Look, I know today’s digital cameras are amazing. I know you can get 50-megapixel sensors, hybrid viewfinders, and see-in-the-dark video capabilities, and I know it’s easier than ever to share the stunning results. But there’s one thing these cameras just don’t do: produce a physical product right there on the spot.
For that, you need instant film. And while that used to mean digging your parents’ Polaroid out of the loft, these days you can go for something newer. If you do, that’ll probably mean going for something that shoots Fujifilm’s Instax format. Most of the cameras that use Instax are cheap, toy-like devices, but Fujifilm itself raised the bar last year with the gorgeous Mini 90, an instant camera that took cues from the company’s premium X-series digital line. And now there’s a new competitor from a formidable source.
Lomography is the first word in mainstream film photography these days. It’s one of the few companies still designing and selling new film cameras at a large scale, and it has stores and fans all over the world. The prospect of a Lomography Instax camera, then, is an intriguing one, and the resulting product — the Lomo Instant — seems such an obvious hit that it’s no wonder the project raised over $1 million on Kickstarter. The Lomo Instant has multiple lenses, manual controls, and Lomography’s unparalleled pedigree of making film photography fun, all at a lower price than the Mini 90.
But the battle between the two turns out to be more complex.
The Lomo Instant is a big, boxy thing. With its sharp angles, protruding lens, and couple of inches’ width on the Mini 90, it’s not the sort of camera you can toss into a bag and forget about. But I like the design overall — it’s clean and attractive, and most of the controls are tucked away in a sensible place.
While the Mini 90 has a row of electronic buttons and a simple LCD display, the Lomo Instant relies entirely on physical controls. There’s a manual focus lever to extend or retract the lens, switches for features like bulb mode and multiple exposure, and the shutter is a chunky slider with a satisfying click. I’m not really a fan of the aperture-adjusting wheel, though — for some reason it only locks into place when the camera is switched on, and I often found myself having to reset it to avoid accidentally under- or over-exposing photos.
You can buy the Lomo Instant by itself for $119 or in a set with three lens converters for $149. I’d recommend splurging on the converters — the extra optical options really expand what you can do with this camera. There’s a fisheye, a macro, and a 35mm-equivalent "portrait" lens, and all have their uses. The fisheye gives a distorted, ultra-wide view of the world or party around you rendered in a cramped circle. The macro lens doesn’t get all that close and it’s hard to judge precise framing and focus, but it’s a useful addition for shooting food and flowers. And while 35mm isn’t a classic portrait focal length, I actually prefer that adapter to the standard 27mm lens for normal use. The angle is a little tighter, so it’s better for highlighting one or two subjects in the tiny Instax frame. One problem with these lens attachments is that they make the optical viewfinder less accurate; it’s otherwise easier to see through than the Mini 90, but unlike Fujifilm’s camera you don’t get clear frame lines.
There are a lot of reasons to prefer the Lomo Instant over the Mini 90, then. But there’s one reason to go the other way, and you might consider it kind of a big one: image quality. In my experience, Fujifilm’s camera simply takes better photos most of the time.
Now, "better" is a loaded term. No one buys Lomography cameras for sharp and accurate photos to rival a DSLR; the quirks and flaws are part of the appeal. And the Lomo Instant isn’t necessarily any different, especially if you experiment with some its more esoteric features. But ultimately, the Mini 90 is better at handling exposure, particularly in low light. Often the Lomo Instant’s flash will blow out all detail in the subject’s face while obscuring the background in shadow, while the Mini 90’s auto modes do a great job of rendering both at the same time. It’s possible to mitigate this — try dialing the aperture down a notch while using the flash on your subject in combination with a long exposure for the surroundings — but it’s not intuitive. You always have to think about what you’re doing with the Lomo Instant.
Or do you? Given the not inconsiderable cost of instant film, the point-and-shoot reliability of the Mini 90 will be a major advantage for many. But if you’re into the impulsive, reckless philosophy of Lomography, you might find the Lomo Instant more to your liking. If all you want out of an instant camera is a bunch of quirky mementos that were fun to shoot, you’ll be happy here. It’s not like it takes worse photos than a Diana, and the film is certainly more convenient to "develop."
I get what Lomography was going for with the Lomo Instant, and I think a lot of people will like it. It’s a blast to use, and it sets itself apart from every other modern instant camera with its hands-on control and extra lenses.
But when I was using it, I couldn’t help thinking of my favorite Lomography camera, which is also one of my favorite cameras ever: the iconic LC-A+, whose forerunner birthed the entire Lomography company. That camera has an amazing, simple, and reliable automatic exposure system: you just hold the shutter down until it clicks a second time once the exact amount of light for a perfect exposure has been captured. It gives unique and beautiful results with minimal effort while allowing for extra creative control if you need it.
The Lomo Instant is creatively satisfying, but demands some work
That feels like it would have been the right approach for an instant camera, where the number of photos you take is likely to be even more limited than with 35mm film. It’s almost the approach taken by Fujifilm with the Mini 90, although that camera’s heavy reliance on automatic exposure and the realities of Instax film mean that it takes much less dramatic photos than an LC-A+. The Lomo Instant, meanwhile, demands you to put some work in for conventionally great shots, lest its powerful flash blow out your memories.
Lomography fans and anyone else used to shooting film in 2015 will probably relish the challenge and rewards — the Lomo Instant is hands-on and creatively satisfying. But if you’re expecting digital-level reliability, you’ll be better off with Fujifilm’s Mini 90. Whichever way you go, I’m just glad that instant film’s surprising revival is enough of a thing today to support different kinds of shooters.