When I first heard that a new Instax camera was coming from Fujifilm, I was skeptical. Another instant camera pumping out tiny, expensive prints, I thought. Great. But I was wrong. Fujifilm’s Instax Square SQ10 is an instant camera that has heard the nagging questions surrounding instant film, and answered them.
With its hybrid design that seamlessly blends digital point-and-shoot technology with Instax instant print capability, the SQ10 carries the idea of the instant camera into the Instagram era with more gusto than any instant camera to date. It lessens the burden of cost, eases operation, and adds functionality that’s been lacking in every Fuji Instax machine that’s come to market. As skeptical as I was at first, after a month with the camera it’s clear that Fuji’s new machine has solved the problem of the instant camera.
Let’s dive in.
In the earliest days of instant photography, which were way back in the 1940s, the process was somewhat messy and required at least a fair amount of specialized knowledge. Later Polaroid cameras, like the SX-70, would simplify things so that anyone could take an instant photo, but these cameras and their film were prohibitively expensive for many would-be shooters.
While the post-Polaroid era has seen Fujifilm fill the instant photo market with their Instax machines, these too have fallen into many of the same pitfalls of previous instant cameras while introducing new problems of their own (Fuji’s film is pricey, and their most popular Instax film yields a smaller image than the old Polaroid stuff).
So how does the SQ10 solve these egregious issues?
First, and most notably, it saves you from wasting film. Ever since the Polaroid cameras of the 1970s, instant cameras have mostly operated in one way – press the shutter button, out pops a print. This automatic operation is fun and good, if we’re sure we’re taking a shot we actually want to print. But all too often our vision is lacking or our focus is off, and the shot just doesn’t work. We’ve made a blurry mess, or we’ve accidentally over- or under-exposed, in which case we’re likely going to adjust our dials and shoot again. Pretty quickly we’ve fired off an entire pack of ten shots (at an average cost of around $12) and made (if we’re lucky or skilled) two or three keepers. Ouch. Not conducive to budget-minded photo geeks.
Where the SQ10 differs from previous machines is that it gives us the option to selectively print our exposures. When the camera’s set to Auto mode it automatically prints every shot, like all other Instax cameras, but switch it into Manual mode and we’re able to shoot, review, and decide to print or not. Further refining the concept, we can take any number of shots (up to 50 without a microSD card inserted, or as many as will fit onto an inserted card), edit them whenever and however we like, and choose to print at any time.
This deceptively simple concept is practically revolutionary. No longer am I wasting expensive Fuji Instax film on blurry shots of my crazy dog. Instead, I’m deleting those shots, trying again, and printing out just the keepers. And as mentioned, the SQ10 gives the ability to edit shots in a surprisingly robust way.
The three main edits we’re offered are a mix of critical and superfluous, and depending on needs, different users will find different tools useful. There’s exposure compensation, which increases or decreases the exposure of a shot by plus or minus 3ev. There’s a vignette tool, which adds light or dark vignetting to the corners and edges of a frame. And there’s a filter mode, which anyone who’s used Instagram will be comfortable with. These three edit modes can be used in live-view before a photo is taken, or to adjust any photo that’s already been taken (which is impressive).
All of these adjustments work great, and do what they’re supposed to do, but the exposure compensation tool, specifically, is a fantastic boon for a camera of this type. One hallmark of instant photos is that shots seem never to be perfectly exposed. With exposure compensation and live-view, it’s easy to see on the LCD display whether or not we’re under- or over-exposing a shot, adjust in seconds, and make a perfect exposure. After using the SQ10 I can’t imagine using an Instax camera that doesn’t offer this tool.
The filters and vignette tools, for my purposes, are fairly unappealing, but only for reasons of personal preference. Technically speaking they are sound, with effects being well-modulated and balanced. It’s just that I’m not one for vignettes or filters – though to be fair, the monochrome filter is pretty fantastic, and creates images similar to Fuji’s dedicated Monochrome black-and-white Instax film (which I love).
The deeper menu is robust, with options to date-stamp prints, numerous flash controls, three shooting modes (bulb, double exposure, and normal), self-timer options, AF illuminator controls and many more. To really explore these menus and edit modes, check out the video we’ve posted here. To sum it up, the SQ10 offers the most options, features, and creature comforts of any instant camera to date. If you’ve used Instax or Polaroid cameras and pined for greater control, this might be the machine for you.
Image quality is good. Though the digital files the camera makes won’t outclass shots made by the latest iPhone, these files will work for posting to social media (resolution clocks in at 1920 x 1920). There may be a bit of software over sharpening for my taste, and the camera has a tendency to slightly over-expose resulting in blown highlights in bright light, but remember that there’s exposure compensation dial for that. So while the digital images are decent, it’s clear that this camera’s intent is to print instant photos.
Image quality of prints is as good as any Instax camera that came before it, which is to say, it’s good. Shadow detail tends to be crushed, and highlights, again, can be blown out, but the high contrast and punchy color of Instax film is part of its unique charm. Like it or not, this is a look that you can’t get anywhere else.
In the hand, the SQ10 gets a lot right. It feels more solid than any other Instax camera I’ve used, and easily overshadows the toy-like Leica Sofort (a camera that’s more expensive than the SQ10 and does far less). It’s also more comfortable in the hands thanks to its square, symmetrical shape, dual right and left handed shutter buttons (programmable in five different ways), and soft-touch grip surface concentrically placed around the lens. The massive on/off switch (rotate the lens barrel) is easy to access without a glance, and the actuation clicks with mechanical certainty. The shutter half-presses into an easy-to-feel detent to lock exposure and autofocus, and the full-press to release the shutter feels precise and deliberate. The buttons on the rear of the camera offer nice resistance when pressed, and the click-wheel menu selector scrolls efficiently through the many menu options, a system that reminds of similar wheels found on Canon DSLRs, or the scroll wheel iPods of my college days (I’m 33 years old – you young people won’t understand).
Is the Instax SQ10 a perfect instant camera? I can’t say that. It’s still a bit pricey, and so is the film (a new square format that’s made exclusively for this camera), and though I’ve mentioned the possibility that this camera will save the Instax shooter some money in film, it’s going to be a long time before one makes up the difference and the camera begins paying for itself. This is especially true since the new square format film is slightly more expensive than the older Instax film packs.
So is it a wash? On price, possibly. In functionality, no way.
The SQ10 is the best instant film camera being produced today. It’s far and away the most efficient and the most capable machine out there. It does things that no other instant camera can do, at the moment, and it does these things very well. Its the best iteration of Fuji’s instant camera, and if anyone were to ask (which in my few weeks with the machine happened more times than I can remember) it’s the Instax camera I’d recommend above all others. If you’re going to buy a Fuji instant camera, the SQ10 is the one to own.