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 Impossible Project’s PX100 – the ultimate “low-fidelity” film ?


Manufacturers of Instant Cameras and Instant Film used to cater to two main audiences: the professionals who needed photographic documentation for insurance claims or real estate listings, and amateurs looking for the instant gratification of seeing on paper what they had shot. When they used instant cameras, the professionals did not face the risk of receiving bad pictures from the photo lab two days after they had left their customer, and the amateurs bringing their instant camera at a party or a reunion could show and share their pictures with their friends and guests, right on the spot.


Polaroid SX-70 with PX100 film
Polaroid SX-70 with PX100 film pack. The black and white instant film is not manufactured by Polaroid, but by the Impossible Project. With a 100 ISO sensitivity, it's compatible with the original SX-70 color film from Polaroid.


The professionals who used instant film cameras now use digital technologies to produce their reports or leaflets, and casual photographers use their cell phones to take pictures, that they forward electronically to their friends, or share on social networking sites. Printing digital pictures requires some extra hardware – a photographic quality printer – and the effort of manipulating memory cards or USB cords while navigating in complex menus. Sharing prints during a party or a reunion will obviously requires some planning. For the people who still prefer the no-fuss experience of instant cameras, Fujifilm is still selling its Instax line of cameras and film.


Take a few pictures with the PX100 film, created by the Impossible Project for the Polaroid SX-70 cameras, and it becomes evident that a completely different audience is targeted. It’s not about ease of use or instant gratification – the image has to be kept in the dark during the development process and takes more than a few minutes to reveal itself. In fact, it’s not about gratification at all: the images have a very low resolution, an extremely low contrast, and have to be scanned and reworked in Photoshop to be barely usable. I was so puzzled by the results that I checked what other users of the PX100 were posting on Flickr (check those groups: polapremium and PX100) and I read the same story over and over. People who want to be polite talk about a “touchy” film, the positive minded guys discuss work arounds, but the truth is that the PX100 Instant Film is not a reliable photographic medium.


Portrait shot on PX100 film (scanned as shot, no adjustment)
Portrait shot on PX100 film (scanned as shot, no adjustment)


The fans of Holga cameras started the “low-fidelity” or “Lo-fi” photographic movement a while ago (check my test of the Holga 120CFN). When you use a Holga camera, you put a very decent roll film elaborated by Kodak or Fuji in a camera of very questionable quality, and you sometimes get interesting results. When you put PX100 film in a nice Polaroid SX-70 camera from the 1970s, it’s just the opposite. The camera may be good, but the behavior of the film is largely unpredictable.


A positive note to conclude: the Impossible Project started shipping its PX600 film this week. It’s supposed to be more usable. Color film will follow in a few months. Check the Flickr groups to see how they perform.


Portrait on PX100 Film (exposure adjusted in Photoshop)
Portrait on PX100 Film (exposure adjusted in Photoshop)