Choosing the best instant camera isn't always an easy decision. With models that tend to stick around long after they're first released and a range of film formats to contend with, they're arguably more difficult to comprehend than run-of-the-mill digital cameras. The good news is that, on the whole, they're a heck of a lot cheaper than digital cameras - and a lot more fun too.
But what is an instant camera? After all, your digital camera takes pictures instantly too. Typically, instant cameras refer to those which give you a print of your snaps directly from the camera itself. What we'd typically describe as an instant camera covers a wide spectrum, ranging from cheap and cheerful toy cameras to more expensive options which give you advanced controls and even allow you to even swap lenses. These days there's even hybrid models which offer both analogue and digital shooting, so you (arguably) get the best of both worlds.
You also have to think about film types. Some, like Polaroid offer dream-like experimental-type image quality, while others, such as Instax, are a little more down-the-line. Shooting film can be a pricey business, so you'll need to take that into account when you're weighing up the cost of going analogue too.
Analogue photography is enjoying a bit of a resurgence right now, with instant cameras offering an accessible and simple way into the genre without the hassle and bother of darkrooms, developing fluids and other technicalities that are enough to put off all but the most-dedicated.
With these cameras, you instantly (well, pretty damn quickly) get a real, physical print you can hold in your hands. Meanwhile, the limitations of these models force you to get creative with different effects - not least because you can't always shoot frame after frame like you can with digital.
Bearing all that mind, how can you know which is the best instant camera for you? Currently, our top favourite is the Fujifilm Instax Mini 11. This simple and inexpensive model is a fun gadget to play around with, but it's not too strong on features. If you want something more complicated, then you're sure to find something which takes your fancy in our list below.
Take a look at our selection of the best instant cameras you can buy right now, helping you narrow down your choices and find the right model.
Best instant cameras 2021 at a glance:
- Fujifilm Instax Mini 11
- Fujifilm Instax Mini 70
- Polaroid Now
- Fujifilm Instax SQ1
- Canon Zoemini S
- Fujifilm Instax Wide 300
- Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6
- Fujifilm Instax Mini Liplay
- Lomography Lomo'Instant Automat
- Impossible I-1
Best instant cameras in 2021:
If you're looking for an affordable, easy-to-use camera that won't overwhelm anyone that's new to instant photography, Fujifilm's Instax Mini 11 is our current favorite.
It may lack the more advanced modes and controls that you'll find on more expensive models, but that's a big part of its charm. An auto exposure system takes out a lot of the guesswork, meaning you just have to point and shoot to get decent credit card-sized instant prints.
A tiny mirror built into the front of the camera and a pop-out lens barrel for close-ups means it's easy to get an instant selfie, while the affordable packs of Instax Mini film make it a great addition to any party. It's available in a range of fun colors, so you should be able to find one that suits your style.
Another great thing about the Instax Mini 11 is how great it is as a present. Available at a reasonable price, it'd make a lovely gift for a photography fan – especially young ones – who are keen to experiment with the medium. Remember to factor in some extra cash for film, though.
- Read our in-depth Fujifilm Instax Mini 11 review
Slightly more advanced than the Instax Mini 11, the Instax Mini 70 comes with five shooting modes (including that all-important selfie mode). Despite having a few more features, it doesn't cost too much - but again you need to factor in some budget to pay for some Instax Mini Film.
In terms of usability, one thing to be careful of with the Instax Mini 70 is obscuring the flash with your finger when you're taking shots vertically, but you get used to how it works with enough practice.
All of the modes are automatic, so everything is taken care of - focusing, exposure and flash are a doddle, but it would be nice if you could control the flash manually (see the more expensive Instax Mini 90 for full control).
Upgrading a retro camera might seem like a contradiction in terms, but the Polaroid Now takes the Onestep 2, streamlines the shell and adds autofocus abilities to create an even better instant photography tool.
Physically, it bears a strong resemblance to its predecessor, retaining that iconic – if bulky – throwback form but removing a few buttons, refining the viewfinder and replacing the LED lights with a much clearer digital shot counter.
It remains a model designed for quick and easy snaps, and the new autofocus makes that simpler than ever, proving largely consistent in spitting out sharp, distinctive shots. It also eliminates much of the guesswork associated with a fixed-focus system – a welcome development, given the high price of I-Type film.
It’s not totally reliable – exposure can be inconsistent, with the automatic flash sometimes firing unnecessarily outdoors, or doing the opposite indoors – but that’s a flaw common to many cameras of its ilk. On the whole, the Polaroid Now feels like a definite step forward, delivering big instant prints with a unique lo-fi look – and a foolproof shooting experience.
- Read our in-depth Polaroid Now review
The value-minded SQ1 makes Fuji's Instax Square format film that much more approachable for anyone unfamiliar with instant photography. It has the same easy- to-understand features and useful auto exposure system of the Instax Mini 11, only the photos it spits out are almost twice as large.
An adjustable lens barrel and built-in mirror are useful for close-ups and selfie shots, and the automatic flash is usually smart enough to keep indoor and low-light snaps looking good once they develop. There aren't any other shooting modes to think about, or even luxuries like a tripod thread, and the plastic construction feels noticeably less premium than the more expensive Instax SQ6, so this is a camera better suited to instant newcomers rather than creatives looking to experiment with the medium.
Still, it's a welcome step up from the entry-level Instax for those wanting larger prints, without adding a handful of extra features they may not want to use.
