I spent this past weekend shooting an instant camera like no other. Mint’s InstantFlex TL70 is a twin lens reflex in the vein of Rollei and other TLRs of the distant past. Its vintage-inspired twin lenses sit ready to expose Fujifilm’s decidedly modern Instax pack film, and while it’s a superbly fun camera, it’s also something of a conundrum. This unique camera from Hong Kong promises to “make ordinary days extraordinary”, but with its uncommonly high price, is it a worthwhile toy?
Mint’s been around for a few years now, and they originally made a name for themselves by selling superbly restored and sometimes-modified Polaroid cameras. More notably, they’ve developed what they call “Time Machine”, a series of Polaroid SX-70-based accessories that offer a range of never-before-seen exposure modes. Pretty impressive, if not a bit expensive – so it’s no wonder that photo geeks everywhere took notice when Mint announced they had developed a brand-new instant camera. The TL70 is that machine, and in many ways it’s the natural culmination of Mint’s journey. Let’s get into it.
When the camera arrives it does so in style. Packaged in a small, dense box, it’s the kind of consumer-porn presentation that one expects from any gizmo company operating in 2016. Unpack the camera, load it with included AA batteries and not-included Fujifilm 8.6×4.6cm Instax film and you’re ready to shoot. Mint’s marketing material shows no hesitation in referencing TLRs of the past, and goes so far as to call their camera “an engineering masterpiece that synchronizes elegance and function”. Wow – that’s ambitious, and I really want it to be true. But after I’d shot the first pack of film it was clear that, while this is a fun camera, things aren’t quite as perfect as Mint might have us think.
Build quality is good, not great. Constructed of a mix of hard plastic segments and thin metal panels, the camera feels solid enough, with some exceptions. The film door is rather flimsy, and when latched shut is held in place by only a single locking tab. This centralized tab leaves the corners of the door to wiggle slightly. The same can be said for the battery door on the bottom of the camera. To be fair, other areas of the camera feel much stronger, such as the folding, metal viewfinder hood. Unfortunately, this mechanism is paired to a plastic viewfinder cover. Certainly these compromises in material are the result of budgetary constraints, and while there’s no doubt that Mint knows their margins better than I, that won’t stop me from wishing more of the camera were made of metal.
Areas where the camera meets the hand are covered in a soft-touch material that feels surprisingly luxurious. But where the TL70 begins to impress on first blush, it again suffers under a more scrutinizing eye. Each of these soft-touch trim pieces on my particular review copy are ill-fitted, resulting in a corner here or there being misaligned, lifted, or curled over the adjacent trim piece.
Ergonomically, Mint’s done a great job. The TL70 is perfectly proportioned and feels wonderful in the hand. Next to my Minolta Autocord (a favorite TLR) the Mint machine is a plastic doppelgänger. All buttons, knobs, and dials come to rest effortlessly in the most natural positions possible. The front of the camera houses the shutter release button and the aperture selector dial. These controls are deftly manipulable by the shooter’s right hand. The left hand finds in easy reach controls for manual focus, exposure compensation (+/- EV 1), and the photo eject button. Additionally found on the left side is a button to activate the automatic flash, and a switch to choose between Auto-exposure (1/500th of a second down to 1 second) or Bulb mode (manually exposed up to 10 seconds). The right side of the camera shows a frame counter that tells how many exposures are left in the pack. There’s also a tripod mount.
Out in the field the Mint InstantFlex performs much the way TLR veterans would expect. Framing and focusing are handled via the large, waist-level viewfinder on the top of the camera. Glance down at the top of the camera and you’ll see a mirror image of the scene in front of the machine. Old hands will know the drill, but newcomers to the world of TLRs will require a bit of practice to become quick composers, as the visual disconnect between the movement of the camera and the mirrored framing in the viewfinder often leads to false starts and photographic seasickness. But inherent quirks of the mechanism aside, there’s no greater joy in photography than watching someone look through a TLR for the first time. It’s pure magic, and those who revel in seeing the world through a TLR will love the Mint TL70.
This is surprising to say, given the troubled history of TLR viewfinders, but the VF in this camera is quite good. That’s in part because Mint’s focusing screen in the newest version of the TL70 (version 2.0) is bright, large, and features an anti-glare coating that does its job in all but the most direct sunlight. Composition and framing are relatively easy on account of the focusing screen’s built in frame-lines. Adding to the efficacy of the Mint camera is the inclusion of a flip-up focus-aid magnifier. This little gizmo has been found on many of the world’s best TLRs, and it works equally well here. Flip it into place, peer through it intently, and achieve pinpoint focus in seconds. There’s also an eye-level viewfinder that I’ve never used on any TLR (has anyone?).
Once we’ve composed our scene and focused, it’s time to take the shot. Pressing the shutter release button half-way activates the exposure meter and an LED display within the viewfinder. Two lights (orange and green) indicate four potentialities: steady orange light means the scene is too light or too dark for the current settings; blinking orange means the batteries are depleted; blinking green indicates the flash is charging; while steady green indicates that conditions are good and the camera is ready to shoot.
