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Many people were fans of instant-print cameras several decades ago. Something magical occurred while holding the print in your hand, waiting for the image to appear.
You may be pleased to know that such cameras didn’t die with the influx of digital photography. Today’s Polaroids certainly look and perform differently than the old Polaroid cameras from the 1960s and 1970s, but they still do the job of creating instant prints.
If you’re ready to go back in time – in a way – and use a modern instant-print Polaroid camera, we can help. At BestReviews, we perform detailed research in every product category we cover, including instant-print cameras. The five products featured in the matrix above are our top instant-camera choices. You can click on any of them to learn more. Or, you can continue reading to find out more about Polaroid cameras – how they work, how they differ from digital cameras, and why you might want one.
Modern instant-print cameras come in two basic designs. One type of instant camera builds on the original Polaroid design, making use of film that turns into the print. The other design relies on ZINK technology.
The film for an instant-print camera is sold in packs. Each pack usually contains enough sheets to make 10 prints. (Some packs have 15 or 20 prints.) The pack has all of the chemicals and materials required to develop a finished photo print.
After you insert the pack into the camera, it will load one of the sheets of film. When you press the shutter button, the camera exposes the sheet, which will become the final print. The sheet then ejects from the camera. The chemicals work on the sheet, causing the photo to appear after a few minutes.
This type of instant photo print process is similar to that of the first Polaroid cameras from several decades ago.
When reloading an instant camera, only use film or photo print paper the manufacturer recommends for that camera.
If your instant-print camera makes use of something other than film, it almost certainly uses ZINK technology. ZINK, short for zero ink, uses a special kind of paper that contains crystals that respond to light.
A ZINK sheet consists of three imaging layers. Each layer responds to a different color of light, representing yellow, magenta, and cyan. As the right type of color in the light strikes the layer, it changes the crystals in the layer, creating the appropriate color.
When all three layers are stacked together in the final print, your eyes blend the different colors in the layers, and you see the color photo. If cyan, yellow, and magenta sound familiar, those are the colors used by inkjet printers. When blended in different intensities, those three colors can create any other color.
When using an instant camera with ZINK technology, running the blue calibration page through the system after every four to six prints will help yield better print quality.
If you’re wondering why someone would purchase a Polaroid camera instead of a digital camera, you’re not alone. A digital camera will outperform a Polaroid instant-print camera in nearly every way. We’ve listed the four primary ways below.
Digital cameras allow you to adjust the settings on the camera to create the best possible image. A Polaroid camera offers minimal manual controls.
Instant-print cameras can be expensive. You have to buy film regularly, and every photo you shoot gets printed, even if it turns out poorly. With a digital camera, you don’t have the expense of printing photos that look bad. And you can store thousands of photos on the same memory card over and over, so you have no ongoing expense for film.
If the film or print paper becomes jammed in the camera regularly, you probably need to change the camera’s batteries.
Instant-print photos are limited in size by the type of film or print paper that will fit inside the camera. This size usually is similar to a business card or credit card.
With a digital camera photo, you can create multiple prints that are as large or small as you want them to be.
Image quality runs far higher with a digital camera than with an instant-print camera. And you can edit the photo’s image quality with post-processing software.
With an instant-print camera, once the image is exposed, it cannot be changed.
After your instant prints develop, avoid placing them in direct sunlight or in high-humidity or high-heat areas.
So why would anyone pick an instant-print camera over a digital camera? Put simply, Polaroids are fun to use!
Having the ability to shoot a photo, watch it develop, and hold the finished print a couple of minutes later remains enjoyable, even many years after the technology initially appeared.
Sure, the photo quality of instant prints ranks below average, but they’re still fun to look at and create. And for people who used Polaroid cameras several decades ago, these cameras provide a sense of nostalgia that today’s digital cameras cannot replicate. (Notably, however, some digital cameras attempt to replicate Polaroid photos using special effects.)
Most instant-print cameras create prints that are roughly 2 x 3 inches in size. Some offer slightly larger print size of 3.5 x 4.25 inches.
