Fuji’s Instant Film: The Immensely Interesting Story of Instax

Fujifilm’s top selling photographic line is not the X-series or GFX. By a large margin, Instax cameras and film are Fujifilm’s most popular photo products. Instax, of course, is instant film—their version of Polaroid. 2021 was an especially good year for Instax, thanks to the Instax Mini LiPlay and Instax Wide Printer, which have been hot sellers. This year, the new Instax Mini EVO is already a huge hit. I received a lot of positive feedback from my article explaining the history of the Fujifilm X-Pro1, so I thought it would be fun to explore the history of Instax. It turns out to be an immensely more interesting story than I imagined.

Let’s get started!

Edwin Land was a freshman physics student at Harvard University in 1926, and he had an idea: control scattered vibrations of light using a magnetic field and microscopic crystals. Less than two years later he dropped out of school and moved to New York City to pursue this idea. He spent extensive time in the public library, reading anything and everything that might help him succeed. Since he didn’t have access to a lab, he would sneak into Columbia University late at night to use theirs. In 1932, after four years of extensive experimenting and testing, Land had done it—he had invented an inexpensive and efficient polarizer. That same year he teamed up with George Wheelwright III, a Harvard physics professor, and started Land-Wheelwright Laboratories. In 1936, after years of work to commercialize the product, and 10 years after Land had his original idea, they began selling the Polaroid J Sheet Polarizer for use in sunglasses and photography. It was a quick hit, and a year later they renamed the company Polaroid after their product.

Many years later, in 1944, while on vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Edwin Land snapped a photograph of his three-year-old daughter, Jennifer. As the saying goes, kids say the darndest things. The little girl asked her dad why she couldn’t see the picture that had just been taken. Land thought, “Well, why can’t you?” Within an hour he had figured out the basic idea of how to accomplish this. In 1947 Land had invented a working instant film camera, and two years later Polaroid began selling the Model 95 instant film camera and Type 40 instant film to go with it.

Polaroid Colorpack II camera

Over the next decade Polaroid camera and film sales skyrocketed. Even Ansel Adams joined the instant film revolution, and, in 1963, published a book entitled Polaroid Land Photography. As demand increased, Polaroid struggled to keep up, so in the early 1960’s they contracted Kodak to manufactured their peel-apart packfilm. During that time Polaroid hired Fujifilm to assist with film improvements.

As instant film sales continued to rapidly grow throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, someone at Kodak got the bright idea that they should make their own cameras and film to compete against Polaroid. Using their experience producing film for Polaroid to design their own products, Kodak launched the EK4 and EK6 instant film cameras, as well as their PR10 instant film, in 1976. Polaroid immediately sued Kodak for patent violations, but it took a decade for the courts to make a ruling.

Fujifilm also wanted to get in on the instant film frenzy. They figured that Kodak would overtake Polaroid and become king of instant film, so Fujifilm closely modeled their instant film line after Kodak’s, and paid Kodak for the rights to do so. Fujifilm also approached Polaroid for permission, and Polaroid agreed just as long as Fujifilm shared some technology secrets with them and agreed not to sell their instant film cameras in North America. In 1981 Fujifilm launched the Fotorama instant film camera line, which was marketed only in Asia, and sold mostly in Japan. Instant film photography wasn’t nearly as popular in Asia as it was in America, but the Fotorama line sold well enough for Fujifilm to continue to sell it into the late-1990’s. Fujifilm also began selling instant film for Polaroid cameras during this time, although, again, largely for Asian markets.

Now back to that Kodak/Polaroid lawsuit. Polaroid won in 1986, and Kodak was ordered to stop selling their instant film cameras—they also had to financially compensate those who purchased them. The legal battle continued, and in 1990 Kodak was ordered to pay Polaroid almost a billion dollars in damages for copying seven patents. It was such a wild case that books have been written about it. One might think that Polaroid was the big winner and Kodak was the big loser, but Kodak made as much as 12 billion in profits off of their instant film line, so they still came out ahead, while the lengthly lawsuit apparently stifled Polaroid’s creativity and ability to innovate, right during a time when they desperately needed to innovate.

The 1990’s were not particularly good for Polaroid, and in 2001 they filed for bankruptcy. Polaroid was sold and then turned into a hollow shell, with the brand’s name and products licensed to other companies. Polaroid film was discontinued in 2008.

Fujifilm introduced the Instax line in 1998 with the Instax Mini 10 camera. Instax Wide came out a year later. While the size and shape was different, the film and technology was recycled from the Fotorama line. By this time Fujifilm was no longer obligated to remain outside of the U.S. market, but they continued to stay out, with the exception of the Mio camera in 2001, a Polaroid-brand model that shot Instax Mini film, which wasn’t especially successful. Fujifilm didn’t start selling Instax in America until after Polaroid announced it was discontinuing its instant film.

When Polaroid pulled out of instant film photography, Fujifilm seriously considered doing the same. Sales were sluggish, and largely declining. Instant film was nearly dead, and its demise was all but certain. The writing was on the wall.

In 2007 a South Korean television series called Coffee Prince was a huge success. It was especially popular with younger audiences, particularly teenagers. Prominently featured in the show was an Instax camera, and the demand for Instax in South Korea immediately skyrocketed. Then, in 2009, the South Korean series You’re Beautiful aired, which also prominently featured an Instax camera. While this show was only moderately successful on initial airing, it gained a large cult-like following in the years following, and it, too, boosted Instax sales. The popularity of Instax spread out from South Korea across Asia, then to the rest of the world, including America. Suddenly, more than a decade after it was released, Instax was an instant hit, with sales trending sharply up.

