We’re swimming in a world of full-frame shooters with ultra high pixel counts, incredible low-light performance, and jaw-dropping video features. But what if that’s not what you want? Instant film has enjoyed a renaissance in our digital world, giving creatives a more artistic outlet for their work, one that delivers a tangible result and is rife with unpredictable results. No cameramaker embraces that style of imaging more than Lomography, which strives to develop analog tools and imperfect lenses. Its first square format instant camera, the Lomo’Instant Square ($ 199), is a fine example of this, and a lot of fun to use. It’s got a sharp lens, a folding design, and gives you the nostalgic, square instant format at a much more affordable cost per image than you get from Polaroid Originals (formerly the Impossible Project).
The Lomo’Instant Square is a striking example of design. It’s retro chic, witha folding body that adds to the aesthetic, but also serves the practical purpose of slimming the camera down for transport and storage. It measures 4.8 by 6.0 by 1.7 inches (HWD) and feels heavy in the hand at 1.1 pounds. It’s definitely on the large side of things, but that’s to be expected when you remember that the 2.4-inch square film requires medium format optics to capture images.
You’ll need to open the camera to use it. It’s easy enough to do—put your thumb next to the lens, at the point where the focal length is printed, and push. It requires a little force, but keep pushing until the lens locks in place. You’ll know it’s good when you hear a disturbing clunk sound that makes you think you broke the camera. You didn’t. To close it, press your finger on the metal rail that sits below the lens, but be careful not to damage the bellows that extend from the lens to the body. They’re made of thick rubber, so I wouldn’t worry too much, but it’s best not to expose them to unnecessary stress.
The Square currently sells in three colors. Black and white versions are priced at $ 199, and there’s a premium Pigalle red edition for $ 229. I bought the Square via Kickstarter, and received one of the two exclusive pre-order color options, the blue Kickstarter edition. There’s also a Ginza—brown—version that was only available via Kickstarter. I expect that Lomography will release additional special editions of the camera down the road in different finishes and slightly different price points. That is standard operating procedure for the company. So if you aren’t in love with the black, red, or white finish, you may want to wait and see what comes down the pike.
The lens is glass, a step up from the plastic lenses you get with all Fujifilm and some Lomography instant cameras. Its 95mm focal length is close to a standard-angle field of view, 45mm in full-frame terms. That’s a departure from the 28mm-equivalent lenses that Lomography has used with smaller format instant models like the Lomo’Instant Automat, but a welcome change of pace for photographers who prefer a standard lens.
The maximum aperture is narrow, at f/10, and close focus is limited to 2.6 feet (0.8-meter), so this isn’t a camera for macro work or razor-thin depth of field. Since it’s a manual zone focus lens (with settings for 0.8-meter, 1-2.5 meters, and 2.5 meters to infinity), the leeway will help you get more shots in focus. You frame shots using a fixed optical viewfinder rather than a through-the-lens mirror system. It supports 30.5mm filters—Lomo offers several different color filters to change the look of images, and there’s also a portrait lens that cuts the minimum focus distance to 1.6 feet (0.5-meter). If you plan to shoot a lot of selfies—there is a small selfie mirror next to the flash—the portrait lens is a solid add-on, as you’ll need long arms to hold the camera 2.6 feet from your face.
The lens can also shoot at f/22. Exposure control is automatic, so it’ll only stop down that far in very bright light. Instax film is rated at ISO 800, and the shutter can fire from 8 seconds through 1/250-second, or in a long-exposure manual Bulb mode up to 30 seconds. Multiple exposure support is also included, expanding creative options. Exposure Compensation is available, a big help for situations where the ambient light may not match the light cast on your subject.
A narrow aperture lens is pretty standard for an instant camera, as almost all models feature fixed or zone focus. The Lomo’Instant Automat Glass is an exception; it uses the smaller Instax Mini format, and because its lens captures an ultra-wide 21mm field of view, an f/4.5 design is possible as focus isn’t as critical with such a wide angle.
There is a built-in flash, which will come in handy when shooting indoors or in other dim conditions. The camera is powered by two CR2 batteries (not included). It’s a type that’s commonly used in cameras, especially late model autofocus 35mm SLRs, and you can get them at a hardware store or online, but they’re not as readily available as AA batteries. It’s not a bad idea to order an extra set and keep them around, as you likely can’t pop into a convenience store and pick up more.
You also get a wireless remote control with the camera. It’s pretty basic—it has two buttons, one to take an automatic exposure and another to start and stop a timed exposure. The latter is a plus for shooting long exposure shots on a tripod, as it means you won’t introduce any shake. The remote requires a CR2025 battery, which isn’t included. It uses infrared to control the camera, so it does require line of sight to either the front or rear of the Lomo’Instant. The remote slides into the body for storage, so you aren’t likely to lose it.
