What is an Instant Camera?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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An instant camera is a camera which can be loaded with self-developing film which will produce a printed picture within minutes after it is taken. A notable producer of instant cameras is the Polaroid Company, which has been making them since the 1940s, and many people refer to instant cameras and the images they produce as “Polaroids” in a reference to this. There are all sorts of uses for instant cameras, ranging from the fashion industry to field biology, and a number of different models can be found on the market at any given time, although digital cameras have heavily displaced traditional instant cameras.

The first instant camera was developed in 1947 by Edwin Land, founder of the Polaroid Company. He called his camera the “Land Camera,” and it proved to be an instant hit. Prior to the introduction of the Land Camera, making photographs was a time consuming and often costly process, with people having to send their film out for development if they didn't have darkrooms. Land wanted to create a cheap camera which was readily accessible and easy to use, and he most certainly did.


A packet of self-developing film contains all of the chemicals needed to develop the film. Typically the chemicals are inside a pod which can be broken open when a picture is snapped, or when the picture is drawn out of the camera through specialized rollers. Within a few moments, the picture starts to appear. Incidentally, instant film should not be shaken during the development process, as it can cause separation of the film or chemicals, resulting in faulty development.

The advantage to an instant camera, of course, is that the photographer can immediately see the product of the shot. Fashion photographers have used Polaroids historically to check the composition of a photograph before committing to the use of a regular film camera, and Polaroids have also been used to document crime scenes, unusual finds in nature, and countless parties from the 1950s to the present.

Instant Cameras are generally extremely easy to use, and sometimes the images which they produce are quite striking. Some photographers like to manipulate their cameras and film to achieve specific desired effects, and some even specialize in instant photography. Many people can also recognize the very distinctive look of pictures which come from an instant camera, and chances are good that you have a few instant camera shots rattling around your house somewhere, thanks to the pervasiveness of this medium.

In 2008, the Polaroid Company announced that it would no longer be producing instant film, as the instant camera had become a losing proposition in the face of the extremely efficient and popular digital camera. Some photographers reacted with outrage, arguing that instant film is a unique and irreplaceable medium, and pushing Polaroid to recant. Several other film companies including Fujifilm continue to produce instant film, for those who want to use it.


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Post 1

The instant camera was the digital camera of its era. No more did we have to send off a roll of film for developing and hope they all came out. No, the instant camera provided instant gratification and instant memories.

When I was about 10 or so, the number one Christmas gift was an instant camera. As is the case for most such items, the camera was moderately expensive, but keeping it in film was a pricey undertaking. Most film cartridges had 12-16 exposures at the most, and would set the photographer back at least $5 a pack. This was not chicken feed in 1978. For a $35 camera, by the time the user bought six packs of film, they were running at a deficit, especially since it cost about $5 to get a roll of 35 mm film developed, from which you got 24 or 36 exposures, and the film itself was maybe $3.

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