In an age of digital, of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat; photos are de rigueur when it comes to promoting yourself. News is fast, which means if you want to get noticed, you need to be faster. The tool of choice is obviously the smartphone because it can take and deliver photos instantly. So, why on earth is an instant print desirable?
The smartphone has been the clear winner — at the expense of photography manufacturers — when it comes to the number of cameras sold. Just witness the inexorable rise of the sales of smartphones, which has mirrored the implosion of the number and value of dedicated cameras shipped (as per the CIPA data below). In short, we are back where we started at the birth of digital cameras: a niche technology sector. Except for this time around, there is one glaring difference, there are no large (although declining) film sales to bolster the industry. The mantra is now diversification or demise, something that manufacturers like Fuji have done successfully, while Olympus has opted out. The fate of the likes of Nikon still hangs in the balance.
Perhaps then, one surprising aspect of the digital boom (and bust), has been the resurgence of film. Don't get me wrong, this is not a return to the "heyday" of film, as there will never be film purchased and processed in those quantities again. And this isn't the equivalent boom that we are seeing in LP sales; the latter is small (but significant), driven in large part by music lovers returning to dust off their existing collections and add to them. No, the return of film I'm talking about is being driven by the mass market in the form of the humble instant print.
Intriguing Instax or the Power of Polaroid?
Perhaps the biggest surprise in Fuji's earnings reports of the last few years has been the immense success of their instant photo Instax product line. The surprise is that it is the principal driver of revenue in the Imaging Solutions division. Fuji is a diversified company with only 14% of turnover coming from Imaging Solutions, which is made up of 10% from photo imaging and 4% from electronic imaging. Yes, two-thirds of this income is from photo imaging; the Instax business, therefore, turns over twice as much as digital imaging. Not only that, but more Instax cameras are sold than digital, at some 10 million units in 2019. Ponder on that number: the units shifted are bigger than the whole DSLR and mirrorless markets combined (albeit at a much lower unit cost)!
Of course, Fuji wasn't first to the instant market, as that accolade goes to Polaroid. However, like Fuji and Kodak, declining film sales in the late 1990s eventually led to bankruptcy in 2001, 10 short years after their peak turnover of $3 billion. The business assets were sold, and the new Polaroid then went bankrupt in 2008. The Impossible Project bought the production equipment in 2008 and started manufacturing film in 2010, selling 500,000 units. In 2020, they rebranded to Polaroid and in the interim, began manufacturing cameras as well (like the Onestep+).
Other manufacturers in this space include Canon with their Selphy dye-sublimation printers, such as the diminutive QX10. In contrast, Zink offers a thermal printing solution and a number of manufacturers make Zink compatible printers, including Canon, HP, Kodak, and Polaroid.
The Power of An Instant Print
All of the foregoing doesn't explain why instant prints have become so popular. So, why is it? I think there are possibly four reasons for this.
Firstly, the physical immediacy of a print in your hand can be overwhelming in comparison to seeing something on the screen. Hold it in your hand, come in close, move away. Revel in the connection between holding something and remembering the visceral sensations of when you actually took the picture.
Secondly, I love the credit card-sized format of Instax and the fact that it can easily slip into a wallet. As a result, I carry a picture of my kids with me all the time. Again, there's nothing like getting out a picture to show someone rather than crowding around a phone screen.
Thirdly, there is something special about a shared physical object. Where I have shot a couple, I regularly print out two photos, one for each. They can then share that intimacy.
Fourthly, when talking about instant prints, I've been referring to both cameras and printers. However, the success of instant cameras I think is largely due to the lack of technology: it literally is point, shoot, and print. Think back to the cheap and cheerful instant cameras of the 1980s; people loved that they didn't have to think about them. Perhaps this is part of an anti-technology movement, but being able to get a physical print of the view in front of you simply by pressing a button is magical.
An Instant Future
Instant prints aren't the future of photography, but there will always be a place for physical prints. I have no time for instant cameras, though; the image quality is too poor, and if you do happen to take a cracking shot, you are then left with only the instant print. Instax cameras are cheap and, as I've said, appeal to the low-tech sector. I don't for one minute envisage Fuji will produce an X-series Instax, and for this reason, my preference has always been for the standalone printers. I currently use an Instax Mini Link, which allows you to print directly from your smartphone (or from an appropriately equipped Bluetooth X-series camera). This is great, as it means I get the best of both worlds, digital original and instant print. It also means I can use my smartphone or any camera I want to connect to it.
The features of the Mini Link show a clear direction of travel: social media and young people. The humble printer now uses a gyro to allow you to access functions simply by rotating it, including controlling your smartphone when taking a photo. There are collaborative multi-images between groups, printing frames from video, and overlaying text, not to mention the obligatory templates. Of course, the intention of all of this functionality is to get you to print more photo,s and at about 75 cents a pop, they are not overly expensive.
Perhaps the most interesting developments are in the middle-ground: the digital Instax, such as the LiPlay. A digital camera with an Instax printer in the shape of a phone that can connect via Bluetooth. It's an obvious extension and fits the low-tech brand well.
One of the most satisfying personal projects I worked on was setting up a stand in London and giving away instant print portraits. I did two days at the famous Camden Lock and took a portrait and gave a free print to anyone that wanted one. I learned a huge amount about working in the environment, approaching people, shooting on the fly, and rapid turnaround times. In the end, I felt privileged to have shared those moments with the people I had photographed, seeing the joy on their faces as they took away a print.
Long live the instant print!
Lead image courtesy of MrTozzo via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.