Enter the Lomo’Instant Square

I don’t know why I jumped on the Lomo’Instant Square Kickstarter. Further, I don’t know why I went for the gorgeous Ginza Edition, with it’s orangey-brown leatherette and off-white plastic body. Sure, it’s pretty, but it was quite a bit more than the white, black, or Kickstarter editions. I do know why I splurged for the Mini back and a few packs of Instax Square film, but that’s about it, really.

But, boy, am I ever glad I did.

I had a couple of problems with the mini back early on, but solved it after a few days. The little latches that hold the back in place are sort of sloppily installed and can be finicky. I have to force the Mini Back’s latch into place, and the latch on the Square back sticks.

And those are only two of the issues I found with the camera.

But I still love it.

First off, it’s sharp when it needs to be, and wonderfully soft when it’s not. Sure, it doesn’t quite have the beautiful softness of the LC-Anstax (the LC-A and it’s Instant Back), but it’s got a lovely character all its own.

To be fair, the LC-Anstax is never particularly sharp. That plastic correction lens that gets slipped in the back is a big hunk of plastic, and it’s probably about as optimized for optical clarity as any hunk of plastic could be, but the Lomo’Instant Square lens is all glass, all the time. It’s sharp when you mean it to be (i.e. when you have focus set appropriately), but the out of focus character is pleasant enough too.

If you’ve read around about the Lomo’Instant Square, you know it has a fancy folding design, with some rubber bellows and everything, and you know that it has an integrated remote (that offers a time exposure: click once to open the shutter and once more to close), and offers quite a bit of (automated) manual control: exposure compensation, multiple exposures, a self timer and a bulb mode. I’m not going to talk about any of that, as I didn’t use any of it, really.*

I was more interested in testing the camera in as many circumstances as I could, as quickly as I could, and, really, to be honest, I made it fall down more than once.

So. Given that I had about 10 packs of Instax Mini in the fridge, I picked up the Mini Back to go along with it, the first thing I did after unboxing was install the Back and get to testing. As mentioned above, I had some problems getting it fit properly, but once I figured it out, it worked fine. The only complaint remaining about the back itself is that it clashes a bit with the rest of the camera.

It could be worse… I think they made a white version too, and white would’ve been awful against the cream and brown, I think, but it would’ve been nice if Lomography had made backs to match the finishes of the different models.

So to the testing…

On the exposure front—and I expect this is an Instax issue, and not a Lomo’Instant thing—I got my fair share of blown highlights and blocked shadows in the 4 packs that I shot (two mini, mostly around the house; two square, mostly in Arkansas).

I guess that’s my second complaint, and it’s probably the film, with maybe some help from the rather weak flash (at longer ranges, anyway). Like the cheaply made latches on the backs, it’s something that I’ll get used to, and probably come to appreciate, but it’s fairly annoying at present.

An additional annoyance is the zone focus. I’m much better with zone focus than I used to be: I almost always remember to reset focus to infinity on my many zone focus cameras, and usually remember to check the focus before I go out shooting. But all my other zone focus cameras remember where I set them… The Lomo’Instant Square resets to 1m-2.5m (the middle zone) every time I pop it open: it doesn’t matter if I have it set to infinity or to .8m when I shut it: in closed position, it rests near infinity, and when it pops open, it pops open at 1m-2.5m.

I don’t know how many shots are soft because of this.

By my third pack, I’d mostly figured it out, but still managed to forget for most of the fourth pack, but not all was lost.

And it was about that time I also started to notice what I guess to be the dynamic range issues in earnest. I don’t remember seeing this in my dozen packs (or more) with the LC-Anstax. Maybe some images in bright sunlight were a bit contrasty, especially with Instax Monochrome film, but I don’t recall shadows as blocked up as I found with the square, and it wasn’t even that contrasty out: maybe 9am, mid-winter, down in a riverbed or in a flood plain:

I guess that’s something I’ll have to watch out for and try to get used to with this camera. I didn’t pay any attention to it with the LC-Anstax, really, and don’t think I ever got bit to this extent, but then I don’t think I ever tried to shoot it in the wilds of Northwest (or Southwest) Arkansas. Maybe I’ll take it out one day and just try to test dynamic range specifically.

