No, you haven’t entered a time warp. It’s definitely 2017. But yes – I’m reviewing an instamatic camera.
The Sofort is a metaphorical slap in the face to decades of digital progress; a completely analogue, almost completely manual compact that spits out your pictures on honest-to-goodness film every time you press the shutter.
It’s also the least expensive Leica you’re ever going to see. Forget splashing out thousands on bodies (and an equal amount on lenses) – you can snap up a Sofort for a relatively wallet-friendly £230.
But aside from providing lyrical inspiration to 90s UK indie popsters Babybird, what’s the point in going instamatic?
The double-headed hydra of nostalgia and instant gratification, of course.
PRETTY AS A PICTURE
The Sofort wasn’t as slim and svelte as I was expecting, based on Leica’s drool-worthy promo pics, but then I shouldn’t have been too surprised. It’s based on Fujifilm’s Instax Mini 90, with only a few tweaks from the German camera company.
It’s still a real looker, though, with a reassuring heft to it once you’ve slapped in some film.
White is probably the subtlest of the three colour choices, but nothing about this is subtle – which is why I went for mint green. There’s also a bright orange, which is equally eye-catching.
Whichever you go for, you’re getting a chunky compact slab of camera, with a collapsing lens and only a few basic buttons to run your mitts over.
As well as the all-important shutter button up top, you get exposure compensation, a self-timer and flash control, as well as a button for toggling through the Sofort’s shooting modes. You get the choice of standard, party, macro, sports, double-exposure and bulb, plus that most crucial of 21st century camera functions – a selfie mode.
Apart from the rechargeable battery, this is really the only concession for modern day photographers. There’s even a little selfie mirror just above the lens, helping you line up your arms-length shots without wasting film.
Leica reckons the rechargeable battery will last for 100 shots, so you’ll probably have long emptied your wallet on replacement film before the camera runs out of charge.
The lens extends when you power the Sofort on, and has a focusing ring for switching between close-up and far shooting. A simple LCD screen shows which mode you’re in, as well as how many shots are left in the camera, but that’s pretty much it as far as electronic assistance goes.
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A NEW DEVELOPMENT
Point the lens-y end at your subject, look through the teensy tiny optical viewfinder, and hit the shutter button. That’s really all there is to it.
The Sofort snaps a picture and then ejects your photo, accompanied by a satisfying soundtrack of mechanical whirring. Didn’t your school teach you that “Sofort” means “Instant” in German?
It’ll take a couple of minutes for your pics to develop, though. Right out of the camera, they’re completely white, but give it some time and they’ll transform in front of your eyes.
Focusing can be a bit hit-and-miss, even when you’ve got the lens set to the right distance for your subject. Sometimes close-ups look great, and other times you’re lacking any real detail. But then that’s half the charm of instant film, right?
You’re normally fine for landscapes and subjects more than 10 feet away, but you’ll need to make sure there’s enough light – the Sofort needs a lot of it to expose your shots well. The flash is an all-or-nothing deal, too. It’s too weak for filling out night scenes, but too fierce for up-close portraits and selfies.
Swapping out packs of film takes seconds – just flip the door release switch, tip out the old pack, and slot the new one in. The camera ejects a dummy print and you’re good to go. Just remember it’s at least a tenner every time you drop in a new set of ten prints.
Shutter bugs will find things get costly quick with a Sofort in their camera bag: a 10-shot pack of Leica’s colour film costs £25, and monochrome will set you back £15. Fuji’s Instax film costs less, so you can get 40 shots for around £30, or 75p a print.
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Each print is no bigger than a credit card, whether you opt for Leica’s own film (in colour and monochrome flavours) or Fuji’s Instax-mini film. I tested with a few packs of Leica’s colour stock.
Either way, you’ve got to manage your expectations when it comes to quality.
Most of my shots had enough clarity, with rich, vibrant colours that you just can’t get from a digital camera. Well, without slapping a load of photo filters on afterwards in editing, anyway.
That’s only if you’ve fed it enough light, though. A lot of times I thought a subject was well-lit, but the resulting print was mostly dark. The bulb mode is handy if you’ve got a tripod, as you can pull of some pretty decent long exposures, but there’s no cold shoe for adding a more powerful flash.
I loved the double exposure mode, which creates ethereal dreamscapes from simple shots. You’ve got to have a good eye to get great results, too – there’s no digital magic overlaying your shots before you press the shutter button here.
Sometimes, though, you just won’t have got the shot you were hoping for. The perils of instant film: either you got the exposure wrong, or the flash didn’t quite do what you were expecting. The results can either look washed out, or too dark to make out any details.
It’s here you’ve just got to suck it up and try again, learning from your mistakes. Which might sound bizarre to anyone that’s only ever shot on digital, but I love that all-or-nothing attitude that died out when film cameras took a back seat to modern technology.
If clarity is all you’re after, there are instant alternatives out there that just edge out the Sofort. Polaroid’s Snap Touch might use a digital sensor and zero-ink printing instead of classic film, but there’s no question it crams in more detail into every shot.
MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD › Olympus PEN-F review
Leica Sofort Verdict
The Sofort is simple, takes alright instant photos, and owning one won’t force you to take out a second mortgage.
Let’s be honest, this is the closest I’m ever going to get to actually owning a camera with that fabled Red Dot on it. Tech journalists aren’t really part of Leica’s regular customer base.
Is that enough to see past the Sofort’s limits, though? For me, yeah, it probably is – I’m just that much of a logo snob.
For everyone else, though, this is a camera you’ll have fun using, but the Fujifilm Instax it is based on will be the better, cheaper buy.
|FILM COMPATIBILITY||Instax-mini (Leica, Fujifilm)|
|BATTERY LIFE||100 shots|
It’s got gorgeous looks and oozes retro appeal, but you’re paying for the name. The Sofort isn’t that much better than the Fuji it’s based on, so only worth the extra if you want to add a Leica to your camera collection
It’s a Leica. For £230. Really
Blisteringly hip looks
Instant pics have an undeniable appeal
Image quality is just as retro (ie basic) as the instamatic concept
Film is expensive… and so’s the camera