Photography’s Wheel



Some devices never seem to get old. The wheel, for instance, has retained the same shape and operates towards the same purpose for which it was intended from its inception. Today, modern-day advancements are being incorporated into the wheel, building upon its base design and principle. Still, no matter what technology is introduced, it will forever be a wheel.

What never seems to perish in the cosmos of photography is the instant camera. You may not know it, you may not feel it, but the instant camera has been haunting us ever since we started thinking it was gone. Some call it obsolete, but if you think about it, the instant camera is very much alive. The principle of the instant camera is actually the principle by which our digital cameras and, most especially, our smartphone and tablet cameras operate.

No, it’s not just because of the infestation of Instagram clones in the app market. It’s because with every picture we take with our digital camera or mobile device, we are practicing instant photography. We see our pictures and show it to our friends right after we take them. Snap and share-wasn’t that the premise on which old Polaroid, Kodak and Fujifilm instant cameras were made and sold?

The concept was simple: when you hit the shutter button, the camera performs its chemical sorcery and, in a matter of seconds, out comes a piece of paper with your photo on it. We know that it sounds less of a wonder now, but this concept was such a big hit in the 70s. During the time of analog film cameras, seeing what your picture looks like only moments after you take it, sans dark room, was something new to the camera consumer.

While it is true that the number of users of instant cameras waned drastically due to the digital revolution, a certain segment of photography enthusiasts still shoot photos using these cameras. A number of younger photographers and consumers have also gone on board this segment—those who are either into analog photography, older technology, or are simply conforming to the “retro is in” movement.

One brand that has continued to provide new cameras for this niche is Fujifilm, whose latest entry into said market, the Instax Mini 8, was recently launched in the Philippines. Polaroid, too, has kept the same pace, although at one point, the company decided to tech it up a bit with the introduction of the first digital instant print camera, the Polaroid Z340. Today, several camera apps feature retro filters and frames that are reminiscent of old Polaroids and Kodaks, allowing mobile users to experience and relive the now outdated glory of instant cameras.

This is all very good, but here’s the thing: there isn’t really a need to restore its glory. Instant photography has never been dead; it’s been here all along-kept under the many adornments of technological advancement.

The concept of the instant camera has always been the foundation of the digital photography process. You press the shutter button, and after the light sensor records and translates the information it was able to collect, the photo appears on the LCD screen. The workflow operates essentially within the same framework as that of an analog instant camera.

Instant cameras not only introduced the concept of immediate photo production; they introduced the notion of instantaneous sharing as well. For analog instant cameras, the sharing process began with the printing of the picture—the photo is shared from the camera to the user. After that, the user is able to show his or her friends the photo that was taken, put it in an album, hang it up on the wall, or keep it in a notebook.

Mobile devices, in particular, have built upon this aspect. Using wireless capabilities, we are able to take photos and share them instantly to our buddies on apps like Instagram, social networking sites like Facebook, and cloud storage platforms like Dropbox, allowing us to post them on an album, on each other’s wall, or on each other’s notebooks, desktops, tablets, and smartphones.

A relatively newer technology, near field communication (NFC), is even more instantaneous as it enables quick and easy communication of a picture from one device to another without the need for a USB cable, or an internet connection. All you need is to tap two devices against each other and you’ll be able to transfer a photo from your smartphone to mine or from my smartphone to a compatible printer, which can print out a photo onto any type, color, or size of paper—just like an instant camera.

The difference between the instant cameras in the past and what we have now in the digital ecosystem is the medium. Film, chemicals and paper are now memory cards, digital sensors and LCD screens, but that doesn’t mean that they’re essentially any different. What technology has done is that it has taken the central idea of the instant camera, stripped it of its physical components and replaced them with current-generation parts that enable the concept to live perpetually through time, so that photography always—and forever, perhaps—stays instant.


Words by Racine Anne Castro
First published in Gadgets Magazine, August 2013