Monday, February 24, 2014

Camera Review: Fujifilm Instax Neo Classic

All images taken with iPhone 5S camera. Ironically, both cameras are ideal for sharing images. One analog, the other digital.

I just finished reviewing the very capable Fujifilm X-E2 at the end of January, and was awaiting the arrival of the new X-T1. I had a month in between to relax and enjoy playing with the cameras I already have, or would I try and squeeze in a quick review? What was I interested in next? While in Japan, I saw the popularity of Fuji's INSTAX instant film cameras. I also saw a resurgence in interest of classic Polaroid cameras and the resurrection of the Polaroid film formats via The Impossible Project. I own a few Polaroid cameras myself (250 Land Camera, SX-70, Spectra), so I was feeling the itch.... the itch to review one of Fuji's INSTAX instant film cameras. But which one? Which camera has the features and the look that I wouldn't feel too odd carrying around (many of the INSTAX cameras are clearly and successfully marketed towards young girls) while walking through downtown backstreets? I decided to review the very retro-inspired and X-series-looking Fujifilm INSTAX Mini 90 Neo Classic. 

I took both serious pictures and fun, family pictures as well. I prefer it as a fun camera.

The camera looks retro like Fuji's X-series, but this is a completely analog camera. No digital sensor, no LCD preview screen, no memory card slot. However, it has many features that even most professional Polaroid cameras didn't have during their peak popularity in the 80's and 90's. For instance, a removable and rechargeable lithium-ion battery, bulb mode, multiple exposure, dual shutter button, macro mode, tripod socket, self timer with dual image option (keep one, give one away), autofocus and autoexposure, flash control (auto, force-off, force-on) and exposure compensation. Many high-end film point and shoot cameras didn't have these many features back in the days, so I was pretty impressed and excited to review this camera.

Unlike the professional peel-apart instant films that Fuji sells (FP100C, FP3000B), this film has the negative and positive (and the chemicals that develop the image) integrated into a single piece. The images will not be as sharp or contrasty, but not having to throw away the negative and the icky messy oozing chemicals that's associated with peel-apart film is avoided. This is a good thing for those who aren't using it as a professional proofing camera.

I tried to be artsy with the INSTAX camera but failed at it.
I guess this is really the question to ask: is the INSTAX integral instant film cameras good enough for professionals or even advanced amateurs to use to create serious images to scan and share? The quick answer is a NO. Does this mean that this camera is useless to pros and serious photographers? It depends what you're using it for. If you're going to use it as a proofing camera, or scan the images later at high resolution, then this is not the format or camera for you. Fuji never designed this series of cameras to be used this way. By the way its marketed in Japan, this camera is clearly meant for parties and sharing images with friends and for instant creative image satisfaction (bulb mode, multiple exposure). In fact, looking on Instagram, most who shoot with this camera are young females. The INSTAX camera system is like the analog equivalent to Instagram or Facebook. It's a way to take pictures and share with friends. This camera is also great for selfies or group selfies (just like your smartphone!). You can use the front facing shutter button as a mirror to help with framing (thanks Blunty for the tip. Check out his enthusiastic video review here!)

The INSTAX camera is clearly a stylish lifestyle camera for the modern hipster or cool girl photographer

Walking around downtown and taking pictures, the camera didn't really scream street photography or artistic images. I wanted to take images of couples or individuals and give them the picture as a gift. That's what I use to do in the old film days when I would go on vacation: shoot with the Polaroid and give the image away, then take a picture with my regular film camera for myself. Other times I would take the Polaroid pic and place it into my diary-scrapbook to help with memory recall of the day (in the old film days, if you were on vacation you wouldn't see the pictures you took until you got back, which would be a month or even longer sometimes). If I did take a serious street photo image with the INSTAX camera, the image quality isn't good enough for me to scan and share, so what would be the point of taking these creative, artistic images with this camera? My iPhone would do a better job in accomplishing this...

So the INSTAX camera didn't succeed as a street-photographer's companion, but I did really enjoy using it. How? I had the most fun taking pictures of my wife, my friends and family. It was a fun way to share an image. It was enjoyable taking the picture, anxiously awaiting the image to come to life (4-5 minutes), and finally passing it around to view and enjoy. A simple formula, but a very powerful way to share images. It sure beats everyone huddling around and taking a quick peak at the back of an LCD screen. Ok, people rarely get that excited about a digital picture any more, but that's the point. People may look at yet another smartphone image for a second or two that is destined to be deleted in a few weeks; but an instant picture, people get pretty excited about it, especially those of the non-film generation. 

Moreover, you can be creative with the INTAX Neo Classic (use them as one-off business cards or as a playful visual appetizer to a gallery show), but I found it best as a fun, sharing format. This isn't a bad thing, nor a criticism. This is a lifestyle camera with many powerful features. This camera brought back great memories of the old analog days where images were precious and valuable since it was time consuming to make extra prints; and when it came to instant film, there was just a single copy. When you gave that image away, there was no back up. It's kind of a romantic concept isn't it? 

I used the INSTAX as a proofing camera, but it's more playful than serious.
If I can make one suggestion to Fujifilm about their instant camera line-up is that it would be great if they created a more professional version that takes peel-apart film and has full manual exposure control. I know this probably won't happen, but Fujifilm has surprised us before... and Fuji does still have the word "film" in their offical name. How about the Fujifilm X-INSTAX Pro-1? Wouldn't that be cool? A hybrid of the latest X-series mirrorless cameras merged with the GA-GS line of rangefinder medium format cameras of Fuji's glorious past? Come on guys, just do it!!

Thanks to Fujifilm Canada for loaning me the ultra-fun INSTAX instant film camera. It was a successful review since it's the only camera I've ever reviewed that my wife insists that I buy for her!!

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