How to Make the Most of Instant Film

Some of our favorite photographers share their tips on how you can start taking great pictures, instantly.

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Instant film is not the easiest medium to master. It can be finicky and subject to an unpredictable set of factors, most out of the control of the shooter. But it's "happy accidents" that make it such a special medium. Light leaks, chemical stains, funky colors, fading, and everything in between can produce a one-of-a-kind treasure.

Photograph courtesy of Marcelo Gomes
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But you don't want your instant film masterpieces to be completely random, you skilled artist, you. That's why we enlisted the help of six of our favorite photographers working with instant film to give us their best advice on using your cool new camera and film. Read on then go forth!

Rule #1: Go Shoot Right Now!

Photograph courtesy of Jena Ardell
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Jena Ardell

Los Angeles, CA

Has shot for: Elle Korea, Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post

jenaardell.com

My advice for shooting with instant film is to go shoot right now (after you finish reading this article, of course). The clock is ticking! If you see a cool location or have a cool idea, act on it as soon as possible, because that awesome mural you want to use as a backdrop will be gone or different, that model you really want to shoot will have cut or dyed her hair, and nothing will ever be as perfectly imperfect as it is right now. 

Photograph courtesy of Jena Ardell

Another tip is to always carry an extra pack of film and know how many shots are in your camera at all times. One missed moment still haunts me: a man driving up a gorgeous street in La Jolla, California, waving to me from a convertible. I hit the shutter button, but was out of film. I didn't know it until that glorious Polaroid sound ended and nothing came out of my camera.

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Rule #2: More Time Is Less Money

Photograph courtesy of Brad Ogbonna

Brad Ogbonna

Brooklyn, NY

Has shot for: Adidas, The Fader, W, Sweet(!)

bradogbonna.com

Take your time while shooting! Instant film can be expensive, so each photo should definitely be worth it. If you're shooting with a manual polaroid film camera, get a light meter. You'll save so many shots with it. 

Photograph courtesy of Brad Ogbonna
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Utilize natural light as much as possible, and try to learn how to properly expose the film so you get more usable shots.

Rule #3: Be Aware of Light

Photograph courtesy of Giovanna Santinolli
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Giovanna Santinolli

Genoa, Italy

Has shot for: Domus, AL

giovannasantinolli.com

One of the charms of instant photography is the feeling while you wait for the image to come out and things gradually appear… [but] current instant films are extremely sensitive to light, especially at the beginning of the development process. In fact, as soon as the photos come out, you must immediately protect them from light by putting them in a pocket or a bag in order to achieve the best results.

Rule #4: Experiment with Drawing on Your Work

Photograph courtesy of Marcelo Gomes

Marcelo Gomes

New York, NY

Has shot for: Levi's, Opening Ceremony, Harper's Bazaar

marcelogom.es

The way I use the instant film is mostly for layout stuff (that sometimes ends up being used in a story, or published). For a while there, I was really into drawing on the polaroids because of the super glossy surface—the pens glide very smoothly and the color really stands out. I still quite like them!

Rule #5: Share the Wealth

Photograph courtesy of Carson Sanders
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Carson Sanders

Savannah, GA

Has Shot for: Aint-Bad (which he also co-founded in 2011)

carsonsanders.com

I enjoy shooting with instant film because it allows me to be more personal with my subject matter. Imagine seeing a stranger and wanting to take a portrait of them. How do you approach them? And how do you convince a stranger to pose for a photograph? With instant film, you have the ability to show someone the results almost immediately after the picture has been taken. 

Photograph courtesy of Carson Sanders

When I'm walking around town, I will often stop someone and ask to take their picture, always noting that I will give them a copy to keep, and then I will take a second one for myself. The results are always better this way. The subject lets their guard down, and you are able to put a smile on their face by giving them a one-of-a-kind polaroid or piece of instant film. As you start to develop relationships with various subjects, they will trust you more if you are showing them the results of the photograph.

Rule #6: Embrace the Mistakes

Photograph courtesy of Mikael Kennedy

Mikael Kennedy

Brooklyn, NY

Has shot for: New Balance, Dazed & Confused, Aritzia

mikaelkennedy.com

My first thought is a quote from Jackson Pollock: 'I deny the accidents.' For the decade-plus that I've been shooting Polaroid film, I use that line as a starting point when talking about my work.

I began shooting expired Polaroid film in 1999. I was broke, wandering around the U.S., and couldn't afford fresh polaroid film—I would shoplift it when I could, tsk tsk. But then I found out that on eBay, you could buy film in bulk that had expired. The results were often—and, eventually, hopefully—unpredictable, leading to beautiful results.

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