Fujifilm and the instant film bonanza


The Photokina took place in Cologne a few weeks ago. To a large extent, it was a Fujikina. Fujifilm announced a brand new medium format digital system, and presented a black and white version of their Instax Mini film. And they pre-announced a square (6cm by 6cm) version of their Instax Color film. And special editions (Michael Kors, Colette, ..) of their Instax instant film cameras. At the same time, Leica was showing a Leica branded Fujifilm camera (the Leica Sofort), a clone of the Fuji Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic, with Leica branded black and white and color instant film.

Instax Mini Film - Holga 120 CFN camera with Holga 120 -IB back
Instax Mini Film – Holga 120 CFN camera with Holga 120 -IB back.


Fujifilm has been in the instant film business for a very long time – with their own technology and through cross licensing agreements with Polaroid. Until April 2016 Fuji was still producing peel apart film compatible with Polaroid pack film cameras and backs, years after Polaroid themselves had ceased to manufacture instant film. As a sidebar, the conventional Polaroid film was called peel-apart film, because the photographer had to wait for the image to be processed, and then had to peel a sort of negative apart from the developed picture on paper. A more modern implementation of instant photography is the “integral” film, in which  the picture itself contains all the chemicals needed for an automatic development of the photo.


Fujifilm’s integral film success story started at the end of the nineties, when they introduced the Instax Mini, a new small size instant film system in Japan (the Instax Mini image size is approx 6 x 4.5cm, and as a consequence the size of the cameras can be kept reasonably small). The system was adopted with enthusiasm by  pre-teen and teen age Japanese girls, and Fuji has been very intelligently building on this initial success to convert foreign and older customers (first in Asia, and more recently in the West). In addition to the Instax Mini film, Fujifilm also introduced Instax Wide films and cameras. The Instax Wide image is larger than the Mini’s (twice the size at 10cm x 6cm), but the cameras are anything but pocket friendly.


The growth has been phenomenal (3.8 Million cameras sold in 2014, 5 million in 2015, and on target to 6 million in 2016).

sales_Instax_other
Sales of Fujifilm Instax cameras – 1998 to 2014. The sales volume in 2014 is 3.87 million. Source: Fuji film

 
Those volumes are far from being negligible if compared to the 40 million digital cameras  sold in 2015.


More important still for Fujifilm’s bottom line, instant film photography is a repeat business:  each camera consumes film, and a pack of Instax Mini film which costs approximately US$ 10.00  is only good for… 10 pictures.


On the instant film market, Fuji has only one competitor: The Impossible Project, aka TIP. TIP took over a Polaroid plant in the Netherlands when Polaroid left the film business, and started manufacturing their own integral films (they don’t have the original Polaroid recipes, their films are their own creations). I had tested their first black and white integral film just after they started their business a few years ago – and I had not been impressed. They have improved their products massively in terms of predictability and usability, and they’ve extended their product line to include color films and to support more models of Polaroid cameras; I’ve seen really beautiful pictures made with their current line of films. However, compared to Fujifilm, they remain a small scale operations with expensive products and a very limited distribution network. As opposed to Fujifilm, The Impossible Project can only propose one model  to people who want to buy a new camera. Their customers still  primarily use very capable but old SX70 and 600 Polaroid cameras – which are still abundant on the used market, but don’t have a reputation for aging gracefully.

holga2
Holga 120 with 120-IB Instax back.


Lomography (the promoters of Lo-Fi photography and makers of the Lomo, Holga, Diana and Belair cameras) have developed two lines of instant film cameras,  one for the Instax Mini film, one for the Instax Wide, as well as add-on backs for the Holga, the Diana and the Belair.  They offer more control to the photographer but they don’t have the reputation of being user friendly or to offer consistent results. More about it below.


