Leica Sofort – Instant Camera Review

It’s the end of 2016, a year of global controversies, and today we’re here to examine what might be the most divisive object in the history of mankind. It’s Leica’s newest film camera, the Sofort, the most controversial camera the world has ever known. And while I acknowledge the ridiculousness of the words ‘controversial’ and ‘camera’ landing adjacent to one another in a sentence, them’s the facts.

From the moment it was announced, the Sofort was up against it. Photo geeks, the kind of people who are typically submerged to their nostrils in camera culture, immediately shouted the obvious – that the Sofort is nothing more than a Fujifilm Instax camera with a facelift and a tummy tuck. After all, it uses Fuji’s Instax mini film packs (there’s a Leica-branded version as well), it looks suspiciously similar to a Fuji Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic (a name just slightly more annoying than ‘Sofort’), and it shares a virtually identical spec sheet with that far cheaper Japanese camera.

That the Sofort is an expensive, rebadged Fujifilm is a fact, and judging by the reaction across CP’s and others’ social media, it’s a fact that galls many of you. I’ve prefaced my review with all this fluff for the sake of clarity; to get the giant, red-dotted elephant in the room out of the way, and let everyone know that I understand the frustration of photo geeks who find the Sofort, on first blush, to be a redundant product from a coy marketing team.

But if we can divorce ourselves from these thoughts for just a few paragraphs and give the Sofort a fair shake, we quickly find that we’re shooting a camera that is nothing short of excellent.

For those who may not know, the Sofort is an instant camera, that is, a camera that develops the photo the moment you take it. Press the shutter release button and out pops a cute, white-bordered print (or cream-bordered, if you buy the Leica branded film) just like the Polaroids of yesteryear. Give the print a couple of minutes and it’ll develop right before your eyes. Pretty magical, and obviously the camera’s biggest selling point. So it’s without question that the quality of the print is the most important factor when discussing whether the Sofort is worth your time and money. Happily, shots made with the Sofort are gorgeous.

Sharp and vibrant, the most impressive trait of our instant prints is the way that tones are beautifully modulated. Contrast is wonderfully restrained, allowing excellent retention of shadow detail and highlights that deftly avoid blowout. Shooting color film we’re left with a handful of gorgeous prints with just the right amount of color saturation, and Fuji’s new Monochrome black-and-white film packs may just be my favorite product of the year. They’ve got a classic quality to them, and like their color counterparts, are restrained and modulated in a way that makes shooting portraits a pleasure.

Of course, Leica has nothing to do with the film packs. They’re a Fuji product all the way. But it’s smart of Leica to use Fuji’s Instax platform, since, to be fair, Fuji is king of the instant film arena these days. Leica calls these prints “haptic works of art”, which is a seriously bookish way of describing not-that-great photos of my dog, but I’ll take it. Yes, I do say these works of art I’m making are quite nice, indeed.

Prints are exposed via an automatic shutter and a lens protruding from the front of the camera. Called an “Automatik-Hektor”, some commentators claim that Leica has “re-engineered” Fuji’s lens. This could be true, though I’ve not found any evidence to confirm this, and like the forum rumors of Minolta’s quality control issues during the two brands’ partnership, these claims seem like fanboyism run amok in an attempt to justify some claim of Leica superiority. The hard facts are that Leica’s press release and PDF spec sheet show an identical lens description to their Fujifilm counterpart – a 60mm focal length (which is equivalent to 34mm in full-frame terms) at F/12.7. Two components, and two elements, and none of that really matters, because the Sofort and the comparable Fujifilm Instax camera will make images that are identical, and as stated, very pleasant to look at.

Whether the boys in Germany redeveloped the lens or not is debatable (until Leica sends me a strongly-worded email – I’m waiting), but what’s indubitable is that Leica has certainly changed (and improved) the design of the instant camera. The Sofort is a gorgeous machine. All harsh angles and rigid geometry, it’s just a beautiful product. Offered in three colors, mint, white, and orange, it’s an eye-catcher, and people will be drawn to it. An encircling band of leatherette material offsets the plastic, painted shell, and imbues the camera with a sense of timelessness often lacking in Instax cameras, cameras that almost look disposable.

It’s not the prettiest camera design I’ve ever seen, but it is the prettiest modern instant camera available (I qualify ‘modern’ because no instant camera has ever topped the design of 1972’s Polaroid SX-70).

Practical use is about as effortless as shooting photos can be, while also offering a surprisingly robust feature set. If you want a camera to point and shoot, the Sofort can do that with ease. If you want a camera with Bulb mode for long exposures, exposure compensation, multiple flash modes, manual focus (to a degree), user-selectable shooting modes, a self-timer, and more, the Sofort fits this bill as well. It’s impressive, but let’s take a closer look.

On the rear of the camera we find a number of buttons. These control all shooting modes, all flash modes, self-timer functionality, and exposure compensation. Simply press the button that controls the desired mode and toggle or cycle between available options. It’s about as simple as it gets, and most important, changes to these settings actually impact your final print in a meaningful way. Granted, we don’t have the kind of fine control here that we’d have on some vintage instant cameras, such as Minolta’s Instant Pro, but the Leica is more reliable and offers higher quality prints (sorry, Impossible Project).

