Illustration by Alicia Paauwe for an article on Polaroid

Polaroid Mania: Why Instant Film Is Now All the Rage

Whether it be because of nostalgia, a new market or just self-expression, the infamous grainy images have made a huge comeback — letting us know that maybe things don't always have to be picture perfect.
February 11, 2021
7 mins read

Polaroid first declared bankruptcy in 2001. By 2008, the company stopped producing instant film, the product that had once carried their massive profits throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. The age of digital photography had arrived, and Polaroid was doomed to live in the retrospectives and dusty attics of America for eternity, right?

Despite the functional demise of the company (it still exists as a licensing firm of sorts), Polaroid lives on as the all-encompassing label for any instant photography, even if it isn’t actually made by Polaroid themselves. Luckily, instant photography has made a monumental comeback in recent years, following in the footsteps of vinyl. Retro and analog media is the new aesthetic for millennials and Generation Z alike, and instant film has reaped the benefits of this once-niche craze.

The numbers of the instant film and analog media revival are staggering. Fujifilm, the new undisputed king of instant film, sold 3.5 million units of their Instax cameras in 2019, up from a measly 100,000 units in 2004. It’s no coincidence that vinyl shares this trajectory, with overall units sold going from approximately 1 million in 2005 to 27.5 million in 2020.

Instant film and analog media are not just passing fads. These figures are a sign that consumers desire more forms of media that they can physically see and touch, or maybe just bring them back to a simpler time.

The Intangibles 

The benefits of instant film are often intangible. If you ask someone why they prefer the grainy, imperfect images, they will most likely reply with something along the lines of “I don’t know, it’s just cool I guess?”

“I suppose with everything being crystal-clear and high definition today, to have an object or a moment with idiosyncrasies in it can somewhat appear to be more meaningful and memorable, maybe,” said photographer Harleigh English in an interview with Happy Mag.

English’s hypothesis about the allure of imperfection seems to be a driving force behind many of those who use instant film in today’s age. In fact, the form has become a favorite among professional photographers solely for that reason.

Digital photography does have many benefits. Minimal costs after upfront purchase, being able to take thousands of photos on a whim and pure flexibility via numerous lenses are just a few. To many like fashion photographer Emily Soto, though, it’s that lack of features that make instant film so attractive.

“One of the greatest things about shooting with Polaroid, and film in general, is the fact that it makes me step back and think about what I’m aiming to capture,” Soto wrote in an article for Huffington Post. “With digital, it is easy to shoot so many frames in a short amount of time without taking the time to think through posing and emotion, for instance.”

Being able to hold the photo in your hands in the moment is also a huge allure for many professionals and amateurs alike. To many, there’s something about holding a tangible, physical picture instead of viewing it on a screen that makes every shot memorable. It feels as if you’ve captured a moment instead of just creating a file made up of colorful code.

This reach for more tangible art by younger generations is nothing new. Vinyl, instant film’s de facto soulmate in today’s market and households across America, has a similar draw. Temoor Iqbal, a street photographer out of London, explained this is in an interview with Happy Mag:

“The trend of young people embracing analogue photography is a reaction to the nature of the modern world,” Iqbal said. “We still crave and relish the tangible, almost as a reference point for our cultural understanding.”

Could it Just be Nostalgia?

 One could easily chalk this up to nostalgia alone. Millennials, one of the age groups fueling the aforementioned sales, grew up with the memory of instant Polaroid cameras and vinyl records. Just like with classic Ford Mustangs or “Full House,” nostalgia may be what is keeping this analog market afloat. Research has shown that nostalgia weakens our desire for money, and as such, the business of selling our nostalgia back to us is almost always a profitable path.

If you’re Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett from The Guardian, this latest instant film obsession is merely a depressing reminder that millennials cannot let go of the past.

“But I do wonder when my generation is going to start making its own aesthetic stamp on the world rather than looking to their parents for inspiration,” she wrote.

You only have to look at many peoples’ Instagram feeds to convince yourself of such an argument. Dozens of apps that “Polaroid” your pictures are used to take high definition, digital photos and turn them into something reminiscent of that ever-nostalgic instant film aesthetic.

This certainly negates the argument that it’s all about the imperfections and tangibility of the film, and proves that many people may just want the latest Instax model to convince themselves they’re still in the ’80s.

Generation Z is the Key

However, what about Generation Z? Fujifilm itself has admitted that the Instax camera (their most popular instant film camera) was reimagined in 2012 with a target demographic of “young women and girls with an eye for fashion and art.” This isn’t exactly targeting 35-year-olds who want to relive the glory days.

In fact, the Instax camera has been around since 1998, with sales peaking in 2002 and then dropping off every year for nearly a decade after. Its resurgence in 2009 and 2010 was a surprise to most employees, as young, urban Japanese people began to pick up the “toy” camera as an alternative to the digital apocalypse that had engulfed the camera industry. According to Fujilfim, “these young people were looking for ‘new’ methods of self-expression.”

This interest in self-expression is something Generation Z is known for, specifically with what products they consume. According to McKinsey & Company, Generation Z’s spending habits are geared toward more personalized products, and they are willing to pay higher prices for them. Fujifilm’s Instax is the perfect product for this generation, even if they didn’t realize it.

The nature of instant photography allows for every shot to be unique, and in the process makes your average 12 to 25-year-old feel as if they’re expressing their individuality.

The price of instant film, up to $1 a shot, was also an obstacle for many people after the rise of much cheaper digital options. With Generation Z more willing to pay a higher premium for self-expression, the Instax and instant film industry in general have been able to overcome this.

Whatever the Reason…

Whether it’s the intangible feeling it brings, nostalgia or lucky marketing aimed at a new generation, one thing is for certain: “Polaroid” film, vinyl and other analog media is here to stay.

Looking to dip your toes into instant photography? Check out PCMag’s best instant camera picks for 2021.

Drew Goretzka, Michigan State University

Writer Profile

Drew Goretzka

Michigan State University
Journalism, focus on International Reporting

Telling a good story is the key to changing the world, and I hope to do just that. Currently studying at Michigan State University and currently deployed to Kosovo with the Michigan Army National Guard.

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