Suddenly, Instant Photos Are Everywhere

A guide to the rebirth of Polaroids and their new competitors

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Slide Show: New Developments in Instant Photography

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It seemed that instant cameras were dying—yet another analog victim in a digital world. When Polaroid announced in 2008 that it would quit making the film that fueled its iconic instant cameras, it appeared to be the final nail in the coffin. The company instead seemed bent on plastering the valued Polaroid name on all sorts of cheap electronics. 

[Slide Show: Suddenly, Instant Photos are Everywhere.]

Then—in what seems an instant—instant printing has roared back. Revived after a bankruptcy, Polaroid is, er, focused on instant imaging. "What makes Polaroid special is this incredible tactile experience of sharing your pictures in real time," says company executive Jon Pollock. People like holding and passing around instant images of whatever event they're sharing, he says. "We joke that Polaroids really were the first social medium before YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter." 

The company, armed with instant cameras and small printers, is now trying to sell the concept to a new generation. Polaroid recruited pop singer Lady Gaga, herself a seeming instant hit, to market the new instant imaging to young buyers. She's also a fan of the old, analog Polaroid cameras and film, popular among artists for their unique, sometimes quirky results. "Each photo was one of a kind, nothing else like it and not doctored," Pollock says. "It was almost like a crapshoot—you didn't know exactly how it was going to come out." 

Most of Polaroid's new products depend less on that unpredictability. The printers connect to digital cameras and camera phones, where images can be edited, and Polaroid's other instant cameras are digital. They also depend on new instant film from a company called ZINK Imaging, which is using technology that Polaroid developed but chose not to commercialize itself. 

[Here's a guide to shopping for the perfect digital camera.] 

It's almost as if Polaroid had to first die before the new "Zero Ink" technology could spring to life at ZINK, whose prints couldn't compete with the quality of the original Polaroid film. And neither could compete with the quality of prints that can be made pretty darn quickly from inkjet printers. But as an independent company, ZINK decided its clean process—no messy ink cartridges—and portability could make up for lesser quality. "We knew we weren't the best of best, but we thought the quality was good enough," says ZINK executive Scott Wicker. "It was really about entertainment in the moment." 

Now, second-generation ZINK film is producing better-quality prints, if not still the best. And more generations are coming as Polaroid reports that its printers and cameras are hot sellers, and other companies adopt the technology. 

Even the original Polaroid film isn't dead. A group calling itself the "Impossible Project" leased an old Polaroid factory in Europe and is developing a new, cheaper version of instant film that will work in Polaroid cameras, and maybe others. Polaroid has embraced the effort and plans to introduce a new analog camera to use the film. 

Fujifilm, meanwhile, has brought America its own line of Instax instant cameras. The company has sold similar models overseas, but waited for the old Polaroid to die before bringing them to the United States. 

More conventional printer companies aren't ceding the "instant" market. Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Canon, and others have compact printers—some which can even run off batteries. We've included one example in our guide to the new choices for consumers wanting instant prints: 

Polaroid PIC 1000. As part of a return to its roots, Polaroid later this year will release an updated version of its old, analog OneStep camera called the PIC 1000. It will produce the classic Polaroid prints with their white border. Film will come from the Netherlands, where the Impossible Project has been working on a new way to produce instant Polaroid film that's cheap enough to serve what's now a much smaller market. More details on the film should be available next month. 

Polaroid PoGo printer. Meanwhile, Polaroid forged ahead with portable printers that can run off batteries and produce clean, simple prints using the Zero Ink technology from ZINK. A current PoGo printer sells for about $40 and produces 2-by-3-inch prints that cost about 40 cents each. A new model coming this year will produce 3-by-4-inch prints that are also of better quality.