Why Is Polaroid Film So Expensive? What It Is, How It Works, and What To Buy.

Instant film photography is fun. It can produce striking and unique images with instant gratification, but the film for Polaroid and Instax cameras can be prohibitively expensive. Why is instant film so expensive, and how can we find it cheaper?

Instant film has never been affordable even at the height of its popularity, but with the demise of the original Polaroid company and subsequent failures of companies that took it over, the costs of Polaroid film suffers from high demand and low supply. The recently formed Polaroid company has begun making Polaroid film again which has helped with the overall price but Instax film by Fujifilm is an affordable alternative and is more readily available.

Understanding why Polaroid film is so expensive requires a quick trip back in history. We will also dive into your options for instant film photography, sources for more affordable film, and the differences between Instax cameras and Polaroid cameras.

The Chemicals In Instant Photography Make It Expensive

Film, in general, works by exposing a light-sensitive material. For black-and-white film, a single layer of material is altered based on the light that hits it. In color film, multiple layers of material change based on light coming from the cyan, magenta, or yellow spectrums. The film has to be developed in order to see the finished image, but the material itself stores the image as soon as it is exposed to the light.

Polaroid Film Does All of the Steps at Once 

Instant film uses additional layers of material called developer layers. These layers contain dye couplers. Underneath all the other layers sits a black base layer. The arrangement of these layers allows the chemical reaction that results in a photo.

After the various layers are altered by light – when you click the button and open the shutter to let light hit the film – there’s one more step. A chemical reagent is rolled across the image inside the camera. That reagent kicks off the development process. This reagent is stored in the bottom section of each photo – this is why it larger than the rest of the borders. Once the image is ejected from the camera and after a brief amount of time, you will have an instant photo.

All of these layers being combined into a single, thin sheet of photo material make for a miniature photographic miracle in every shot. All those chemicals, reagents, and special papers make each individual instant photo more expensive than a printed image. But they also make each instant photo a totally unique creation.

Polaroid’s Rise and Fall: A Brief History of Instant Film

It all started with a curious little girl. Edward Land was taking pictures with his daughter when she asked him why they couldn’t see the pictures right away. Land thought that was a good question, and he began working on a camera that would house film that could be developed instantly. In 1948, Land unveiled the Polaroid Land Model 95 Camera, the first commercially viable instant camera.

Polaroid cameras continued to grow in popularity. By the 1970s, they were everywhere. 

Why Did Consumers Pay the Steep Price for Polaroids?

Before Polaroid people purchased their film, waited days for development, and then paid to get their prints. The big price tag on Polaroid didn’t hinder its popularity because:

  • People love being able to snap a photo and share it with their friends right on the spot. 
  • Police and arson investigators used them at crime scenes for instant visual records.
  • They were great for ID cards, ultrasounds, and anything else that required a rapid turnaround photograph.

Polaroid Had a Virtual Monopoly for Many Years

Being the innovator of instant film photography, Polaroid enjoyed considerable success for several decades. But it didn’t last. 

  • The company won a lawsuit against Kodak, who was forced to discontinue their manufacture of instant cameras. Sales were high and Polaroid instant photos were rising in popularity.
  • However, Polaroid had trouble keeping up with the times. As other camera manufacturers embraced new technology, Polaroid continued to bet on its past. Polaroid filed bankruptcy in 2008 and sales of their products, including instant film and cameras, plummeted.
  • Polaroid was acquired in 2009 and the instant camera returned to the market. As patent restrictions were eased, more companies began creating instant cameras. 

Enter the Competition

Companies who had been producing instant cameras for years were able to break further into the market. Most notably, Fujifilm released a line of instant cameras, including the Instax and Instax Mini that are very popular.

Polaroid film was hard to find for a short while, but some enterprising fans of the instant film manufacturer acquired the rights to produce instant film after Polaroid began to struggle. 

The Impossible Project, as they were called then, produced instant cameras and film. Over time, they even acquired the name, and have since rebranded themselves as Polaroid Originals and finally, simply Polaroid.

