Do you want to keep your photos for a long time, and make some of them widely available? Or do you want them to be more ephemeral, something you can give to a friend and maybe never see again?
Consciously or not, we ask these questions a lot when trying to decide whether to use Snapchat or Instagram. But they're also swirling at the core of the new Fujifilm Instax Square SQ10.
In many ways, the $279 SQ10 is just like the Instax cameras that came before it. It captures and prints instant photos. It’s fun to use, and people love to interact with it. It still looks a bit like a toy, but it’s also the most polished Instax camera Fujifilm has ever made.
There are two big differences, though. One is that the SQ10 shoots on a new square format of Instax film. The other is that it’s now simultaneously a digital camera, too. These changes are supposed to help Fujifilm — which stands nearly alone in the instant film category — keep selling Instax cameras in the age of Instagram. But, if anything, the company might not have taken that second idea far enough.
First thing’s first: the new square instant film sits right in between Fujifilm’s other two options. It’s a little bit bigger than the Instax Mini, but not quite as big as the Instax Wide. Goldilocks would be proud.
I’ve always liked the cinematic look of Instax Wide, but Instax Square feels more familiar. It’s, perhaps obviously, reminiscent of its ancestor — Polaroid’s instant film. And, despite recently granting some wiggle room by finally allowing landscape and portrait uploads, Instagram is still all about squares, so Fujifilm is trying to cash in on a similar look. (Instax Square film is also Fujifilm’s most expensive format at $17 per pack.)
Fujifilm is trying to cash in by echoing Instagram
The SQ10 has a hard time nailing the exposure if you’re in a situation with extremely varied lighting, like in harsh, low sunlight with heavy shadows. Otherwise, the film is as good as it’s always been. It favors rich colors and lots of contrast over fidelity, which has always been the case with instant (and especially Instax) film. It doesn’t perform well in low light alone, but the camera’s flash is more than capable. It’s powerful, but it doesn’t overpower the scene, and it helped me catch some of my favorite photos with the camera. Coming from someone who typically never uses flash, it was a nice surprise.
The SQ10’s blockbuster feature, though, is that it’s also a digital camera, but don’t expect it to compete with the photography experience of a DSLR, or even your smartphone. It uses a 3.7-megapixel CMOS sensor, which is puny by today’s standards. And while the images it captures look good enough printed on a piece of instant film, the digital copies are low-resolution, flat, and often uninspiring. With a little work, they might look fine on Instagram — just know that you’ll have some trouble getting them there. (More on that in a minute.)
There are essentially two ways to shoot with the SQ10, which you pick by way of a toggle switch on the camera’s left side. “Auto” mode means the camera will operate just like all the other Instax — a print will pop out every time you click the shutter.
“Manual” mode is where the camera deviates from the typical Instax experience. It doesn’t mean manual focus, or manual exposure. Rather, the SQ10’s manual mode means you’re only shooting digital images. You can stuff about 50 photos into the small amount of onboard storage, or you can insert a microSD card. (The 32GB card I was using had room for well over 20,000 photos, thanks to the tiny 800–900KB files that the camera creates.)
The behavior of shooting in manual mode is totally new, and there are good and bad sides to it. What’s wonderful, if you’re a control freak like me, is that you now have final say on what the printed photo looks like — not just because you can take a shot over and over to get it right, but also because the camera has 10 creative filters plus an exposure and a vignette tool. You can return to any saved photo and re-edit it to your heart’s desire, which is a nice change of pace for Instax.
For a camera that’s all about the Instagram generation, it’s awfully disconnected from Instagram
The most dumbfounding thing about the SQ10 is that it has no wireless radios. Because of this, you can’t print photos from your phone like with Fujifilm’s Instax Share printer, and it also means it’s a chore to get the camera’s digital files onto your phone. In order to do that, you have to take the microSD card out, stick it in an adapter, plug that into your computer, and then transfer them to your phone. For a camera that’s supposedly all about the Instagram generation, it’s awfully disconnected from Instagram.
Now, do I need digital photos from a camera like this? Definitely not, considering I have a smartphone and a plethora of other digital cameras. One bright side to the SQ10 is that you aren’t wasting moments worrying about which photos to post to Instagram that would otherwise be spent shooting with the camera. And considering people tend to use Instax cameras at parties or when hanging out with friends, that’s probably a good thing. We definitely don’t need another distracting connected device in those situations.
But I also don’t need another graveyard for my images. If the camera is going to save these photos, I’d like to do something with them at some point, and I’d like that process to be easier than it is now.
There’s a more elemental problem with the SQ10’s digital DNA, though. Once people know it’s digital, they react much differently than they do to other Instax cameras. They become more focused on fixing their appearance, and they want to approve the photo before you print it or make sure you delete it.
When you shoot with other Instax cameras, people are typically aware that their attention is precious. It’s like they inherently understand that they’d be half-assing their way through posing for a photo with real costs associated with it. Shooting digital-first with the SQ10, I found they tended to treat the process more like the pose / shoot / review / repeat way of casually photographing each other that has become the norm with smartphones. In this sense, Fujifilm really did make a camera that caters to the Instagram generation — just not in a good way.
The SQ10 has problems, but it delights just like every other Instax
Despite all this, the SQ10 can still delight. It generates the same joy that typically comes with shooting instant photos. People get genuinely excited every time the camera prints a picture. They all want to be the one who gets to keep the photo, too. The difference with the SQ10 is that it’s the first instant camera that can accommodate that desire.
It's also now easier than ever to try out creative shooting modes like double exposure or long shutter. Modes like these demand trial and error, and that typically means spending more money and film. But the SQ10 lets you try and try until you’re happy enough to print. The camera accommodates all this repeated shooting, too. I found the battery can get through days of shooting, editing, and printing before it needs to be recharged.
Because the camera’s digital files are so low-resolution, and so hard to access, these wind up being the real benefits of its hybrid nature. And since the digital side of the SQ10 is pretty low-tech, the performance is brisk. It’s not as fast as shooting and reviewing with a smartphone, but it boots up in about two seconds, the autofocus is fast (even in somewhat challenging light), and it shoots quickly, too.
I always thought adding digital components to an Instax camera would make me want to buy one. But Fujifilm didn’t take the idea far enough with the SQ10. It’s basically a bad digital camera with a less capable Instax Share printer attached. Sure, it offers a means for capturing relatively low-resolution backups of your instant photos. Digital functionality also means the SQ10 is the first Instax camera you can constantly use without going broke. That’s a step in the right direction. But the digital photos just aren’t as valuable if there’s no easy way for the user to do something with them.
Fujifilm got a lot right with the SQ10. The design is sharp, and I love the way it feels to grip and shoot. The interface is quick and fun, and the printed photos look just as good as ever. Those are largely the same things that already made Fujifilm’s analog Instax cameras great, though.
Until the company makes a connected version of this camera, the SQ10’s only real advantages are the ability to edit pictures and make multiple prints of the same photo. The idea of a digital / film hybrid camera is a fun one full of possibilities. But the camera won’t be able to bear those out as long as the execution is half-baked. Maybe future Instax cameras will be more connected or more powerful. For now, though, it’s still very much about the printed picture.