There are a lot of mobile printers out there, and I have never been interested in any of them. Smartphone cameras now take great pictures. They have two or three lenses and a portrait mode that can at least imitate the quality of a high-end DSLR, but I find the photos don’t always translate well to printouts. At their worst, the prints look like darker, more pixelated versions of the originals. And when they do look good, I don’t know what to do with the print. (I’m not a photo-album guy, and my fridge has no magnets.) Whenever someone sends me a print, I appreciate the thought, but I usually end up putting it aside, then finding it months later and throwing it away.
Then I tried the Polaroid Originals Lab. Unlike most mobile printers, which tend to sell themselves on portability, accuracy, and speed, the Lab has none of these things. It’s clunky, the photos take about 20 minutes to develop, and they always look just a bit “off” — and that’s the point. All of those quirks make the Lab unique. Instead of wirelessly sending an image to a printer, with the Lab, printing a picture is a process. It works by actually projecting the image from your phone onto the film negative, transforming whatever crisp digital image you had on your screen into an analog Polaroid with all its quirks.
I brought the Lab home for Thanksgiving because I had a feeling it would be a hit with my parents and their friends. It was. By the end of the night, everyone was texting me pictures to print. My dad wanted a picture of him, me, and my mom posing by a canal on vacation in Amsterdam. He really got a kick out of watching it develop and said it reminded him of the old Polaroids he used to shoot. My mom’s best friend’s husband spent a minute or two searching through his phone, then sent me one he really liked of his wife trying on a scarf in a store. At first, the print was a little too off. The purple on the scarf looked washed out, so we adjusted the exposure and saturation in the app and tried again. The second attempt was just right: Unlike on his phone, where everything was in sharp focus, in the Lab picture, the scarf became more of a focal point against the slightly blurred background. The printer didn’t just add a filter; it gave the picture a visual hierarchy.
This is the Lab’s greatest feature. The flaws highlight different aspects of a picture. They give you something to really look at. I know I’m walking a dangerous line with romanticizing old technology here (and I’ve probably already crossed it), but still, there is something about a messy, lo-fi, analog photo that makes it feel more personal. With the Lab, I can take photos that have just been sitting on my phone or in the cloud or wherever — an awkward group selfie of me and some friends watching the solar eclipse, a photo I took of an empty street when I was in a mood one night, or a shot of my mom checking the turkey on Thanksgiving — and make them if not good pictures, at least interesting pictures.
Photography purists may take issue with the Lab, and I get that. It’s a high-tech knockoff of a classic process. I’d love to be the type of person to schlep a vintage Polaroid around and document everything, but I don’t have the patience — or the room in my bag. Thankfully, the Lab combines the best elements of digital and analog photography in an easy-to-use, fun package. You get the convenience of a smartphone camera and the ephemeral appeal of Polaroid film: white border, quirky colors, and all.
You can buy the Lab printer on its own, but you’ll want to stock up on Polaroid Originals I-Type film. The company often releases it with special designs around the border — like this holiday pack — but for true vintage Polaroid effect, you should go for the color or black-and-white film with the classic white border. The Lab is also available to purchase on Amazon, but it’s currently back-ordered.
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