It’s the end of 2016, a year of global controversies, and today we’re here to examine what might be the most divisive object in the history of mankind. It’s Leica’s newest film camera, the Sofort, the most controversial camera the world has ever known. And while I acknowledge the ridiculousness of the words ‘controversial’ and ‘camera’ landing adjacent to one another in a sentence, them’s the facts.
From the moment it was announced, the Sofort was up against it. Photo geeks, the kind of people who are typically submerged to their nostrils in camera culture, immediately shouted the obvious – that the Sofort is nothing more than a Fujifilm Instax camera with a facelift and a tummy tuck. After all, it uses Fuji’s Instax mini film packs (there’s a Leica-branded version as well), it looks suspiciously similar to a Fuji Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic (a name just slightly more annoying than ‘Sofort’), and it shares a virtually identical spec sheet with that far cheaper Japanese camera.
That the Sofort is an expensive, rebadged Fujifilm is a fact, and judging by the reaction across CP’s and others’ social media, it’s a fact that galls many of you. I’ve prefaced my review with all this fluff for the sake of clarity; to get the giant, red-dotted elephant in the room out of the way, and let everyone know that I understand the frustration of photo geeks who find the Sofort, on first blush, to be a redundant product from a coy marketing team.
But if we can divorce ourselves from these thoughts for just a few paragraphs and give the Sofort a fair shake, we quickly find that we’re shooting a camera that is nothing short of excellent.
For those who may not know, the Sofort is an instant camera, that is, a camera that develops the photo the moment you take it. Press the shutter release button and out pops a cute, white-bordered print (or cream-bordered, if you buy the Leica branded film) just like the Polaroids of yesteryear. Give the print a couple of minutes and it’ll develop right before your eyes. Pretty magical, and obviously the camera’s biggest selling point. So it’s without question that the quality of the print is the most important factor when discussing whether the Sofort is worth your time and money. Happily, shots made with the Sofort are gorgeous.
Sharp and vibrant, the most impressive trait of our instant prints is the way that tones are beautifully modulated. Contrast is wonderfully restrained, allowing excellent retention of shadow detail and highlights that deftly avoid blowout. Shooting color film we’re left with a handful of gorgeous prints with just the right amount of color saturation, and Fuji’s new Monochrome black-and-white film packs may just be my favorite product of the year. They’ve got a classic quality to them, and like their color counterparts, are restrained and modulated in a way that makes shooting portraits a pleasure.
Of course, Leica has nothing to do with the film packs. They’re a Fuji product all the way. But it’s smart of Leica to use Fuji’s Instax platform, since, to be fair, Fuji is king of the instant film arena these days. Leica calls these prints “haptic works of art”, which is a seriously bookish way of describing not-that-great photos of my dog, but I’ll take it. Yes, I do say these works of art I’m making are quite nice, indeed.
Prints are exposed via an automatic shutter and a lens protruding from the front of the camera. Called an “Automatik-Hektor”, some commentators claim that Leica has “re-engineered” Fuji’s lens. This could be true, though I’ve not found any evidence to confirm this, and like the forum rumors of Minolta’s quality control issues during the two brands’ partnership, these claims seem like fanboyism run amok in an attempt to justify some claim of Leica superiority. The hard facts are that Leica’s press release and PDF spec sheet show an identical lens description to their Fujifilm counterpart – a 60mm focal length (which is equivalent to 34mm in full-frame terms) at F/12.7. Two components, and two elements, and none of that really matters, because the Sofort and the comparable Fujifilm Instax camera will make images that are identical, and as stated, very pleasant to look at.
Whether the boys in Germany redeveloped the lens or not is debatable (until Leica sends me a strongly-worded email – I’m waiting), but what’s indubitable is that Leica has certainly changed (and improved) the design of the instant camera. The Sofort is a gorgeous machine. All harsh angles and rigid geometry, it’s just a beautiful product. Offered in three colors, mint, white, and orange, it’s an eye-catcher, and people will be drawn to it. An encircling band of leatherette material offsets the plastic, painted shell, and imbues the camera with a sense of timelessness often lacking in Instax cameras, cameras that almost look disposable.