Instax Square is a newer format from Fujifilm, and commands a higher price than its Mini or Wide formats. You can expect to pay around $ 15 for a 10-pack of film. Right now you can get the film in color only, though I hold out hope for a black-and-white version at some point, as it’s available in the Instax Mini and Wide formats. Speaking of Mini, you can use the Mini film format with the Square. You’ll need to buy the Accessory Kit, a $ 59 add-on that also includes a Splitzer to block part of the frame during multiple exposures and the aforementioned portrait lens add-on.
Handling and Image Quality
The Square can be a little tricky to use, especially if you’ve been shooting with digital cameras, which show a view through the lens and focus in the viewfinder or EVF. The Square’s viewfinder is a fixed optical one, and it’s located in the corner, offset from the lens. Because of this, you’re going to need to deal with some parallax.
The viewfinder has two distinct levels of brightness. Ignore the darker vignette area—it’s not going to show up in your image. The bright square is your frame, but you have to remember that framing is not going to be precise. The viewfinder is offset from the lens, and that difference means the framing is going to vary a bit, especially when focusing close.
And focus is another concern. When you unfold the camera, the lens defaults to its middle zone of focus, which keeps subjects in focus from 3.3 to 8.2 feet (1 to 2.5 meters). You’ll move the focus up to move to the 2.6-foot (0.8-meter) focus plane, and down to focus beyond 8.2 feet, all the way to infinity. No matter what you do, everything in the viewfinder will appear crisply focused, so remember to estimate the distance from the subject and set focus before firing. It’s clear from a snapshot I made of a glass of sauvignon blanc that I need some practice and time with the camera to make better close-up images. I not only messed up the framing, but I was too close to focus on the glass itself. Expect some trial and error as you learn to use the camera.
Exposure also takes some getting used to. The Square doesn’t have a full manual exposure mode (few instant cameras do), so you’re going to rely on its ambient light meter to judge exposure. The problem with an ambient meter is that, in situations with mixed lighting, it can be off. You can brighten or darken shots by a stop using the EV compensation controls on the rear, and I recommend using the brighter setting when shooting indoors. The Square shoots a bit too dark indoors and in dim light by default. For nighttime street shots, set the camera on a tripod and use the remote to do a timed exposure, or the body’s Bulb mode for long exposure.
There are a few other controls on the rear. The Flash button turns the flash on or off—you won’t need it outdoors unless you need to add some fill to eliminate shadows. It’s joined by MX, which stops film from being ejected automatically after a shot so you can combine multiple exposures on the same image. There’s also the the aforementioned EV control, and a Mode button to change between standard and Bulb exposure. And finally there’s a 10-second self-timer option.
Using the Square effectively requires a bit more discipline than with typical instant cameras. But then you see the results that the glass lens delivers: It’s really, really sharp. You don’t get the softer look that you get from plastic lenses like the ones used by Fujifilm in many of its Instax cameras, or even our favorite high-end instant model, the Instax Wide format Lomo’Instant Wide.
Sharp and Square
Despite being a Fujifilm invention, you can’t get an analog camera from Fuji that shoots Instax Square. Its $ 280 SQ10 is a digital camera with a smartphone-sized image sensor and integrated printer. It’s also likely a better fit for casual snappers who want square instant images, as you don’t have to print every shot, and it’s got some filter and editing tools, plus you see exactly what the lens does on the rear display.
But if you want to avoid digital capture and go pure analog, the Lomography Lomo’Instant Square has a ton of appeal. There’s a learning curve, but once you get past it you’ll enjoy images with a lot of pop and the classic square look. It’s not the only instant square camera out there—you can still buy the Impossible I-1, which underwhelmed us when we reviewed it, or the newer Polaroid OneStep 2, which we’ve not yet had a chance to evaluate. Both use Polaroid Originals I-type film, which is slightly larger in surface area and significantly more expensive to shoot than Instax Square.
We’re not naming the Lomo’Instant Square an Editors’ Choice. It has some solid marks in its favor, including the folding design, but also a few operating quirks that you’ll need to get used to. Our favorite high-end instant camera is the Lomo’Instant Wide, which uses the larger—and less expensive—Instax Wide film format, and is also priced at $ 199. We also awarded Editors’ Choice to the ultra-wide Lomo’Instant Automat Glass, which is as compact as the Square, and uses the smaller Instax Mini format. But if square and analog are at the top of your priorities list, the folding Lomography Lomo’Instant Square should be up there too.
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