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How Using Instant Cameras Can Improve Your Photography

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There is something magical about instant cameras. Depress the shutter button and a little image is ejected, slowly developing before your eyes. More than just a novelty, instant cameras have practical and artistic applications. Here’s how using instant cameras can help improve your photography overall.

What are instant cameras?

First things first. What exactly is an instant camera? Generally, the term instant camera describes a camera that uses self-developing film to deliver a photographic image within minutes of pressing the shutter button.

How Using Instant Cameras Can Improve Your Photography
The Instax Mini and Barbie Polaroid instant cameras. f/4, 1/50, ISO 500

The first commercially viable instant camera system was introduced in 1947 by the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land.

A year later, Land’s Model 95 Land Camera and the corresponding film went on sale in a department store in Boston. The cameras, which dramatically altered the accessibility and creative possibilities of photography, sold out in mere minutes.

Land and Polaroid continued to develop instant camera systems. Originally delivering a sepia-toned image, instant film graduated to black and white and then to color in 1963.

However, up until 1972, using instant cameras was much less straight forward than the process we know today. Exposed Polaroid film required a photographer to peel back a negative sheet after 60 seconds to reveal the instant image. This often left chemical residue on the user’s hands.

Some earlier processes also required users to coat the developed film with a mixture of stabilizing chemicals.

How Using Instant Cameras Can Improve Your Photography
f/4, 1/40, ISO 300

The arrival of the Polaroid SX-70 in 1972 marked a turning point in instant camera technology. The SX-70 ejected film with no negative sheet or chemical residue, shaping the trajectory of instant camera models thereafter and realizing Land’s dream of a fully instant camera system.

Instant cameras may have been largely superseded by digital technology today. Still, the distinctive aesthetic and physicality of the instant camera process have seen a resurgence in recent years. Companies like Polaroid, Fujifilm, and Leica all offering up modern incarnations of the instant camera and corresponding film.

A new approach

There are many ways using instant cameras can improve on a photographer’s process. Perhaps the most obvious impact of modern instant photography is the practical knowledge that a less-than-mainstream photographic medium affords.

Since their invention, instant cameras have presented an intriguing alternative to standard photographic practice.

Andy Warhol made famous use of the instant camera, as did Luigi Ghirri – a pioneer of color photography. By using both a familiar yet unique photographic technique, these photographers (and many more) pushed the boundaries of what was understood to be the accepted approach to photographic image-making.

How Using Instant Cameras Can Improve Your Photography

Most modern photography is created and distributed digitally. But stepping away from the norm to negotiate the ins and outs of an instant camera presents new perspectives and challenges – broadening artistic experience and opening up creative opportunities.

The benefits of new photographic experiences are not exclusive to instant cameras. However, the process, inherent associations, and distinctive aesthetics of instant camera photography can contribute greatly to the many layers of visual language a photographer draws upon in the field.

Getting it right in-camera

They’re nifty, but keeping an instant camera stocked with film can be pricey. This means that getting the most out of each frame is a priority. Even though price can be a downside to using instant cameras, maximizing the success of each shot encourages a more effective photographic practice overall.

Getting an image right in-camera makes the most of the technology at hand, refining photographic skill sets and saving time. By measuring an exposure against a limited amount of instant film frames, instant cameras slow the photographic process, inviting the photographer to carefully and deliberately consider creative and technical aspects before depressing the shutter button.

While instant camera photography often departs from the technical standards of digital and film photography, this ‘slow’ approach to photography inevitably translates to other facets of a photographer’s practice, honing visual awareness and sharpening technical skill.

Pre-Visualisation

An early proponent of instant camera technology, Ansel Adams maintained that pre-visualization was a critical component of strong image-making. As we’ve touched on, instant camera film isn’t cheap, but pre-visualization is a valuable way to minimize dud shots.

Pre-visualization involves mentally untangling the many components that go into executing an effective photograph before the photograph is made. By pre-visualizing, a photographer can take executable steps towards achieving an appealing image in-camera, often with greater efficiency and success.

How Using Instant Cameras Can Improve Your Photography
Instant camera photography is a great way to capture and preserve memories.

The risk of wasting expensive film makes the need for pre-visualization particularly pronounced in instant camera photography. The more consideration that is put into an image pre-exposure, the greater the chances of a successful instant photograph.

Also, the immediate effectiveness of combining pre-visualization techniques with instant camera photography generates positive momentum. This then feeds better habits across all forms of photographic practice.

The reset button

Instant photography was designed with fun in mind, so it’s no surprise that the simple, idiosyncratic cameras provide a well-deserved distraction from the effects of creative fatigue.

Paired back in design, instant cameras tend to have less in-built settings than their digital counterparts. This simplicity can encourage creativity in composition and subject selection over technical perfection.

How Using Instant Cameras Can Improve Your Photography
f/7.1, 1/25, ISO 500

In addition, the unique aesthetic of instant photography is viewed as the marker of a distinct and quirky artistic process. This means that some mistakes that would ruin a digital image are embraced in an instant camera photograph.

This loosening of technical constraints means that instant cameras can serve as an effective refresher for photographers looking to recharge creative batteries.

Conclusion

Using instant cameras isn’t just fun, it can inform and improve your image-making overall. With a unique aesthetic, limited film and paired-down design, instant cameras are an engaging alternative to the photographic mainstream.

Do you shoot with instant cameras? Share your thoughts and images with us in the comments below.

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Megan Kennedy
Megan Kennedy

is a photographer and writer based in Canberra, Australia. Both her writing and photography has been featured in numerous publications. More of Megan’s work can be viewed at her website or on Instagram at ejekt_