Update September 2017: The Impossible Project has renamed itself ‘Polaroid Originals’ as part of a major rebranding effort. The film itself is still the same, so for our purposes in this article the Impossible Project and Polaroid Originals are the same. To clarify, ‘Polaroid Originals’ are the films and cameras developed by the Impossible Project, while just ‘Polaroid’ refers to the original instant film line that was discontinued in 2008. Right now it looks like the I-1 may be replaced with the new OneStep 2.
You can buy the Impossible Project I-1 at Impossible’s store or at Amazon.
Update June 2016 – Additional information and corrections
Creating version 1.0 of anything is hard. The first iPhone was a mess, the first Surface was laughed out of the room, and even the Impossible Project’s first foray into instant film was… a mixed success. So when I look at the I-1, I like to imagine what is to come, because the I-1 is definitely a 1.0 product. It’s not perfect, but there are a lot of good ideas here.
I really, really want to unconditionally love the I-1. We wouldn’t even be able to shoot our Polaroid cameras if not for the amazing work the Impossible Project has done over the past few years. Not wanting to sit on their hands, there have been rumblings from the Impossible Project of a new camera since the first packs of new instant film shipped out. It makes sense: Polaroid cameras are only going to get older, grumpier and rarer. To secure their future, it was only a matter of time before the Impossible Project built their own Polaroid cameras.
Polaroid cameras, even the cheap ones, are a surprisingly tough act to follow. As I’ve discussed in reviews of Fuji and Lomography’s instant cameras, Polaroids are deceptively simple. There didn’t seem to be anything glamorous about the plastic-y box that is the Polaroid CloseUp 600 camera, but here’s the thing: anybody can pick it up, point it, and shoot a great picture. There was a reason Polaroid cameras were the ‘iPod of their time’ – they did one thing, and they did it very well.
So how does the I-1 stack up against the mighty Polaroid camera? Unfortunately when it comes to taking pictures, not always quite as well as I had hoped. Don’t get me wrong: the I-1 is a stunning piece of industrial design. Everything about it screams ‘pick me up and shoot a picture’. The attention to detail is astounding, right down to the packaging itself. A Polaroid camera looks like a VCR sitting next to the I-1. However, performance and ease-of-use can sometimes cause trouble.
Let’s delve into the gritty details and see where the camera succeeds, where it fails, and where it can improve. Since this is an entirely new camera from a relatively new manufacturer, there’s a lot to look at.
Let’s start at the top, right where the viewfinder happens to live. The viewfinder is a flippy thing that pops up on the top of the camera. Like most Polaroid cameras, it’s a rangefinder camera, which means you’re not actually looking through the lens to compose your image. The I-1’s viewfinder looks super cool… until you try to use it.
Most cameras have an eyepiece that you put your eye up to, which forces the viewer to always have the same perspective. However, on the I-1 you’re supposed to look through the viewfinder from 4-5cm away… and good luck getting that exactly right. There are dots to line up to make sure you’re looking straight, but they do nothing to give you a sense of the edge of frame. I found it very difficult to properly frame up a shoot, and I was never quite confident that I knew what I was taking a picture of.
Here’s the awesome thing though: the viewfinder comes off. It detaches using three clever magnets. So here’s my plea Impossible Project: please give us an optional traditional viewfinder to attach to this camera. It’d be trivial to swap out the viewfinder and it’d remove a huge pain point for this camera. And why stop there? Why not add a mirror attachment for selfies? There is a whole world of possibilities here.
There’s no denying it: the I-1 is nowhere near as sharp as even the cheapest Polaroid cameras. It’s not helped by an autofocus system that’s extremely difficult to keep track of and a relatively shallow depth of field.
The autofocus point is in the center, and by center, I mean exactly dead center. I had a subject who was just a hair off to the side, and the autofocus mechanism went straight for the background. Instructions suggest to focus first with the subject in the center (press the shutter down halfway to focus and hold), then reframe to take the picture. This is good advice, but the problem is there is zero indication of if you’ve actually successfully focused on the right thing. In a Polaroid Spectra camera there is at least an indicator that tells the photographer the autofocus’ chosen distance. This way, if it tells you that its focusing on something ten feet away, you know that you need to try again to get your subject that is 4 feet away in focus.
The lens itself seems to have approximately five different focus modes. Fuji struggles with just two, and the odds aren’t exactly in your favor with five. When everything works right, your subject will be in focus with a nice, surprisingly out of focus background. I found that everything seems to work best with a single subject very close to the camera. However, I tend to shoot a bit wider, and that’s where problems often happen.
Between the difficult viewfinder and a challenging autofocus system, I felt like I was often fighting the camera to get my shot. Instant film doesn’t call for a whole lot of precision, but I tended to lose nearly half of my photos to focus and framing issues. When instant film is already painfully expensive, it hurts to lose shots.