It’s not the prettiest camera design I’ve ever seen, but it is the prettiest modern instant camera available (I qualify ‘modern’ because no instant camera has ever topped the design of 1972’s Polaroid SX-70).
Practical use is about as effortless as shooting photos can be, while also offering a surprisingly robust feature set. If you want a camera to point and shoot, the Sofort can do that with ease. If you want a camera with Bulb mode for long exposures, exposure compensation, multiple flash modes, manual focus (to a degree), user-selectable shooting modes, a self-timer, and more, the Sofort fits this bill as well. It’s impressive, but let’s take a closer look.
On the rear of the camera we find a number of buttons. These control all shooting modes, all flash modes, self-timer functionality, and exposure compensation. Simply press the button that controls the desired mode and toggle or cycle between available options. It’s about as simple as it gets, and most important, changes to these settings actually impact your final print in a meaningful way. Granted, we don’t have the kind of fine control here that we’d have on some vintage instant cameras, such as Minolta’s Instant Pro, but the Leica is more reliable and offers higher quality prints (sorry, Impossible Project).
By cycling through shooting modes we’re able to set parameters of the camera’s automatic flash, lens, and shutter to make best results from the scenes in question. Set the camera to action and sports mode, for example, and we’ll get a solid flash with a fast shutter speed. Set it to double exposure and we’ll be able to shoot, you guessed it, double exposures. By turning a concentric ring positioned around the lens barrel we’re able to adjust focus from near to far, which is great for shooting a fast moving dog or a toddling toddler.
But for all its shooting modes and exposure and flash options, the Sofort performs best when we just point and shoot. Let the camera do the work, and enjoy the fruits of our leisure. It really is that simple.
The viewfinder is exceedingly simple, but thankfully, it’s large (for an instant camera) and bright. It’s also accurate and presents a clear representation of what’s to be expected in the exposed frame. A central circle gives some spacial awareness. There’s a tripod mounting point on the bottom, useful for long exposures using Bulb mode, and the rear doors for battery and film loading are sturdy enough for a camera at this price point. There’s also a rectangular selfie mirror on the front of the camera, which I conspicuously avoid using.
The camera’s small and light, and while it’s not compact enough to fit into a pant pocket, it will easily slide into a jacket or winter coat’s pockets. Tossing it into a camera bag or backpack adds a paltry 300 grams (approx. 10 oz), and an included neck strap, one of the grippiest straps I’ve found included with a camera, makes it even more ideal for photo geeks on the move.
And now we come to the controversy. The Sofort is expensive. At $299 USD, it’s two or three times more expensive than comparable Fujifilm Instax cameras, which will produce mostly identical prints. And I can see why this would frustrate some photo geeks. Inevitably, the viability of Leica’s instant camera will be proven or disproven by the consumer. If Leica’s succeeded in their goal, which must surely have been to produce an object of desire eschewing practicality, the Sofort will become a classic piece of consumer gear – a camera that people fall in love with and with which they’ll produce countless mementos and souvenirs. If frugality wins out, we’ll all just keep shooting Fujis, which isn’t a bad thing in itself.
If you’ve already got a Fuji Instax camera, I can’t see a reason to buy the Sofort. And if you’re shooting Impossible Film through a classic Polaroid, the Leica will be a tough sell for you as well. That is, unless you’ve simply fallen for the thing.
For me, I like the Sofort. I think it’s a fun, beautiful, and interesting camera. I enjoy the idea that, in the year 2016, Leica has produced a new film machine. I don’t care that it’s a redesigned Fuji because I like the core of Fuji’s product, and because I don’t already own an Instax camera. And I don’t mind the elevated price point because the images I make with it are worth that price. For me, the Sofort is a refreshing sunbeam in an otherwise overcast year.