Forget phone pics and overcomplicated gear! The best instant cameras strip photography right down to its core. No more megapixels, no more swiping through screens to see what you've shot – instant photography is picture taking in its purest form, and it gives you a one-of-a-kind print that can never be replicated. (Could instant photos be the original NFTs?)
The best instant cameras don't just produce a unique physical memento of your treasured memories, they capture those moments in a truly unique way. Thanks to the photochemical process employed by analog cameras from Polaroid, Instax and Lomography, photos possess a distinct, low-fi, retro look that's almost impossible to duplicate in Photoshop.
Of course, there are also digital instant cameras from the likes of Kodak that combine the thrill of instant photography with the convenience and quality of modern-day technology. The result is a much smaller, digital camera with an image sensor to capture every minute detail, and a digital printer that uses ZINK (Zero Ink) and photo paper rather than analog film.
Which isn't to say that the analog cameras are technologically challenged; plenty of Polaroid and Instax models can connect to smartphones or other devices via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and some of Kodak's digital instant cameras also come with SD card slots that enable you save a digital copy of every image you take.
While the image quality of instant cameras is never going to measure up to that of the best DSLRs or the best mirrorless cameras, the physicality of printed media is beyond compare. A physical image displayed in your home or given to a friend is worth a thousand digital files languishing on a hard drive, so if you feel like you want your photography to be more social, tangible and fun, an instant camera could be just the thing.
We've divided our guide to the best instant cameras up into sections for film and digital. If you pick the former, don’t forget to pick up the right kind of instant film to have plenty of ammunition for your shooting!
The best instant cameras in 2021
Instant film cameras
If you're looking for full-size instant photographs with great image quality and that elusive 'vintage look', the Polaroid Now+ is far and away the best option on the market right now. While the Polaroid Now offers the same base shooting options and image quality, and the OneStep+ offers some of the same Bluetooth connectivity and creativity, the Now+ combines the best features of both products. In addition to light painting, aperture priority, double exposures, portrait mode, manual mode, tripod shooting and more (many of which are only available via the app), it also boasts physical lens filters: starburst, red vignette, and blue, yellow and orange colors for in-camera effects. It even has a lens cap! Instant photography remains expensive when you work out the cost per exposure, but if you accept that as the price of admission then you will have more fun using this than any other instant camera – and you'll get results that can only be achieved on this one.
Excitement abounded in the instant photography community when The Impossible Project bought the Polaroid name and announced the debut of a new line of instant cameras harking back to that golden era. The OneStep+ is the second release, following the OneStep 2 (yes, we know it’s confusing). It’s pretty much the same deal as the previous camera, with Polaroid Originals making sensible refinements rather than reinventing the wheel – these chiefly being the addition of an 89mm portrait lens for people shots and the integration of Bluetooth connectivity, which not only allows for remote shutter control via a smartphone but also several new shooting modes. These include double exposures, light painting and even noise trigger, which allows you to trigger the shutter with a short, sharp sound such as a hand-clap. This is of the most exciting and best instant cameras around, now improved and made even better, a no-brainer for any instant-photography fanatic who also wants to tap into that retro vibe.
Instax cameras are knockabout fun with a side of lo-fi cool, and none exemplify this more than the beautiful Instax Mini 40. With its stylish black-and-silver trim, the Mini 40 looks the part, and it's incredibly simple to operate. There are no exposure controls, or really controls of any kind; you just point, and shoot. This might be a bit too simple for some users, but if you're the kind of person who just wants to produce instant images without having to worry about it, this is a fantastic buy. The simplicity also makes it a good option for kids, who will be able to easily get the hang of operating it.
Instax prints are smaller than Polaroids, but still look pretty great, and will develop with unbelievable speed. Plus, let's not forget, the film is cheaper to buy, and these costs will add up over time if you're a frequent shooter. The Instax Mini 40 is an excellent instant camera for families and parties alike.
Note: The Instax Mini 11 is pretty much the exact same camera as this, albeit without the textured finish. It's probably available for a cheaper price if you're looking to save some cash.
• Cheap Instax film deals
Available in brown or black, the Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic is Fujifilm’s only instant camera to handily come with a rechargeable battery, which the company claims will last as long as 10 (credit card-sized) film packs. With retro styling, it feels like it's pitched at the photo enthusiast, with some manual control over exposure and even the option to disable the built-in flash if you feel pictures are too bright. A double exposure mode extends creativity options for the curious (although results can be a bit hit and miss here) as does a shutter-release button above its lens, which doubles up as a selfie mirror (another shutter-release button is in the usual top-plate location). The advantage here over a cheaper instant-print camera is an LCD display strip at the back revealing your chosen settings. As usual, the viewfinder is tiny but adequate for purpose, while the faux leather finish to the bodywork adds a splash of style.
Powered by four AA batteries rather than the usual two, the Fujifilm Instax Wide 300 is the big daddy of the Instax print camera range. It's practically medium format camera-like heft enables it to deliver larger prints (it uses Instax Wide film packs rather than Instax Mini) that more closely resemble standard print dimensions. Its chunkiness means it's not really practical for selfies, yet its plastic build is lighter than you’d imagine. A lever that encircles the shutter-release button on its bridge-camera-style handgrip powers this one up and extends its 95mm lens, while the built-in flash is similarly huge (and automatic, save for a fill-in option). With prints emerging from the slit in the camera’s top plate, the only thing small here, oddly, is the left-of-centre viewfinder, which could have been larger. Control is limited to adjusting brightness and flash, but if you want instant prints closer to the dimensions of ‘proper’ photographs, this is the best option for you.
• The best Instax photo albums
The Polaroid Go is a palm-sized camera that everyone will fall in love with faster than it takes a photo to develop. Bigger instant cameras balance exposures better, and rival Instax Mini cameras deliver slightly better image quality indoors – but neither are as fun to use, or will make you as many friends, as the Go… which still produces pleasing pics. A consideration is that Instax Mini film works out cheaper than Polaroid Go film, but then you'll also need to replace those AA batteries on the Mini whereas the Go just needs USB to top up the power. And the Go boasts double exposures, which you won't get unless you opt for pricier options like the Instax Mini 90. A fun and funky little camera, the Polaroid Go will be the star of your next party and will deposit an endless amount of memories in your pocket or wallet. And if you've got kids, this could be the ideal camera for little hands to get started with. Don't forget to pick up a pack of the new Polaroid Go instant film!
The Fujifilm Instax Square SQ6 is powered by two small CR2 lithium batteries (included) that the makers claim will last a whopping 30 film packs, of 10 shots each. Looking to tempt Instagrammers away from their smartphones, this camera apes the style of the 'gram logo and offers 1:1 square-format imagery, while retaining its analogue workings. Again, we get a selection of body colors and a selfie mode, plus three color filters that attach to the flash, along with double exposure, macro and landscape modes. Unsurprisingly, the camera uses special Fujifilm Square film, which provides a central image size of 6.2x6.2cm. As with most film-based instant cameras, results appear a little bleached compared with a digital shot, but if you’re trying to tear your teenager away from their phone to engage with the real world, you could do worse than offer up the SQ6. A newer Fujifilm Instax Square SQ1 has recently been launched - but the older SQ6 is better value, and has more features - so this is the one you should go for.
The Polaroid Now is a welcome arrival to the Polaroid product line, and a worthy addition to the increasingly crowded instant camera world. It boasts superior image quality to the OneStep2, thanks to its dual-lens autofocus system and improved flash, though it lacks the additional features (such as Bluetooth connectivity and remote trigger) found in the slightly pricier OneStep+. For pure point-and-shoot simplicity, though, the Polaroid Now is hard to beat – and while the Instax Mini 11 does have it beaten on price, we definitely prefer the full-size square prints that Polaroid delivers. And much as we love the Instax line, when you're shooting old school instant film there's nothing quite like the tactility of holding a big, boxy Polaroid. If you don't need the extra bells and whistles of the OneStep+, the Polaroid Now is sure to wow.
Digital instant cameras
The Kodak Smile Instant Print is one of the best digital instant cameras – a modern update of instant photography that combines the best of analog with the beauty of digital. This slim-as-a-smartphone camera that sports a sleek design and uses Zink (zero ink) technology – it's essentially a miniature printer with a lens, producing 2x3-inch sticky-backed prints. Inside the camera is a relatively humble 5MP sensor (up to 10MP through interpolation), though for images this size you don't need all the resolution in the world. Ultimately the pictures it produces look more like printer images than they do instant photographs – not necessarily a bad thing, but they don't possess quite the same magic as instant film. The ability to add up to 256GB of microSD memory means that you can snap to your heart's content, then cherry pick the images that you want to print. The integrated battery keeps the camera nice and svelte, though you only get around 40 prints per charge – a far cry from the 120-160 shots you get from Polaroids. The LCD screen is definitely on the basic side, too, so don't go expecting the same kind of fidelity as in your traditional DSLR or mirrorless screen.
Kodak's Mini Shot 3 is a tidy little instant print camera that's great for anyone who doesn't want anything too complicate. It doesn't use Zink like the Kodak Smile above, but houses a proper little printer that uses Kodak's 4PASS all-in-one cartridges to spit out little square prints, 3 inches by 3 inches. The colors pop a good deal better than Zink, and they are also rated to be longer lasting. The camera overall is pretty cheap, and running it isn't too expensive either, making it a good option if you want to shoot instant on a budget. It also produces 10MP digital photos that you can save via Bluetooth on the app (and you do have to do it this way; there's no internal storage). A cheap option that's good fun for anyone, especially those who aren't too confident with using a camera.
As instant film cameras can be expensive to buy and even more expensive to keep stocked and shooting, the Kodak Step makes for a tempting alternative. Running on affordable ZINK paper, and coming with a 2-digit price tag for the camera itself, the Step is definitely one that will appeal to the budget conscious.
It doesn't offer any control over manual settings, or have many shooting modes, but this is precisely what will appeal to families and casual users; the Kodak Step is simplicity itself to shoot with. You point it, press the big red button, and a minute or so later, you're holding a print. The camera also saves digital copies of images to an SD card. It does feel a little cheap and plasticky, because it is, and if you use the white border or multi-shot modes, you'll quickly notice that the images tend to print a little crooked. It's knockabout fun, but don't expect more than that.