If instant cameras are the height of hipster cool, then Lomography’s Lomo’Instant Automat has to be the beardiest, fixie-bike-ridingist instant camera around.
It doesn’t just have the retro-inspired looks guaranteed to turn heads the minute you step foot in Shoreditch; it’s got a whole camera bag of extra lenses and accessories to go with it.
The extra gear isn’t just for show, either - it adds wide angle, fisheye and macro options to your shot list, which are guaranteed to make your pocket-sized prints stand out.
After spending a few weeks with the colourful ‘South Beach’ edition, I’m smitten. This is probably the best instant camera around right now - and here’s why.
The Automat grabs your attention right out of the box. It’s big, it’s boxy, and it’s beautiful. Or at least I think it is.
The faux leather adds a nice touch, but let’s not kid ourselves - you’re getting a lot of kit for £179, so it all still feels very plasticky. There’s also no obvious grip, but that’s by design: you can hold it vertically or horizontally and not feel like you’re holding it the “wrong” way.
Up front, the shiny shutter button acts as a selfie mirror. I’d prefer a separate mirror, one you aren’t going to block with your digits as soon as you go to take a photo, but it’s better than none at all. The button itself clicks in reassuringly, so you can be sure you’ve pressed it properly.
The lens barrel twists to turn on the camera and adjust focus between close, mid and infinity, but otherwise that’s about it. You get a few more buttons around the back, letting you lighten or darken the exposure by one stop, turn the flash on, and snap multiple exposures per shot. Each one lights up, so you know when you’ve activated it.
It’s also here you’ll find the battery compartment, but it’s a shame the Automat takes CR2 batteries. You’re unlikely to find these lying round in a drawer amongst the AAs and AAAs, which are far more common.
The entire back cover flips out to insert the film. Like most instant cameras, the Automat takes Fuji Instax film, which means you’re going to get credit-card sized snaps. Two packs of 10 shots will set you back around £15, which works out at about 75p per shot - slightly cheaper than the colour film Leica sells for the Sofort.
Film pops out of a slot on the left side, next to a series of lights that show how many shots you’ve got left - it’s subtle, but effective.
Devil in the detail
Once you’re ready to start shooting, you’ll spot that the viewfinder is set off to one side. That makes it a little tricky to frame your shots, and the first few I took ended up being a little off-centre. Get used to it and you’ll be fine, though.
Outside, the Automat can produce bright, rich colours - but it regularly struggles with high contrast scenes. I found a lot of shots underexposed the sky, or overexposed surrounding buildings. Some were completely underexposed altogether, and unusable - there’s quite a lot of trial and error, which can quickly get costly.
Inside, you’ll almost definitely need to use the flash. It helps create a much more evenly exposed image, whether you’re using any of the flash gels or not. Focusing can be tricky, though, even with the macro lens attachment - you can’t get as close as you’d think, which can lead to blurry pics.
Each snap takes a few minutes to develop properly once spat out of the camera, just like Polaroid cameras of old - it’s delightfully retro.
The MX settings are well worth experimenting with, too. Press it once and an orange light turns on; now a new exposure gets added to the same photo every time you press the shutter. Press the MX button a second time and it’ll print the result. You can get some fantastic images, either with the Splitzer or without.
It’s limited, then, but only as much as any other instant camera. The resulting pictures are delightfully warm and have a vintage vibe you just can’t match with filters on a screen.
All the small things
The Automat takes great instant shots right out of the box, but it’s the flexibility and added value the lenses and accessories give that makes me really love it.
The South Beach edition includes 5 lens add-ons: fish-eye, wide-angle and close-up lenses, a splitzer for exposing only part of an image at a time, and a lens cap that doubles as a remote release.
Each lens just screws onto the front of the camera - which means no detaching the standard lens like a regular DSLR.
You can’t see the effects through the viewfinder, though. They’ll only present themselves once you’ve taken a snap, which can be a bit unnerving at first, but you’ll soon get used to each lens.
The wide-angle works the best, expanding your field of view without dramatically warping everything you point the lens at. As I said above, the close-up lens can be tricky to get to grips with, but can also produce great photos.
I was a little disappointed with the fisheye lens, simply because the results look so small on Fuji Instax film. On a bigger print the effects might look better, but as it is they’re a bit too vague.
You can add a bit more personality into your photos with the pack of coloured flash gels, no matter which lens you’re using. Each one slots on top of the flash, which can be a bit fiddly, but the effects are worth it. OK, so it’s hardly Photoshop, but they can make all the difference to certain shots.
Finally, you also get a handy pack of photo stands and clips for presenting the images you’ve taken. A nice little extra, and a great alternative to keeping photos in your wallet.
Lomo'Instant Automat Verdict
Instant cameras make for a refreshing change of pace from snapping with your smartphone. After all, why bother with apps and filters when you can just point, shoot and get a print straight away?
The Automat takes a great photo out of the box, but it’s the flexibility that makes us really love it. The fisheye lens might not be the best added extra, but the other attachments work well and the flash gels are a nice bonus.
At £179, it’s significantly cheaper than the Leica Sofort, too - which shoots the same Fuji Instax film but doesn’t come with any of the accessories.
If you’re looking to add an instant camera to your collection, but don’t want all your snaps to end up looking the same, you should definitely pick up one of these.