- Read our in-depth Fujfilm Instax SQ1 review
Canon's first instant effort is actually more of a hybrid, blending analogue 'film' with digital smarts. The Zink (zero ink) paper it uses doesn't need exposing to light like regular instant film, so the camera can be much smaller. The Ivy Cliq+ / Zoemini S is truly pocket-sized, beating even Fuji's Instax Mini LiPlay for portability.
A built-in LED ring flash helps you take pleasing portraits, the mirrored lens barrel is purpose-built for selfies, and focusing is automatic, making this a great party camera. Still, it can be sluggish to start up and printing a picture takes around 10 seconds – much slower than our current favorite, the Fuji Instax Mini 9. The credit card-sized prints it produces are much more detailed, though, with colors more like a traditional 35mm photo than the dream-like lomographic effects seen with other instant film.
Battery life typically stretches to two packs of 10 images, but even with an SD card installed, it won't take any more pictures once you're out of film. The 8MP sensor is merely on par with today's entry-level smartphones, and with no built-in screen, you'll need a computer to review your digital snaps.
It seems a lot simpler than other hybrid cameras, but built-in Bluetooth support lets it perform double duty as a portable printer. Being able to turn your smartphone snaps into physical prints gives it an edge over bulkier instant cameras, and it's sensibly priced too.
Big hardly covers it. The Instax Wide 300 is the size of an old-fashioned medium-format rangefinder camera, even a small folding field camera. It’s because it uses Instax wide film packs rather than the regular Instax mini. The Instax 300 wide might look big and clumsy but it’s light, and the generous grip makes it easy to hold and use. You power up with a spring-loaded switch around the shutter release, which extends the 95mm lens.
The Instax wide format is much larger than a digital sensor, so this equates to a moderate wide-angle lens. For a big camera, though, the Instax Wide 300 has a tiny viewfinder. It takes practice even to get your eye lined up with the eyepiece.
Otherwise, it’s simple to use and delivers very good results. Where the regular Instax mini format produces small photo ‘tokens’, these are more like proper photographs - we'd love to see Instax producing a printer in this format , as it has done with its Mini and Square formats.
Unlike the original instax SQUARE model, namely the analog/digital hybrid SQUARE SQ10, the SQ6 has a different idea in mind. Shaped like the Instagram logo and very much targeted at the kind of younger user who shares their creations on the platform, the camera runs on a pair of CR2 batteries and spits out 6.2x6.2cm prints, with the selfie mirror integrated into the front of the camera allowing for more effortless self captures.
Instax square prints feel like more serious photographs, with their larger size giving your subject more room to breathe. Fujifilm throws in orange, purple and green flash filters to allow for an instant injection of colour into images, and as the body is nowhere near as cumbersome as some of the other options here, it ends up being as convenient to carry as it is fun to use.
This is another great option for a gift, too.
- Read our in-depth Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6 review
Arguably one of the more handsome options here, the Automat was born out of a crowdfunding effort just as instant film was experiencing its resurgence.
It comes in a particularly broad range of finishes and conveniently captures images on Fujifilm’s widely available instax Mini film, but the thing that sets it apart from its contemporaries is its ability to be used with close-up, wide and fisheye lenses (that can be bought with the camera), in addition to the default optic.
Further control includes unlimited multiple exposures and a bulb option, and while it’s a shame it doesn’t have a self timer this is hardly a deal-breaker.
What might be more painful to bear is the high price that the Instant Automat commands - it takes out of impulse and fun territory, but if you're particularly keen on the genre, you might be willing to fork out for it.
Combining retro-analogue charm with modern-day digital credentials, this is essentially a basic, low-resolution digital camera with a printer built-in for making instant snapshots. This gives you the opportunity to properly frame up your subject, and check it's something you actually want to print, before wasting expensive film (it uses Instax mini).
One of the gimmicks of the LiPlay is the function to record a sound along with your image capture and "embed" it on to your print in the shape of a QR code. You can then gift that to a friend and ask them to scan the code to playback the sound - modern digital ways are much easier though so how much you bother with that remains questionable.
You might find that purchasing an Instax mini printer is a better option for better quality prints, but the LiPlay is a fun option for kids and parties.
Resembling a cross between a plastic pyramid and a spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Impossible I-1 features lights around the lens to form a ‘ring flash’ for softer portrait lighting, while it even comes with a free I-1 app for your smartphone.
Expect to generate some "looks" while tooling around with this, it uses Polaroid Originals i-Type film, which produces "mixed" results at best - but that's all part of the charm, right?
You can use the app as a remote trigger, a noise trigger and a self-timer. The app also allows double exposures, light painting, and aperture and shutter speed adjustment – and it works as a photo scanner too.
If you don't want to bother with all of that, you can also simply point and shoot the camera at its subject. Owing to its unpredictable nature, bulky shape and expensive film use, the I-1 is an excellent tool for experiments in instant photography, but too cumbersome for informal party shots.
Six films to choose from:
1. Instax Mini
The most common instant film format, producing pictures measuring just 62 x 46mm.
2. Instax Square
Fuji's take on the square format film popularized by Polaroid. Camera support for these 62x62mm photos is more limited.
3. Instax Wide
Twice the size of instax mini and twice the price, but photos measure a meatier 99 x 62mm.
4. Polaroid I-Type
Designed for use in the Impossible I-1and OneStep 2, I-Type film packs don’t have batteries built in, so can't be used with vintage Polaroids.
5. Polaroid 600
Film designed for vintage Polaroid 600-type cameras. It can also be used in the Impossible I-1 and OneStep 2.
6. Polaroid Zink 2x3
Credit-card sized instant film that uses heat-sensitive ink to produce images. Colors are more traditional than Instax. Compatible with many Zink-based cameras and printers.