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August 18, 2017

The best instant camera

by John_A

By Erin Lodi

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a buyer’s guide to the best technology. When readers choose to buy The Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, it may earn affiliate commissions that support its work. Read the full article here.

After 10 hours of new research and testing (on top of three years’ worth of work on previous guides), we think the Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic is the best instant film camera for most people, combining ease of use, great-looking photos, and retro-cool style at a reasonable price.

Who this is for

When it’s time to party, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic is perfect for passing around. Photo: Erin Lodi

The big draw of instant cameras is that they’re fun to use. A great conversation starter, an instant camera gives you an easy way to coax even the most camera-shy subjects into posing for a portrait. Add to that the fact that you can’t share these images on Facebook at the touch of a button, and people are only too happy to offer up great, uninhibited poses. You’re also likely to draw a crowd of curious onlookers as you wait for the prints to develop.

Instant cameras are a decidedly retro proposition, with a limited set of features. You don’t have a zoom lens, and the viewfinders are tiny and less than precise at close distances. Instant film isn’t cheap, either—you’re looking at more than 50¢ for each shot you take. And you don’t get an on-screen preview of how the lighting and contrast will affect your photograph, so you can’t predict how the photo will turn out. But those shortcomings are part of the charm of shooting with an instant camera—you never know quite how the image will look until you pull the trigger.

How we picked and tested

We tested Fujifilm’s Instax offerings as well as some new instant-camera options from Lomography and The Impossible Project. Photo: Erin Lodi

Because authoritative editorial reviews of instant cameras are scarce, we talked to a number of photographers who work with the instant format about their preferences. Although everyone associates the Polaroid brand with instant cameras, when it came to recommending a current model, the resounding call from our photography experts was for Fujifilm models. It wasn’t even close.

Since 2013, we’ve compared instant-camera usability, image quality, and features by shooting in a variety of indoor and outdoor conditions. We also put the cameras through the most appropriate real-world examination we could think of: the party test. What happens when a novice shooter picks this thing up at a gathering? Is it fun to pass around and shoot with at a company holiday party or a family dinner? How do those photos look?

Our pick

Photo: Erin Lodi

The Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic is the best instant film camera for most people looking to experience the fun of analog photos. Intuitive controls mean it’s ready to pass around at a party, and it has a great viewfinder that makes framing your shot easy. It uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and offers additional shooting options that let experienced shooters get creative, too. What you get with all of that are predictably pleasing images with more-accurate colors and finer detail than its competitors can produce, all in a compact and durable retro design. Prints measure 2.1 by 3.4 inches, about the size of a credit card and perfect for a souvenir that’s easy to pocket, stack, or hand out.

In daylight or in brightly lit interiors, the camera’s auto mode offers image quality that is consistent and mostly color accurate for instant film (results can be a little bluish in tint). The Mini 90 Neo Classic also has more manual controls than any other instant camera we tested, including an L/D (lighter/darker) button that lets you under- or overexpose the image slightly, and options to shoot in macro, double exposure, or landscape mode.

The Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic’s small square shape can make for an awkward grip, mostly because it offers no real estate to hold on to for the middle, ring, and pinky fingers positioned to the right of the lens housing. Also, a small loop harness on the bottom of the camera body means the camera tips over easily when you place it on a flat surface. This is a strange design decision, considering that Fujifilm could have easily placed the loop on the right-hand side panel instead.

Budget pick

Photo: Erin Lodi

If you’re looking only for an instant camera to pass around at your next party and you aren’t interested in going beyond basic snapshots and fiddling with more creative exposures, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 50S makes good-looking prints and costs a bit less than our top pick at the time of this writing. It uses the same film as the Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic—but its images don’t look as good, it doesn’t have as many manual controls, and you’re stuck with CR2 batteries instead of a rechargeable.

The Mini 50S has fewer controls than our top pick, with just three buttons allowing for exposure compensation, fill flash, or landscape mode, plus a timer. But this design keeps operation even simpler: We doubt anyone would take more than a second or two to figure out how to snap a photo with it. In our tests most of its prints looked a little less saturated and detailed than the Mini 90’s images, but the differences weren’t night-and-day.

For wider photos

Photo: Erin Lodi

We recommend the Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 if you like a larger print (3.4 by 4.3 inches) and don’t need extra controls such as exposure compensation. This camera is substantial—it’s twice the size and weight of our top pick but it has better ergonomics and a beefier grip, as well as a tripod socket, and it runs on four AA batteries (though there’s no reason you can’t use rechargeable AAs).

Fujifilm Instax Wide Instant Film might be slightly harder to find at the corner drugstore, but online a two-pack of 10-exposure cartridges costs about $20, or $1 per print.

Although the Instax Wide 300 makes larger prints, its image quality is not as good as that of the Mini 90, which delivers richer colors and better contrast. Bigger is more impressive, however, when you’re handing out these photos at a party: People love the larger size, and we’ve noticed that most dinner guests are rarely concerned about saturation or sharpness.

For printing smartphone pics

Photo: Erin Lodi

You don’t need an instant camera to get old-school instant prints: The Fujifilm Instax Share SP-2 can print your smartphone pics to Instax film in seconds. Setup is seamless once you’ve downloaded the Instax Share app and connected to the tiny printer’s Wi-Fi. The app is easy enough to use, and you can add a filter or a border to your image if you want.

The hamburger-size SP-2 runs on the same-size rechargeable battery as the Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic and comes with a USB cord for keeping it powered up.

This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

Note from The Wirecutter: When readers choose to buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn affiliate commissions that support our work.

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