It is perhaps the faintest of faint praise to suggest that a camera is worthy of purchase consideration because it is the one least likely to prompt grown-up tears when it falls from the railing of the boat on the way to the Statue of Liberty. But that is the Kodak Printomatic. It is the world’s most disposable non-disposable camera, and for a few good reasons, that’s no bad thing.
Truth is, some cameras travel better than others, though often for very different reasons. The Leica M10 rangefinder is a superb traveler: compact and user-friendly and possessed of peerless optics and build quality. It’s $6,595. The new Kodak Printomatic is a superb traveler, too: compact and user-friendly, but possessed of optics and build quality that are anything but peerless. It’s $70.
The Printomatic’s claim to fame is that it’s a hybrid—one-half mediocre digital camera, one-half mediocre instant-print camera. This isn’t exactly uncharted territory—Polaroid’s Snap Touch digital/instant camera (which is made by the same company that makes the Kodak) is almost identical, although it adds a load of features, including a touchscreen viewfinder and Bluetooth connectivity. It’s also $110 more than the Printomatic.
The Kodak’s digi-self features a 10-megapixel sensor that drops pictures onto a removable MicroSD card. There’s no LCD screen, so just as you recall from your old 110 Instamatic, you squint, frame your subject through the little viewport, push the button, and hope for the best. The camera’s insta-self spits out 2-by-3-inch glossy photos that, says Kodak, are rip- and water-resistant. The little prints have peel-off adhesive backings, so you can, you know, stick them to things. The paper isn’t altogether cheap ($10 for a pack of 20 sheets or $22 for a pack of 50), but it’s not so pricey that you will be inclined to leave the Printomatic in the drawer. At least not for that reason.
For all its faults, there is something endearing, even irresistible, about the Printomatic, not unlike the milk-carton pinhole camera you made in fourth grade.
While on the topic of operational costs, we must mention a design flaw that’s achingly close to a deal-breaker: the shutter release button. It’s as big as an Altoid and as mushy as a Gummi Bear—truly toy-camera bad. And it’s so sensitive. Of the first 10 photos we snapped, fully five of them were “oops” moments, misfires because we brushed against, or breathed on, the shutter button, or because the camera was so slow to acknowledge the press that we pressed it again. The results, automatically and unstoppably printed, were artsy shots of clouds, our shoes, and the inside of our jacket pocket.
A small switch selects color or black-and-white mode. The printing mechanism, which starts to buzz and whirr long before a print begins to emerge, is slow. So slow. And the results—our results, at least—were never quite worth the wait. The color prints we harvested were consistently blue-cast and weirdly cropped; the digital versions were better, but barely in the realm of even the lowliest smartphone.
And yet, for all its faults, there is something endearing, even irresistible, about the Printomatic, not unlike the milk-carton pinhole camera you made in fourth grade. It’s tough and simple and it won’t be babied. Available in mild-mannered white and gray or sassy white and yellow, the Printomatic would be a fun traveling companion for a kid of a certain age (young enough to be unfazed by the “meh” picture quality but old enough to grasp just how easy it is to burn through a $22 pack of instant film) or for a grown-up who is inclined to make lemonade out of a lemon.
For, truly, making good pictures with a smartphone or a decent point-and-shoot is easy, but as the legion of hipsters who embraced low-tech Lomography have learned, being creative with a bad camera is challenging—and uniquely rewarding. Bad cameras force you to observe a little better, to be more mindful of things like framing and light. They relieve you of the burden of producing great images in the traditional sense. These devices are about producing images that are merely—and sometimes marvelously—representative of the scene they set out to capture, “oops” moments and all.
And squinted at through that viewfinder, Kodak’s $70 Printomatic looks like a steal.