Investigating Fuji INSTAX Mini Monochrome, Color and the Fuji SP-2 Printer
I’m going to call this an informal assessment, because it’s neither properly a product review, nor a test report. However, it does go into more detail than anything I’ve found elsewhere on the internet.
I have used integral films for almost 40 years. I have used various products by Polaroid, even their tiny i-Zone film, various generations of Impossible Project films, and of course Fujifilm’s Instax Wide and Instax Mini. I was super excited to have a go with Fujifilm’s new Instax Mini Monochrome. I rushed out and burned through a pack in minutes. By the end of the session, while the novelty still hadn’t worn off, I was inwardly a little disappointed at the result.
The results weren’t in colour but I hesitate to call them ‘monochrome’. Blacks didn’t seem black enough and shadows had an indistinct green cast. Maybe it didn’t help that the exposure was off and I didn’t see enough detail where I wanted it, but I couldn’t be sure if it was the film or the camera at fault.
I spent hours staring and squinting at the images under different lights to try and pin down what specifically was off about the images. One thing that bothered me was they didn’t always come out as I had previsualised. Given that I work mostly in black and white, I have a fairly good idea how a typical silver-based panchromatic monochrome film desaturates and this wasn’t quite the same.
Next, I tried shooting test targets, both printed and on the screen, but my Mini 7S and 50S lack the exposure and flash control to allow that and I would never be sure if the discrepancies were camera or film-related. Instead, I bought a Fujifilm Instax SP-2 printer. You might argue the printer might be off calibration, or that the image resolution is limited by the printer, but seeing as I got better results than from a camera, I’d say these criticisms are moot in real-world situations.
Let’s see how I got on.
Instax Mini Monochrome street test
Instax Monochrome’s dynamic range is limited, but not quite as badly as Instax Color.
Shadows rapidly lose detail while highlights are lost. That said, I got reasonable mid-tones and saw more detail that my Instax Color images throughout the range; initially leading me to suspect that the grain was finer.
Overall, my cameras sucked, but the film was passable.
Let’s face it, a 62x46mm print isn’t going to make anybody “ooh” and “ah” over the detail. That said, scans of the images made better use of the limited resolution.
Fujifilm claim 12 line pairs per mm of film resolution for Instax Mini and my 600dpi scans proved capable of wringing as much detail out as possible (300dpi would have been sufficient, maybe even less).
The original film is what matters if you are showing those in person, but the scan is what counts if you are presenting online; and I can see more detail in enlarged scans than in the originals.
If you are presenting online (or enlarged), and intend a monochrome output then yes, I would recommend using Instax Mini Monochrome due to what I saw as better dynamic range and detail rendition. However, be aware there are some colours that don’t translate correctly into monochrome, so in certain circumstances, you may be better off using Instax Color and desaturating in post-production.
If all you want is a credit card sized original in black and white, then you have no choice anyway.
Instax Mini Monochrome print test
Using the Instax Share SP-2 printer gets around problems such as poor camera metering, bad focus, poor optics and lighting colour temperature. However it may introduce new problems: primarily resolution limitations.
I chose a number of images that I knew would be challenging to print and would cover the full spectrum of what you might shoot. I printed each image in the SP-2 printer and resolution test images (below), were done at exactly the printer resolution to avoid detail loss through resampling.
When printing, dynamic range is not significantly different between Instax Mini Monochrome and Color. Perhaps the range is a little better than Color, but improved highlight detail is partly because Monochrome is slightly slower than Color and neither the printer nor any of the cameras adjust for this.
The blocks of graduated fine lines on the test images below are pitched at 1 pixel wide at 800 x 600 (the printer’s maximum resolution). Indeed, the printer and film are able to reproduce this, at around 7 line pairs per mm or 300dpi and similar to a lab print.
At this resolution, I see significant lack of contrast, suggesting the film resolution may not stretch to Fujifilm’s claimed 12 lp/mm. I have yet to see any camera that can use Instax film render lines so fine, so the film isn’t the limiting factor.
I also noticed that at 300 dpi, there wasn’t much difference in contrast loss on black lines between the Monochrome and Color emulsions, suggesting that the increased detail I saw in real world photographs was a combination between dynamic range and exposure over various colours and not a matter of actual film resolution.
Instax Mini colour sensitivity
Every emulsion reacts to colours differently. In a colour film, this results in a particular colour signature or palette, which is tuned by the manufacturer for its target market. I shot Reala 100 and other Fujifilm films for years and they are tailored for the Asian market.
The goal isn’t to make true to life colours, or Kodachrome primaries, but to make flattering portraits and landscapes. Skin tones are lightened and yellows shift slightly to ruddier tones. Overall colours are muted, but reds and particularly greens remain vibrant. Blues are considerably darkened improving sky contrast.
All the while, daylight balanced whites remain white and blacks stay pretty well black. It’s not the cock up or sounds like. It’s a masterpiece in subtle flattery, particularly if you are photographing an Asian woman against spring colours and trees laden with Sakura under a light overcast.
Fujifilm Instax Color is much like that, but with less dynamic range, latitude, subtlety and overall charm. Blues in particular come out very dark. I almost thought it was a printer profile issue until I realised the printer was working right, but didn’t account for the film’s rendition; shots taken digitally and printed come out more or less as if they had been shot directly on Instax Mini Color.
