It's 2015, and it has never been easier to take a good photo with the phone in your pocket, share it with millions of people, pass it around your friends and family and do whatever you want with that image. All of this is great, and devices like the LG G4 and its full manual mode are making people think about what goes into an image a little more, but the sad truth is these days that people just point, touch and move on. Not to go on a rant about how far we've come, but it wasn't always like this. Decades ago, taking photos of anything was a much bigger deal than it is today, and while you could get your film developed quickly and easily, there was still a lot of effort that went into taking a photo. This made people care about photos a lot more than they do today, and the Polaroid was perhaps the easiest way to share images with your friends and family, and because there was only one copy of that photo, it was precious to you and your friends. There's a whole backstory and history to go over with Polaroid, but let's just put it this way; Polaroid is back.
Of course, it's no longer Polaroid as we know it, the Impossible Project has been around for some time now, producing new film for the Polaroid 600 and SX-70 line of cameras for budding photographers to get their hands on. With this though, the Instant Lab Universal, people can make a Polaroid of whatever the hell they want using their phone. You place a pack of Impossible Project film in, go through the steps from the app, pull out the shutter, eject the photo and then wait. Once done, you'll have a Polaroid photo, as in one of those photos you can touch and still view with 0% battery life left on your phone. Is this a product for everyone? No, probably not, does it inject a little more fanfare into photography? You're damn straight it does.
Talking about the lab itself, you get one unit, a power cable, a pouch to keep it in, some literature and one instant postcard as well as a sort of frame stand. I wish there were more than one postcard and one stand included here, but it's a nice gesture, either way. The lab itself isn't cheap, which pretty much aims it squarely at the enthusiast. As for build quality, this is definitely well made, you can collapse it to make it somewhat portable, and there's a decent lens in there, which takes the image from your smartphone and flips it around to expose the film underneath. Everything here is pretty self explantory, but the need for USB power is pretty annoying to be honest, but the cable isn't too long and can be neatly wrapped up and carried with the lab in the provided pouch.
As far as I can tell, how the lab actually works is by using three capacitive dots (sort of like stylus heads) to line things up and then display the image correctly. However it does it, I have never had a failed image when the sound plays telling you everything is lined up right.
As this is "Universal" it does work with a wide range of Android devices, however only a few are officially supported. You can use the app on whatever you want though, and I tested things on my Xperia Z2. The Impossible app is actually quite neat and tidy. Things can get a little fiddly, but if you follow the audio instructions, which are clear and very easy to understand thankfully, there are few issues that arise.
You can take a photo there and then to develop it, and yes there's an Instagram option here as well. For me, the easiest options were Google Photos and Dropbox's Carousel as anything I have ever took with an Android phone is in my Dropbox account, so this makes a lot of sense. When choosing a photo, you have the option to reframe things a little using the crop tool, although there's not too much you can do here.
Choosing which film you need to use is pretty important, and something I learned was that keeping the box for the film is a good idea.
The next few steps are kinda fiddly, you need to get your device lined up on the top pad, which can be a combination of frustration and trial and error. Still, the somewhat eccentric voice guide helps in this matter, and once you get the sweet spot for your device, it's fairly easy to do again.
If you've ever used a Polaroid camera, or even played around with a Polaroid filter on your phone, you know what to expect here. Of course, depending on which film you use - of which there are many to choose from - you will end up different results, and the black and white film is a nice choice for a classic look. The real fun is in watching them develop, with no microchips, LEDs or anything of the sort an image appears once the dark blue developer has cleared. The not so fun part is waiting around 45 - 55 mins for each photo to develop, hardly instant at all, sadly.
These are fun looking Polaroid pictures, they're not the sharpest and there is some color banding on them, but it is refreshing to be able to play with an analog technology like this that many will have just passed by. You will always get better results from printing on to professional photo paper, but there's a definite charm to something like this, and if I'm sharing a photo with someone, I'd much rather do it with a Polaroid than some generic 6 x 4 print.
The below shots are just a few examples, and bare in mind that my camera and monitor look different to whatever you're looking at, but I have tried my best to make them as accurate a representation as possible.
Who's This For?
Let's not avoid this, the Instant Lab Universal is an expensive curiosity. I've enjoyed its company over the past month or more, and it always brings a smile to my face when I see the Polaroid coming to life after half an hour or so. Still, this is because - despite being just 24 - I care about putting in the effort to take a decent photo. Photography to me is a very personal passion, and in my opinion the constant need to share everything you ever take with your smartphone has soured things for me. So, who would want this sort of thing in 2015?
This is a product for enthusiasts that care about photography, that want to play around with different techniques, and especially one for those that aren't so blinded by nostalgia, yet also want a little analog in their life. I also think this could be great fun for families. Imagine children and teens today that have never seen a Polaroid, to them the idea that chemicals and light can create such an image must surely be a novelty, and while it's far from practical for the everyday, I can see the Instant Lab Universal being something bought out every month or so for photos to stick on the fridge, take to the desk at the office, keep in the car or something like that. It's novel and niche, there's no denying that, but it definitely brings the focus back to the image, where a share button isn't applicable and you can pass a precious image on to someone in person and share things as we used to.