Most knew them as Polaroids. In an era of smartphone selfies and Instagram posts where few photos ever make it to a printer, instant photography is making a comeback.
In the past couple of years, a new generation of artists, nostalgic photo enthusiasts and even brides looking for unique wedding ideas, have discovered the joy of the whirring camera that spits out blank framed prints that develop into images moments later. And a number of companies are cashing in on the growing niche market.
Polaroid Corp. announced it would cease production of its flagship film in 2008 to focus on digital, a year after it stopped making its iconic instant cameras. Now Fujifilm Holdings Corp. and a number of upstart competitors have picked up where the 77-year-old company left off and are seeing renewed interest in the artsy product.
Ian Landy, chief executive officer of Henry's camera stores, describes the Fuji Instax line of instant cameras and film as a "sweet little gem." He's sold the products for years, but said in the past two they've started flying off the shelves.
Last Christmas, after the film made it onto Vanity Fair's "must buy list," Henry's couldn't keep Instax products in stock. That holiday momentum has kept a steady pace, with film and camera sales rising 302 per cent from January to July, compared with last year. The store sells two packs of 10 films for $20.
Outside of consumers, Mr. Landy says some of his biggest instant film customers are penitentiaries and accounting firms using the film for ID badges, and restaurants giving out keepsakes.
"It's more than just taking a picture and having that print in your hand. We're seeing a lot of opportunities for customers to use [instant photos] in home decor, in keepsaking, just generally being creative," said Matthew Schmidt, manager of corporate communications at Fujifilm. "There's a lot more to do with your photo now that the output is something tangible."
Sales volume of instant cameras could exceed the company's annual target of three million for the fiscal year, as it continues to expand the Instax line from Asia to Europe and North America, Fuji said when it released its most recent earnings. The company has been selling instant cameras in its native Japan since 1981.
Now other players are jumping on the trend.
When a Polaroid factory closed in the Netherlands in 2008, a company called the Impossible Project restored the plant and developed a film formula from scratch to give new life to the 200 million Polaroid cameras it says are left around the word.
Creed O'Hanlon, chief executive officer of Impossible BV, describes the instant market as a middle ground between analog and digital – the "punk rockers" of film.
Demand for Impossible film is growing, with revenues rising 30 to 40 per cent every year over the past three years.
"Even though we print tens of thousands of these films, we are almost unable to keep them in stock [in our online store] all the time because literally it goes within minutes," Mr. O'Hanlon said.
"We're the people you come to when you want something very distinctive and unusual," he says. "As people become saturated with images in digital media, they want something tangible, they want something iconic."
Mr. O'Hanlon says Impossible counts a laundry list of stars, including Lana Del Rey and Patti Smith, among its fans. And classic Polaroid cameras loaded with the company's film scored a front-row seat to the Cannes Film Festival in May, ready for stars to take instant selfies as souvenirs.
Camera maker Lomography, another analog player, just raised more than $1-million (U.S.) in a crowdfunding campaign for its own instant camera. It shoots Fuji Instax film with a creative twist – giving users filters and lenses to choose from for a more manual experience.
Toronto photographers Julius Ding and Stephen Kerr have jumped on the trend, offering instant film packages to brides.
"People are in love with that kind of film look," said Mr. Ding. "Even … when we do digital photography, we apply film looks after."
Mr. Kerr isn't surprised people are trying to revive older film techniques.
"I think too there's a certain reaction against digital technology and culture and there's a whole DIY thing going on especially in North America and Europe," he said.