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Here’s why Gen Z and instant cameras click

The popularity of instant cameras points to a fascination for imperfection and the unpredictability of the final product

Tens of millions of instant cameras are in use around the world.(iStock)

By Abhishek Baxi

LAST PUBLISHED 19.04.2024  |  11:29 AM IST

On a recent family trip to Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, besides going on forest safaris, we idled around in our resort, tried local food, and visited a museum of natural history—clicking a zillion photos with our smartphones. But my favourite photo from the trip is a Polaroid-style photo print of my six-year-old son beaming under a large sunflower. The photo was clicked, and instantly printed, with the new Instax mini 99, an instant camera launched by Fujifilm in March.

In recent years, while phone cameras have become more and more sophisticated, a contrary trend has also taken hold, especially among millennials and Gen Z: the imperfection-laden charms of instant analogue photography. Tens of millions of instant cameras are in use around the world, and the global instant print camera market, worth over $141 million (around 1,770 crore) in 2022, is estimated to reach over $1.6 billion by 2028.

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Fujifilm estimates that its Instax range, the leader in the category followed by brands such as Polaroid, Kodak and Canon, are used to take roughly one billion photos each year. In India, though, instant cameras from Polaroid and Canon aren’t officially available (some sellers do retail imported units on online stores), and the likes of the new Instax Mini 99 ( 20,999), the affordable Instax Mini 12 ( 7,499), and the capable Kodak Mini Shot 3 ( 13,199) lead the charge.

Instant cameras have been around since before World War II but it is only in the last decade that they stopped being oddities and went mainstream, and this is largely thanks to Fujifilm. Its first camera, the Instax Mini 10, was launched in November 1998 (many decades after the first instant-print Polaroid camera in 1947). Patent wars between Kodak and Polaroid over instant photography and their failure to capitalise on the shift to digital photography made way for Fujifilm to attempt a disruption. It needed some chutzpah, considering the obvious transition to digital cameras already in motion at the time, but something about its cameras with their cutesy, retro aesthetic, caught the public imagination.

Vaishnavi Shrivastava, a first-year law student at NALSAR, Hyderabad, is addicted to her Instax Mini 11 camera. She bought one because “most of my friends and the people I follow on Instagram had one". She likes the kick of instantly printing the memories and a row of these photos hang on a string of LED lights in her hostel room.

Imperfect fun

Vinay Aravind, a Chennai-based photographer, says photos from these cameras are “objectively terrible, but it’s quite fun". That summation is quite accurate. Aravind indulges in professional photography gear and is an expert at mobile photography. But sometimes, one needs to cede control and not bother about achieving ideal conditions in pursuit of a perfect shot. “Everything’s a little too perfect these days," he says.

The craze for blurry instant photo prints is not fuelled by nostalgia—its biggest audience is among digital natives who have no experience of analogue cameras. Born to the gratification of smartphone cameras, they find a certain aesthetic appeal in what are often called “lomographic" photos. Lomography is a photographic style originating from cheap plastic film cameras of the past, which involves taking spontaneous photographs with minimal attention to technical details. The charm is in the unpredictability of the shot. It’s been quite a fad since the 1990s, and even the modern photo editor apps include lomo filters to replicate that effect.

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Apart from their many use cases, such as being gifted as mementos or pasted in journals, there’s something pleasing about the ergonomics of the cameras with their sculpted grip and grooves. It’s the same reason that several smartphones through the years—Nokia 1020, Moto Z, Xiaomi 14 Ultra—have tried introducing first-party accessories to make the smartphone chassis better for the photography experience.

Vaibhav Gadodia, a Gurugram-based senior technology leader, has got an Instax camera each for his daughters, aged 14 and 8, that they have been using for years—the cheaper mini 8, he adds, since “the kids don’t need all the bells and whistles."

Should you buy one?

Most people I spoke to were absolute fans but the sample size was skewed towards the young and social media-savvy Gen Z—even though they lamented the expensive films. A pack of 10 Instax films retails for about 700. Others find it a hassle—an extra device to charge, recurring cost of films, and an additional thing to carry along when one is out and about even if they appreciate physical prints. If you are one of them, you can instead use a portable, instant printer to bridge the gap between digital and analogue. There’s a wide variety of options from Kodak, Fujifilm and a range of HP Sprocket printers.

This option also gives you the ability to edit your photos before printing. The companion apps by Instax and HP also offer the option of adding stickers or frames to the photos before printing.

There’s also the Lomo’Instant cameras from Lomography, an Austrian company that sells film cameras internationally and makes the most experimental instant cameras on the market that come with a variety of attachments, including built-in flash and changeable lenses for different shooting modes like fisheye, portrait and close-up. They have a fun and eclectic range of devices that they ship internationally (thankfully, they use Instax films, so you won’t struggle for supplies once you procure it from abroad).

Abhishek Baxi is a technology journalist and digital consultant.

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