Michael Sebastian

photography, creativity, and other stuff that moves me

Fuji Instax 200 first impressions

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end of road, August 2009

After playing around with the Fuji Instax 200 instant camera for a week or so now, I thought I’d share some initial impressions of the camera and its images.

Bear in mind that I’ve only run a single 10-shot film pack through it—day job and family obligations have been in the fore lately—so take these thoughts with the usual metric ton of salt. Furthermore, I’ve shot but few flash pictures indoors or out, and have worked mostly in bright sunlight with scenes of “average” tonal range—not exactly a challenge for any camera’s auto-exposure capabilities. So I’ll have to leave detailed remarks on those aspects of the camera for a later post. Nevertheless, within these limitations, I’d give the camera a qualified thumbs-up, with a few caveats. The images themselves, on the other hand, get an enthusiastic high-five. Read on, if you can bear it.

I was never an avid Polaroid shooter back in the day when the stuff was everywhere. I have an ancient polaroid back for my old Sinar F 4×5 and three boxes of long-outdated Type 50-something in the fridge, but I’d really never joined the Cult of Polaroid. I found the process of shooting, counting, and peeling tedious, with the results just not exciting enough to justify the effort. Nonetheless, I was able to locate a Fuji PA-45 peel-apart pack film holder when I got my Chamonix 4×5 in the spring, in hopes of giving intant photography another go. By that time, Polaroid had gone under and discontinued its films, and supplies were mostly gone from dealer shelves, so Fujifilm was the only instant-photo game in town.

Similarly, when I recently acquired in trade a trove of RZ-67 gear, the transaction included a Polaroid pack-film holder that happily accepts the corresponding Fuji product. Someone was trying to tell me something. Thus, I have all the hardware needed, and the film has been sitting in my cupboard. Actual shooting? Not so much. Not sure what explains my instant-photo lassitude, other than sloth, and the painless, excellent results I get from conventionally-processed film images. It’s all that counting and peeling, I guess.

It took seeing some very fine Polaroid work—with the SX-70, by Andre Kertész, as well as by other talented mere mortals—finally to ignite a hankering to try it for real. Enter the Instax, with its promise of comprehensive, low-aggravation, self-contained instant-picture gratification. Press the button and out pops a developing image, SX-70 style, with no peeling. I figured, what the heck, since it’s relatively cheap as photo gear goes; and since Fuji is, at least for now, making film for the thing. B&H hooked me up.

The camera is big. It’s ungainly. It has about the same rectangular form factor as my Mamiya 7, though it’s considerably lighter. And it’s smooth and rounded, which means a bit tough to grip, despite its molded right-hand grip. (I wear a size 8 surgical glove, or size large clothing glove.) I always feel like it’s slipping, though I’ve yet to drop it. Good thing, because I’m not betting big on the survivability of a $50 plastic camera after anything more than a three-foot fall onto turf. You gets what you pays for. (Just don’t drop it, OK?) The strap—once you’ve fat-fingered the usual Gordian knot of sliders to intall it—is so short that it rides up around my neck like a centurion’s torc. No wearing this thing over the shoulder—it’s a neck strap, like it or not.

It runs on four AA batteries, enclosed by the flimsiest of battery doors. I expect in short order to break one of the little tabs that hold it in place, necessitating gaffer-tape MacGuyvering. I also expect that this door will go flying when I do eventually drop the camera, likely breaking one or more of its tabs—a moot point if the camera is trashed by the same impact. Props to Fuji, though, for using the cheapest, most ubiquitous battery on the planet to power this thing rather than some bizarro cold-fusion power cell you can only get online. As for battery life, I can’t say much after only one film pack. I’ve made sparing use of the integral flash, and haven’t run my inaugural set of faux-Duracell Costco AA’s down yet. They cost pennies each, so I really don’t care much about this.

The controls are few and simple and not hard to manipulate after a short period of familiarization, though I much prefer knobs to buttons. These live along the left-hand edge of the camera, arrayed vertically beneath a nickel-sized oval LCD screen. The buttons control focus distance, exposure, power, and force flash. With each press, a button cycles through its range of settings, indicated on the LCD. You get 0.9-3.0m and 3.0m-infinity for focus distance; Light, Normal, and Dark for exposure; and on-off for the other two. When off, the lens is covered by a door that opens automatically with power up. Cool idea. The only aggravation I’ve found with the controls is that regardless how you had the Exposure and Distance set when you turned the camera off, they default back to Normal exposure and  0.9-3.0 m when you turn it back on. I’m a big boy, so I’d prefer having the camera do what I tell it to do until I tell it to do something else. That said, I can see an equally valid case for doing things the way Fuji has chosen. I’ll deal.

The lens is a 90mm Fujinon and is admirably sharp and contrasty. The camera produces a wide-format image measuring about 62 by 99 mm, whose diagonal dimension both Pythagoras and my ruler confirm is about 117 mm. This works out to about a 1.6 length-width ratio, so it’s slightly wider-aspect than the 1.5 ratio of a 35 mm frame. These proportions work well and don’t displease the eye or brain. If you take the diagonal image dimension to approximate the “normal” lens for a given format, its 90 works out to about a 70 mm lens equivalent for my usual 6×7 format; a 65 mm for you 6×6 square shooters; or about a 35 mm equivalent for the 35 mm format. Give or take. So it’s a modestly wide lens.

While a wide-angle lens is not a surprising choice for this kind of general-use fixed-lens camera, it does mean that you often have to get perilously close to the camera’s stated 0.9-meter minimum-focus distance to fill the frame. I’d say this is the camera’s major potential drawback. I’ve not really tested the accuracy of this focusing limit yet; but if you’re shooting a one-person portrait and want to fill the frame with your subject in portrait orientation, you are going to be right up against the 0.9 m mark, if not within it. Too early yet to tell how much of a limitation this will be in practice. Stay tuned, and I’ll post more on this, as well as on the flash and auto-exposure performance, as I accumulate experience with this camera around the extremes of its skill set.

As for the quality of the images themselves—I am quite satisfied. They are sharp, bright, and contrasty. Color accuracy, at least in daylight, is high. Though the comparison may not be entirely apples-to-apples, I’d rate them sharper, more contrasty, and more saturated than Polaroid peel-apart 4×5 images, and on par with Fuji PA-45-compatible pack film images. Whether this is a good thing is again a matter of preference; for the uses I intend for this camera, I like a contrasty and saturated image.

And what would be those intended uses? Well, images where detail is less important than shape or color. The image atop this blog post—warning placards at the end of an obsolete stretch of road—are a perfect example. You really can’t focus closely enough to fill the frame with finely detailed subject matter, so a more global, comprehensive view of the scene is in order, as in the following shot. (All images scanned with the Hasselblad 646, with capture sharpening only; black, gray, and white point adjustment only; no additional color adjustments made.)

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strip-mall dumpster, August 2009

In short, this camera is a capable, basic piece of kit for anyone wanting to experiment with instant-film photography. And unless you have a supply of Polaroid laid up, as well as a camera to shoot it with, the Instax 200 is pretty much your only easy choice—at least until B&H or someone else stocks the Instax Mini.

I’ll follow up with more as I have it.

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Written by Michael

August 11th, 2009 at 8:45 pm