Polaroid effects

Polaroids, the original instant, shareable photography; high-tech yet lo-fi; perfect for spontaneous snapshots yet a valuable tool for professional photographers and also loved by visual artists for its creative possibilities; disposable and collectible, a fun and serious platform.

Edwin Land’s first self-developing camera appeared back in 1947 and one of the first artists to see the potential for this type of photography was the legendary photographer Ansel Adams, who soon became a consultant for the company, helping to refine the product. In the decades that followed, Polaroid cameras were used by many established artists, among them Andy Warhol, Wim Wenders, William Eggleston, Linda McCartney, Robert Mapplethorpe, Dennis Hopper and David Hockney.

Instagram, when it appeared in 2010, helped to establish the smartphone as the Polaroid camera of the digital age. With its stream of exclusively square photos, it was instant, sharable, high-tech, lo-fi, comprising shots of pet cats and cups of coffee as well as striking images with artistic merit, a platform both fun and serious.

Instagram has changed greatly in the decade since it first appeared in Apple’s App Store: there are more pet cats and artistic images than ever before, yet the original simplicity – and the fun, I think – has been lost. But there are apps, though not too many these days, that reinterpret polaroid photography for a digital medium and provide that simplicity and fun.

One of these is the InstaLab app. An alternate Android version of the app is still known by its original name, Polaroid FX, the Polaroid name licensed from the people who bought it from the company after its bankruptcy early this century. But subsequent owners have ressurected the company – both the Polaroid name and its dedication to instant analog photography – and it seems that to maintain the brand’s integrity, licencing rights are no longer being sold or renewed.

Regardless of the name, InstaLab offers a pared-down photography experience. The photos it produces have a Polaroid aesthetic and – at least in the free tier of the app – options are limited: you open the app, frame and shoot. You can then choose to change the frame, add an effect, color filter or some text, make some basic exposure or saturation adjustments, and save a low-resolution image, ready for sharing. Once saved no further editing is possible. I’d be happier with even fewer editing options but the experience very much reminds me of the early days of Instagram. The app’s appeal to me is that its limitations and low fidelity aesthetic take the preciousness out of creating photographs but also offer challenges and opportunities to create more than snapshots. This type of photography may even get me back to using Instagram.