What exactly constitutes “high-end” when it comes to a Polaroid camera? At least for the modern incarnation of the company, there really hasn’t been such a thing until now. That’s not terribly shocking since, for much of its existence, Polaroid has been associated with instant gratification and point-and-shoot simplicity. Of course, in the digital age, waiting 10 to 15 minutes for a Polaroid to develop can seem like an eternity. And the soft, saturated images they create have a decidedly lo-fi feel when put side by side with the razor-sharp photos even the lowliest smartphone can capture.
The new Polaroid I-2, however, retains all of the quirks and charm people turn to instant film for, but packs a number of modern amenities and features that might appeal to a more serious photographer. There’s a lot to like, but there is one immediately obvious obstacle: the price. At $599, the I-2 costs four-times as much as the next most expensive camera in the company’s lineup, the Polaroid Now+.
That premium does buy you the fastest lens in the current Polaroid lineup. It’s 98mm f/8 which, according to the company, is roughly the equivalent of a 38mm f/2.8 on a 35mm camera. I punched the numbers into a few online calculators and got pretty close to that claim, around 40mm at f/3.1 equivalent on 35mm when accounting for the larger film of a Polaroid. That’s not an exceptionally wide aperture, but it's larger than most other Polaroid cameras which often top out at f/11 or even f/16. And you’d have to go quite a ways back (to at least the 1980s as far as I could tell) to find something faster than f/8 from Polaroid.
The lens is made of acrylic and polycarbonate, instead of glass. But the company claims that the difference in quality was negligible without dramatically driving up the cost of the camera. Again, though, this is an area where I’ll have to take the company's word, as I have no viable means of testing the claim.
Polaroid is very proud of this lens, though, regardless of how the specs might appear on paper. It’s pitching the camera as a love letter to the instant cameras of yore, and even pulled two Olympus engineers out of retirement to help design it.
It took roughly four years of development to bring the I-2 to fruition and while holding it, you do get the sense that this was a labor of love. Yes, it's almost entirely plastic, but it feels solid and, in my opinion, looks gorgeous. The matte black body with dark silver and red accents is decidedly classier than the more brightly festooned Now line. Almost every bit of the camera feels fussed over, right down to the underside which features a quote from Polaroid cofounder Edwin Land.
This is also the only camera in the current lineup that can use standard lens filters. This means you can just walk into B&H and grab a 49mm ND filter off the shelf and slap it on. That might be necessary too, since the I-2 has a top shutter speed of only 1/250 of a second. When combined with the 640 ASA of standard i-Type film, it can be tricky to get a proper exposure in bright sunlight.
That shutter speed also means you’re not gonna be freezing any fast-paced action in your frames. That being said, it’s still faster than the Now+ which tops out at 1/200. Oddly the $99 Polaroid Go can actually reach 1/300 of a second, making it the fastest camera in the family, and with a nearly as large f/9 aperture, too. That said, it does use smaller Go film.
What the I-2 has that the Go and all other current generation Polaroid cameras lack is on board manual settings. While the Now+ does offer some options via an app, only the I-2 gives you complete control of the aperture and shutter speed on the camera itself. Both are adjusted via a single ring around the lens, though, so you have to press a button to switch back and forth between them. It’s much easier to opt for aperture or shutter priority mode where you only have to worry about one variable with the ring.
I generally stuck to shutter priority to give me the best chance of avoiding too much camera shake. The placement of the shutter button on the front, while perhaps traditional, isn’t very ergonomic. That might just be down to my tiny hands and the relatively bulky camera. But I did find it introduced slightly more movement than a top-mounted shutter button.
One way of avoiding that would be to use the app, which is excellent, but does kind of defeat the purpose of having all the controls on the camera itself. The app connects immediately when you power the I-2 on. There’s no pairing and almost no delay. If you change a setting in the app it is immediately reflected on the tiny screen on the camera, and vice versa. Having spent the last couple of years fighting with Fuji’s app to even connect, this felt like a revelation.
The app would definitely come in handy, though, if you’re using the I-2 on a tripod. This is going to be particularly useful for landscapes and long exposures. You could even do some night photography and light painting by setting the shutter to bulb mode. There’s also a 2.5mm TS jack for connecting to an external flash if you wanted to go full professional studio with your Polaroid.
The one thing the app can’t do is provide you with a live view of what the camera sees. You will have to physically look through the viewfinder for that. But, I have some good news there: the viewfinder is spectacular. It’s large, bright and there’s a small display underneath that gives you exposure information as well as your shutter speed and aperture. If I have one complaint about the viewfinder it’s that it’s a little tough to figure out where your frame ends on the right side, especially when you’re trying to navigate around the eyepiece with glasses on. But I've run into similar trouble on other cameras too.
You can just point the camera in the general direction of your subject and hope for the best however, since the I-2 has a true continuous autofocus system that uses LiDAR. That’s in stark contrast to the other Polaroid cameras which are either focus free or have basic two zone focus systems. You can even press the shutter button halfway on the I-2 to lock your exposure and focus then reframe your shot before taking a picture.
I would still suggest looking through the viewfinder, though. Not because the autofocus is unreliable, but because Polaroid film is too damn expensive for a shoot and pray approach. Even i-Type, the cheapest film compatible with the I-2, is $17 for an eight-photo pack. That’s $2.25 per picture. That’s way too much for you to be hoping a shot comes out the way you planned.
If you’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop in this review, this is it. I shot six packs of film over my couple of weeks with the I-2 and spent a lot of that time just hoping a shot would come out. Even in full auto mode I got inconsistent results. Setting the exposure compensation to -1 could still deliver blown out photos in bright sunlight. And I suspected this is largely down to the pairing of a maximum shutter speed of 1/250 of a second with 640 ASA film. But when I tried SX-70 film with its lower 160 ASA I routinely got underexposed shots regardless of mode. I also shot a pack of black and white i-Type film that repeatedly jammed and only gave me two usable shots.
Yes, part of the charm of analog photography is the unpredictability. As someone who recently got back into shooting film I can appreciate that fact. But this was a tad too unpredictable, especially considering the high cost of Polaroid film and the I-2 in particular. Now, it’s possible I have a faulty unit. I’ve been in contact with the company and I will update if troubleshooting turns up anything. It’s also possible that a firmware update will solve many of my problems. Or maybe this all just a really embarrassing case of user error.
But at the end of the day it’s hard to imagine that anyone but the most experienced and most fanatical of Polaroid shooters will be comfortable spending $600 on a camera only to hope it can deliver more hits than misses at over $2 a pop.
Update, September 7 2023, 10:35 AM ET: This story originally stated that Polaroid claimed the 98mm lens was the equivalent of 50mm on 35mm film. This has been updated to reflect the correct equivalence of 38mm.