A collection of rocks and seashells on a kitchen window ledge, red patio curtains in the background.

Hybrid instant cameras are sort of weird and pointless, but I like mine anyhow.

How it works:

It’s a very low-end digital camera. It comes with a few analog-like controls so you can select lenses with assorted effects (vignette, fisheye, double exposure, split exposure, soft focus, etc.) and film types (vintage, blue/red/yellow tints, faded, monochrome, sepia, etc.) There’s exposure compensation, a timer, and a macro setting. Basically, it has the settings that you’d find front and center on a very cheap digital camera, and sort of exaggerates things to create a kind of physical embodiment of the Instagram aesthetic.

When you take a picture, it stores the picture on a micro-SD card. If you wish, you can edit the picture later to add film and lens styles, etc. And at any point you can print the picture by cocking the “film advance lever.” A few seconds later, it prints an Instax print.

So it is not “film photography” in the sense that you open a shutter and expose a piece of film to light then the film develops. There is no way to take a “live” picture with the thing.

The camera also has Bluetooth. That allows it to act as a portable Instax printer for any photos you took on your phone and it allows you to transfer photos from your camera to your phone’s camera roll.

However, and this is where I am both annoyed and also completely amused, you can only use Bluetooth to transfer photos that you’ve printed on the camera. If you want to get at all your photos, you’re welcome to take out the microSD card and copy them from that, but they’re just photos that happen to have been taken by what amounts to a toy digital camera. If you transfer a photo you made an Instax print from, it gets a special “Instax film” border, like the photo above.

I feel like I should be pulling from Leviticus to describe this process: “Unclean” or “abomination.” If you want to take crappy pictures on a cheap camera with sort of overcooked filters, that’s called “something from ca. 2004 you bought for $5 on eBay.” In the process of trying to help a friend buy a camera for his daughter, we eventually got to “oh, the children these days think ‘vintage’ means ‘the digital camera their parents had’ and not, like, ‘a Polaroid print.'” It’s a little mystifying that Instax and other instant cameras are holding on the way they are, given the people using it the most don’t have any memory of film as a thing at all. At least, I am given to understand the “nostalgic Xers” demographic is not the major one in this market.

I mean, if I wanted to, my Fujifilm X-T5 has a “toy camera” setting. I could totally set it to “lowest-res JPEG” and send its output to an Instax printer. I could even make a macro for my Mac or iPhone that handled the “make an Instax border” part. I even have a deliberately terrible lens cap lens with fixed focus, fixed aperture, and terrible vignetting. And because it’s a Fujifilm camera, it even knows how to pair with Fujifilm Instax printers over Bluetooth.

But we’re just completely through the rabbit hole here, and have been for a while. Instagram’s great innovation was understanding the way certain things about an image could invoke a sense of nostalgia and folkish profundity at an almost Pavlovian level. Until I stopped to unpack it, some Instagram photos could almost make me smell “old photo album,” and feel the tacky ridges of a photo album page; same way I could hear the fan and smell the hot exhaust of a slide projector in that Mad Men episode “The Carousel.” It turns out that even when we know something isn’t the artifact it evokes, it can still evoke the things the “real” artifact might. If Instagram never worked that way for you, awesome and congratulations.

That aside, and speaking as someone in a creative rut who is feeling stuck, I sort of like taking this chunky, faux-vintage toy out on a walk. It does sort of weird things to colors, and it doesn’t leave room for a lot of perfectionist impulses. I like making a print or two a day from whatever I got with it … we have a few flip-albums here and there around the house where I stick the pictures, and every now and then I find one in a jacket pocket, drawer, or acting as a bookmark. Because I’m thinking that, at some point, the thing I am capturing will realize its most perfect form as a tiny little credit-card-sized print, I think a little differently about what’s important in the scene.

As I end a lot of this kind of post … “You know … fun.”