This Instant Camera Prints on Cheap Thermal Paper and Reminds Me of My Beloved Game Boy Camera

Illustration for article titled This Instant Camera Prints on Cheap Thermal Paper and Reminds Me of My Beloved Game Boy Camera
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

The Polaroid camera might be back from the dead, but at $2 for every instant photo you snap, it makes photography an expensive hobby again. If you’re okay with a black-and-white, grainy, high-contrast aesthetic—or happen to miss the Game Boy Camera as much as I do—Oaxis’s myFirst instant camera for kids uses a built-in thermal printer so instant prints cost less than a penny each.

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I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of lo-fi film photography. Give me lots of megapixels, a sharp lens, and Photoshop, and I’m a happy snapper. But long before digital cameras toppled the film industry, the Game Boy Camera made instant photography cheap and accessible. The four-color, grayscale, 128x112 pixel photos Nintendo’s camera snapped now seem like cave paintings compared to what a smartphone’s camera can capture, let alone a DSLR, and those images looked even worse coming out of the Game Boy Printer accessory.

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But somehow, the Game Boy camera still captured my heart, and not only because it was my first digital camera. It was simple, it was forgiving, it was fun, and it was cheap—which is probably why I’ve also developed a soft spot for Oaxis’ myFirst Camera Insta 2. Like the Game Boy Camera and Game Boy Printer, it’s a device primarily designed for kids to explore photography with the added satisfaction of easily immortalizing their shots as physical prints.

On a technical level, it’s as basic as a digital camera can get, and its relatively affordable $100 price tag is reflected in the quality of the photos it takes. (They’re not pretty.) But taken as a whole, the myFirst Camera Insta 2 is a fun and affordable alternative to a Polaroid and other pricier instant camera options available now.

As kid-friendly designs for gadgets go, the myFirst Camera Insta 2 is admittedly kind of adorable. It looks like a one-eyed monster from the front, with a pair of ears that double as loops for a neck strap. It’s mostly made from plastic, but the teal accents are actually soft silicone, making the chunky camera easier for smaller hands to grip, and more resistant to damage if dropped.

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On the back you’ll find a set of seven buttons, including a trigger on the right, playback and print buttons across the bottom, and power and settings on the left. They’re all labeled with graphics that are fairly easy to understand if you’ve used a digital camera before, but you might have to walk a 5-year-old through what each one does a few times. I still find myself having to randomly poke at buttons to switch back to camera mode after reviewing a shot because the UI isn’t entirely intuitive, but the limited number of buttons make the process of elimination mostly painless—assuming you don’t accidentally hit the print button.

Experienced photographers will probably notice a lack of any shooting modes or settings that could help optimize a shot. The myFirst Camera Insta 2 is completely automatic: You point at a scene, press the shutter button, and hope for the best. You do have access to some pre-made novelty templates and overlays that can be added (wacky sunglasses etc.) but that’s about it in terms of image editing or enhancements.

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The camera’s 2.4-inch display is kind of awful, but passable as your only way for framing or reviewing shots.
The camera’s 2.4-inch display is kind of awful, but passable as your only way for framing or reviewing shots.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

The 2.4-inch LCD screen on the back of the camera isn’t going to win any technical achievement awards. Color reproduction is awful, contrast is terrible, and the viewing angle is extremely limited. But it gets the job done.

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The camera’s settings menu is also, not surprisingly, very limited. You can adjust the resolution of photos down from a full 12-megapixels if you’re trying to maximize how many shots you can fit on an inserted microSD card, adjust the date and time, turn off beeps when buttons are pressed, and a few other minor tweaks. One option I was hoping to find but unfortunately didn’t was the ability to turn off the date and time that’s overlaid in the corner of every photo you take.