And it’s at this stage in the process that the InstantFlex really needs to prove itself. Fujifilm makes some amazing instant cameras, after all, and if we’re being honest there’s really no comparison in terms of price. Fuji’s machines are affordable, well-made, and capable of creating excellent images. What kind of results are we getting from Mint? To put it simply, a mix of wonderful stuff and utter garbage.
Instax film comes in packs of ten exposures. I’ve shot forty frames with the TL70, and fourteen of those are massively under- or over-exposed (mostly over-exposed). Of the twenty-six more-or-less properly exposed photos, six are only properly exposed on account of my use of a neutral density filter. What does this tell me? It tells me that the TL70’s maximum shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is simply not fast enough to be used outdoors or in bright light with Fuji’s film (which is an ISO 800 film). Even when I adjusted the camera’s aperture to F/22, it did no good. Shots were still completely blown out. Surprising, and disappointing, especially at an approximate cost of one dollar per photo.
A quick blast over to Instagram found me commiserating with many photo geeks who’d suffered the same over-exposure issues. Confused, I contacted Mint, who immediately responded with a polite and professional explanation. As expected, the high sensitivity of Fuji’s ISO 800 film causes the TL70 to over-expose when shooting outside. To rectify this, Mint’s produced a lens pack which consists of four neutral-density filters, a lens hood, and a close-up adapter. That’s great. But it costs $116. Which is not great, and leaves us with a camera that’s either needlessly difficult or extremely expensive to use outside.
Indoors the camera performs beautifully, and the images this lens produces show wondeful color and tonality. Exposures are more accurate than when shooting outdoors, and the exposure compensation yields enough artistic control that we’re able to properly manipulate our shots. The aperture adjustment does well to dictate depth-of-field. Shooting wide open we’re able to isolate subjects fairly well, and at F/22 things are much sharper fore and aft of the subject. That said, we’re still seeing inconsistency in exposure. In my testing of depth-of-field control, one would expect the resultant images at each aperture to be exposed to the same value on account of the in-built light meter and auto-exposure circuitry. As the aperture size decreases, we should expect shutter speeds to slow down, and while this was certainly the case, I’m not sure that shutter speeds were completely accurate. While shots at F/5.6 and F/8 yielded good exposures, at F/16 and F/22 the shutter just didn’t stay open long enough to do the same.
Shooting directly into a bright light source does result in flaring and ghosting. This is to be expected in a camera with a plastic lens (though other reviewers have claimed it’s glass, this is not the case), and in an instant camera the effect is almost welcome. Vignetting occurs, contrary to typical camera lenses, at smaller apertures. This is especially pronounced on one edge of the frame when and if the shooter fails to center the aperture when adjusting the aperture dial. At F/22 it is especially pronounced.
At this point, you may be thinking that I really dislike Mint’s InstantFlex. I can understand that. With build quality that’s not great, an exposure meter that wastes my money, and a price point that’s stunningly high, I’m somewhat amazed myself that I don’t hate this camera. But I don’t. I actually really like it. Why? To start, because other people really like it.
The very first time I took this camera out in public, the first words I heard were “I love your camera!” And that’s no exaggeration. I stepped out of my car, gathered the camera, turned around to take a photo of a lighthouse, and a total stranger practically screamed that she loved my camera. In a world where strangers are reticent to even look at another human being, this is remarkable. And any camera that gets people smiling and chatting is a good camera in my book.
Furthermore, in my time with it some of the images that the TL70 made are really quite stunning. Sure, many were blown out and many were under-exposed. But many others are real keepers – photos I’ll have stacked on my desk for months to come. Some of the shots of my one-year-old kid are among my favorite images I’ve ever made of that little rascal. When the TL70 gets it right, it really gets it right.
And let’s not forget the sheer joy of instant photography and the way that the TL70 pairs this joy with the similar excitement of TLR photography. Taking a photo of someone with an old (or retro-inspired) camera almost always brings delight, and this delight is magnified ten-fold when we’re able to hand our friends and family a photo in just a few seconds’ time. Even my tiny daughter, a human being so young as to know arguably nothing about anything, felt and reacted to the excitement of being handed an instant portrait.
At times in this write-up it may read like I’m being a bit too harsh, a bit too exacting in my inspection of what is, ostensibly, a fun and lighthearted instant camera. I know that this camera is not a Rollei, no matter how much the marketing team at Mint try to convince us otherwise, and perhaps I shouldn’t hold it up against the world-class fit and finish found in many of those TLRs from the past. Then again, at $390 the TL70 is not an inexpensive toy, and when a company is asking would-be buyers to spend what for some shooters is a month’s worth of disposable income, the responsibility to judge the camera truthfully outweighs my personal wish for that camera-maker to succeed.
Is the TL70 worth your money? That depends on what you value. Is the experience of shooting an instant TLR worth the high price? Do you need the best possible instant images? If the only thing that matters is the quality of the image produced, there are better instant cameras available, even better Instax machines. But if the look of the camera matters to you, if the experience of owning and shooting something most people have never seen matters to you, the TL70 is worth considering. It’s a camera that’s truly unique, extremely fun to shoot, and unlike any other instant camera on the market in both styling and methodology. The more you shoot it, the more you love it. I only wish it didn’t cost so much.