The Instax SP-2’s Instax Share app has a desaturation filter that gives results different to silver based black and white film, with blues, magentas and reds darkened and yellows paler. An Instax Mini Monochrome print of a colour image actually comes out more like a silver print (examples provided later in this article).
Interestingly, a black and white image printed on Instax Mini Monochrome comes out close enough in grey tones – albeit a cooler, bluer grey compared to the brown mid and shadow tones of Instax Color’s ‘black and white’.
Here’s where it gets funky… some colours take on colour casts in Monochrome!
Greens, yellows, oranges and reds come out ever so slightly green. Blues and to a lesser extent magenta, have an ever so subtle purple hue. It’s not so strong that you’d say it’s not monochromatic, but it’s enough that EMULSIVE wrote that it goes green in the shadows and when an orange filter was used, the whole image came out green.
Look at the colour scan of the colour picture of the rat printed on Monochrome above. His brown coat goes through regular slightly cool toned Grey’s all the way to black, but the green leaves in the background are definitely still a little green.
This is certainly a flaw in the chromogenic dye couplers of Instax Mini Monochrome. In this example it’s actually an interesting, perhaps curious, effect. The colour provides background separation.
Other than the desaturation filter, the SP-2’s app offers a ‘Sepia’ effect, which is like black and white, except it is black through pale yellow and bizarrely considers reds and magentas to be slightly lighter. Why? I have no idea. Another alternative is the ‘Intelligence’ filter, which increases contrast, darkens mid-tones and sharpens the image to generally punch it up a few notches. Sadly, there are no half measures and this dial goes straight from zero to eleven.
Finally, there is also a custom filter which allows you to play with brightness, contrast and saturation, but not sharpness and the saturation follows Fujifilm’s distorted perception of which colours are dark.
For all its flaws, Instax Colour is the best, fastest and most reliable integral film available today. It’s a shame Fujifilm’s cameras suck compared to Polaroids and even Lomography cameras.
My LC-Wide with a poor quality add on dioptre lens and instant back takes sharper, better exposed Instax photos than any of Fujifilm’s own models and that doesn’t come close to a mobile phone printing via the SP-2, which offers better focus, sharper optics, more accurate focus and increased dynamic range.
You could cheat at instant photography competitions, if it wasn’t for a manufacturing defect on the printer which gives purple light leaks on the long sides of the print, but hey ho, it’s the only printer you can buy.
By the same token, Instax Mini Monochrome is the best (only) black and white film you can buy for an Instax camera*. I’m grateful to Fujifilm and delighted that this is the first new film they’ve introduced after cutting many lines of beloved films in recent years.
Yes, as Edward Conde noted in his tweet, Instax Monochrome is “inconsistent”. However, it’s consistently inconsistent because the inconsistency is a result of imperfect colour mapping at the design stage, rather than the poor manufacturing tolerances that we see in other instant films today. Every single frame of every single pack of Instax Monochrome that I have shot has been the same. That means while the film isn’t ideal, you can deliberately work around the flaws or reliably use them to creative effect.
If you want the best quality Instax black and white images that you can make of, use the printer and not an Instax camera. Make desaturation and exposure adjustments outside of Instax’s app and print on cheap ubiquitous Color film for warm blacks or on expensive, hard to find Monochrome for cool blacks. It really can produce some beautiful prints.
If you want to do it all in camera, at least you now have that option. Just bear in mind (or pretend not to notice) the less than truly panchromatic colour sensitivity, slightly borked green greys, blown highlights and murky shadows, both of which are mercifully not as bad as Instax Color.
* until we see the eventual release of Leica’s own version, which is most likely rebranded Fujifilm film, anyway – EMULSIVE
About the print test images
Test Page – combination of one pixel wide lines to check resolution at different densities, graduated panel to check tone curve, colour grid to test colour sensitivity and rendition, portraits thumbnails to pick up subtleties in detail, tone and skin tones.
Rat – coat and whiskers show micro-contrast detail. Entire scene and background shows a range of natural tones.
Loki Poster – I’ve had trouble printing this tip my satisfaction in the past. Scene shoes a high dynamic range and lots of shadow detail.
High Key – the original has tone and detail everywhere, but is very close to blowing out. All colour shades are light ascend natural to the eye and errors are very apparent.
Low Key – high contrast low key image and I know where all the detail is and how far the light patches go into the shadows.
Skin – a single stock image with a range of skin tones, so I could see how the print treats skin tones.
The test prints were printed directly. Any pre-processing was done in the printer app and stated as a variant.
I’d not dare call these “art” but they are indicative of street scenes. Unlike the test prints, these were made with Instax cameras and then I worked them over in Photoshop to extract highlight and shadow detail, adjust mid-tones curves and sharpen any detail I found, then I desaturated them to remove colour casts. Thus, the images you see look better than the originals. I also took a few colour photos for comparison and so you have a better feeling for the light that day.
Both sets were shot with a 50S Piano Black camera, over which I had little flash control. Street photography doesn’t really suit exposure bracketing with instant film, so the camera was rendered effectively a point and shoot. You may expect to get better images from a more advanced model, but I’m not sure even the 90 Neo Classic is all that much better.
Link to the full sets:
Does this all sound right to you? Have you had different experiences with Fujifilm Instax cameras, printers and the Instax Mini Color and Monochrome films?
Let us know in the comments.
~ Dan K
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