It’s a digital world, after all.
In an age where nearly everybody has access to a powerful digital camera conveniently attached to their smartphone, where DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are pushing beyond 50 megapixels with gorgeous color technology, where the internet makes images all-pervasive and instantly shareable, why would anybody shoot analogue old-school instant film?
Especially in a world of endless digital complexity, analogue film photography is a welcome respite. All one has to do is point the camera at the subject, press the shutter, and image pops out of the front. No further action is required, and several minutes later one has a photograph.
No memory cards, no editing, no printing, no LCD screens. Just photography.
Before I sound too much like some anti-technology luddite, I believe digital photography has actually made it a better time to be an instant film photographer than ever before. Affordable, high-powered scanners let us share our images online, and in the case of the Impossible I-1 camera, even allow for advancements in analogue camera technology itself.
Polaroid film as we once knew it may be dead, but the Impossible Project has stepped up and created film that works in Polaroid cameras. Fuji Instax has long played second fiddle to Polaroid, but now has exploded in popularity in its own right. It’s a great time to be shooting instant film.
The Instant Film Experience
My favorite aspect of instant film is its transformative effect on a scene. While digital simply recreates what is in front of me with a dull accuracy, instant film distorts, exaggerates, and changes it. Often, I feel that the scene is revealed to me with Polaroid.
Using instant film is a chaotic, imprecise experience, but is quickly rewarding as the image forms into being right in front of you. It’s more fun to experiment when you can see the results within a few short minutes. When I mess around with 35mm or medium format, I have to wait weeks to develop and scan the images before I can see how it turned out.
If you’re somebody who likes to take portraits, instant film images are fun to share with your subject. Unlike a digital LCD, you don’t have to apologize for it being ‘undeveloped’ or simply not being developed yet like 35mm. There are stories of photojournalists who would bring Polaroid cameras with them along with their pro gear so they could give their subjects instant film pictures of themselves as thanks.
When it comes to a pure, photographic experience, there is nothing else out there like instant film photography.
Physical Objects in the Real World
I shoot 35mm and digital regularly, but it’s incredibly rare that I actually get around to printing anything. Even when I do, it doesn’t feel terribly special, as I’m simply printing out from a file on a computer.
One of the delights of instant film is having a real, physical photograph. As more and more of our lives turn into ones and zeroes, its still delightful holding a flattened combination of plastic, chemicals and paper that miraculously creates an image. I still find it surreal that I’m able to create a complete image without a computer being involved in any step in the process.
Our Connection to Polaroid
When I was a kid, I was fascinated with my parents’ Polaroid Impulse AF. Film was too expensive for me to shoot it, but they would always let me hold a photo after it popped out of the camera. I watched with wonder as an image formed out of they gray clouds of the opacifier.
While countless undeveloped disposable cameras and rolls of 35mm lay around in drawers, our Polaroid snapshots decorated the house. Many of them I still have to this day, showing our family grow through the years.
When I was in college back in 2009, I dug my parents’ Polaroid camera out of a box. I was just beginning to explore photography, and I finally had the resources to purchase my own instant film for the camera. Unfortunately, Polaroid had just ceased production of their iconic film, rendering millions of cameras, including mine, functionally useless.
Luckily, the Impossible Project formed, and began creating their own replacement film for Polaroid cameras. The Impossible films were wild, reckless, and unpredictable in those early days, and I had a blast shooting with them as I was learning how to be a photographer. My website was born in 2011 from this experimentation, and I wanted to share my analogue photography experiences with others who were looking for something different.
Polaroid was pervasive in its time, and many people, including myself, have a very personal connection to the film format.
Accessibility of Instant Film
Unlike any other film format in existence, Polaroid was designed from the ground up to be simple and easy to use. There is no need for complex chemical development like 35mm or medium format, or advanced knowledge of how lenses and camera bodies work. With a Polaroid camera, all you have to do was load it with film, point it at what you want to shoot, and hit the shutter. The image appears, complete and ready to display.
This strength continues, as those who are interested in analogue and even digital photography can use instant film as a rewarding and accessible introduction to the wider world of photography.
Even decades after its height, nobody else has yet to beat Polaroid on the simplicity of its cameras.
Instant Film as a Photographic Tool
While I firmly believe the best part of instant film is the immensely satisfying experience of using it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a serious photographic tool. Every format has its place in the toolbox of the artistic photographer, and instant film is no different.
Wedding and event photographers of the world can find instant film an incredibly useful tool. Putting out instant film cameras like the Fuji Instax Mini 9 allow people to take their own pictures to augment the experience, instantly see the photo they took, and take home souvenirs.
Professional photographers use the film to achieve difficult, complex color manipulation and experimental effects. Many of these looks are impossible to achieve digitally without extensive and highly skilled work. When working towards certain kinds of images, instant film is often the best tool to use.
The Future of Film
More so than any other film format, including 35mm, I believe that instant film has a bright future. The Impossible Project is keeping vintage Polaroid equipment alive and well, and is pushing the boundaries of what is possible with instant film. People everywhere are discovering Fuji Instax film, once the forgotten little brother of Polaroid, now a hugely popular format in its own right. New cameras are coming from everybody from Lecia to Lomography that push what we ever thought was possible.
So it has never been a better time to grab a camera, dust it off, and get out there and make some instant images of your own.
Want to get your own camera? Check out my Fuji Instax and Polaroid camera buying guides.
Want to know how to use your new/old Polaroid camera? Check out my guide to using Polaroid cameras.
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