Polaroid I-2 Long Term Review

Polaroid I-2 Long Term Review

2200 1238 James Tocchio

The Polaroid I-2 is the most advanced instant camera that Polaroid has ever made, offering much that other instant cameras don’t – full user control of exposure, fast and accurate auto-focus, and the sharpest lens ever made for a Polaroid camera (designed by former Olympus engineers, no less).

That’s exciting stuff, even if the camera’s price isn’t. At $600, the Polaroid I-2 costs $450 more than the brand’s “standard” camera, the Polaroid Now+.

When the I-2 released in the fall of 2023, Polaroid’s marketing team positioned the new camera as a high-end tool for discerning photographers who care about nothing more than making instant images of the highest possible quality.

Hey, I thought. That sounds like me!

But I have a long and checkered history with modern Polaroid cameras and film. Often, I’ve found the quality of both to be sub-optimal, frustratingly failing to live up to their potential and price. The result is that I’ve never been able to write a review or article in which I can wholeheartedly recommend buying and using Polaroid cameras and film, unless the reader is ready to waste at least some small quantity of their time and money. Especially when so many decent Fujifilm Instax cameras exist.

Ever the optimist, when the I-2 was unveiled I put a call in to my friends at B&H, requested they send me one, and quietly wondered if the newest, fanciest Polaroid would be another instant letdown.

I’ve spent the months since then shooting the Polaroid I-2, and I’ve ended my time with it quite surprised.

Polaroid I-2 Spec Sheet

  • Lens: 98mm f/8 lens (approximate 35mm full frame equivalent = 38mm f/3.2)
  • Focus: LiDAR autofocus; minimum focus distance 1.3 feet (0.4 meters)
  • Exposure modes: Manual and auto exposure modes (aperture priority, shutter priority, full program)
  • Metering: Center-weighted metering spot covering 60% of the center of the image area
  • Shutter speeds: 1/250 second to 30 seconds
  • Lens aperture: F/8 to F/64
  • Flash: Built-in, with effective range 0 – 8.2 feet (0 – 2.5 meters)
  • Flash modes: Auto, Off
  • Viewfinder: Optical with LCD info display
  • Battery: Internal lithium ion battery rechargeable via USB-C
  • Additional Features: Exposure compensation controls; Multiple exposure setting; Self timer; External OLED info display; 2.5mm flash port; Tripod mount; Bluetooth enabled (app for remote control and settings)
  • Dimensions: 5.9 x 4.7 x 3.6 inches (149.9 x 119.3 x 91.2 mm)
  • Weight: 1.2 lb (563 grams)

Main Features of the Polaroid I-2

Polaroid spent four years developing the I-2. The result of that effort is that they legitimately produced the most advanced Polaroid film camera ever made. Just compare the spec sheet to any other Polaroid camera; the I-2’s major features are really impressive.

It’s capable of shooting in all of the shooting modes that we’d expect to find in a modern mirror-less camera. Aperture priority, shutter priority, full auto, and full manual are all present and accessible with the press of a button. This means, among other things, that the user is able to control depth of field and exposure times, something that very few instant cameras allow.

The metering system employs a center-weighted metering spot which covers the central 60% of the image area. Exposure times in automatic and semi-automatic shooting modes allow exposure compensation in 1/3 stop increments to +/- 2 EV.

The lens is not glass, but rather a three-piece unit comprised of polycarbonate and acrylic elements which have been coated for anti-glare. It has a 98mm focal length (equivalent to a wide-standard 38mm lens in 35mm full frame terms), which has been touted as the sharpest lens ever put into a Polaroid camera. I sort of believe it. The I-2’s lens is certainly the sharpest lens in a Polaroid camera, post-bankruptcy.

There is no manual focus mode, but auto-focus is achieved via a LiDAR system, which works as it should even in dim light. The system has just a single auto-focus point, in the center of the frame, however the camera allows for a half-press of the shutter button to lock focus and exposure. After which, we are able to recompose our shot for subjects that may not be positioned directly in the center of a photos (where the AF spot is). Focusing is quick and accurate, though a bit noisy. Focus distance is displayed in the viewfinder and OLED screen.

First Impressions

The Polaroid I-2 is a well-made machine, and holding it in the hand leaves no room for doubt; it’s the best-made instant camera on the market today.

The chassis and body are made of aluminum alloy and impact-resistant plastic. The lens barrel is made of metal with a metal screw-in filter ring. The shutter release button is an anodized aluminum touch point with a red, satin sheen, a detail which hearkens back to the red shutter release button of the iconic Polaroid SX-70 SLR. The external info display is an OLED screen. The strap lugs are metal.

The body is shelled with a sort of matte satin plastic, yet it doesn’t feel like the plastic of entry-level Polaroid cameras. It feels tight, solid, and dense, and the numerous panels are fitted together with  precision.