The Growth of Fujifilm Instax

Fujifilm has been producing instant cameras since the 1990s. Originally Fujifilm’s instant cameras were only available in Asian markets. Where Polaroid failed to adapt to the changing markets, Fujifilm embraced the advances in digital photography and managed to position the Instax Mini as an affordable and cute way to produce instant physical photographs.

This innovative marketing and design-led to growing popularity for the Fujifilm Instax and Instax Mini. Today, the Instax line of instant cameras and film has found a place in the global market. More affordable, designed for quickly taking an image and to be fun, the Fujifilm Instax cameras have found their footing with enthusiasts around the world.

Cost Comparisons Between Polaroid and Instax Cameras

A combination of factors has led to recent rising popularity in instant film photography. The classic look of instant film photos is hard to reproduce with a digital camera. 

Where a typical phone user might take dozens of photos with a cell phone over the course of a single night, none of those will produce a physical product, and if they do, it will not have the same tactile appeal of an instant photo.

The rising popularity of instant cameras combined with the easing of patent restrictions to produce a nearly bewildering array of cameras available. To shorten your search, we have compiled a quick comparison chart so you can see the differences and costs at a glance.

Camera
Camera Cost*
Film*
Features
$176.99 – $199 (depending on color and accessories)
Instax Square – $19.10 for 20 exposures
A hybrid camera that takes digital photos and allows manipulation before printing. The Instax Square SQ20 has lots of fun features, like photo collages, selfie mirror, and frame grab. This is a high-end, feature-rich instant camera.
$109.99 – 149.99 (depending on color and accessories)
Instax Square – $19.10 for 20 exposures
The Instax Square SQ6 uses the same film as the Square SQ20 but has far fewer features. It has several shooting settings for different output options.
$54.95 – $113.99 (depending on color and accessories)
Instax Mini – $13.38 for 20 exposures (better price the more you purchase)
There are many different Instax Mini cameras available in a variety of colors and feature sets. All will produce a smaller instant photo, with each variation providing different settings and features. This instant camera uses the cheapest Instax film available.
$99.99 – $134.99 (depending on color and accessories)
i-Type or 600 film – typically about $3 per exposure
The Now i-Type is a point-and-shoot camera with autofocus, double-exposure capability and a self timer.
$139.99 (depending on color and availability)
i-Type or 600 film – typically about $3 per exposure
The OneStep+ i-Type uses Bluetooth connectivity and a cell phone app to allow you to adjust your photos before you print them. It also has dual lenses to switch between portrait photos and landscape photos.
$87.99 – $250 (depending on color and availability)
i-Type or 600 film – typically about $3 per exposure
The OneStep2 i-Type is a simple camera – hit the button, take the picture, and minutes later, you’re holding your instant photo.
$25.99 – $200 (depending on condition)
600 film – typically about $3 per exposure
The 600 series of instant cameras are a throwback line to the instant cameras that made Polaroid a household name. They are all fully refurbished and restored original Polaroid cameras from the 80s, 90s and 00s. 
$299.99 – $500 (or more)
SX-70 film – typically about $3 per exposure
The SX-70 line of instant cameras are high-end restored models of the vintage camera released in 1972. They fold flat, have advanced shooting features like autofocus but also includes manual focus.
$79.99 – $99.99 (depending on color and accessories)
ZINK Photo Paper – $14.99 for 30 exposures
The Polaroid Snap is a cheaper camera that combine digital camera technology with instant film development. It features memory card capability and prints small, borderless photos. It come in two version Snap vs Snap Touch 2.0. (see this article for more about Zink paper)
*Prices at the time of writing

Lee

My name is Lee and I love photography and learning. I received a Master of Fine Arts in Photography in 2010 and have worked as a university professor for the last 10 years in addition to being a working photographer. I started this website to learn more about digital and film-based photography and to provide a resource for all of my students.

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