Thursday 14 December 2017

Point, shoot and print: Fujifilm instant camera echoes 70s Polaroids and rekindles a love of physical snaps

Tech review: Fujifilm Instax SQ10, €299


One of the most curious revivals in recent years has been that of the instant camera. Just when we thought our phones had everything covered, a new wave of 4x3 mini snappers has re-emerged to give us on-the-spot gratification.

It's not a retro fashion, either: most of the indicators suggest that the main market is teenagers and other folks too young to remember the Polaroids of the 1970s and 1980s.

I recently brought one such device, Fujifilm's Instax SQ10, away with me for a family weekend to Germany. In short, I loved it. I also suspect that the photos taken with it will turn out to be more important than other photos I took on the trip with the fancy mirrorless DSLR camera I brought.

The SQ10 has a digital take on the instant camera genre in that it has a colour touchscreen and hosts a memory card. The idea is that you can take multiple shots, review them, lightly edit them and then pick which one you want to print. (There's also a quick mode that just prints whatever shot you take.)

The results are mostly positive, although it loses a fraction of the magic because of the extra control you have.

The camera is a little bigger and heavier than other instant cameras on the market and is charged using a Micro USB adapter.

Prints coming from it are 3.4 inches by 2.8 inches, with the actual image being a square 2.4 by 2.4 inches. (A pack cartridge of ten shots costs €13.99.) The focal length is 28.5mm, meaning you get the same kind of view as you would from a typical smartphone (quite zoomed out).

It comes with three basic editing control features: lightening/darkening, vignette (darkened corners) and filters (ten of them). You can either adjust these before or after the shot is taken. You can also crop shots that have been taken by zooming in before pressing 'print'. It also has a built-in flash that can be switched on or off.

I found all of these controls to be handy and ended up using them for almost every shot. This was a doubled-edged sword. While I instinctively appreciated the ability to optimise the look of photos, it definitely interfered with the particular edgy thrill of shooting and seeing what came out. In my case, I put a 32GB memory card in.

Before long, I just started to shoot dozens of photos before printing a single one off. I also began not to print on site, telling myself I would tweak the photo later before printing it. This may have resulted in slightly better photos, but it diluted the 'instant' experience a little.

It also affected the people I was photographing. By and large, they were made to pose for longer periods while I reeled off multiple shots from different angles, just like I would from a digital camera or a phone.

That was probably a little annoying. They also often didn't get to see the photo then and there, for the editing reasons I listed above. So it might fairly be said that what you gain in photo control, you lose in excitement. (To be fair, you do have the option to stick it in a shoot-and-print mode via an 'automatic' switch on the side.)

I was surprised to find that the camera includes a screw-in tripod mount on the bottom: I can't imagine using this on a tripod. A nice additional design feature is a couple of strap holders so you can hang it around your neck if you want.

So what are the quality of the shots like? Fairly modest. You can forget about much real detail in the photos. Exposure levels are also a bit of a challenge: in general, it defaults to overexposing the photo a little, with the flash often overdoing it. (You can turn the flash off in settings, but that didn't really improve the exposure issue.)

Then again, fine detail is hardly the point. These are 2.4 inch square photos - you really just want to see decent outlines, some colour and a bit of background context.

The fundamental point of this device is the magic of seeing something printed from your camera on the spot, even if it's now delayed because you have the ability to edit the shots first.

It also means that you definitely have a print. For all the technical limitations I've pointed out, the snaps I took of my family's weekend in Frankfurt are the only ones I've actually printed in months (despite taking thousands of photos in that time).

So maybe the Fujifilm has done me a service in more than just the photos it gave me of my trip away: maybe it has reminded me to print photos.

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