And it just occurred to me, that I never shot the LC-Anstax outdoors in sub 40° (4°c) temperatures. I did notice that development times were much longer than in warmer situations, so it could be that the extended development time caused an overall darkening of the shots… I definitely got somewhat better results when I kept the camera, film, and photographs warmer (like in the warm car or back in North Texas).

I did a bit of hunting and Figital noted some increased saturation and darker blacks with Instax Wide film, and Fuji specifies a development range from 5°-40° so that’s probably the problem, and it’s probably my fault and not the fault of the film (or the camera). I did tuck the photographs into the front pocket of my hoody after shooting, but that was apparently insufficient.

Ah well. Live and learn.

And while we’re on the subject of faults… let’s talk about the lens. First, it’s sharp, way sharper than the LC-Anstax, and I find no faults with it on that front. But get some sun just out of frame, and whoa!

Forget about it.

And good luck knowing where the frame is… the viewfinder is among the least accurate I’ve ever seen. Even the little pop-up frame thing on the ActionSampler is more accurate. Combine that with its resetting of the focus every time you close it, and you get misframed, out of focus, fun.

Now. I knew it skewed a bit to the left, but I wasn’t sure how much, so I tried to frame everything a bit to the right of where I actually wanted it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes less so.

I lined up this pier thing on Sardis lake in the right third of the frame, hoping it would turn out more or less square. Alas. And it looks like I missed the focus too. Alhamdulillah.

But, really, that’s all I have to say bad about the camera. Come to mention it, I’ve really only said bad stuff about the camera, and shame on me. It really is a nice camera, and the problems I have are all things I’ll eventually get used to, and find ways to work around it or live with.

So the Kickstarter kit came with some fun stuff. In addition to the Mini Back, the Ginza edition came with the Portrait lens, which converts the .8m minimum focus distance to .5m while retaining most of the sharpness that the lens has to offer, plus the splitzer and some color gels for the flash. And thanks to pledges from over 3,000 suckers people like me totaling nearly $600,000, they threw in a few extra color gels (not pictured), and an orange filter that I’m looking forward to trying out with the pack of Instax Mini Monochrome I have in the fridge.

And with all that, I’m sure to get some more good results out of this great camera, at least with enough patience and enough packs of Instax. I ended up rather pleased with a few of the shots from my drive home from Arkansas. With my blown-out knee, I took a half dozen breaks to stop and walk limp around, slowly, at various city and state parks along my winding, circuitous route.

All in all, I think Lomography have a winner with the Lomo’Instant Square, at least in the hands of competent shooters. Like most Lomo stuff, it is a bit on the expensive side, and while the craftsmanship of the camera is really top notch, some parts of it feel a bit cheap and the backs both fit sloppily, with loads of flex and play to them, even with film in. Overall, it’s very easy to use, but for best results, be sure to check focus and don’t bother with the viewfinder.

Purpose
Price
Craftsmanship
Ease of Use

Now, the individual ratings don’t really capture the whole picture, so I’m going to add some additional points for the style and character of the camera, the quality of the lens, and the overall enjoyment of using it: it’s really a nice and fun camera,  so overall, I’d give it

Matt Day has a great video review of the camera, so that might be worth a visit if you’d like more information about the camera. Despite owning one and shooting with it, I’ve watched it, and benefited from it some, even, so it’s worth a watch. He’s far more positive than me, but like me he recommends not bothering with the viewfinder and instead just roughly pointing the camera and praying.

You can pick up a Lomo’Instant Square camera direct from Lomography. The Ginza is currently out of stock (and no surprise: it’s the prettiest, I think), but black, white, and a kinda ugly (to my eye) sort of sliver/red thing they call “Pigalle,” are readily available. Cameras start at $199, and you can get them with the Portrait lens, splitzer and Mini Back starting at $239. If you want the highest-quality Instax experience going, it’s probably worth it.


*I did try the remote shutter release, and it works well.

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