The controls are responsive and intelligent. The multi-function dial which lives behind the lens spins into its detents nicely, with corresponding changes to settings appearing near-instantly in both the external OLED screen and the in-viewfinder LCD display. The exposure compensation dial clicks into its 1/3 stop detents with a similar feeling of quality.

The film door flips open with a release lever typical of Polaroid cameras, and it locks into place nicely. Inside we find the brass and plastic gearing and the steel film rollers that are responsible for film transport and chemical dispersion. They’re nice and solid, and in my time with the camera I’ve not had a jammed photo or improperly squeezed chemical pack, things that happen too often with other Polaroid cameras.

The Polaroid I-2 in the Real World

The Polaroid I-2 uses either Polaroid I-type film or Polaroid 600 film, both of which are available everywhere cameras and film are sold (I often buy a pack alongside toothpaste at Target).

I-type film is less expensive (because it has no battery built in), but aside from this difference, I-type and 600 film are essentially the same (identical sensitivity, or ISO). The only advantage to using 600 film is that Polaroid often releases special editions of 600 series film which they do not release as I-type film. Round frames, black frames, multi-colored frames, duo-chrome film, etc.

It’s also possible to use Polaroid SX-70 film, however this film has a lower ISO compared with I-type and 600 series film, so users will need to adjust their exposures accordingly.

For me, I’m shooting I-type exclusively, because it costs less and works best. Except for when Polaroid entices me with something special in their 600 flavor.

What’s been really appealing about the I-2, is that I’ve found it can be whatever I want it to be. If I want a point-and-shoot Polaroid, it can do that. I set it to Auto and fire away. Whenever I used the camera in this way, it performed beautifully. Exposures were accurate, focus was accurate, and images were as high quality as any modern Polaroid images I’ve ever seen. In fact, they were higher quality, most likely a result of the camera’s lens and advanced systems (compared to other Polaroid cameras).

What sets the I-2 apart from other Polaroids, however, is the user’s ability to actually influence what’s going on in the camera.

In instances in which the subject was backlit, or when I wanted to blur the background, I was able to switch to aperture priority mode or use exposure compensation. If I wanted greater sharpness I could stop the aperture right down to f/64, and the camera handled selecting the correct shutter speed automatically. If I wanted motion blur to emphasize movement, I could switch to shutter priority and slow the shutter, knowing that the camera would select a smaller aperture to compensate. No other Polaroid camera does this.

Engaging in this type of photography successfully requires at least some degree of understanding of the photographic exposure triangle. Not a big deal, if you’re a camera nerd. But people new to this sort of thing will likely burn through a couple of packs of film before figuring things out. (After which, they won’t find a better Polaroid camera for making good pictures.)

The viewfinder is lovely. Crystal clear and absolutely massive, it’s been a real treat. Even as a wearer of glasses, it has been easy to frame and shoot, relying on the parallax frame-lines when shooting up close subjects. While this isn’t dead accurate, it’s good enough.

The in-viewfinder LCD display is a revelation which reminds me of the advanced SLRs of the 2000s. It shows all of the information we could possibly need to make a photo, without requiring the user to remove their eye from the finder.

It’s also reactive to our selected shooting mode. In aperture priority, it shows our selected aperture, the camera’s automatically selected shutter speed, and the exposure compensation value. In shutter priority, it shows the same information inverted. In full manual mode, it shows our selected settings, and a miraculous real-time readout which shows how close to a proper exposure our selected settings will get us. It also displays our battery life, number of exposures left in the loaded film pack, and other information for flash and focus distance, as is pertinent.

This wealth of in-viewfinder information is something that some of the greatest film cameras ever made sometimes fail to deliver. To have it here is simply excellent!

What I don’t Like

The battery is a built-in lithium ion rechargeable pack. Which is nice, because it lasts a long time between charges, and is easily chargeable without requiring me to buy more batteries.

However, the battery is inaccessible to the end user, so when it inevitably reaches the end of its life, it’s not possible for the user to simply open a door and replace the old, tired battery with a fresh, new one. This design choice has the potential to render our $600 camera useless in a few years’ time (unless Polaroid offers battery replacement service – and will that be free?)

And of course, there’s the camera’s high price. We get a lot for our money, yes, but there’s no denying that the I-2 is an expensive camera.

Consider that the next best Polaroid camera costs $450 less than the Polaroid I-2. Is the I-2 that much better than the Polaroid Now? Or an Instax camera, for that matter? Do the user controls and the nice lens justify the price?

For me, begrudgingly, it does. But I’m a freak, a camera nerd who lives and breathes these things.

For the average person who just wants to take fun, spontaneous instant photos, the cheaper Polaroid will do nicely and the Polaroid I-2 will be nothing more than overkill, a financial splurge. For more casual photographers, it’s probably not worth the price.

And how much film can I buy for $450?

Image Samples

Showing the range of exposure available with the I-2.

