How Instant Film Works

Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

Did you know that instant film is like a miniature darkroom? Every time you take a picture with an instant film camera, you set off the same chemical processes that are used in a traditional photography darkroom. Learn more in this lesson.

Instant Film

Back in the day, instant film was so cool they even made references to it in songs. Now, you have your camera phones and digital cameras. Before that, though, you had instant film cameras like Polaroid.

An instant film cartridge
instant film

Your instant film is film used in instant film cameras where you get to see the picture develop right in front of your eyes. How this is done is pretty interesting as you'll see in this lesson.

The Chemicals Used in Instant Film

Looking at a cartridge of instant film, it looks huge compared to traditional film cartridges. This is because each and every single film in instant film contains all the chemicals you need to develop each and every picture. When you hold an instant film, it's like holding a mini darkroom in your hands.

Instant film uses the same chemicals used in traditional film photography to develop pictures. Instant film just makes it easier for you. You don't have to stand in a dark room and carefully expose and then slide each photo into a chemical tray. The instant film does it all for you.

What chemicals does instant film use? It uses chemicals called developers. For black and white photography, there is only one developer. For color, there are three developers, one developer for each of your primary colors of yellow, cyan, and magenta.

How Instant Film is Constructed

These chemicals are actually constructed into the instant film itself.

The way instant film is constructed is similar to traditional light-sensitive photo paper (not the photo paper you print on, but the photo paper used in the dark room). For black and white photography, you have one light-sensitive layer. For color photography, you have three light-sensitive layers (a bottom layer that's sensitive to red, a middle layer that's sensitive to green, and a top layer that's sensitive to blue). When your developer chemicals react with these light-sensitive layers, it produces your photo. In instant film, these developer chemicals actually sit on a special layer below each color layer.

Instant film does have a few additional layers though. When you develop your own film, you let your film sit in the developer chemicals for a set period of time before dipping it into another chemical that tells your photo paper to stop developing. In instant film, you have a timing layer and an acid layer that do that for you. The acid layer tells your photo paper to stop developing.

Deconstructing a piece of instant film, you would see your top clear plastic, then your acid layer, followed by your timing layer. This sits on top of your image layer that will show your final photo. Then you have a reagent layer that starts all the necessary chemical reactions. The reagent chemicals are stored in tiny pouches at the bottom of your instant film. Below your reagent layer, you have all your color and developer layers. You have your blue-sensitive layer on top of a yellow-developer layer on top of a spacer. Then you have your green-sensitive layer on top of a magenta-developer layer on top of a spacer. Then you have your red-sensitive layer on top of your cyan-developer layer. Then a black base layer.

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