Instant Film Is More Meaningful Than Digital Photography

Instant Film Is More Meaningful Than Digital Photography

I recently picked up a Mint RF70, a fully manual camera designed to accept Fuji’s Instax Wide film. After capturing a few images with it over the past few days, I’m reminded of why I love instant film so much. Yes, it’s magical watching a print develop right in front of you, but that has nothing to do with why instant film is so exceptional.

For most of our photos, their final resting place is a hard drive. They exist as data to be viewed on a display. They can be reproduced without detriment, shared, and dispersed at will. Repeatable aesthetic characteristics can be applied with the click of a mouse. Occasionally our photographs have the privilege of being printed, but considering most images, this is an anomaly. Though capable of imbuing a photograph with desirable qualities, the printing process itself is inherently one of reproduction, requiring built-in compromises for the most acceptable representation of the digital file; a translation of a translation. This is the reality for all but a very special kind of photograph: the direct positive.

Instant film produces something unique, literally. Each photograph is a true original. One of a kind. This is the antithesis to photography in a digital format. There can be no others like it by definition. Each photograph is an edition of 1. Because each photo is a one-off original, it means something to be given away. If one person possesses it, someone else does not possess it. This scarcity gives the print value regardless of its purpose as a piece of art or a sentimental memory. It’s the same reason why such great lengths are taken to preserve famous paintings. Many copies exist, but there is only one true Guernica. And while I understand the comparison of an Instax print to Picasso’s Guernica to be lofty, to put it mildly, the reason for the comparison is no less true.

To be fully appreciated, an instant print has to be viewed in person by being present with the physical object. This physicality is significant. It is able to be held, handed off, turned over, and viewed at an angle. It has a surface. It is a non-trivial fact that a photograph, in its true and original form, can be held in-hand. This also gives meaning to who the photographer was, since they actually touched the photograph with their hands. It gives meaning to where the photograph was taken, since the photograph came into existence at that location — a particularly interesting aspect for landscapes or travel images. Even its storage requires more attention than a digital file requiring actual, literal, honest-to-god space that nothing else can occupy lest the true original be damaged. There are no backups. No 3-2-1. The original exists, or it does not.

And then there are the aesthetics. Just as in negative and slide film, the emulsions’ formula plays a significant role in appearance. The age of the film plays a part too. The camera used is also a significant contributor to appearance. From processing technique, lenses available, or whether or not light leaks strike the film intentionally or otherwise. Any trait the final print has must be physically attributed at the time of capture. Even the frame around the print that once held its emulsion is a part of the final product, neatly separating the image from its three-dimensional surroundings.

It is these characteristics that make me value instant photography and other processes that yield a direct positive. Their qualities are undeniable, though the appreciation for them is certainly subjective. To me, it is refreshing to see a kind of image making that is separate from the clinical hyper-practicality of digital photography. If I were to be presented with a digital file and a direct-positive original print of the exact same image, as a piece of art I would place a higher monetary and emotional value on the instant print, and the choice would be simple.  

Plus watching the image develop right in front of you is pretty neat.

Zac Henderson's picture

Zac Henderson is a full time digital nomad traveling the US. His work is inspired by science and the natural world, and seeks to communicate a cosmic perspective. He specializes in the use and training of Phase One medium format camera systems.

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What did I do with my rotary phone? Listening to the clicks was pretty neat. :)

A completely custom and unique rotary phone that had no duplicate anywhere else in the world would be even neater :) Also, none of the points in the article point to nostalgia for any claim to meaning. Instax film is certainly not a "vintage" process. I'm simply stating the objective properties of this process have subjective value.

Stating an opinion as fact doesn't make it a fact.

Instant film is fun but it's not more or less meaningful than digital. It's just different.

To me, the one-of-a-kind nature of a direct positive inherently holds more meaning than a digital file as a capture medium. Of course its a matter of opinion, as stated in the article and how the article is categorized.

I appreciate you saying that, Michael. Someone had to. A blanket statement used as a title can be a bit of a turn-off, because it obviously cannot always be true at all times for all people .... and yet it is stated as such.

I do appreciate the things that Zac had to say about instant direct positives. He does show that they can be meaningful in ways that digital files cannot be.

