and putting up a fit.
Part of the problem is that SX-70 cameras often do not have a built-in flash, which 600 and Spectra cameras typically do. The built-in flash keeps the camera from ever trying to hold the shutter open for extended period of time, and prevents blurry images even in dark environments.
Often, if there isn’t enough light, some SX-70 cameras won’t even take a picture, and get jammed up until they’re ‘restarted’ by pulling the film out or opening and closing them.
If you’re shooting SX-70 on a regular basis, it’s best to get a flashbar. If you don’t want the ‘flash look’ with any Polaroid camera, rather than removing the flash, simply tape a piece of diffusion over it.
CAMERA FOCUS ERRORS
This is common to every type of camera in existence, and it can happen even to Polaroid and Fuji Instax cameras. Especially in darker environments, the camera can struggle to hit focus. Also, there’s often no way of knowing what the camera is grabbing for focus in many cheap rangerfinder-type cameras.
It helps to know if your camera is fixed-focus or autofocus. Fixed-focus cameras have a limited range, and you can pull things in and out of focus pretty reliably.
Most instant film cameras have huge depths of field, so this isn’t super common. If an image is blurry, it’s often because the camera is leaving the shutter open for an extended period of time due to an exposure error.
DEFORMING THROUGH PRESSURE DURING DEVELOPMENT
When the image is initially developing upon ejecting from the camera, the chemicals in the image are still wet. This means they can still be manipulated before they dry out.
One way to manipulate the image is to apply sharp pressure to it. Using a closed pen or something of that sort, you can ‘draw’ into the developing picture.
Sometimes an instant film image will be vastly underexposed, or severely discolored. However, there’s often tons of detail in the image you may not be able to see with the naked eye.
If you scan with a high-quality scanner, you can often pull out these details digitally, and manipulate the image in photoshop. This is one of the major perks of the digital/analogue hybrid workflow that I use, where you can take advantage of the power of both analogue film and digital manipulation.
EARLY IMPOSSIBLE PROJECT FILMS
Many of these defects noted in this glossary are from the wild, unpredictable early days of the Impossible Project. The first monochrome films were sepia-toned, and the first color films were almost entirely blue. These early films had unique color properties that are difficult to replicate. Impossible makes some nifty color monochrome films that sort of replicate these colors, and are the closest one can get to these films in 2017 and beyond.
EXPIRED FILM DEFECTS
The older the film, the wilder it gets. After a few years, Impossible Project, and even Fuji and Polaroid film can become extremely unpredictable. The age of the film causes the chemistry itself to change, which will trigger many of the defects listed here, and many that aren’t.
One of the most common effects of expired film is for the image to lose much of its contrast and saturation, as well as unpredictable color shifts.
If you are shooting expired film, you’re going to have to truly embrace the chaos. However, don’t be too surprised if you don’t manage to get an image at all. Using expired film can be both rewarding and incredibly frustrating.
The very first Impossible Project films were notoriously unstable, and prone to ‘humidity damage.’ Essentially, water would get stuck inside the image, and the chemicals wouldn’t dry properly. This left the picture distorted, discolored, and significantly changed.
I loved this effect, and often scanned my pictures several months after taking them to capture this effect.
Only the sepia-toned monochromatic Impossible Project films exhibited this damage, and I haven’t encountered it in any recent generations of monochromatic film. It may be an interesting test to see if it can be artificially induced through a moisture chamber of some sort.
LIGHT LEAKS, LIGHT SENSITIVITY, AND BLOWN OUT EDGES
Impossible Project film, especially older variants, is extremely sensitive to light when first popping out of the camera. With all instant films, there is an ‘opacifier’ chemical that initially protects the image while it develops, then slowly fades away. The image ‘appearing’ is actually the opacifier fading away.
Even the strongest opacifier can’t stand up to the sun, and early Impossible Projects had a very weak opacifier. If an image is not shielded from the sun when initially popping out of the camera in bright conditions, the image can be completely blown out. Even when protected with a loose dark slide, light hitting the edges of the frame can cause a ‘light leak’ effect, where the edges would be blown out, but not the middle.
Fuji Instax’s opacifier is extremely hardy, and the image does not need to be protected as it develops. Current generation Impossible Project film, on the other hand, should be kept out of the sun until it has fully developed if you want strong colors and contrast. Leaving the image exposed will cause it to lose contrast and appear faded.
LONG-TERM DESTRUCTION OF IMAGE
Early Impossible Project color films were especially prone to long term instability in images. While Polaroid pictures will essentially last forever, some Impossible Project films will turn steadily blue until the image disappears entirely. Color films were and are still most prone to this kind of change. Once the chemistry dries, usually the rate of change will slow down.
This is one of the reasons I always recommend scanning your images as soon as they’re fully properly developed. You never know how long it’ll stick around in the state that you like it.
LIZARD SKIN, SPOTS, AND OTHER CHEMISTRY DEFECTS
In Impossible Project films, there are sometimes chemistry flaws that result in things like the ‘lizard skin’ defect, white spots, or black splotches. Some of these are part of process of the film drying, and appear a few hours after the picture is initially taken, then disappear hours after that. Sometimes they don’t disappear at all.
Different generations of Impossible Project film display different kinds of chemistry quirks. Even modern Impossible Project film has its own tics. Keep an eye out for them, and remember, if the image looks like how you want it to, get it scanned before something changes.
PACK-BASED LIGHT LEAKS
Polaroid, Impossible, and Fuji Instax film cartridges are all sealed in light-tight containers when shipped. Once opened, the unexposed images inside these cartridges are vulnerable to light. A ‘darkslide’ is initially on top of the stack of film, which is a black slip of paper that is ejected when the cartridge is initially placed within the camera. This darkslide protects the sensitive images while the pack is briefly outside the sealed package until it’s inserted in the camera.
