Update December 2018: The Impossible Project is now Polaroid Originals, which is the same company with a shiny new brand name.
The Fuji Instax 210 is still available at Amazon and many camera stores new, but you should be able to pick up a used for cheap on eBay. Please use the following links if you’re going to buy one, it helps me keep this site running and costs you nothing! Get the Fuji Instax 210 on Amazon.
Update April 2015: Fuji has released a new, superior camera to replace the 210: the Fuji Instax Wide 300. They share the same guts, so the image quality itself will be exactly the same, however, the Fuji Instax Wide 300 has superior handling and controls. If money matters, get the 210 for cheap, but if you want the best Fuji has to offer, the 300 is the way to go. You can read more in my full review of the Fuji Instax Wide 300.
As I’ve delved further into the world of Polaroid, I’ve always been curious about Fuji Instax instant cameras. Here is a line of instant cameras that are still manufactured new and use film that looks pretty decent and is nearly half the price-per-photo ratio of Impossible Project film. The biggest barrier to entry is the camera – far more expensive new than any five dollar thrift shop Polaroid camera. Well, I finally got a hold of one of these bad boys to test it all out, and I made sure to get the newest, baddest Instax camera out there – the Instax 210.
Some background first for those who are curious. Back in the heady days of Polaroid’s rise to instant film domination, Kodak decided that they’d try their hand at making their own line of instant cameras. Polaroid sued, and a patent battle that would make Samsung and Apple blush erupted. When it all shook out, Kodak was ordered to shut down instant film production, effectively bricking thousands of their cameras. Polaroid was awarded record damages and maintained a near monopoly on instant film.
Fujifilm took a bit different route than Kodak, and decided to license some of Polaroid’s patents to make their own instant film line. It never really took off in the same way Polaroid did for home consumers, but here we are, in 2013, and Polaroid is effectively dead while Fuji continues to faithfully pump out Instax cameras.
Most of this review is about the Instax 210 camera, but it can’t really be discussed without also talking about the film it uses. And boy, how about that film. Fuji Instax Wide Format is awesome, durable, and has good colors, pretty much everything the original Polaroid was.
Almost. Personally, I find the colors dull and a bit too on the blue side. It’s almost too good, with very few defects that make it fun to use. However, for wedding photographers and people who need the physical picture to not melt away, Fuji Instax film is dependable and trustworthy. It’s a serious contender and the reason why many photographers swear by it as their Polaroid replacement.
So we’ve established that the film is awesome, so how about the camera to shoot it with? Oh lordy, that’s another story. The Instax 210 is clumsy, cheap, sort of stupid looking, and purely functional. It’s the price one must pay to use the great film that Fuji makes and might have you crawling back to your Polaroids for comfort.
CONTROLS AND HANDLING
I almost always bemoan the lack of controls on most consumer Polaroid cameras, especially the lack of flash. The Instax 210 has a lot of control goodness going for it, it just implemented it in the stupidest way possible. First off, all the button controls are on the side of the camera, the one place you never look while using the camera, mostly because your hand is already covering it up. One might say this is so you can switch buttons by feel. I say good luck, because you have to look an LCD screen on the side to see what the heck you’re doing! It’s awkward, impractical, and maddening.
Worse, you’re going to have to look at that screen constantly. Every time the camera is turned on, the front lens juts out and the camera instantly defaults to macro mode. TO MACRO MODE. WHY!? I ruined so many photos by not remembering to hit the focus distance button to 3m-infinity when I powered on the camera. You can’t just leave the camera on either because of the lens that pops out the front is uncovered and easily broken when it’s on. Write a note on the back of the camera, on the back of your hand, whatever you need to do to remind you that every single darn time you turn that sucker on you switch focus from .9-3m to 3m-infinity.
Other controls include a lighten/normal/darken switch and a flash on/off button. I appreciate the flash on/off, but it’s kind of a lie. If the camera thinks the flash needs to be on, it’s going to fire that sucker no matter what setting you have on. The lighten/normal/darken switch works fine, but it’s really hard to see on the LCD which it’s set to, all you have to go by are tiny dark triangles.
Luckily the shutter fares much better on the other side of the Instax 210, giving you a nice big button on a pleasantly shaped grip. Film fits in the back easily and feels good to insert. Once exposed, the film pops out the top and the whole thing sounds like a portable VCR.
LENS AND EXPOSURE
The lens on this bad boy is serviceable, although I wish it would just utilize the whole focus range without me having to switch between macro and normal modes. Heck, if the camera didn’t default into macro mode that would make the camera 100% better.
I guess the engineers at Fuji assumed that you would only be doing closeups with the Instax 210 because it completely drops the ball on landscape and fill flash. The flash is weak and just good enough for close items; don’t use it for a room or somebody far away or you’ll simply get nothing at all. In dark rooms or situations, the camera will only expose for the flash (even if you want it off) and if it can’t hit anything the photo will just remain dark. It’s quite frustrating and makes the camera largely useless indoors.
Outdoors in good light the camera consistently nailed exposure, not blowing anything out and creating sharp images. So that’s a relief.
Also, this is as good of a time as any to mention that the viewfinder on the Instax 210 is just serviceable. It sits rather far away from the lens, so don’t count on it to give you a very good idea of what your actual framing will be. As far as I know there aren’t any Fuji Instax SLRs (please correct me if I’m wrong), so it’s just going to be an evil you have to live with. I consistently found myself looking for the viewfinder, but I’m sure with practice one will get used to it.
The Instax 210 makes even the cheapest Polaroid cameras feel exquisite by comparison. The body is made of flimsy plastic that makes the whole thing feel like a toy. The biggest offender is the battery door, which barely stays on, cracks horribly when taken on or off, and doesn’t fit properly when it’s on. It’s a simple thing that makes the whole camera feel even more like an afterthought.
Also, I cannot emphasize enough that the Fuji 210 is gigantic. Polaroid cameras aren’t tiny, but they feel like pocket cameras compared to this thing. Mostly this is because of the way the film is positioned in the camera. Polaroid uses mirrors that allow the film to sit at the bottom of the unit so that the camera can fold or exist in a small box. The Fuji is more like a big, flat plate. The film sits directly behind the lens which has to extend out when on. I’m sure the cubic area of a Polaroid camera is similar to the Fuji, but it looks way more intimidating and is much harder to pack.
POLAROID OR FUJI?
That is the question. If you’re starting out, do you grab some old Polaroid cameras and some expensive (and often unreliable) Impossible Project film? Or do you purchase a pricey Fuji Instax 210 and use Fuji’s instant film? It all depends on what you’re using instant film for.
If you’re a wedding/event shooter or a photojournalist who needs instant photos that are durable and reliable to give away or sell, Fuji is the one for you. Impossible Project film is just too unpredictable to depend on, and old Polaroid cameras constantly die from age. However, if you’re an artist or hobbyist, I daresay Polaroid and Impossible Project film is much more fun to use. Polaroid cameras are much more user friendly than the Instax 210, and you have the option of investing in high end Polaroid SLRs if you ever want something super nice.
Also, the unpredictable nature of Impossible Project film is the whole reason why I even bother with instant film in the first place. In the world of Instagram and cheap digital imitations, one better have a good reason to spend the time and money that instant film requires. I don’t mind Fuji Instax, in fact I think it’s great. I’d just prefer to shoot with my trusty Polaroid Spectra System on some PZ Color Shade if I have a choice. Either way, both are good choices.
Good luck and happy shooting! Get the Fuji Instax 210 on Amazon.