But to say that they are more meaningful, as a blanket statement, is oversimplifying things. There are ways in which direct positives can be more meaningful than digital files and what we do with them. And then there are ways in which our digital files and their derivatives can be more meaningful than an instant positive can be. Perhaps the title could have been worded in a way that allows for the many exceptions, by including qualifying words or phrases, such as "can be" or "sometimes".

I'll defend the title here and argue that the superior "meaningfulness" of an instant print is baked into the process itself. A one-off original that can have no duplicate is by nature more meaningful on inception because of its rarity. A digital file can be immediately reproduced and backed up. A physical one-off direct positive can never be reproduced by definition.

If I were to cut a successful instant print in half with a pair of scissors it would not have the same effect as deleting a digital file since the file could be recovered or restored from a backup without any degradation to the file itself.

This being the case, I argue that all else being equal, a process that yields a completely unique direct positive, like an instant print, has more meaning on inception than a file that is designed to be perfectly copied over and over. That is of course to say nothing of the subject matter the instant print is of, but that the capture medium is more high stakes.

I'm inclined to agree. I like the point of "high stakes" and the fact that there's an immediate physical product. Most digital images have very little meaning until your intent is rendered in post, or published online, or, even more rarely, printed and framed. Based on ratios of "throw-aways" to "keepers", I suspect there are far more meaningless digital images produced everyday than instant prints.

I get what you are saying, but you need to understand that uniqueness is only meaningful to some people. Meaningfulness is entirely subjective - what you think has great meaning might have little or no meaning to someone else.

To me, the uniqueness of a one-off original has a little meaning, but not much.

I am a practical person. Hence, to me, meaningfulness is derived from usefulness. If I can do a lot of things with something, then it is more meaningful to me than if I can do few things with it.

I can do a lot of things with digital files; therefore they carry great meaning to me. TO ME, meaningfulness and usefulness go hand in hand. Many of my digital files are used in many different ways. I have very large prints made on metal ..... the print order I just got back from the lab consisted of two 40" by 26" prints and one 48" by 32" print. That same file I posted to Instagram and had a lot of interaction from people there about the subject matter, as well as one print sale.

I regularly take my digital files and transfer them to my cell phone, so I can share them via text with other photographers, family members back east, and local friends. This leads to conversations about the image; particularly the subject matter itself and the experience that led up to the image being taken. For instance, a photographer friend of mine who lives 6 hours away is coming this weekend to photograph Ruddy Ducks, Loons, and Cinnamon Teal because I texted him some photos of these species that I took a few days ago. As soon as I texted him the photos, he called me and asked if these birds were still around, and inquired about the specifics involved in photographing them. I explained the circumstances behind the images, and he decided that it would be worthwhile to come give it a try for himself - all because the digital files were easily shared via text. This sort of thing happens frequently, and gives the files greater meaning to me. Remember, greater usefulness means more meaningfulness ..... TO ME.

I also use my photos on greeting cards, wall calendars, refrigerator magnets, and Christmas tree ornaments. When I go to the local medical clinic, they have dozens of my photos on their walls, printed on metal at very large sizes. When I go to friend's homes, they also have my photos hanging on their walls; again on metal at large size. When I go to the local art gallery my photos are on display and for sale there. When I go to the newsstand I see my photos used in magazines. When I go to the library or bookstore, I see my photos used in books. I use my bird phots by printing them out at life size and making decoys out of them, so that I can use the decoys to bring the birds in closer next time I am out photographing them. I derive meaning from all of these many ways that my digital photos can be used and shared with others.

Because the digital files are so reproducible, and can be reproduced in so many different ways, they have great meaning to me. For me, reproducibility provides GREATER meaning to the image, not less meaning.

TO YOU, the uniqueness and lack of reproducibility provides great meaning. TO ME, these attributes are meaningless, and the opposite is what I find meaningful. A blanket statement, such as that which you used in the title, does not cover both of our mindsets, inasmuch as meaningfulness is concerned.

