These days, you snap a picture with your phone or digital camera, and you can instantly check your shot on the device's screen. But "instant" didn't always mean the same thing for photography. Polaroid "instant" photography brought magical moments to those photo buffs among us who are getting a bit longer in tooth. The moment someone tore the backing off the shiny (and smelly) photographic paper, an image started to miraculously appear. Now, thanks to the new Instant app (£1.49) for iPhone, those of us who remember and people who never witnessed this miracle can experience it – well almost, inasmuch as any digital experience can approximate a real one.
In this day of free apps, Instant's £1.49 price tag seems positively exorbitant, but I haven't found other apps that can quite replicate it. And thankfully, at start-up, the app doesn't require you to create or sign into an account, as more and more apps seem to do lately.
You can get going right away with Instant, and unlike identically priced fellow retro photo app Hipstamatic, you don't have to make in-app purchases to get all the effects the app is capable of. The app runs on iPhone models back to the 3GS, and on iPad tablets.
When you take a picture from within the Instant app, you don't see the standard camera interface that so many apps – including the built-in iPhone Camera – display. Instead, true to its retro form, you get a small square viewfinder in the middle of a classic camera back. The only shooting option is setting the flash to on, off, or automatic, just as you can with the built-in Camera app. Forget extras like exposure and focus points which you get with Camera+. Instagram actually lets you see the filter effects before you snap the picture.
After you shoot with Instant's built-in camera, there's a longer delay than with most other camera apps, as you might expect when trying to replicate the Polaroid experience. Next, a square image inside a white rectangle slides down your iPhone's screen, just like it's rolling out of an SX-70. And here's the fun part: To get the image to "develop" you blow on it or shake it, re-creating that magical moment from instant photography's past. A setting lets you control how fast the image appears.
After you've either shot your photo from the app's camera view or chosen one from your camera roll, you can pick from over 30 camera and exposures types. Choices include some equipment-related ones like "T600 vivid," "X-Pro," and some that are mood-based, like "Sunday Morning" and "Sea Breeze." I have to say, they all look quite convincing, and there's a definite variety between them, as opposed to a lot of very similar choices.
Instant gives you slider controls for the effects – for intensity, vignette, emulsion, and grain – so you're not stuck with the app's built-in presets. This level of flexibility surpasses Instagram. Something you don't get with Instant, however, is a set of basic photo tools such as cropping, brightness, and white balance. If you choose a photo from your camera roll, you do get to place the square crop the app requires.
A couple of other photo enhancing tools are at your disposal: You can add a text caption below the image in a handwritten font and choice of 10 colours, and you can change the border colour to one of 30 choices. The border can also be smudged, wrinkled, and even fingerprinted.
Instant shares to all the likely social online places – Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, and even seeming competitor Instagram. It even throws in Sina Weibo for the Chinese audience. You can of course share via email or save your creations to the camera roll. When I sent a test image to Facebook, however, I wasn't able to post text or tag faces with the Facebook uploader, I could only do so after it had already been added to the social stream.
One thing missing from Instant's basket of capabilities is a web view of your photos. When you share via email, your recipient simply gets an attached JPG file with the uninformative subject line "Processed with Instant App."
I enjoyed trying out Instant, and the app is undeniably clever and well-designed. I feel, however, that its price – high by iPhone app standards at £1.49 – is a bit stiff given the limitations of the app. I understand that its purpose is singular in replicating the Polaroid experience, but alternatives like Snapseed and Adobe Photoshop Touch give users many more ways to manipulate and enhance mobile snapshots.