Lastly, a cottage industry has been busy refurbishing old Polaroid cameras (for use with The Impossible Project’s film or with Instax), and converting old medium format cameras – in particular the Mamiya Press – to Instax film. For all sorts of reasons, Fujifilm recently stopped producing the conventional peel and apart instant film that many lovers of high quality instant photography were using. Since Fujifilm’s  own Instax Wide cameras are rather basic, the best option for serious photographers is to convert old medium format cameras to accept Fuji’s integral film. At the moment, it’s a very limited market – the  cameras capable of taking advantage of the size of the Instax Wide film are necessarily very large,  heavy, and difficult to use, and the conversion is as expensive as the camera itself. But the release of the Instax Square film in 2017 will open the door for the conversion to integral film of smaller 6×6 and 6×7 cameras. If the Instax Square cartridge is designed like the Instax Mini, cameras with a deep interchangeable back will be the easiest to convert. It’s time to buy a good medium format SLR system before the prices go up.

holga_1
Holga with 120-IB Instax back (with add-on viewfinder and Neutral density filter)
Jules (French Bouledogue). Holga camera with defective shutter.
Jules (French Bouledogue). Holga camera with defective shutter.


A few weeks ago, I wanted to have a feel for the Instant film phenomenon, and I mounted an Instax Mini back (the Holga 120-IB) on the Holga 120 CFN  I had brough with me to Rome a few years back. I bought the kit from a on-line store in Hong-Kong. It is composed of the back itself, a corrective lens  to place at the front of the Holga’s lens, and an additional viewfinder. It’s very simple – there is no battery as the picture is processed and extracted when the photographer turns a crank hidden under the bottom of the back.


My first test was not devoid of issues: either the back was poorly assembled, or I did not insert the pack of film properly, but I could not extract the pictures from the camera with the crank as I was supposed to: after each shot, I had to go to a dark room, open the camera and extract the picture manually. I finally solved the problem, probably by brute force, and the back worked flawlessly with the subsequent packs of film. Then with  the second pack of film, the shutter of the Holga decided to misbehave. I had to disassemble  it and lube it. The third pack of film gave better results, but almost all of the pictures were over or under exposed:  the exposure latitude of the Instax film is rather narrow, and nailing the right exposure is very difficult: don’t believe the specs sheet, the Holga only has one aperture (there is a sunny day/ cloudy day selector, but the aperture is F/13 in both cases) and the shutter is inconsistent and unreliable. Not the best recipe for success. Overall, it’s a frustrating experience as you feel you are wasting a good film in a poor camera.

But as always with an Holga, some of the pictures – while technically flawed – have an almost surrealistic quality.

Fuji bicycle - Instax Mini film - Holga camera with Instax back (AFAIK Fujifim is not in the bicycle business. It's a coincidence)
Fuji bicycle – Instax Mini film – Holga camera with Instax back (AFAIK Fujifim is not in the bicycle business. It’s a coincidence)

More about Fujifilm’s instant photography adventures:


Fujifim and Instant Photography (camera-wiki.org)


The world through a plastic lens? A few pictures in Rome with the Holga 120 CFN


When your good friends learn that you still shoot film, and write about it, they understand they have a unique opportunity to get rid of all the – let’s be polite – worthless photo equipment they don’t use anymore and you end up with Kodak Brownies or Instamatics by the bucketload. And if your brother in law is really facetious, he brings you a brand new Holga from one of his trips in China, and since it’s a Christmas present and everybody in the family is intrigued, you buy film and start using it.

Holga 120 CNF
Holga 120 CNF


That particular camera comes in a big orange box with the rest of the “Starter Kit”. Reading the user manual, you get confirmation that the camera is “extremely low tech, and will eventually wear out”. Major design flaws are presented as unique features – the dreaded manual mentions “leaks of light, unvoluntary multiple exposures, loose connection between the film and the take up spool” among the desirable characteristics of the product. Looking for some comfort, you check a little square format book at the bottom of the box. It’s a nice paperback of 192 pages, showing 300 images taken with Holga cameras. Not something Leica or Nikon would be proud of, but interesting pictures nonetheless.


The camera’s design is very basic. It accepts 120 format roll film, has a plastic wide angle lens (60mm, F:8 or F:11) with 4 possible focus settings, and a shutter which offers a unique and unspecified speed. The camera comes with 2 user interchangeable back plates, one will give you 6×6 cm negatives with some vignetting, the other one 6×4.5cm negatives, probably with less vignetting (I don’t know, I only shot with the 6×6 plate). The “CFN” Holgas also come with an electronic flash, equipped with a turret of 4 filters (Red, Blue, Yellow and transparent) for special effects.


Using the Holga


The Holga 120 CFN needs 120 film – of course – and since Holgas are supposed to be enjoyed for their shortcomings, color film should be preferred (the plastic lens is prone to chromatic aberrations which would not be visible with black and white film).


