MiNT InstantFlex TL70

$389 (as tested $505)
mint-camera.com

In this roundup we've seen a handful of ways to make the instant camera, all broadly resembling each other in one way or the other. Viewfinder windows and step focus are the norm, and neither ever really give the photographer an accurate preview of all the parameters that go in to a photograph. They give the photographer a general idea of framing, and that's about it.

The MiNT Instant Flex TL70 is nothing like the rest.

It uses a twin-lens reflex design to not only give the camera a vintage look, but also give the photographer a functioning viewfinder and accurate manual focus. No other instant camera does this, and it's the experience that all the other cameras leave any skilled photographer longing for. It's truly in a class of its own in this roundup, making it, by comparison, worth the money.

The camera is switched on by opening the shade on top of the camera. Focus is done through the viewfinder (!) with flip-out loupe hidden under the front shade for extra precision. Minimum focus distance is 0.48m, although an available close-up lens (part of a $116 accessory lens kit) can bring it down to .18m (WITH FULLY MANUAL FOCUS!). Next to the focus wheel is a brighten or darken setting, simply telling the camera how to bias its automatic exposure in automatic, or 'A' mode. A green light inside the viewfinder indicates whether or not the camera can perform an optimal exposure at the current settings, and red indicates a proper exposure isn't possible at the current settings. There is also a 'B' or bulb mode for long exposures as well.

The shutter release is out front and is separate from the film eject button, meaning the camera is always ready for double exposures. When ejected, the film neatly slides out of a small slot next to the viewfinder.

If we take it out of the context of Instax mini cameras, where it sits high with a golden halo around its head, and instead compare it to general consumer expectations for an item costing nearly $400, there are some problems.

First, the build quality could use some refinement and better materials. There are sharp edges to the plastics used on the pop-up flash, and the spring-loaded rear door (to push down on the film) doesn't close all the way, prompting fears of light leaks.

There are a couple control issues as well. The aperture dial is very difficult to turn, and the focus adjustment feels cheap and loose. The use of a hidden roller wheel instead of an external knob for focus adjustment wasn't the best choice, and makes it tough to locate. Also, while the use of separate buttons for the shutter release and film ejection was a great idea, both buttons are recessed and tough to find when looking through the viewfinder.

Slightly raised controls all around the camera would have made them easier to locate without looking away from the viewfinder. It's a complaint that getting used to the camera will eventually alleviate, but when the camera (inevitably) gets passed around from person to person, the location of the controls will need pointed out to them time and time again.

Our final complaint is a bit esoteric, but does hold the MiNT back from making it the 'perfect' instant camera: no way to sync external flash, unlike the LC-A+. There is a built-in flash, but there's no obvious way to control it, making it difficult to use as a trigger.

Complaints aside, the camera is brilliant, constantly surprising us with its output. Plus, it is the only one here that offers a viewfinder that is coupled with focus, which sets it completely apart from the rest of these cameras, and makes the instant medium even more rewarding. To pay the astronomical price requires trying to ignore the build quality, and maybe a bit of gaffer tape to cover up the ugly logo on the front. After that, we are left with one of the most fun instant cameras to use that also produces some of our favorite instant images.