Agreed, there's a lot of subjectivity. And in general, I agree, utility is intrinsically valuable and allows the creation of things with great meaning. It really depends on the person holding the camera. I love my digital stills - terabytes of ARWs sitting in a budget NAS and in a server farm somewhere. The most meaningful ones to me were edited, printed and are hanging on my wall or on someone elses wall. Sometimes I look back on my archive and discover throwaways that I thought were meaningless, but when I look at them again, I want to give them a go in post and make something I care about - and it gets published to Insta and/or printed.

Thinking generally of photographers outside our enthusiast community, I'd say there are many forgettable, unloved, and mistreated digital images that get glossed over as filler on someone's feed or never posted at all. But I guarantee there is a higher proportion of non-enthusiasts that pick up a Fuji Instax for a party, wedding or some other event and those instant, imperfect, unique physical prints, add meaning because they went through the extra trouble of doing so. Maybe not more meaning, definitely added meaning, almost certainly more meaning than their iPhone food pics on any given day.

Hi Tom, I respect your position, truly.

However, I come back to the question of two equally successful/powerful images:

One is a digital file capable of mass reproduction. Another is a direct positive original that cannot be reproduced.

Which one has more power when given as a gift?

To me, the digital file would have "more power" as a gift, because it can be given in whatever form will mean the most (be most useful) to the recipient.

Personally, I would have no use for a small little 8 by 10 or whatever those instant polaroids are. And I have never given a print so small as that as a gift, because I can't think of anyone I know who would want something like that.

To me and those who I know, prints in the 5x7 / 8x10 / 11x14 sizes are rather useless. Sizes that small work well if they can be printed onto something useful, such as a 12 month wall calendar, or a package of folded greeting cards. But just a paper print, at that size ...... can't think of anyone who would want something like that.

When I give prints as gifts, I always give a print of at least 20" by 30", because anything smaller than that just gets lost when it's hung on a wall. And I always give metal (or rarely stretched canvas) prints, because paper prints usually have a "messy" presentation, because of the need for a frame, matts, and glass.

I think the prints and photo products I give as gifts have power because I give them in the form that the recipients enjoy, forms that are useful to them, considering the way they want to display them. If I just had little paper prints to give, I just can't see much, if any, power in that.

Understood. So in that case would you agree a 30x40" direct positive would hold more power when given as a gift than a 30x40" print?

For me, no, it wouldn't. A one-off original just doesn't hold any meaning to me. I don't feel that there is anything more special about it because it is a unique, one-of-a-kind print.

"But there is only one like it, in the entire world, and there will never be another!" .... that just doesn't mean anything to me; doesn't make anything more special. Something is what it is, and that is not affected by how many identical copies of it may or may not exist.

But I can understand you, and others, that would feel that these are special attributes.

Personally, an image that I have edited to perfection would hold the greatest meaning, because it would not have all of the annoying little tine imperfections that an "as taken" image would have. I get very fussy about every little tiny detail in my images, and it would bother me if I had something printed that I had not first gone over with a fine-toothed comb.

You seem to be having trouble understanding that what carries great meaning to one person may carry no meaning whatsoever to another person. If something means SO MUCH to you, why can't you see that the very same thing may not mean a hill of beans to someone else? Uniqueness and rarity don't mean anything to some people. Zilch. Not everyone has that collector mentality, and not everyone has a sentimental component to them.

I totally understand, and accept, how a one-off direct positive could be more meaningful to you. Can you understand and accept that it truly isn't more meaningful to me?

I bought my first Polaroid camera in the 70s and my last in the 90s with various 35mm film and smaller format cameras in between. I have no desire to go back after digital.

After consideration, I don't think a good argument may be made that any one medium is more "meaningful" than any other medium.



significant, relevant, important, consequential, material, telling, pithy, weighty, valid, worthwhile.

I disagree and argue that, as a capture medium, a photographic process that results in a direct non-reproducible positive physical image is automatically imbued with more capacity for significance than a digital file by the simple fact that there can only be one of them. Still, it can't be said that every image shot on instant film has more meaning than any digital photograph, just that the potential for superior immediate significance is baked into the process.

Your statement is no more than a bald assertion of empty personal opinion, as opposed to a reasoned objective or subjective argument. Further to this point, at no stage have you established your premise(s); so no, you do not "argue".