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As modern digital cameras go, the quality of the images the myFirst Camera Insta 2 takes is...well...abysmal. You will never choose it over your mirrorless camera, your smartphone, or probably even the camera on your tablet. Colors are muted, the image compression is unforgiving, the focus is soft, and it’s a noise smorgasbord if you’re shooting anywhere with limited light. Even a 5-year-old who’s used a smartphone or tablet’s camera will wonder why images look so bad, and the quality is comparable to what I would have expected from a webcam 15 years ago.

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But as with the Game Boy Camera, the image quality of the myFirst Camera Insta 2's sensor isn’t really a deal breaker because most users aren’t going to even bother transferring photos to a computer. The device’s real appeal is its ability to instantly print out shots using the same rolls of cheap thermal paper that a cash register does. The instructions specify the camera can only accommodate rolls measuring 57 millimeters wide with a diameter no larger than 26 millimeters. From my testing, that means a roll less than 30 feet long; any longer and you’ll have to manually unravel it until it fits inside the camera.

Thirty feet is still enough length to let you print roughly 60 shots per roll, and I’ve found 50-packs of the appropriately-sized thermal paper on Amazon for about $21. Crunch the numbers and that works out to less than a penny per print. It only takes about 10 seconds for a printout with the camera’s print density at its highest setting, and the immediate satisfaction means that it probably won’t take long for a kid to go through an entire roll. But an afternoon’s worth of distraction is easily worth less than 60 cents.

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If you’re expecting Ansel Adams quality prints from the myFirst Camera Insta 2, you’re going to be disappointed. Thermal printers are mostly designed and optimized to print out letters and numbers, not full color photos with subtle gradients and fine details. That being said, the results here are definitely a step up from the Game Boy Printer, and the high-contrast black and white shots have a charming aesthetic. More importantly, kids won’t really care. As long as they can make out the goofy face they just made, they’ll be happy.

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The quality of your prints will vary depending on the quality of thermal paper you use. The rolls included with the camera, which feel like they have a glossier finish, produced much better results than the cheaper rolls I purchased in bulk from Amazon. The cheaper rolls crushed details in the darker areas of an image, and all but eliminated mid-tones. Again, I don’t think kids will particularly care, but if you’re going to embrace the aesthetic of using a thermal printer as a photo printer, maybe just splurge a bit on your paper rolls.

The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts with this camera.
The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts with this camera.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)
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If you’re comparing the various functions of the myFirst Camera Insta 2 to other products on the market, it doesn’t stand a chance. But when you step back and look at it as a whole, as a gadget designed to get kids interested in photography by letting them print out their shots by the hundreds at a cost of just a few bucks, it succeeds in delivering a satisfying experience. A thermal printer will never be able to compete with the color inkjet printer sitting in your office, but how often do you print out photos on it? Very rarely, I bet, given the costs. Like the Game Boy Camera, the myFirst Camera Insta 2's limitations are actually what make it so enjoyable.

README

  • It’s a $100 digital camera, and the quality of the photos it takes reflect that. Colors are bad, focus is soft, contrast is low, and there’s lots of grain even when shooting outside in bright sunlight. No one should ever even think of using the myFirst Camera Insta 2 as their main shooter.
  • Camera controls are non-existent. You just point, shoot, and hope for the best.
  • The kid-friendly design is cute, with a nice use of soft silicone accents to make it easier for smaller hands to grip, and to protect it from falls.
  • The print quality can’t compare with the instant film a Polaroid camera uses, but at less than a penny per printout, the thermal printer in the myFirst Camera Insta 2 does a surprisingly OK job in black and white.
  • Some thermal papers will produce better results than others, so finding the cheapest option might not always be the best bet.
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DISCUSSION

I was around for the first generation of instant cameras in the early ‘50s. In those days taking pictures meant taking the exposed film to the camera shop and waiting a week for your prints to come back. The first Polaroid Land camera produced a finished print in a minute; it seemed like magic. The kicker was always the price, about a dollar per print back when that was real money. Even at that price, I still miss my SX-70 foldable brushed chrome and leather SLR. It handed you a dry print instantly, viewable in about a minute; it was a masterpiece.