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Breaking the Ice with the Portable Instax Printer in Travel Photography

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The magic of the portable Instax printer

I walked up the narrow alley with no clue what to expect. I had left the rest of the group because I just can’t seem to get “in my zone” when I’m in a pack of other photographers.

It appeared that I was approaching a dead end, and then I saw what I was looking for. A small textile workshop where a lovely older woman dressed in bright clothing was warping hand-spun thread.


I turned on my Spanish and made some small talk, asking her about what she was making and complimenting her work. Then I asked for a photo, and she requested 10 Quetzales, equivalent to about $1.25. All I had was a few 100-bill Quetzales, so I offered her a photo instead.

She obliged and kept working as I took a few photos. When I saw one I liked, I pushed a couple of buttons on my Fujifilm X100F and sent it to my Instax printer. I keep the Instax in my shoulder bag, so the printer spits out a photo that’s kept safe and out of sight until it develops.

A few minutes later I pulled the developed photo out of my bag and presented it to her, and the smile on her face proved that she appreciated this much more than money. It was perfect. Soon her grandson showed up, followed by her daughter and granddaughter, and I made photos for everyone as we chatted.

The experience would not have been the same had I paid instead.


Helping with anxiety

Eye contact and a smile go a long way. It’s the initial vibe you give off when you want to make a photo of someone, and your subject almost instantly makes a yes/no decision based on your presentation.

Making photos of strangers in foreign lands is difficult for everyone, some more than others. The Instax printer helps give you a little boost of confidence, that boost that you need to make a positive initial impression.

And even if your subject does agree to a photo, many folks – especially in more impoverished countries – will ask for money. There are times where I feel this is okay to do, but still, I feel like I’m just paying for a souvenir.

I want a connection instead, and the printer helps facilitate this. A real connection not only makes the photo more valuable for me but more importantly, it makes the experience with photographers much more pleasant for the subject.

Respect and dignity – the best thing you can offer a stranger in a foreign land. Especially where other photographers will follow.


Surprise opportunities

I needed to interview some parents in the slums of Uganda for an assignment but they were hesitant to talk to a mzungu. I took some candid photos as they spoke with my translators, made some prints, and they immediately opened up.

One even told me (err, my translator) that it was the only photo he had of himself and his son.

It was so incredible to be able to offer that. They answered all of my questions and wanted to know more about me as well.


The Instax printer has been a great travel companion for me in the year that I’ve had it. I’ve used it for on-the-spot gifts for hosts and friends, and presenting photos to strangers has established new friendships.

As a travel photographer, being able to create physical, tangible gifts for people in this way has literally opened new doors for me. Prints only cost about 60 cents per – a great deal considering the impact it can make.


How the Instax printer works

The Instax SP-2 – the smaller model I choose to travel with – is about the size of a point-and-shoot camera. It uses a photosensitive paper, much like a Polaroid, but the light comes from light-emitting diodes inside the printer.

The printer uses cartridges containing ten pieces of film. The entire cartridge comes in a foil packet a little smaller than a deck of cards. Open the door of the printer, pop the cartridge in the printer, and you’re ready to go.

You charge the Instax printer through a mini USB connection and I’ve found that one charge can last through over five cartridges (50 prints) under normal use. It does use a replaceable battery, so you can have an extra ready to go if you think you’ll need it. The entire thing weighs about a half-pound.

The prints do take a few minutes to develop completely. The warmer the air, the faster the development. Keep this in mind when working with subjects; you’ll want to give them a developed photo, so you’ll still need to occupy a few minutes with them after printing the photo.


What if I don’t have a Fujifilm camera? Can I still use the Instax printer?

Yes! The Instax uses a WiFi connection to connect with the camera, and this is the most direct way to make a print.

However, if you’re using a different brand of camera, be it Sony, Canon, Nikon, etc, you can still use this printer. You just need to wirelessly transfer the photos from your camera to your phone, and then use the Instax SHARE smartphone app to print from your phone.

It’s an extra step but makes the printer accessible to all camera owners.

Getting the best photos with the Instax printer

You won’t have time to edit photos on-the-spot. This is one reason why I make sure I have my custom settings ready to go, use the histogram to nail the exposure, and usually shoot in manual Kelvin white balance. They’re ready to go straight from the camera.


The only word of warning I have for this printer is that it’ll make kids go nuts! Like passing out free candy. Give a print to one kid and before you know it ten more will appear out of nowhere asking for a photo!

That can be fun at times, but I just wanted you to be aware of it!


See all Instax deals, including film, at either B&H Photo Video or Amazon.

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Ask Me

Wednesday 31st of March 2021

Great story John. I know during my military days foreigners would gravitate towards me just because I was an American. I can remember jumping off an helicopter in Vietnam to go to a Village to give medical care and passing out lollipops had every kid from Villages miles away coming my way. Bluetooth was not common during that time but I imagine if it was, handing out photos would of either delighted them or scared them if they thought somehow you captured their soul.

John Peltier

Wednesday 31st of March 2021

It's all about making friends everywhere you go :) Though I imagine that didn't work out all the time in Vietnam. Thank you for your service.

Nancy Lauer

Tuesday 27th of August 2019

So nice to see Miss Ava here! As another note - totally agree on the small printer in countries like Morocco. I saw it make some people really happy when you gave them their printed photo!

John Peltier

Tuesday 27th of August 2019

Good to hear from you, Nancy! Haha, it only took Ava a few minutes to lose the first photo I gave her. P.S. I heard about what happened to the camp - so sorry to hear that, but I know your awesome team will keep rocking!

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