By cycling through shooting modes we’re able to set parameters of the camera’s automatic flash, lens, and shutter to make best results from the scenes in question. Set the camera to action and sports mode, for example, and we’ll get a solid flash with a fast shutter speed. Set it to double exposure and we’ll be able to shoot, you guessed it, double exposures. By turning a concentric ring positioned around the lens barrel we’re able to adjust focus from near to far, which is great for shooting a fast moving dog or a toddling toddler.

But for all its shooting modes and exposure and flash options, the Sofort performs best when we just point and shoot. Let the camera do the work, and enjoy the fruits of our leisure. It really is that simple.

The viewfinder is exceedingly simple, but thankfully, it’s large (for an instant camera) and bright. It’s also accurate and presents a clear representation of what’s to be expected in the exposed frame. A central circle gives some spacial awareness. There’s a tripod mounting point on the bottom, useful for long exposures using Bulb mode, and the rear doors for battery and film loading are sturdy enough for a camera at this price point. There’s also a rectangular selfie mirror on the front of the camera, which I conspicuously avoid using.

The camera’s small and light, and while it’s not compact enough to fit into a pant pocket, it will easily slide into a jacket or winter coat’s pockets. Tossing it into a camera bag or backpack adds a paltry 300 grams (approx. 10 oz), and an included neck strap, one of the grippiest straps I’ve found included with a camera, makes it even more ideal for photo geeks on the move.

And now we come to the controversy. The Sofort is expensive. At $299 USD, it’s two or three times more expensive than comparable Fujifilm Instax cameras, which will produce mostly identical prints. And I can see why this would frustrate some photo geeks. Inevitably, the viability of Leica’s instant camera will be proven or disproven by the consumer. If Leica’s succeeded in their goal, which must surely have been to produce an object of desire eschewing practicality, the Sofort will become a classic piece of consumer gear – a camera that people fall in love with and with which they’ll produce countless mementos and souvenirs. If frugality wins out, we’ll all just keep shooting Fujis, which isn’t a bad thing in itself. 

If you’ve already got a Fuji Instax camera, I can’t see a reason to buy the Sofort. And if you’re shooting Impossible Film through a classic Polaroid, the Leica will be a tough sell for you as well. That is, unless you’ve simply fallen for the thing. 

For me, I like the Sofort. I think it’s a fun, beautiful, and interesting camera. I enjoy the idea that, in the year 2016, Leica has produced a new film machine. I don’t care that it’s a redesigned Fuji because I like the core of Fuji’s product, and because I don’t already own an Instax camera. And I don’t mind the elevated price point because the images I make with it are worth that price. For me, the Sofort is a refreshing sunbeam in an otherwise overcast year.

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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Frank Lehnen
    December 10, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Sorry, I have a Fuji Instax Mini Neo Classic Thingamajik and I won’t fall for this rebadged copy….

    Too bad for Leica. They should have watched MINT and their Instax-TLR more closely. A truly groundbreaking camera.

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      December 10, 2016 at 12:21 pm

      Yeah, if you’ve already got an Instax camera there’s almost no reason to buy the Leica. I liked the Mint as well, except that it over-exposed constantly in sunlight and required ND filters to avoid this.

  • Reply
    Wilson Laidlaw
    December 10, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    I have been a Leica fan and user (like my father and grandfather) for over 50 years. This thing is a joke. It is nothing more than a tarted up Fuji Mini 90, of which you can find plenty new examples for sale on Fleabay for around £100. The lens is not a Leica Hektor like Leica would want you to believe but a crude two element ultra slow lens (f12.7) made by Fuji. The only reason it is not totally horrendous is the tiny aperture. Come on Leica, is this really the best you can do in 2016, along with a few silly designer versions of existing cameras, with very minor upgrades? Don’t waste your time with fripperies but get on and widen the SL lens range more rapidly, update the M240 with either more MP and/or higher ISO and a much better EVF and renew the T with a 20/24MP version.

    Wilson

    • Reply
      Frank Lehnen
      December 10, 2016 at 1:53 pm

      I guess Leica goes the way of Apple, building ever more expensive and specialised things. Not that I have anything against them, I use Macs with a passion and love my Leica IIIa like mad.

      That’s the problem with so called ‘niche’ manufacturers, they tend to fence themselves in instead of going out and trying to capture a new market.

      OK Leica did that with he SOFORT, but it’s completely the wrong direction. Do not rebadge an existing camera and sell it for 3x the price. If you can, build one yourself or don’t go there.

      But then again, Leica, like modern Hasselblad has a long sad tradition of rebadging stuff (Minolta, Panasonic and now Fuji).

  • Reply
    mmarquar
    December 10, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    Just a great review of the Leica Sofort. Waiting for your review of the Fujifilm Instax printers.