2004 was the slowest year for Instax, with about 100,000 cameras sold worldwide. In 2015, Fujifilm sold 5 million Instax cameras, and in 2019 they sold 10 million. Unsurprisingly, 2020 was a slow year, but in 2021 things picked up again, although I couldn’t find specific data on how many cameras were sold. Instax is Fujifilm’s top selling camera line, and it’s very profitable. Fujifilm has stated that some of those profits help fund developments within the X-series and GFX—even if you don’t own any Instax products, you can still be grateful that it’s so popular because it does indirectly affect you.

If Edwin Land hadn’t dropped out of college to pursue his polarizer idea, if his young daughter hadn’t asked why she couldn’t see the picture right away, if Kodak hadn’t ripped off Polaroid, if Fujifilm (like Kodak) hadn’t asked Polaroid for permission, if Polaroid hadn’t gone bankrupt, and if two South Korean television shows hadn’t used Instax as props—if any of these things hadn’t happened, Instax wouldn’t likely be around today. Through a series of twists and turns, Fujifilm created a product line that tens of millions of people worldwide use today. While Polaroid invented instant film photography, Fujifilm is currently king.

That’s the immensely interesting story of Instax!

This post contains affiliate links, and if you make a purchase using my links I’ll be compensated a small amount for it.

Instax Mini 40
Instax Mini 70
Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic
Instax Mini 11
Instax SQ6

Instax Wide 300
Instax Mini Link Printer

Instax Link Wide Printer
Instax Mini Film
Instax Square Film
Instax Wide Film

4 comments

  1. fotabily · January 18

    There are more interesting cameras: Lomo’instant(variable) and real TLR Instantflex TL70.
    And not so interesting Diana backs and NONS sl42

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ritchie Roesch · January 19

      Instax isn’t the most interesting instant film cameras ever, but the story behind Instax is what I find especially interesting.

      Like

      • Lorenzo McPherson · February 19

        I disagree. Polaroid did make interesting cameras but the film available today is unpredictable, making it very unreliable. Even the best Polaroid cameras produce mediocre results for the most part.

        There are hundreds of internet blogging sites where people constantly, ask how to get best out of those cameras and that is part of the problem with Polaroid. To be constantly struggling with cameras is not fun for the users. The film is not that good, and it is overpriced. You are paying nearly 20 bucks for 8 exposures. That is insane and they won’t get many customers if they sell it for that much money for most people would not buy the film very often. They simply have to reduce the price, otherwise they will go under again because with the cost of life going up in general and cheaper, more reliable instant film/cameras available, people will not stick with Polaroid for long, especially since the film is subpar anyway.
        While some enthusiasts may be happy to work with the new film, the original Polaroid company made reliable film, and at the very least it delivered the results that were promised. For new customers, Polaroid is too much hard work. Fujifilm have not always made the best cameras but their film is very stable, and even their crap cameras can produce much better photos than the Polaroid film of today. After the Impossible years, people who own Polaroid cameras still always seem to be trying to figure out how to make them perform better, but Fujifilm keep it simple and they succeed where Polaroid fail. Just load the film, point and shoot, and you have your photo. No need to fiddle around with exposure settings, or work out which temperature the film is, or whether you shielded the photos, or if you had a frog tongue etc. The way people talk about taking Polaroid integral film photos these days is daunting in itself. It is such an exacting process, prone to failure. Even when people get it right the photos are mediocre as could be seen on the numerous sites where people share them. I think everyone wants Polaroid cameras of old to recapture the glory but their best cameras are old and expensive, and getting the best out of them is very hard with the terrible film that is available today.

        Instax is problem free for most users and it is cheaper. That means people have a better experience and that drives sales, and leaves a positive impression so even if people stop using it, they could be tempted to start again. With better quality film, Polaroid could do better, but I have a feeling they don’t need to because the cultists are happy to spend lots of money on poor quality products, and constantly talking about Polaroid’s past as if the years gone by change the reality today. Polaroid users must demand better. Many are just grateful that the film is made at all and they just buy it because it is the only way they can use their beloved films but what they don’t understand is that unless the film improves, more customers will not stick with the brand and the old user base will not be enough to keep it going.

        Fujifilm are trying to market the fun aspects of instant photography, marketing easy to use and reliable products, while Polaroid is relying on using nostalgia and its history in the hope that that alone will keep it going.
        Even the peel apart pack film Fujifilm made was way better than the one Polaroid used to manufacture, and it was easier to use as the development process was self terminating after around a minute. There was no risk of overdeveloping and you have need to make them warm or cold etc.
        In my view, the best Polaroid cameras for the consumer market were the rangefinder cameras they made in the 1960s and early 1970s, which had glass lenses. They used the peel apart pack film, and up until Fujifilm discontinued the film, it was easily the best way to take Polaroid photos. The SX70 and later 600 film cameras made the process to take instant photographs easier and more convenient for users but integral film never delivered the type of results you could have achieved with the pack film cameras. The SX70 and integral film was the death of Polaroid after the company thought they found the goose that lays golden eggs. Once they found ways to make cheaper cameras that used integral film, that is all they did, creating these huge, ugly hunks of cheap looking plastic cameras that cheapened the brand and made the products loom like a type of novelty.

        Pack film is currently being manufactured by a start up, but it is expensive and the number of exposures limited. If they improve the film in time, I would prefer that to the integral film. For that Fujifilm is the better option because you waste less film since their cameras deliver much more consistent results. What is the use of having an SLR 680 of the film is poor, and you cannot even see the best of what a camera like that could have done? Polaroid may have made some interesting cameras up until the late 1970s, but they can’t deliver good results today. Even if they could, the cameras the company makes today are supremely crap, and the old ones are very old. You need new, reliable products to attract new customers.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ritchie Roesch · February 19

        I agree that the best Polaroids were from the 1960’s and 70’s that had glass lenses and peel apart film were the best quality. Thank you for the thoughtful comment!

        Like

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