It’s a shiny, tightly framed snapshot of a couple of friends of mine, posing as we share a booth at a New York diner. It’s almost (but not quite) square, with a distinctive white border that’s thicker at the bottom than on the other sides.
As you may already have figured out, the item I am cradling in my hand is a Polaroid photo.
But unlike the hundreds—thousands?—of Polaroids I’ve shot in my life, this one began its life as a digital image. I took it with my Pixel 3 smartphone and then used a new gadget, the Polaroid Lab, to transfer it onto a piece of proudly analog Polaroid instant film, where it developed before my eyes in classic fashion.
The Polaroid Lab won’t go on sale until October 10, but I’ve spent some time with a prerelease unit and beta versions of its accompanying iPhone and Android apps. For those without an existing affinity for instant photography in its traditional form, the whole idea of turning a digital photo into a chemistry-based snapshot may sound like a backward act of hipsterism, akin to pressing your MP3 collection onto vinyl. But what the Lab does, it does well. And analog instant photography—a medium even Polaroid itself once left for dead—has snapped back to life, giving the Lab a shot at success.
As a bridge between the digital and analog worlds, the Polaroid Lab is trying to solve an actual modern problem. The smartphone is the culmination of the dream Polaroid founder Edwin Land pursued decades ago, when he said the company’s goal was to build a camera you could take everywhere and adopt as a primary form of communications, as natural as using a pen. Today, we do that. But the sheer volume of photos in our lives has tended to make them feel less special. Maybe even a bit impersonal: People upload 100 million photos and videos a day just to Instagram, where they come and go and usually feel like chum being dumped into an ocean of content rather than treasured mementos. In the case of something like Instagram Stories, the fact that photos quickly vanish from your feed is part of the supposed value proposition.
The Lab dials back the ephemeral nature of modern photography by encouraging you to choose your most meaningful pictures and give them permanent form. “One of the big drawbacks of the infinitely-growing giant camera roll on your phone is that you never end up bumping into the stuff,” says Polaroid CEO Oskar Smolokowski. “But if you have a bunch of physical Polaroid pictures on your fridge wall or in an album, you’re more likely to revisit them.” Handing such a photo to a friend feels like giving a gift, which I for one have never found true of direct-messaging someone a JPEG.
The introduction of the Polaroid Lab is the latest milestone in the revival of Polaroid, a company which spent much of the 21st century downsizing, going bankrupt (twice!), being bought and sold, licensing its brand to other manufacturers for use on products such as HDTVs, and otherwise acting like a shadow of its once-iconic self. In the aughts, it even discontinued production of cameras and film, which led to a startup called The Impossible Project acquiring an abandoned Polaroid factory in the Netherlands and making film when Polaroid wouldn’t.
In 2017, Polaroid and The Impossible Project came under the same ownership, and Impossible was rebranded as Polaroid Originals. This unification led to a new wave of Polaroid-branded instant cameras and film—giving us, for the first time in many years, a Polaroid that felt something like the Polaroid of yore, albeit a lot smaller and headquartered in Amsterdam rather than Edwin Land’s home base of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While Polaroid was busy collapsing and then rebuilding, imaging giant Fujifilm was finding enormous success with its line of extremely Polaroid-esque Instax cameras and film. It turned out that analog instant photography hadn’t been rendered obsolete in the digital age after all. Even as smartphones have crushed sales of conventional digital cameras, retailers such as Best Buy have expanded their instant-photography sections. Between Polaroid and the much higher-volume Instax, consumer instant photography is a bigger business now than it was in Polaroid’s heyday, according to Smolokowski. “Back then, 60% of the film they made was used by professionals,” he explains. “Medical use, insurance companies, police, fire departments, everybody who needed a record of something.”
Third time’s a charm
The Polaroid Lab is the third iteration of a smartphone-photo-printing gadget concept that The Impossible Project tried twice before, in 2012 and 2015. But the new version is sleeker, simpler to use, and sells for $130, versus $300 for the first Impossible Project Instant Lab. In the interim, the company’s film has gotten both better and cheaper. Not that much cheaper, though: The cost of an eight-pack of color film works out to $2 a shot. (Polaroid photography was always a spendy habit: Back in 1972, when the company introduced its first SX-70 camera, film sold for the equivalent of $6.15 a shot in 2019 dollars.)
Essentially, the Polaroid Lab is a special-purpose Polaroid camera designed to photograph smartphone screens. Polaroid design chief Ignacio Germade, a Motorola and Ideo veteran, gave the 7″ tall device a look that cleverly evokes the famous Polaroid OneStep camera of 1977, with a white body, a black platform for your phone, a red shutter button, and a rainbow stripe that light ups when you’ve properly aligned your phone. It’s a very different sort of device than Fujifilm’s Instax Share SP2, which puts phone photos on dinky Instax Mini film but uses Wi-Fi to transfer the image off your phone, just like any wireless printer.