  • Reply
    Johnny Martyr
    December 21, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    It’s nice to see a fair write-up on the Sofort. I think that my main disappointment was that with Leica’s name attached and the growing number of increasingly functional Instax cameras, I heard about this and immediately expected real Leica glass and maybe even manual, if not rangefinder focusing. That would all probably cost a couple hundred extra or more, but THEN, I’d be into it. As is, yes, it’s a cuter version of the very smartly designed Mini 90, but even as a Leica shooter, I can’t justify spending the cost difference on cosmetics when I could spend it on more film. Probably, if I didn’t already have the 90, I may seriously consider the Sofort just for the fun of it, but yeah, the feature set was just such a huge disappointment to those of us looking for more than a fashion statement.

  • Reply
    Raymond van Mil
    January 4, 2017 at 5:21 pm

    Why on earth would you pay 200 extra for the same result, same lens, same film? You try to explain but have no argument beside the looks. I own an Instax mini 70 which I think looks way better and costs € 99,- As shitty as the impossible effort for a new camera.. And this while every serious photographer waits for a decent instant camera with a decent, no not decent, exceptional great lens (I hacked a Mamiya Universal to work with Instax wide, the results are different). Because why the hell would you pay more then € 100 for a camera if the lens is not GOOD. With analog — and also instant — photography only the lens and flash matter. And it’s a shitty plastic lens……..

    • Reply
      James
      January 4, 2017 at 6:03 pm

      I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. Like I said in the article, I don’t mind the elevated price point because I didn’t have an Instax camera before the Sofort (I’d used plenty, and reviewed the Mint TL70 some months ago on this site). The image quality from it is as good as any instant camera currently on the market, but I think I made the point in the review that many will be just as happy with a Fuji at one-third the cost.

      Believe me, I too lament that plastic lenses and Impossible film that fall well short of the instant camera offerings and film of the past.

      And lastly, I would love to see your Mamiya Instax project. Is this possible? It’s just about the most interested instant film product I’ve heard of in five years. Let’s see it – and the shots!

      • Reply
        Raymond van Mil
        January 4, 2017 at 6:23 pm

        “I don’t mind the elevated price point because I didn’t have an Instax camera before the Sofort” — still an odd argument 😉

        http://raymondvanmil.tumblr.com/tagged/mamiyainstax — Here you can see a collection I made with what I call the ‘Mamiya Instax’. A Lomo instax back meant for the Belair (who doesn’t use the whole surface….they crazy……) and cut, glued and taped to a Mamiya Universal. On the bottom picture you can see the thing itself.. The result is sharper and due to the stronger flash the flashed pictures also have better light (I used a Metz in the beginning, now a Sunpak). Of course the Mamiya lens creates razor sharp images. Due to the build of that back I have to use the camera upside down, which is anoying, so I’m eagerly awaiting the back which is produced right now: http://www.facebook.com/rezivot/

        I did buy a back for impossible film (Polaroid CB72) which can be used on the Mamiya also but that one spontaneously caught fire. Hahaha, I’m serious, it exploded when there was an empty polaroid pack with intaxt batteries in it for a few hours. Scary as hell. The thing was in my darkroom, chemicals all around… Just imagine not being home. So I’ll just stay happy with the Polaroid Image which I really love also. Impossible still has this film pricey but the colours are really lovely!!

  • Reply
    KWF
    January 21, 2017 at 3:37 am

    I’ve used all of the Instax cameras by now (except for Mint’s TLR) and I still prefer the prints from any of my old Polaroid cameras using Impossible film. They are more detailed, sharper and, if you treat your photo right, has way nicer colors. Instax film is has only one thing going for it, reliability.

    • Reply
      Johnny Martyr
      January 21, 2017 at 7:39 am

      I think you’re the first person I’ve ever heard say that! The best luck, and I have to call it that, is using a late model Polaroid 600 with IP color 600 film. This is the only used/vintage Polaroid and IP combo I’ve used that produced consistent, reliable, beautifully colored results. Even using their new b&w 2.0 in my folding SX-70 was a disappointment unfortunately. The blacks lacked depth and the whites were more milky than white. Even when Polaroid was still making integral film, I preferred Fuji’s back when a friend shared here MIO with me and I saw how saturated integral instant film could be. If you prefer more realistic colors or that faded/retro look, then IP is the clear winner. But to say all that Instax has going for it is reliability, I think is denying their new Monochrome film as well as the brilliant color of their color film. And, you know, reliability, is kind of a big deal! Much of my earliest IP 600 films faded into nothing long ago. I love and want to support IP but it’s hard to trust their products and, for me, gets in the way of my creativity tending to all the film’s “special needs.” Btw, you should pick up the MiNT if you prefer the IP/Polaroid combo for shooting, it brings a good but funky camera back to instant film in spades! Btw, I am not saying any of this necessarily to try to convince you otherwise, but I was just surprised that someone actually feels this way and wanted to reply. I am glad IP has their followers for sure!

    • Reply
      Raymond Van Mil
      January 21, 2017 at 9:07 am

      I think the colors of Impossible film is nicer for a lot of occasions, but sharper? Hell no. The sharpness is limited by the lens, not the film.. Anyway, did you try the instax 500af? The best of the bunch.

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