As occurs with digital cameras, Polaroid-style instant-print cameras are available at a multitude of price points. As a general rule, the more you pay, the more features you’ll receive.
However, the enjoyment of using this style of camera often means more than the image quality and feature set. In truth, these tiny instant prints will likely never end up in a frame on your wall. Polaroids are meant to be fun, and because fun is the main goal, a lower-priced Polaroid may easily meet your needs.
The most basic instant-print cameras will use film. For less than $100, you won’t receive many advanced features or larger-than-average print sizes. Some of the most popular types of instant-print cameras fit in this price range.
Overexposed instant prints commonly occur when the subject sits in bright light with a really dark background. This means the subject will lose detail and appear bright white in the photo.
A Polaroid-style camera in this price range might use film or ZINK technology. You may also be able to make prints larger than the standard credit card-sized print with a camera in this price range.
Many times, a Polaroid camera with a high price tag will be a vintage, refurbished Polaroid camera. And some companies have recreated the old-style Polaroid in a modern camera, which tends to cost more.
A Polaroid camera usually requires one to three minutes after you press the shutter button to develop the print.
Instant-print cameras also have some ongoing costs.
You will have to buy film packs or ZINK paper on a regular basis to refill the camera. The cost will run from about $5 to $10 for a 10-pack of sheets. This can add up quickly if you give a child a Polaroid camera and they run through the entire pack in half an hour.
Most instant-print cameras run on the power of throwaway alkaline batteries rather than rechargeable batteries, so you will likely also have to purchase batteries on occasion.
Polaroid instant-print cameras usually run on alkaline battery power.
Because of the below-average image quality of Polaroid-style cameras, most people don’t use these models for everyday photography needs. Instead, they purchase and use them for special events and situations, such as the following.
Kids’ Cameras: Some people like to give a child a Polaroid style camera to play with, almost as an introduction to photography. This works well, as small kids will be thrilled with seeing the print immediately. However, kids will almost certainly burn through a pack of film quickly, which can become expensive over time. So you may want to limit the number of shots the child can take until they learn to be responsible with the film.
Relaxed Photos: People tend to be more relaxed when being photographed with instant-print cameras, because they know the photos won’t be instantly shared on social media.
Parties: Giving party guests an instant-print photo of the night’s activities can be a nice party favor. Using a Polaroid-style camera can also be a fun party activity.
Weddings: If you want to create some cool-looking photos at a wedding, place some instant-print cameras on guest tables. The guests may create some photos that will give the bride and groom a different set of memories from the wedding.
Q. Why do my instant prints look so poor?
A. With Polaroid cameras, you don’t have a lot of control over the exposure of the instant-print film. These are automatic cameras that don’t offer manual control options. This makes adjusting the camera's settings to compensate for poor lighting conditions almost impossible. So try to shoot photos with your instant camera in areas with adequate light to improve the look of the images. Avoid scenes that are dark and lit only by light bulbs. And avoid scenes with harsh overhead sunlight, which can create dark shadows.
Q. Why does the paper jam inside my instant-print camera?
A. The problem of photo paper jamming as it tries to exit the camera is one of the biggest problems with these types of cameras. A dying camera battery could be the culprit, as could incorrectly loaded paper or film. To remove a jammed sheet, you will likely need to open the film compartment and gently pull the paper free.
Q. Can I make any changes manually to the Polaroid camera’s shooting settings?
A. Some instant-print cameras are completely automatic models, but some offer minor manual control options. For example, you may be able to slightly adjust the camera’s brightness setting, allowing you to compensate for really bright or dark shooting conditions. Occasionally, an instant-print camera will allow you to zoom into the scene or to save photos to a memory card.
Q. Why are instant cameras so bulky?
A. Most instant cameras are larger in size than point-and-shoot digital cameras or smartphone cameras. Instant-print cameras must be larger and thicker than simple digital cameras in order to provide interior room for the film or ZINK paper.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.