Update: I’ve found that the camera is optimized for portraits that are closer than what I typically shoot with Polaroid cameras. I’m going to be doing more tests, but there are several different points that allow for maximum sharpness.
Exposure seems fairly solid for this camera. It tends to underexpose rather than overexpose like most Polaroid cameras. The usual caveats apply for basic autoexposure: for example if you’re shooting a subject on a bright backdrop, your image will probably be slightly underexposed if you don’t adjust for it. With regular use there will be very little surprises with this camera.
The most eye-catching feature of the I-1 is the ringflash around the camera. It’s a beautiful addition, and it one of the many aspects of the design that scream ‘pick me up and play with me!’ However, in practice, I found the ringflash to have one major flaw that made me wish for the uglier, simpler flashes of yesterday: red eye.
The Impossible I-1 has a lot of features for portraiture in particular, which makes the the red eye a major problem. It took me by surprise initially, as it was something I hadn’t encountered often with my Polaroid cameras. I popped out my Impulse AF and shot it alongside my I-1, and sure enough, no red eye there. It’s trivial to correct red eye in digital, but we’re dealing with physical instant photos here.
The flashes on Polaroid cameras tend to be juuust offset enough from the lens itself that it didn’t cause the issue. However, the ringflash is as close to the lens on the I-1 as possible, and thus… red eye. Just like the disposable 35mm cameras of yesteryear.
Don’t get me wrong, beyond the red eye issue, the ring flash is awesome. It lights subjects in a flattering light without blowing them out of causing their skin to shine. Shoot black and white film and you won’t even have to worry about red eye. Otherwise, it’s a major problem that will prevent me from using the flash as much as I would like to.
The layout of this camera hews fairly close to Polaroid cameras, with an exposure compensation dial and an extremely welcome flash on/off button. Unless you’re under studio lights or outside on a sunny day, you’re going to need that flash, which is why Polaroid often removed the option to even turn it off.
The shutter has a very shallow click compared to most camera shutter buttons, which can be initially disorienting. A ring around the shutter turns the camera on and to Bluetooth mode. It’s simple and elegant in design, with a nice little line.
There is no traditional frame counter on the I-1.
Instead, when you turn on the camera, the number of LEDs that pop up on the flash will inform you how many frames you have left. You can also press the shutter when the camera is off to see the LEDs flash the number of frames as well. It’s sort of a cool idea, but I’m honestly not a huge fan. I pulled out a cartridge thinking there was no film left when there was actually still one photo left. It’s not a deal breaker, and I understand that it probably reduced cost to leave the counter out, but it’s not very intuitive to use. (Note: to keep from making my mistake, one LED means there is one frame left, one flashing LED means there are no frames left.) When you press the shutter when the camera is off, it shows you the remaining battery life, not how much film is left. Only when you turn the camera on does it show you how much film is left. The app also informs you of battery life and remaining film, but it can sometimes get tripped up if the battery has died. It’s not as intuitive and easy as the simple frame counters of yesteryear, and an intuitive solution still needs to be found.
Bluetooth and iOS/Android App Features
One of the key features of the camera is that it wirelessly connects to a smartphone. This provides a variety of manual controls, a remote shutter, and other goodies. Pairing the camera is impressively easy and robust, taking only a matter of a few quick seconds to pair without futzing with any menus or codes. Even turning your phone off and on or switching to other apps doesn’t faze it.
Manually controlling the camera through Bluetooth pretty much requires that you’re using a tripod, but it gives you a bonanza of options. In fact, it’s almost a stressful amount of options, but extremely welcome for those who like to tinker. I found its usefulness relatively limited since I had trouble framing with the viewfinder on a tripod, but it’s there. Unless you’re a seasoned photographer who regularly uses a light meter and film cameras, you can probably safely ignore this option.
The remote shutter is the real star of the show. This is the killer feature of this camera, as up to now it’s been quite difficult to do selfies with Polaroid cameras. It required using timed shutters and not all cameras even had that function. Also, while the viewfinder is a pain to use normally, it’s actually pretty useful for the subject to make sure they’re properly lined up with the lens. The camera truly seems in its element taking selfies, which will make it incredibly useful for all you self-photogs out there. In fact, I’ll go ahead and crown it the best instant film camera for selfies in existence right now.
There are some other fluff modes like ‘light painting’. That starts to get a bit into Lomography ‘toy camera’ territory, but it’s never a bad thing to have. Some of you will undoubtedly use it to make some cool stuff. Also to answer a common question, you can’t ‘preview’ your image through the iOS app, as there’s no digital sensor inside the camera to transmit an image back to the phone. I’m sure many people will be surprised by how analog this camera is even with the digital bells and whistles.
As I mentioned before, this thing is beautiful. It makes all other instant cameras being produced today look like garbage, and the looks alone will convince loads of people to buy one of these. My friends who see the camera lying around instantly want to pick it up and play with it, and I think Impossible is very aware of this, which is why the box doubles as a store display.
