Instant Film Photography


Once upon a time, I worked in a camera store, and witnessed a knock-down drag-out battle between one of the printers and one of the salesmen about how sharp a photo needed to be to be considered “great.” If only they were on any of the numerous shoots I do where both instant film and digital images are shot, and everyone involved declares the instant film shots to be the winners. They’re small, they’re nowhere near as sharp, and often they have other intrinsic flaws like random composition and exposure mistakes; they’re also full of charm and personality, get the model more excited for the shoot because they can see and feel the results, and there’s no further computer editing to improve a raw image. You shoot it, it’s done! On to the next thing!

A current strategy for me is to shoot my subjects fairly close and in parts, which we then sit down and assemble with tape to get a freaky gestalt image. A model may end up with an extra long leg and one foot, for example. The models seem to really value the chance to have their input on which images are considered the best and how to collage them. The instant nature of the process means there’s room to course-correct during a shoot- get a better shot, rather than assuming any on-set issues could be easily “Lightroomed” away. It also doesn’t hurt that instant film is lo-fi enough that wrinkles and other skin flaws don’t really show.

Instant film photography is a larger umbrella than many realize. Traditionally people think of Polaroid, and rightfully so; for many decades of the 20th century, Polaroid was it for instant film. A wide variety of artists, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, and Stefanie Schneider, made challenging and innovative work that incorporated in-camera effects and mixed media elements, storytelling and journaling, image transfer and bending the image during development to bring the weirdness to what could easily be simple snapshot work. You could get instant film in any format size, including a Type 55 4×5 film that gave you a negative alongside your solid instant film print. When Polaroid faced financial difficulties in the 2000s, their hold on patents was loosened, and Fuji deployed their “Instax” brand of instant film. The Impossible Project took over an old Polaroid factory in Europe to create new varieties like toned monochrome and rounded frames that could fit old Polaroid cameras, and as of 2017 has rebranded itself as “Polaroid Originals.”

The current Polaroid/Impossible Project style of photos run around 8 shots for $18 (going up in price for the specialty material) and have lengthier development times and sturdier backings than the cheaper Fuji counterparts. Besides the traditional 4.25 x 4.25” print, there’s the popular “mini” option of credit card sized materials. Because of the expense and finickiness of the art materials involved in Polaroid, my go-to brand of film is Fuji Instax. This film comes in Wide, Mini, and Square, and will also work in the Lomo brand of instant cameras.

With every brand, there’s a cheapest, consumer option, and in my experience those are the ones that break the easiest and have the least amount of creative features- to this end, I cannot actually recommend Fuji’s Instant Wide 300, a camera that broke in its first week of use, and its replacement broke on its first day of use. That said, I’ve enjoyed many other Fuji cameras with no issues for years. On the higher end (over $100, still cheap by any camera standards), Fuji makes the mini 90 Neo Classic camera which has double exposure, close-up, and long exposure options, and for just over $200 one can get a Fuji SQ-10 square format (smaller than the traditional Polaroid) which has a digital component, allowing one to shoot and add filters/crop before choosing whether the image is worthy of a print.

With this camera, and other Wi-Fi printers, one can also make instant film prints from images not actually shot on instant film- something some may label as “cheating”, but in my mind, no different than printing on any other printer, except you get the lo-fi benefits of the format. When I sell my work on the likes of eBay, Instagram and Etsy, I’ve found that there’s a huge amount of interest in purchasing instant film shots and little to no market for archival inkjet prints from digital files. Many of these purchasers were collectors of specific models, though I’ve had some more unusual motivations from buyers, like the screenwriter who used them for writing prompts. When I sell SQ-10 shots or send them out to Patreon patrons, it’s understood that the image is from a file that can be reprinted and resold on demand, so I’m not losing my only shot at selling an image, but because it’s still instant film, it still feels collectible and unique.

Lastly, I wanted to mention the Lomography brand of instant film cameras, because these contain many unique features- the ability to put on lens filters, swappable lenses, colored gels on the flashes, ability to do as many exposures on a piece of film as you want (not just double exposure). They are sturdy beasts of cameras that give a slightly darker exposure and have a less sharp, more plastic-y lens on them, but that’s the nature of the Lomo brand.

It’s easy to look at instant film photography as an outsider and say “anyone could do that, there’s no craft” – those who invest thousands of dollars in the latest and greatest Canon, Nikon and Profoto gear can be found littering message boards saying the same thing about iPhoneography and mirrorless cameras. The reality is that any artist can make a craft of tools if they put their mind to it. Instant film is big in the wedding industry, fashion industry, gallery spaces and e-commerce of collectible art pieces; it’s the most frequently requested style from me and by far the most popular topic on my YouTube channel, the most popular posts on my Instagram. I believe there’s a real hunger for authentic experiences and instant film, like vinyl records, like craft food, like handmade fashion, is our connection as photographers to that authenticity.

David Miller

David Miller of Primordial Creative studio was born in 1977 in Omaha, NE. He graduated with his BFA in Photography from Arizona State University in 2006, creating portrait series that reflected both the hyperkinetic films, games and comics of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as more humanist documentary work with Indigenous communities in America and Australia. After ASU he became a teaching artist as well as exhibing around the Southwest/ West Coast and been published in numerous magazines such as Orion, View Camera, B+W/ Color, and others. In 2014 he was named as one of the top 100 Creatives of Arizona by New Times Magazine. He currently lives in Chandler with wife Vesna and 2 children, Patrick and Magdalena.

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