Finding color film in 120 rolls proved very difficult. If 35mm film is still easy to find (even in supermarkets or in the little stores attached to many hotels), the same can not be said for 120 roll film. Only stores dedicated to professional photographers still have a few references. I bought a few rolls of Kodak’s Portra 400 NC film. Loading the camera is a difficult task, but in all honesty I’m not used to roll film and I would also have suffered with a more high end camera.


Holga 120 CNF - a view from the shutter (120 film adapter removed)
Holga 120 CNF - a view from the shutter (the 6x6 back plate has been removed - the two AA batteries power the electronic flash ).


In the street, the camera attracts lost of attention. People notice the bright red color (Holgas are also available in black, kaki and in a unique blue and yellow combination), and are intrigued by the cheap aspect of the camera. It looks like a toy, and people are surprised to see an adult using it.


The camera has very few controls and is easy to use, with a decent viewfinder and relatively smooth commands, and provides a user experience very similar the “boxes” that Kodak used to sell before the launch of the Instamatic cameras.


The results
Having the rolls processed proved as difficult as buying the film in the first place. Costco and the proximity drugstores don’t process anything larger than 35mm film, and the rolls had be sent to a professional lab (some of them charge up to $20.00 per roll). When you receive the pictures, you discover the “Holga paradox”: you’re not attracted to the almost “normal” images, but by the most severely flawed. The pictures with the fewer technical faults are just bad (with vignetting and all sorts of aberrations), while some of the images plagued with the worst of the problems (involuntary multiple exposures, light leaks) have a surrealist quality that the most creative of the photographers would struggle to get from a digital picture processed in Photoshop.


Holga, what for?


“Normal” photographers are supposed to spend thousands of dollars in the equipment which will help them produce pictures as perfect as possible from a technical point of view – in focus, sharp, with the right exposure, no vignetting, no distortion, and no chromatic aberration.

Rome-Coliseum-Holga 120 CFN
Rome-Coliseum-Holga 120 CFN - This is one of the pictures with the fewest defects.
Straight from the Holga - at least the bright red camera attracts smiles
Straight from the Holga - at least the bright red camera attracts smiles


Deviations from the norm of the technically perfect picture are supposed to be voluntary, in order to convey an emotion or a message. They’re not supposed to have been brought randomly by a poorly designed camera.


Holgas don’t follow the rule. They’re not “normal”, and they’re not what “normal” photographers would be looking for. Their results are totally unpredictable. When nothing went really wrong, the results are dull. It’s only when they are massively flawed that the pictures start being surprising and interesting.


Using a Holga reminded me of the “Exquisite Corpse” creativity method used by the Surrealist movement at the beginning of the XXth century. With a Holga you will rely on chance to create something new and different. Using the bright red Holga, I started believing that chance could be an artist on its own right. And you end up loving that little camera for that very reason.



More about Holga cameras


Holga 120 CFN and photographer - digital pictures can also be flawed...
Holga 120 CFN and photographer - digital pictures can also be flawed...


A few decades ago, photographers in Austria discovered the “Lomos” (copies of Cosina point and shoot cameras made in the USSR), and liked the – flawed – pictures made by those very imperfect little cameras so much that they launched the “lomography” movement. They started distributing the “Lomos” in Austria and Germany, and progressively added other cameras from Eastern Europe and China to their catalog. Lomos and Holgas are now widely distributed, and can also be purchased directly from the Lomography web site, where a red Holga 120 CFN can be found for $75. That’s a lot of money for such a low tech object. Bargain hunters can also find Holgas on eBay, for far less.


Cynics will say that the initiators of the Lomography movement found a way to get rich selling Soviet surplus to the rich photographers of the West, and philosophers that they showed that chance and chromatic aberrations could be more creative than would be artists obsessed with technical perfection.


Holga links


The Holga blog: a blog about film photography, Holgas, Toy Cameras, 6×6 TLRs, Polaroid – “LO-FI” photography at its best.
The Holga group on Flickr
Cameras from (formerly) communist countries: does not include Holgas, but the original Lomos, Dianas & Lubitel cameras, among other things.


Rome - View of the Curia from the Campidoglio - Holga 120 CFN
Rome - View of the Curia from the Campidoglio - Holga 120 CFN