Overall, it’s fairly tough. There isn’t a lot to break off, and if you somehow damage the viewfinder it can easily be replaced. There is no lens cap, but it’s recessed enough within the camera that I wouldn’t sweat it. It fits into my Think Tank Speed Demon (read: pro fanny pack) without a problem. It reminds me quite a bit of traditional SX-70 box cameras and the Impulse AF, and fits in a lot of the same places.
The bottom is flat, which means it can be sat on a table or stack of books if a tripod isn’t handy. There is a tripod screw hole at the bottom in the proper spot, which is something that isn’t always a given on cheap Polaroid cameras.
The camera is coated a ‘soft touch’ plastic finish, which feels nice but is an absolute figerprint/skin grease magnet. Expect the back of the camera to quickly cover with grease as it brushes against your face during shooting.
The I-1 is powered by a rechargeable battery located inside the camera itself. It can be charged with a standard micro-usb cable, and the package comes with a particularly fancy flat one. The battery isn’t big, so be sure to charge the camera before each use. You can get a rough idea of how much battery life is left through the Bluetooth smartphone app.
I have mixed feelings about this battery. One one hand, it eliminates the crazy amount of waste disposable batteries in each film pack creates. On the other hand, it makes me worry about the long term survival of the camera. One of the reasons that Polaroid cameras have survived decades is that there is no battery rotting away inside of it, irreparably frying its electronics. How long with the battery inside the I-1 continue to charge? How easy will it be able to be replaced?
I think they made the right choice, but it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out in terms of longevity. Unlike the DSLR or cell phone camera of the week, film cameras stick around for decades, not mere months like digital.
So how does the I-1 stack up to the other instant film cameras on the market? You can check out my new Instant Film Camera Shootout for a bunch of comparison images, but here’s the general gist:
I-1 vs Fuji Instax Wide and Mini cameras: Fuji Instax cameras remain the much more affordable option, with both film and cameras that are far more affordable than what Impossible has to offer. They’re great for events and capturing large amounts of photos. Instax is a bit on the boring side for my taste, and I like Impossible film a bit better, but it’s all a matter of preference. The I-1 isn’t nearly as sharp as the Fuji cameras, but it’s much nicer looking and built.
I-1 vs Lomo Instant Wide camera: The Lomo Instant Wide feels like it was made out of cardboard compared to the I-1, and is entirely manual focus. It also suffers from sharpness issues, so there really isn’t any reason to get the Lomo Instant Wide unless you really want to use Fuji Instax film.
I-1 vs Polaroid SLRs: There’s no contest here. The Polaroid SLRs are still the best instant cameras ever made. They’re quite pricey, but when compared to spending 300 USD on the I-1, they suddenly don’t seem so expensive.
I-1 vs Polaroid rangefinders: Cheap used Polaroid cameras still abound, and can be had for a small fraction of the price of the I-1. They’re sharper and easier to use, which makes them an easy choice if price is a concern. If you’re a pro, price doesn’t matter, or dedicated to selfies then it might make sense to get a I-1, but otherwise old Polaroid cameras still have you covered.
Summary and Recommendations
With a few tweaks and improvements, this camera could be headed for greatness. For now, I’m going to be sticking with my favorite Polaroid cameras for the bulk of my shoots.
Who is this camera for right now? If selfies are your number one priority and money is no object, then this is the camera for you. If you love the Impossible Project and want to support their first step into full fledged camera hardware, then this is a perfect way to do just that. If you tons of film and money to spend, you can crank through pack after pack messing with all the cool features of the camera and toss away the fuzzy frames.
This camera is also excellent for close-up photography, which older Polaroid cameras struggle with. If you want to get close, this is the camera for you, regardless of price and other frustrations.
However, for most people, I would still recommend a good 600 type Polaroid camera before sending them to this one. The I-1 is expensive, and has a much more difficult learning curve than most Polaroids. The results are also generally poorer than even a fixed frame Polaroid camera, which is hard to swallow when a used Polaroid camera can be had for cheap. Pros with money to spend should still look for a folding SLR type Polaroid camera for the ultimate in quality and control over the image.
I purchase all of this equipment to review out of pocket (no special treatment for me!), and the 300 USD price point, while reasonable in many ways, is still painful. Instant film is not a cheap hobby. However, I’m proud of the Impossible Project for this first outing. Creating a camera is no easy task, and the company doesn’t have the resources of a company like Fujifilm. The build quality of the I-1 is outstanding and makes other new instant film cameras look like cheap toys. I can’t wait to see what Impossible will do next. The I-1, just like the First Flush films of old, is a learning experience of a product, and if Impossible’s progress in film is anything to go by, we can expect some truly groundbreaking cameras from the company over the next few years.
You can buy the Impossible Project I-1 at Impossible’s store or at Amazon.