Friday, July 12, 2019

Spotlight: Mint Instantkon RF70

The Instantkon RF70 is a unique Instax Wide instant film camera made by the Chinese camera company, Mint. It was released in May of this year, though pre-order models have been out since 2018. What's so intriguing about the RF70 (and why I bought one new) is that it's the only Instax camera with manual aperture, shutter, and focus control. See, I was having a blast playing around with Fujifilm's Instax cameras, but longed for a something that offered more creative freedom. I ultimately bought into the RF70 hype and ordered one a few weeks ago. Was it worth it? Here is my take.

To begin, the RF70 is expensive. It's around $900 new. That's definitely a lot to pay for something most people will argue is a toy. Hell, you can buy Fujifilms top-of-the-line Mini 90 or Instax Wide cameras for around $100 today. So what does the extra money get you? As previously mentioned, the RF70 has full manual exposure controls, whereas Fujifilm's offerings are all completely automatic. All you can really change on Fuji's cameras is the exposure compensation, but if you want a specific aperture or shutter speed, you're out of luck. The RF70 has an aperture priority automatic mode with exposure compensation, but you are also free to use any combination of aperture (f/5.6 ~ 22) and shutter speed (1/500 ~ 1sec + bulb). While in manual mode, there is a light by the viewfinder that turns green when the camera believes you have the correct exposure, and red when you do not. This freedom of manual exposure gives you more creative power than with any other Instax camera.

The lens on the RF70 is a major step up from other Instax cameras, as it can open up all the way to f/5.6. My Mini 90's lens, by comparison, is a laughable f/12.7. This means you can make pictures in dimmer situations without having to resort to a flash. If extra illumination is necessary, the RF70 has a cute baby pop-up flash that works just fine. Along with being able to gather way more light, this also means you can achieve pleasant shallow depth-of-field with the RF70. The lens length is 93mm, which translates to around a slightly wide/normal field of view. If I had to guess, I'd say the viewing angle is equivalent to a 35-40mm lens on a 35mm camera. The lens is a definitely soft when used wide-open at f/5.6, but the effect is to my liking. It kind of gives off an 80's glam-shot vibe that I dig.

Photos at f/5.6 allow for blurry backgrounds and soft features

Cheaper Instax cameras typically have three focusing zones you can choose from: portrait, normal, or landscape. The RF70's focusing is completely manual, so you can focus precisely where you want. To aid with this, the RF70 features a built-in rangefinder, which is separate from the viewfinder. You focus through one window, and frame the picture through the other. If you've ever used an old Barnack Leica, this is the same deal. The lens focuses down to .75 meters, which doesn't seem so bad, but it's really not very close at all with the slightly wide lens. The above photograph was made at the minimum focusing distance. Straight head shots are impossible.

The top window is for framing, bottom for focusing. The rear LCD displays your number of remaining shots and battery life.

One of my favorite features of the RF70 is the advance lever. While other Instax cameras immediately spit your picture out after making an exposure, the RF70 waits until you trip the lever. As a result, you can make unlimited multiple exposure before ejecting the film. Super cool! This is the main reason why I bought the RF70, as I love making pictures that involve four or more exposures.

With the RF70 you can do cool dumb stuff, like this 64-exposure photo of my wife eating Cool Whip

Most of these specs and features look great on paper. And, while I applaud the folks at Mint for making an Instax camera that allows for deeper creative expression, there are some glaring flaws with the RF70 that you should to consider before purchasing one of your own.

Firstly, the build quality is not the best. Now, it doesn't feel cheap. The body is made of plastic, but it's good quality, solid plastic. There are simply a few areas of the build that don't inspire confidence. For instance, when I first took the camera out of the box, the hand grip was loose at the bottom. I almost pulled it off the camera trying to get the RF70 out of its tight packaging. It may need to be re-glued at a later point. The part of the build that worries me the most, however, is the folding aspect of the camera. The RF70's mechanism feels unusually fragile compared to folders I've used in the past. Folding the camera out is okay, but you do have to manually straighten the rails before use. Folding the camera back up, however, is pretty sketchy. Beforehand, you need to make sure the lens is at infinity, or else Mint warns in the instruction booklet that the camera could break. Then you need to geeeeeently depress a button next to the lens and sloooooowly push the lens back into the camera. The whole process makes me nervous and it seems like Mint could have designed a better system than the clumsy one present here.

These metal supports unfortunately seem very fragile

The second major issue I have with the camera is viewfinder/rangefinder. The rangefinder is okay, but it's not the sharpest. If your camera is not at the exact right angle with your eye, the twin rangefinder images will not perfectly overlap, instead one image will be slightly above or below the other image. My rangefinder also focuses past infinity, which seems odd, but my shots have been in good focus. The viewfinder is awful. My glasses probably don't help, but the framelines in the RF70's finder are damn near impossible to see. They're super faint, and do not at all give an accurate preview of what will be in your frame. The lines may as well not be there at all, since they're next to useless. Framing any subject less than 10 feet away is a bit of a nightmare. You can see in my photos of Katie how she's a bit awkwardly off to the side or too low in the final images.

I'm undecided on whether I will keep this camera or sell it to buy some new digital gear. I really want to love the RF70, but the lack of close focus, terrible viewfinder, and unwieldy folding design may be deal-breakers for me. The flaws simply make it difficult for me to make the images I want to make. Here are a few more photos I made with the RF70:

f/5.6 at 1/250

f/11 at 1/250

4 Exposures, each f/11 at 1/250

f/22 at 1/500

Two exposures, each f/16 at 1/125