I used the Lab to run through a few packs of Polaroid “I-Type” film, which comes in both color and B&W variants, with some limited-edition border designs (including, perhaps inevitably, a Stranger Things tie-in) as well as the classic white frame. I made Polaroids from smartphone snapshots, images I’d shot with fancier cameras, vintage family photos, and even a few scanned pictures that had been Polaroids in the first place. Photos began to appear shortly after whirring out of the Lab and took about 15 minutes to develop fully. A churl might argue against that counting as “instant” photography at all. But watching a photo gradually appear in your hands still feels like a little miracle—a rite of chemistry in digital times.
Using the Lab was easy: I selected a photo in the Polaroid Originals app, plopped my phone on the Lab’s platform, made sure it was correctly aligned (which, thanks to the flashing rainbow and a chime sound, was easy), and pushed the red button to make a Polaroid. The trickiest part of the process was futzing with my phone’s display settings: Technologies that adjust on-screen colors for different environments or to soothe your eyes before bedtime, such as Apple’s True Tone and Night Shift, interfere with maximum Polaroid image quality, so you should turn them off.
An option in Polaroid’s app lets you print one photo as a collage spanning two, three, or four pieces of overlapping instant film, but when I previewed my pictures in these formats, none of them looked appealing enough to justify burning through pricey film at that pace. But I did play with Live Polaroids, a feature—similar to ones offered with Bluetooth photo printers from companies such as HP—that adds a dash of augmented reality. When you select a photo to print, you can also choose a video to associate with it. If you do, you can aim your smartphone’s camera at the printed picture to see an AR-enhanced view with the video playing within the photo’s border, as if it were a tiny flat-screen TV. There are both private Live Polaroids (which work only with your own phone) and public ones (which anyone who has one of your photos and the Polaroid Originals app can view, and which print a skinny barcode along the bottom of the photo as a means of identification).
That’s a lot of work to go through to view a video, but that’s almost the point. The idea of the Live Polaroid feature, says Smolokowski, is “to take the Polaroid photo and give it depth and meaning and a way for people to communicate a little bit of a secret.” The version I tried, using the iPhone app, was a rough draft—I had to ask for help to figure it out—and Polaroid hadn’t yet implemented the feature in the Android app. The company says that it’s still polishing up the interface; it could turn out to be a fun bonus, though probably not a primary selling point.
So how are the photos?
For the most part, I liked how my Polaroid-ized photos came out—but not because they were perfect replicas of the digital originals. They were soft rather than crisp, with a dreamy color palette and an element of surprise, since two copies of the same image don’t necessarily develop identically. The current Polaroid Originals film is the best it’s made since Impossible revived the format, but it still isn’t as consistent as Fujifilm’s Instax. (You can adjust exposure and color saturation in the app, through experimenting on actual prints would quickly get expensive.) Smolokowski says that the Polaroid Originals film will continue to improve and that the company will fine-tune its smartphone apps to produce the best possible results.
The Polaroids I made certainly looked like Polaroids. But are they Polaroids? As an instant photography devotee, I confess that I wrestled with that question. At first, the idea of turning a digital photo into an analog Polaroid felt a tad fraudulent, a more convoluted and expensive equivalent of applying a retro filter in Instagram. But the more I thought about it, the less guilty I felt.
After all, a high percentage of the Polaroids shot in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s were taken with cheap Polaroid cameras with budget optics. The look that people loved then—and which retains its appeal today—mostly came from the mind-bendingly ingenious chemistry that allows Polaroid’s “integral” film to develop in daylight, without leaving any detritus behind. Even the signature frame, whose tall bottom edge accommodates the pod of chemicals that gets slathered across the photo, is extricably linked to this 47-year-old process. And it lives on in the Polaroid Lab, despite the fact that you’re snapping a photo of a smartphone screen rather than a person.
This isn’t a product for everybody, or even everybody who’s smitten with the idea of putting digital photos on a fridge, inside an album, or in the hand of a loved one. If you’re put off by the unpredictable nature of Polaroid Originals film and/or its $2-per-shot cost, what you want is something like a $100 Canon Selphy printer, which can crank out crisp 4″-by-6″ snapshots for around 38 cents apiece. It’s just fine. But it’s nice to think that such just-fine printers might coexist with the Polaroid Lab, a gizmo that exudes quirky charm even as it extends the life of a great American technology.