There’s a reason Fujifilm still has film in its name, and it’s not because of Provia, Astia, or Velvia — it’s because of Instax. The Instax Mini LiPlay is the latest model in the wildly popular line of instant film cameras, and it’s unlike any that have come before it. More than just a camera, it’s also a mobile printer. In fact, the LiPlay (which I’m not exactly sure how to pronounce) is basically an Instax Share printer with a digital camera bolted to the front and an LCD screen on the back.
In a sense, this is kind of cheating on the whole “instant film” concept, since the film is not being exposed directly by the lens (Zink-based instant cameras, like the Polaroid Snap and Canon Ivy Cliq, work the same way). This cheat makes for a much more practical device both in terms of size and operational cost. The lens is much smaller, as it needs to cover only a tiny digital sensor rather than a 1.8 x 2.4-inch sheet of film, and you’ll save money over time by not having to print every picture. The camera’s starting price of $ 160 really isn’t a bad deal.
But most importantly, the LiPlay is a brilliantly fun product that offers one of the most refined experiences of any instant camera, even if it’s lacking some advanced features found on other Instax models. The companion mobile app is very well-designed and easy to use, while the audio recording and clever QR-code-based playback system are surprisingly entertaining additions.
As a 35-year-old man, I have an inkling I am not the primary target demographic for this camera — and yet, I want to take it with me everywhere.
Design and handling
My review unit arrived in Stone White, which is a speckled off-white color that makes the camera look like a large bar of soap. The silver accents scattered around the body lend it a definite retro vibe. The surface is pretty slick — as in slippery — so it’s not the easiest camera to grasp.
The button arrangement doesn’t help with that, either. The shutter button is on the front right of the camera, and it’s hard to reach with your index finger without your other fingers covering up the flash or lens. The audio record button is also on the front, but on the opposite corner, while three shortcut buttons and the power button are on the left side. None of it makes any sense, but I guess you’ll get used to it. It’s part of the Instax charm.
The shortcut buttons let you quickly apply a favorite frame and see a live preview before you take a picture; you can also apply frames later. The camera comes with many frames built-in — you can add anything from speech bubbles to color effects, and more stuff can be added from the mobile app (additional details on this later). You probably won’t get a ton of use out of them, but they can be fun in some situations.
As a digital camera, the Mini LiPlay is nothing exceptional, and it doesn’t need to be. I’m sure it has some number of megapixels, enough to make a 1.8 x 2.4-inch Instax print, and that’s really all I need to know. Image quality is not what I’d call great, but it does manage to retain that old-school instant film look.
I’m sure it has some number of megapixels, enough to make a 1.8 x 2.4-inch Instax print, and that’s really all I need to know.
There’s a basic exposure compensation option in the menu, and you can force the flash on or off, but that’s it in terms of manual control. The simplicity is a plus in some situations, but it can also be a hindrance. The single focus point in the center of the frame, for example, means you’ll have to focus and recompose for any off-center subjects, and the autofocus itself is quite slow.
The screen is nothing special, either. It’s low resolution and always looks washed out, but again, I don’t really care — it’s an Instax camera. My only real complaint is that it’s not a touchscreen. I’m guessing this was a cost-cutting measure, but a touchscreen really would have made sense on this product, given its likely popularity with younger customers who grew up on touchscreen interfaces.
Images are saved to internal memory or to a MicroSD card. I don’t know how many gigabytes — or more likely megabytes — the internal memory is, but it let me shoot 50 photos before giving me the “memory full” warning, which I think is totally fine. And, hey, if you need to clear space, just move your files from the virtual world to the real one by printing them.
And printing is a lot of fun. The screen plays an animation of the photo sliding up toward the film slot, which then “turns into” the print itself as the film gets spit out of the slot. This is silly, but like so many things in instant photography, it put a smile on my face — I never got tired of it.
As fun a camera as it is, I think the LiPlay is even better as a mobile printer. You’ll get better results by taking a picture with your phone and sending it to the camera to be printed, rather than shooting with the LiPlay itself. Note that “better” doesn’t mean “good” — I also printed a photo I shot with a $ 10,000 Hasselblad and $ 5,000 lens and it still came out looking like a cheap instant picture, but that’s kind of the point.
A word of warning: Printing from your phone becomes dangerously addictive.
A word of warning: Printing from your phone becomes dangerously addictive. I said the Mini LiPlay can save you money by allowing you to be selective about what you print, but it also opens up a world of opportunity by letting you print so quickly from your phone. As a photographer and camera reviewer, I’ve shot thousands of photos on many different cameras, and with how easy Adobe Lightroom CC makes it to save those images to my phone, the desire to view them as Instax prints is strong.
One downside of the Mini LiPlay going fully digital is shorter battery life. I shot just 22 photos and printed 24 before the battery warning light came on. That’s certainly not good compared to other cameras — and it’s made worse by the lack of a removable battery — but the good news is it charges over USB, so you can keep it topped up on the go from a USB battery brick. You can likely shoot many more photos on a single battery if you’re not stopping to make prints in between.