Image Quality, The Film Problem, and Final Thoughts

For the past fifteen-or-so years, the argument against Polaroid has been that their film produces images of low quality, especially compared to the Polaroid of days past. This reputation stems from the recent history of the company. The Polaroid of today is not the same Polaroid of the 1900s.

When the original Polaroid company went bankrupt in the early 2000s, the company’s assets were sold to fund the pensions of the former employees. Polaroid’s last remaining instant film factory was bought and resurrected by The Impossible Project, a small group of Polaroid die-hards who dreamed of keeping instant film alive.

They succeeded, eventually, even growing rich enough to finally acquire the Polaroid name and IP sometime around 2017. Polaroid, officially, was back. But for a long while, the quality of Impossible’s film, and then Polaroid Originals’ film, and finally, straight up Polaroid’s film, failed to live up to the high standard of the former Polaroid of Cambridge, Massachusetts in terms of image quality, sharpness, contrast, etc.

I suffered through these years, photographically, as did older photographers who fondly recollect the golden era of instant film and Polaroid, who clutch photo albums full of Polaroids from the 1980s and ’90s which look as fresh and punchy today as they did on the day they were shot.

And so, the complaints about new Polaroid have lingered, repeated ad nauseam by those of us who remember (accurately or not) “the good old days.”

So ubiquitous have these complaints been, and so internalized has been my disappointment with Polaroid film over the last decade plus, that I approached my time with the new I-2 expecting further disappointment. I expected to take pictures that were spongy and soft and washed out and under-exposed, some which didn’t develop at all, and others which developed with strange white streaks or weird tan blotches.

So sure was I that my review of this camera would have to include a sad, lengthy section bemoaning the fact that new Polaroid film just ain’t wha’d it yoosta be, that I reached out to my friend Ned Bunnell, former president of Pentax USA and lifelong Polaroid user, to collect some of his thoughts on the quality of the old film compared to the new.

He did me one better. He sent me a photo album.

It arrived loaded with original Polaroid photos from thirty, forty, maybe even fifty years ago. And the photos, true to the anecdotes of the olds, were vibrant, punchy, sharp, and beautiful these many decades later.

I stashed the photo album safely away, my secret weapon against the Polaroid I-2, and shot the camera for the next few months.

Imagine my surprise when some of the I-2 pictures (admittedly, not all) came out as sharp, as punchy, as contrasty and deep and rich as those which I saw in Ned’s album of original Polaroids.

Top row, left to right: Modern Polaroid photo made last year with a cheap camera from the 1980s, modern Polaroid photo made with the new Polaroid I-2 recently, modern Polaroid photo made with a 600 series camera four years ago. Bottom row: Ned’s classic Polaroid photos from decades ago.

Detail shot of modern Polaroid film made with the I-2 last week. Note the author, nonplussed, hating being photographed, suffering for science.

Could it be? Could it be that all we needed was a $600 camera?

I don’t think so. I think the answer is simpler than that. The truth is that Polaroid film has been steadily improving for years now, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the stuff (finally) works. It’s not totally, universally as good as it was, but these days, it’s pretty damn good. The I-2 certainly helps.

But even if new Polaroid film isn’t as good as the old stuff. Does that matter?

The counter-argument is this: The past doesn’t matter. It’s as true for the car you should never have sold as it is for the love to whom you should have confessed. And it’s true for Polaroids, too.

We can’t go back. Retrospection is pointless. All that matters is today.

And the Polaroid I-2 is the best Polaroid camera we can buy today.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • You don’t mention the MINT SLR-670(i-Type); it’s a SX-70 but totally rebuilt with that solid feel of a new camera. They have changed the electronics so it has 1/2000 sec as the fastest shutter speed, and its latest version also has a built-in battery so it can use I-type film. When not using their accessory Time Machine, the camera defaults to aperture priority mode for i-Type och 600 film.

    It’s more expensive at US $1,149, but the ability to have 1/2000 sec instead of 1/250 sec on a sunny day with 600 ISO film, I think, is a selling point. The old SX-70 had 1/175 sec as the fastest shutter time, and 1/250 sec of I-2 is just 1/2 stop faster; that’s not much. But the I-2 is a nice camera, even if I think a foldable SLR is more sexy.

    • Yep! There was a section of this review that mentioned Mint, Nons, and other cameras that have used Instax Wide film and Polaroid film throughout the years, which also offered some level of user control. But at almost 3,000 words, I had to make some cuts.

      I really don’t see that there’s any other camera comparable to the Polaroid I-2. All of its would-be competitors are either refurbished old cameras with less elegant user experience, or use smaller film types, or (as you mentioned) cost double what the I-2 costs (and this thing is already an expensive camera).

      I agree with you that Mint does make a very cool camera though.

  • The non user replaceable battery is so annoying. It’s one thing if it’s an item you use everything and expect to be “obsoleted” like a phone, but a camera should have a long service life.

    Now we need a “nicer” Instax camera. At least AF, and exposure compensation. Oh, a viewfinder that’s better than just shooting at the hip would be great…

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio