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How to buy the best Polaroid camera

By Ryan Shaw

Fuelled by nostalgia, instant cameras like the traditional Polaroid are here to stay. Follow our advice to choose the best model for you.

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Instant film photography has a rich and vibrant history, with the first commercial instant camera unveiled in 1948 - the Model 95 Land Camera. But with the introduction of smartphones and more affordable compact cameras, instant cameras have struggled to gain a competitive foothold in an already crowded market.

However, a couple of notable companies have persisted, with various formats of instant camera, such as Fujifilm, Kodak and Polaroid. To some degree, these cameras still command a cult status. With plenty of different models available at a range of prices, if you’re in the market for an instant camera, now is a good time to buy.

But choosing an instant camera isn't as simple as you might think - it goes beyond the usual specs for resolution and zoom, and often relies on the ‘look and feel’ of the camera.

To help narrow down your search, we explain how to choose between the different models, and break down print pricing. Click on the links below to skip to the section you're interested in, or read on:

If you decide that an instant camera doesn't suit your needs and you want something with a bit more photography power, take a look at our Best Buy compact cameras, Best Buy bridge cameras and Best Buy DSLR/mirrorless cameras.

How much does an instant camera cost to buy and use? 

As previously mentioned, there is a wide range of instant cameras available at various prices. How much you’re prepared to pay depends on the size of the camera, the printed paper size and the features included. As you would expect, the more features that are included, the more expensive the camera is.

Instant cameras can start from as little as £65 for an entry-level model, while cameras with more advanced features can cost as much as £250. The sweet spot for instant cameras based on features versus price is around £100-£130. For this amount, you can expect a pretty decent instant camera with good-quality shots that will include most features.

That said, future instant camera owners need to be aware of a few things about the physical prints before buying. Not all cameras offer the classic framed photo prints, and there are some models that provide alternative designs, such as credit-card sized prints with an adhesive back. But there’s a major caveat: some photo paper is hard to get hold of and you may ending up having to pay some unexpectedly high prices.

To provide a better understanding of the associated costs of an instant camera, we’ve collated print prices for different camera brands per pack and per print.

Based on these examples, the Instax Mini 9 is the cheapest to buy and has average ongoing costs. On the other hand, the Snap Touch is the most expensive camera but has a significantly lower cost per print.

How much you’re planning to print will determine which is the best-value camera for you in the long run.

Instant camera size and weight 

Instant cameras need to be an accessible size, so that you’ll barely notice it’s there when carrying it around. It needs to be portable and compact, but without suffering any design shortcomings. For example, you don’t want the camera to be too compact, as the controls might be too small and fiddly.

With regards to weight, most instant cameras we’ve seen are less than 500g. The camera housing is typically made of plastic, which for some models makes the camera feel cheap, but it keeps the overall weight down.

The best solution is to find a camera that is lightweight, but doesn’t feel like a cheap toy. We recommend trying each of your prospective cameras in-store to get a feel for which one is right for you. Take into consideration the camera controls as well - cheap, plastic controls can be hard to use over time and may affect the camera’s reliability.

Camera design 

Camera design is rather subjective, but aesthetics can be a crucial factor when choosing one camera over another. If you like the quirky look of an instant camera, you’re more likely to use it frequently than an instant camera with a boring, totalitarian design.

The camera also has to be easy to use. A camera is not fit for purpose if it has an exciting design but fails in its primary function - to take photos. A good instant camera should have a decent-sized grip so your hands can cradle the camera comfortably, either with both hands or when shooting one-handed.

Controls also need to be fairly basic, increasing the chances of you using the camera regularly. Some models even include touchscreens to preview or edit shots - similar to the smartphone interfaces that people are used to.

Top features when buying an instant camera 

Basically, you want an instant camera to do more than a disposable camera, but still be simple to use the first time and able to print photos quickly.

If you’re looking to take your instant photography to the next level, look for models that feature manual exposure controls. Some of the best instant cameras we’ve seen offer photo modes including macro, landscape, bulb (to open the shutter for longer) and double-exposure to help you get creative with your shots.

However, part of the allure of instant cameras is their simplicity. Some photographers don’t want to play around with settings and will typically shoot in full auto mode. If you’re not interested in these extra exposure controls, you can save some money on a camera by making sure it doesn’t include these.

If you’re a budget-savvy photographer, one instant camera feature worth looking for is the ability to choose which photos the camera prints and which ones it discards - not every photo you take is instantly printed. This helps to keep the printing costs down, and you can be more selective about which shots are worthy of printing.

Lastly, if you want instant prints but also want a digital copy, some cameras come with built-in memory to store your images as you shoot. It doesn’t alter the image and saves a direct copy to the memory. However, the best instant cameras include extended storage capacity via a memory card slot. These are ideal for when you're travelling because you don’t have to worry about deleting photos once the internal storage limit has been reached.

Instant camera print quality 

Print quality from instant cameras can be a bit of a mixed bag. Some cameras produce prints that are sharp with accurate colours, while others create prints that are over-exposed or slightly fuzzy. Let’s be honest - you’re not buying an instant camera for the print quality, you’re buying it primarily for the nostalgia value and convenience.

Like most compact cameras, instant cameras work best in full sunlight or when there's plenty of light available. They will always struggle in low light, due to a limited sensor size and exposure/shutter controls.

If you're looking to compare instant camera print quality side by side, we recommend looking at a range of cameras in a shop. Then you can take a photos of exactly the same subject and compare quality on the spot. 

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