Of all the forms of photography you'd expect to have been sidelined by the smartphone onslaught, instant film would have to top the list. Sure, the unique (and useless) ritual of shaking your pictures to speed up development has a special place in the hearts of many. But the traditional advantages of instant cameras — ease of use, shareability, and the ability to see your photo straight away — are matched point-for-point by the tiny shooter embedded in your phone. Instagram didn't base its logo on a Polaroid Land Camera for nothing.
But that hasn't stopped Fujifilm's Instax cameras from achieving wide success in Asia and beyond, and now the company is gunning for the US with the new Mini 90 camera. “[Instax has] become wildly popular in a lot of the Asian markets and it's a very, very important product to Fujifilm worldwide,” says Bing Liem, Fujifilm’s VP of sales. “It’s been growing very nicely in the US but, based on the population that we have, obviously the penetration should be a lot higher.” Now the company wants to convince Americans that instant cameras are more than just toys.
The Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic Instant Camera — to give it its full name — is Fujifilm’s attempt to appeal to the serious photographer. It features a retro-inspired design with clear nods to Fujifilm's beautiful X-series cameras like the X100S. It also promises to give enthusiasts a higher degree of control over their photos, with more settings and features such as multiple exposure and a bulb mode. If ever there were an Instax camera to break out of the teenage-girl demographic, this would be it. But at $199.99, turning other US customers on to instant film in 2014 may not be the easiest task.
Fujifilm nailed the design of the Mini 90, which fits in both with the traditional, toylike Instax line and the classier X-series. It takes on the basic shape of the former and the visual motifs of the latter, and it’s seriously adorable. "We want to make sure that the photographers of the world understand that it’s a very functional tool with a beautiful form," says Fujifilm’s Matt Schmidt.
The Instax Mini 90 is seriously adorable
Although the Mini 90 is made of plastic, it’s well constructed and the textured materials feel great to the touch. It comes with the same pack-in leather strap as Fujifilm's X-series cameras, which in hindsight I'd recommend using — despite the construction seeming sturdy enough, an accidental drop onto concrete damaged the door mechanism on my unit, making it difficult to latch properly. I'm keeping it closed with a rubber band to avoid ruining the film.
Assuming you're more sensible than I and haven't flung your camera onto the ground, loading Instax film couldn't be easier. The film comes in packs of 10 shots, and it's a case of simply slotting a plastic box inside the camera and closing the door. The camera will automatically eject the protective cover, and then you're good to go. When you press one of the shutter buttons, a blank slide will pop out of a door on the camera's side — that's your photo, and all that's left is for you to watch the colors come into view as the film develops. It's slower, sure, but it's a lot more fun than peeking at a picture on an LCD.
You can use the Mini 90 in portrait or landscape orientation; the camera has a shutter button for each position, ensuring a comfortable grip either way. There are neat little practical touches all over the camera — the front-mounted shutter button doubles as a mirror for accurate selfie framing, and you can select different modes by twisting a ring around the lens as if you were dialing in aperture on an X100. The optical viewfinder is a slight letdown, however, as it’s very small and difficult to view with your eye any further than a few millimeters away; you might have trouble framing your shot if you’re wearing glasses. But precise composition isn’t really what this camera’s about.
The Mini 90's design makes shooting a ton of fun, then, but I was surprised at just how easy it is to get great images. Although Instax film has a fairly light-sensitive ISO of 800, the Mini 90's lens has a small fixed f/12.7 aperture, meaning you'll often be relying on the built-in flash to brighten things up. But it does a remarkably good job of producing natural, great-looking photos — far better than you'd see from most cheap digital compact cameras in similar situations. At around $15 to $20 for two packs of 10 shots, you won’t want to waste any film, which is why it’s so important that the camera perform as you expect. Fujifilm's X-series cameras have built a reputation for excellent automatic exposure with or without flash, though, and that's a trait shared by the Mini 90.
Shooting with the Mini 90 is a little more involved than taking smartphone pictures, but not by much
Shooting with the Mini 90 is a little more involved than taking smartphone pictures, but not by much. You can lighten or darken the image to avoid under- or over-exposure, for example, and while there's no true focus control, the macro and landscape modes hone the lens on close and distant subjects. You can also layer two images on top of one another, or use the bulb mode to produce long exposures in the dark. But given the cost of instant film, most people probably won’t want to experiment too much. Even though the Mini 90 is easy and effective as a simple point-and-shoot camera in spontaneous situations, it does slow you down and force you to think about what you’re capturing. That can be a good or bad thing depending on the kind of photographer you are; some may find it frustrating, but others will enjoy taking the time to figure out what gets the best results. I fell in the latter bucket, as I suspect most people interested in an instant camera will.
Fujifilm is the biggest player left in the consumer film market, and Instax film is surprisingly great. It produces gorgeous, deep — if not necessarily digital-accurate — colors, with skin tones looking particularly good. It’s capable of rendering a lot of detail if you lock in focus with the proper mode. And there's still a special sort of magic to instant photography, even if the first Polaroid camera came out in the 1940s. Instax photos can take up to 10 minutes to fully develop, but you can normally tell if a picture has turned out well within 60 seconds or so, and waiting for the colors to resolve themselves adds to the sense of anticipation. Once developed, you have a one-of-a-kind memento that can’t be recreated or copied any more than a painting can. Instant film makes photography tangible in a way that digital cameras can’t capture.
There's still a special sort of magic to instant photography
One issue that people might have with Instax Mini film is the size of the prints. Fujifilm calls them credit card sized, but that's only partly true — although the paper is about that big, the surrounding border is relatively thick, letting you scribble notes below your image. What you're left with for the actual photo, then, is a bit taller and very slightly narrower than an Instagram photo viewed on an iPhone. That's a convenient size for sharing or slipping into a wallet, but does mean that the camera isn't ideal for capturing sweeping vistas or distant subjects. For now, if you want bigger instant photos, your only modern option is Fujifilm’s colossal and considerably less stylish Instax 210, which uses a separate "wide" format film that’s twice the size and doesn’t fit inside the Mini 90. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to take on a night out.
Instant photography is an expensive hobby, but there’s nothing quite like it
Fujifilm admits the Mini 90 is a niche product, and in all honesty it’s hard to see it turning many people back on to the joys of instant film. The camera itself is fairly expensive, to say nothing of the per-shot cost. But with Lomography launching its own Instax camera later this year, the potential is there for a minor revival among those who get the appeal. It’s an example of how technological progress sometimes leaves certain joys behind — instant photography may not be for you if you use your camera to document events in great detail, but it might just be your thing if your aim is to preserve and share memories.
No one that picks up a Mini 90 should be disappointed by any facet of its performance. It’s a lovable camera that’s been designed with care and will almost never frustrate you. Instant photography is an expensive hobby, but there’s nothing quite like it — and the Mini 90 is a cute, well-designed way to get started.
More times than not, the Verge score is based on the average of the subscores below. However, since this is a non-weighted average, we reserve the right to tweak the overall score if we feel it doesn't reflect our overall assessment and price of the product. Read more about how we test and rate products.
- Hardware / design 8
- Image quality 8
- Interface / controls 7
- Features 7
- Performance 8