Scarcity is in no way a synonym for meaningful.

The very definition you provided equates "significant" with "meaningful".

I ask, which has more significance, relevance, importance, consequence, etc.: a one off original image incapable of reproduction, or a digital file that can be recovered or restored from a backup? I say all things being equal, the one off original has more meaning :)

A picture of a closet door, captured in a heavenly, incandescent glow? I get the idea that you’re drifting off into a personal, Zen moment, but some things should remain in that personal Zen realm.

Tough crowd, jeez. Have you guys never seen an article on the internet with a slightly sensationalized headline?

Zac, I get your sentiment completely. Neither is better or worse, but all your observations about the media are absolutely true. To me it’s hard to give up the ability to get THE shot with digital, but something about an instant camera at parties to capture humanity at our most joyful, it’s both hard to use and hard to beat.

I love it. It's a fun thing to ponder. Certainly, it's hard to apply any set of values to everyone, but there's a nugget of truth that must be examined - and criticized with civility :)

I largely agree (even though the title is a bit over the top).

I started taking photos in the 60s, and in those days you had to get it right. In the camera. No do-overs. No "fixing it up" later (unless you're Joseph Stalin)

My philosophy of photography is still along these same lines. I have little interest or patience for post processing. Do it right. Get your exposure. Get your composition. Select the background. Capture the moment that was and not the moment you wished it would be. And live with it. (And don't get me started about 'sky replacements', an insult to all that is holy)

Someone who, thinking in economic terms, imagines that when other people are deprived of the ability to also own something, that makes the original more valuable and, hence, more "meaningful". Nice.

The solution to making digital photos more "meaningful" is obvious:
Code up an iPhone app that encrypts raw sensor data with a public key and then sends it to a bluetooth-enabled printer with the corresponding hard-coded private key. This printer will accept and print files with a given hash code once and only once. Voila. Instant meaningfulness!

For those who don't want to write code but still want to have more meaningful pictures, I recommend printing your photos once and then deleting your digital file. Poor man's method but equally effective if followed with discipline.



You raise a really interesting point, (though I'm somewhat confused by what seems like sarcasm towards the point about scarcity- see the above Guernica example- the original has intrinsically more value than any reproduction of it. This is also done purposefully in fine art photography by printing and selling small editions. The scarcity raises the price, and so the last print available in an edition of, say, 5 sells for for than the 1st available).

The example you give reg. the encryption keys is really interesting and does the same thing as an instant print does by producing only a single non-reproducible original, though in a far less elegant way in my mind.

To further defend the assertion that instant film is more meaningful than a digital file created in the way you suggest, I would point to the other characteristics of instant film I mentioned in the article. Specifically, any aesthetic quality the instant print has must be attributed at the time of capture (more work in the field). Also, the physicality of the original and its coming-into-existence at the time and place. Lastly, the instant direct positive is a one-step translation. A digital file then printed is twice removed from the original scene.

The point reg. location could be realize by having the printer right next to the camera. The point about aesthetics applied at time of capture could be realized simply by choosing not to make any digital edits. But the point regarding a single translation of a scene can't really be reproduced since a translation is part of the digital to analog process.

We could go all day getting into the nitty gritty of the definition of meaning and significance, but as mentioned in the article and at length in the comments, these qualities are entirely subjective. Still, I stand by my statement that the objective properties of the instant film process have fascinating subjective value.

Apologies for the multiple post. I got an error message when first trying to post and thought it hadn't gone through.

Pretentious, portentous, and ultimately pointless.

And “neat”? My my, hey hey.

It's one thing to say you really like/prefer a particular medium, but another to claim one is better than the other. Complete disregard of others' preferences.

Never said one one better. Just that the process of an instant print is more "meaningful" because of its physical and one-of-a-kind properties. I also said that appreciation for those traits is subjective :)

I completely agree! To have a one off is by far more valuable. Most digital files just sit or live on a screen. Instant film offers a tangible print. That captures a moment that can only live on that medium. Sure you could scan it, I guess you could photograph it with a digital camera to blow it up. I used to mail my Polaroids as post cards to friends Who constantly told me those were there favorite prints. These Polaroids would live on walls and refrigerators for years.