From selfie to talkie
It’s no surprise that Instax cameras are popular selfie tools (there’s a built-in mirror next to the lens so you can frame yourself) and the LiPlay takes your egocentric self-expression a step further by letting you talk about yourself as you photograph yourself.
Joking aside, the audio recording feature is actually pretty neat. You activate it by pressing the large microphone button on the front of the camera. The LiPlay then saves 10 seconds of audio around the next photo you take, including about 5 seconds before the photo is snapped. (You can also hold the microphone button during image playback to record audio over a previously taken photo — you cannot, however, record audio to a photo from your phone.) You can use this feature to add audio annotations, record a message for a loved one, or simply capture ambient sound to add another dimension to your photograph. But how does someone actually listen to it?
This is the cool part. When you press the print button on an audio photo, you have the option to “print with sound.” This will generate a QR code and overlay it on the print (you can place it in any corner or right in the center). When someone scans the photo with their phone’s camera, they will then be taken to a website where they can listen to the recorded audio and see the original image unobstructed by the QR code. It’s a bit like a hidden message, and I think some people will have a lot of fun with it. The image and audio are stored at a unique sound.instax.com link.
OK, so maybe this isn’t quite as cool as Lifeprint’s Harry Potter-esque moving images, but it’s still cool.
To print an audio photo, you have to make sure the camera is connected to your phone since an internet connection is required. You’ll need to leave both your phone and the LiPlay camera on while the image and sound are uploaded. If you accidentally turn the camera off before the uploaded finishes, don’t worry — I did this, and the app automatically started the upload over again when I turned the camera back on.
An app that actually works
Let’s back up a second. The Mini LiPlay isn’t actually the first hybrid Instax camera. The Instax SQ10 and SQ20 from 2018 also combine digital sensors with instant film printers. Those cameras print with the larger Instax Square format and include a host of creative options, from being able to shoot a short video sequence and print a single frame from it, to multi-exposure shooting and collage printing. But they lack the app connectivity of the Mini LiPlay and can’t make prints from your phone.
The Mini LiPlay is designed to work hand-in-hand with a new mobile app of the same name. Camera manufacturers don’t have a great track record when it comes to app development — Fujifilm’s own app for its X-Series mirrorless cameras is merely acceptable — but the Mini LiPlay app absolutely nails it. There’s a simple setup process to pair the camera with your phone over Bluetooth; after that, the camera connects instantly when you turn it on, every time. There’s no secondary Wi-Fi connection to worry about, and I never had to restart the app or the camera to get it to connect — it just worked.
This is, of course, the way it should be, but having experienced so many connectivity issues with camera companion apps in the past, the effortless nature of the Mini LiPlay app was very welcome.
From within the app, you can print photos from your phone’s camera roll, control the LiPlay camera remotely (including a live preview), view and listen to your audio photos, and program the frame shortcut buttons. (Being from the Pacific Northwest, I naturally assigned these to the umbrella, antlers, and foliage frames — but only because hipster, hiking, and hops weren’t options.)
Unfortunately, other than zooming and reframing the image, the app doesn’t really give you any creative printing options. You can’t apply a frame or filter to a phone photo, nor can you combine multiple photos into a collage. It’s odd that you can print collages from the SQ10 camera, but not on the LiPlay, where the mobile app would make such a feature even more powerful and easier to use.
Instant cameras are a novelty, but the Instax Mini LiPlay keeps that novelty from fading by combining a camera and mobile printer in one. The sound-recording feature is also a surprisingly fun addition. All of this functionality is fit into a device that’s even smaller than a normal Instax camera, and the headache-free mobile app means you’ll actually want to use it.
But it would be nice to be able to add audio to photos shared from your phone, and we would like to see the SQ10’s creative shooting and printing modes incorporated into the LiPlay.
This camera represents a great idea and we hope Fujifilm releases more models in this line, perhaps one that uses Instax Wide film. Currently, the sole Instax Wide camera on the market is very bulky, partly due to the need for a big lens. A digital version of this camera could be made much more compact, making the format more practical.
Is there a better alternative?
There are many other options in the instant camera game, including a few that combine printers and cameras into one. The Canon Ivy Cliq comes to mind at just $ 100. Zink prints don’t have to develop like Instax film does, so they’re ready sooner (but they do take longer to actually get spit out of the camera) and you can stick them anywhere thanks to the adhesive back. The Cliq doesn’t have an LCD screen or the LiPlay’s audio-recording capabilities, however. Fujifilm also makes a wide variety of Instax film frames with different colors and patterns, which can enhance the fun, especially if you’re buying a camera for your kids.
How long will it last?
Since it combines printer and camera functionality in one, I think you’ll get more life out of the Mini LiPlay than any other Instax camera. It also feels decently well-made and we expect it will hold up to normal wear and tear for at least a few years.
Should you buy it?
Yes. The Instax Mini LiPlay is a ton of fun, and I really enjoyed using it. One caveat: The mobile print function is where I spent most of my time, so if you think you won’t need the camera portion, you may want to consider the Instax Share SP-3 printer, which prints to a larger format and includes additional creative print capabilities.