Camera Review: Impossible Project I-1

September 13, 2016

By Greg Scoblete

Perhaps second only to Kodak, the Polaroid brand is synonymous with the creative destruction of digital technology. But there’s a bitter irony in the original Polaroid’s demise. Just as the company was closing its factories, instant photography was on the brink of an unprecedented comeback due, according to the Japan Times, to young Asian girls who began buying up Fuji Instax cameras after they saw them in a South Korean daytime TV show. The original Polaroid missed the chance to capitalize on instant film’s remarkable rebirth, but the Impossible Project didn’t. Having purchased the last dismantled Polaroid film factory in 2009, the company kept Polaroid-compatible instant film on the market and kept millions of old cameras out of the landfill. Now, the Impossible Project has taken the next logical step and built an instant film camera of its own—the I-1.

The I-1 accepts the Impossible Project 600 color and black-and-white film. It has six lenses to perform autofocusing at varying distances—macro (0.3-0.5 meters); close up (0.5-1 m); near field (1-2.2m); mid-field (2.2-4.5m) and far field (4.5m to infinity). While you can’t manually focus the lens, you can use an app to set a specific focus distance if you don’t want to leave it on AF.

The camera uses an LED ring flash with 12 LEDs in total—eight dedicated to a focused beam for longer reach and four that are more diffuse. The LEDs double as a film counter—when you turn on the I-1, they’ll illuminate briefly to indicate how many exposures you have left.

Unique among instant cameras is the I-1’s built-in Bluetooth, which lets you pair the camera with iOS devices to unlock a number of creative shooting modes (no Android app as of yet). Among the app-supported features are a self timer, a noise trigger that uses your phone’s mic to trigger the shutter (with adjustable sensitivity) and double exposures. The app supports two light painting modes—one that uses your iPhone’s LED flash and the other that uses the main display as a colored light source, with a slider to change colors. There’s also a manual control option where you can set the aperture, flash intensity, shutter speed and focusing distance. The app also alerts you to remaining battery life and film exposures.

We feel an incredible sense of shame even writing this sentence but it needs to be said since it’s 2016 and someone may ask: There’s no easy way to compose a selfie with the I-1.

The I-1 is light, but feels sturdy and well constructed. There are few external controls on the camera. A mode dial on the side of the lens turns the camera on or sets it to Bluetooth mode. Nestled inside the mode dial is a shutter button that supports exposure and focus locking with a half press. There are a pair of levers on either side of the LED ring flash—one controls exposure in three steps and the other turns the flash on or off.

We liked the design overall, but it would be nice if there were a way to re-confirm battery life and remaining exposures on the camera without checking the app or turning it off and on again to check the ring flash.

There’s an optical viewfinder on the top of the camera that’s held in place by a three-prong magnetic pin.

It’s refreshing to put aside the pixel peeping and enjoy the ambiguity of analog. On balance, the performance of the I-1 hinges greatly on ambient lighting. Indoors, even with the flash, images tended to be soft—sometimes pleasingly, other times not (we were tempted to call those unlucky exposures “art” but thought better of it). Outdoors, you’ll have much better luck getting sharper images, but they’re frequently not razor sharp. There’s not a ton of pop to the color but it’s accurate and does render skin tones nicely.

We did have trouble getting the exposure right indoors, though. With eight shots per film pack, there’s little margin for error and the cost of these packs ($20 a pop) doesn’t inspire one to experiment with manual settings for any great length of time.

The I-1 struggles in low light, but double exposures and other creative effects make it fun to play with.

The I-1 struggles in low light, but double exposures and other creative effects make it fun to play with.

There isn’t much “instant” about the 600 color film. It takes a good six or seven minutes before even a ghostly outline of an image appears and roughly 30 minutes for the full exposure. During the initial six-minute period, the color film can’t be exposed to sunlight. The film is ejected with a retractable plastic covering (called a frog tongue) to protect it, but you’ll need to take care to keep the exposed side shielded when you’re outdoors.

On the black-and-white side, however, it’s much quicker. The film is not as sensitive to sunlight and a ghostly outline of image is visible in about a minute and fully developed in about seven minutes.

Connecting the I-1 to our iPhone was instantaneous and the connection was very reliable. The app is intuitive to use and works as advertised. The light painting and double exposure modes were fun to play with. For us, this is the real value of the I-1. You can make instant prints on a variety of less expensive cameras, but none support the range of features enabled by the app.

We took the I-1 to a photography meet-up hosted by Ashland Studios and solicited some impressions from the professionals gathered there. Everyone was excited to see an updated instant film camera that used a treasured instant format, but many had trouble accurately composing through the viewfinder on the first go (the tendency was to aim the camera too low). Using the optical viewfinder is a bit like aiming a rifle and takes practice—practice that costs $2.50 a photo.

The I-1 hasn’t been subjected to CIPA battery testing, but we found the battery to be rather short-lived.

There is something about instant photography that speaks to people in the digital age. We saw it in the curious enthusiasm expressed at the photographer’s meet up, and we saw it again when we showed the camera and its output to a group of 10-year-olds, many of whom had never seen or heard of instant film before. They were enthralled.

But is the I-1 the right vessel for this enthusiasm? That really depends on your photographic bankroll. It’s more expensive than Fuji’s Instax lineup and the Impossible Project film, at $20 for eight exposures, is also pricier than the competition. At this price, film’s virtue of slowing you down to focus on really capturing an important moment often devolved into a kind of paralysis, for us at least. With only eight exposures, was this the capture we really wanted? Seven, six, five… we could feel the blood pressure rise with every press of the shutter.

The Bluetooth/app functionality gives the I-1 a leg up when it comes to creative experimentation—the app is a much easier way to interface with the camera. But the cost of ownership sometimes makes this playful experimentation a stressful experience.

PROS: Excellent design; Bluetooth connectivity; app packed with creative shooting modes.

CONS: Built-in battery slow to recharge and short-lived; film packs pricey; app only available on iOS devices; can be difficult to compose.

PRICE: $299

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