The darkslide can be manually removed, and you can move film between packs. If you’re not in a darkroom, any exposed film will be instantly blown out. Even with a darkslide, if you press on the film or mess with the cartridge, you can cause some light to leak into the stack of film and leave marks. This is very similar to light leaks seen on the edges of roll film like 35mm and 120.
This article primarily deals with common ‘modern’ instant film formats like Polaroid SX-70, 600, Spectra/Image/1200, Impossible Project, and Fuji Instax, which are all ‘integral’ films. However, there is also older ‘peel apart’ Polaroid films. Fuji until recently still made peel-apart films that could be used in film backs and vintage Polaroid peel-apart cameras.
Peel apart film is often identified by the rough, metallic ‘edges’ of the film image. Many photographers still use this film and its variants, which include color and ‘chocolate’ monochromatic films.
Integral film that is cut and peeled apart often can replicate the peel-apart film look with the glossy plastic layer removed.
PEELING APART THE IMAGE/IMAGE TRANSFER
While the chemicals are still wet immediately after ejection from the camera, you can cut the image out of the plastic ‘housing’. This allows you to remove the thin plastic sheet covering the image, and you can even ‘lift’ the image off of its surface and onto textured paper and other surfaces. Once the image dries, it will remain permanently attached to wherever it is relocated to.
Back when humidity damage was a problem for the Impossible Project films, cutting the image out of the film often was a way of preserving the image, allowing it to dry faster in the open air.
POLAROID SOFT TONE EFFECT
Polaroid sold a special variant of Spectra/1200/Image film called ‘soft tone’ that had a unique chemistry that caused its images to have a warm cast and low contrast.
If you inspect this film closely, you can see that the warm cast is caused by lots of tiny yellow dots. Because of these yellow dots, the film doesn’t respond to digital manipulation well.
Soft Tone film was delightful, but unfortunately has not been manufactured in nearly a decade. You may be able to find some expired soft tone, but be prepared to deal with the perils of expired film and expect a dead battery.
When Polaroid camera rollers get gummed up, they won’t press down on the image in an even fashion. This causes what I call ‘roller marks,’ which are a series of repeating marks down the length of an image.
Early Impossible Project films often leaked developer and opacifier chemicals, which would then get on the rollers. Especially with expired film, be on the lookout for chemical leaks, and clean your rollers if paste gets on them.
Unless, that is, you want the effect! I’ve never encountered this issue with Fuji Instax cameras.
I’m not sure what to call this one, so I’m calling it the roller stripe. The roller stripe is a section down the middle of the center of the image, which creates three distinctly colored segments of the image.
This typically appears on both Polaroid and Impossible Project film as it ages. I’m not sure what causes it, but the look is very distinct, and it is often accompanied by undeveloped patches.
One of the very fun (and maddening) aspects of Impossible Project film is that it is very sensitive to temperature. High temperatures tend to cause the image to turn reddish in tone, while cold temperatures bring out blues and greens.
Impossible Project film’s reactivity to temperature changes with each generation, so it takes some experimentation to figure out how to deal with it. Impossible often recommends keeping the film in jacket pockets to keep it from getting too cold in the winter, and actually once had a variant that was so sensitive to heat they called it ‘cool’ film in order to drive home the point that people shouldn’t get it too hot.
The temperature in which film is stored also has a major effect on it. If you want to preserve any film, including roll film like 35mm, it’s best to store it in a refrigerator. It’ll last longer and have stronger colors. Impossible recommends, however, taking film out of the fridge at least an hour before shooting.
Full disclosure: I do not refrigerate my film anymore. I try to only buy what I know I’m going to use within the month, and I always forget I have film on hand if I stash it in a corner of my fridge. I also like playing with the danger of faded/distorted film due to non-optimal storage.
TIME-ZERO FLAME EFFECT
This is a stunningly beautiful film effect that is primarily achieved by using Polaroid ‘Time-Zero’ film. This was a format Polaroid made for SX-70, and many photographers have wisely stockpiled. The ‘Time-Zero’ was simply a marketing term for faster development. It’s increasingly rare to find this type of photo taken these days, because Time Zero is extremely hard to find and hasn’t been manufactured in over a decade as of 2017.
I have not personally had the privilege of using Time Zero film, because I did not use a Polaroid SX-70 type camera when I first started shooting while the film was still purchasable.
The ‘flame effect’ is a discoloration that occurs in long-expired Time Zero film. Occasionally similar effects can be achieved with expired standard expired 600 type Polaroid, or to a much more subdued degree Impossible Project films. The discoloration is distinctive, as it is often bright, which can contrast with a darker image and appear similar to flames.
This is a very common type of defect in Polaroid camera development. When the picture is ejected, it passes between two rollers. The rollers are what actually trigger development, and it’s critical that the rollers apply even pressure to the image for it to develop correctly. This is why keeping rollers clean is important if you want to avoid this defect.
When the rollers do not work correctly, for whatever reason, undeveloped patches can occur. The most common place for this to happen is around the edges, with the thicker frame provides some uneven thickness, however slight.
The chemicals themselves can also cause undeveloped patches. Especially in old Impossible or Polaroid film, the chemicals can be uneven or thicken with time, which causes large swaths of undeveloped patches.
Undeveloped patches can be very exciting, and also completely ruin an image. If you’re looking for more, dirty rollers and old film will increase your chances of getting some. Also, if one image in a pack has undeveloped patches, there is a very good chance the others will as well.
Just getting started with Polaroid film? Check out my beginner’s guide to instant film!
If you want instant film news and articles delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for my monthly newsletter! It’s cool, I promise.