How Instant Film Works

A hand holding an instant photo
Polaroid cameras were loved in the 1900s, but they seem to be making a comeback. tolgart / Getty Images

In 1947, an inventor named Edwin Land introduced a remarkable innovation to the world -- a film that developed itself in a matter of minutes. This new instant camera technology was a huge success for Land's company, the Polaroid Corporation. In 1949, Polaroid made more than $5 million in camera sales alone! Over the proceeding 50 years, the company carved out its own special niche, selling millions of instant cameras and more than a billion rolls of instant film.

In this article, we'll find out what's actually happening inside instant film while you're waiting for the image to appear. While it may seem like magic, the process is really very simple.


Instant camera film is pretty much the same thing as regular camera film, with a few extra elements. Before we get to those crucial additions, let's briefly examine film photography in general.

The basic idea of film is to capture patterns of light using special chemicals. The camera briefly exposes the film to the light coming from a scene (typically for a small fraction of a second), and where the light hits the film, it starts off a chemical reaction.

Normal film consists of a plastic base that is coated with particles of a silver compound. When this compound is exposed to a large number of light photons, it forms silver atoms. Black-and-white film has one layer of silver compound, while color film has three layers. In color film, the top layer is sensitive to blue light, the next layer is sensitive to green and the bottom layer is sensitive to red. When you expose the film, the sensitive grains at each layer react to light of that color, creating a chemical record of the light and color pattern.

To turn this into a picture, you have to develop the film using more chemicals. One chemical developer turns the exposed particles into metallic silver. The film is then treated with three different dye developers containing dye couplers. The three dye colors are:

  • Cyan (a combination of green and blue light)
  • Magenta (a combination of red and blue light)
  • Yellow (a combination of green and red light)

Each of these dye-coupler types react with one of the color layers in the film. In ordinary print film, the dye couplers attach to particles that have been exposed. In color slide film, the dye couplers attach to the non-exposed areas.

Developed color film has a negative image -- the colors appear opposite of the colors in the original scene. In slide film, the two dyes that attach to the unexposed area combine to form the color captured at the exposed layer. For example, if the green layer is exposed, yellow and cyan dye will attach on either side of the green layer, but the magenta dye will not attach at the green layer. The yellow and cyan combine to form green. (For more in-depth informa­tion on the entire process, see How Cameras Work and How Photographic Film Works.)

The instant-camera developing process combines colors in the same basic way as slide film, but the developing chemicals are already present in the film itself. In the next section, we'll see how the developers are combined with the color layers to form the picture.


Pictures in an Instant

In the last section, we saw that instant camera film has three layers that are sensitive to different colors of light. Underneath each color layer, there is a developer layer containing dye couplers. All of these layers sit on top of a black base layer, and underneath the image layer, the timing layer and the acid layer. This arrangement is a chemical chain reaction waiting to be set in motion.

The component that gets the reaction going is the reagent (as in re-agent). The reagent is a mix of opacifiers (light-blockers), alkali (acid neutralizers), white pigment and other elements. It sits just above the light-sensitive layers and just below the image layer.


Before you take the picture, the reagent material is all collected in a blob at the border of the plastic film sheet, away from the light-sensitive material. This keeps the film from developing before it has been exposed. After you snap the picture, the film sheet passes out of the camera, through a pair of rollers. (In another configuration, often used by professional photographers, the reagent and developer are coated on a separate sheet which is pressed up against the film sheet for a set amount of time.)

The rollers spread the reagent material out into the middle of the film sheet, just like a rolling pin spreading out dough. When the reagent is spread in between the image layer and the light-sensitive layers, it reacts with the other chemical layers in the film. The opacifier material stops light from filtering onto the layers below, so the film isn't fully exposed before it is developed.

The reagent chemicals move downward through the layers, changing the exposed particles in each layer into metallic silver. The chemicals then dissolve the developer dye so it begins to diffuse up toward the image layer. The metallic silver areas at each layer -- the grains that were exposed to light -- grab the dyes so they stop moving up.

Only the dyes from the unexposed layers will move up to the image layer. For example, if the green layer is exposed, no magenta dye will make it to the image layer, but cyan and yellow will. These colors combine to create a translucent green film on the image surface. Light reflecting off the white pigment in the reagent shines through these color layers, the same way light from a bulb shines through a slide.

At the same time that these reagent chemicals are working down through the light-sensitive layers, other reagent chemicals are working through the film layers above. The acid layer in the film reacts with the alkali and opacifiers in the reagent, making the opacifiers become clear. This is what finally makes the image visible. The timing layer slows the reagent down on its path to the acid layer, giving the film time to develop before it is exposed to light.

One of the coolest things about instant photography, watching the image slowly come together, is caused by this final chemical reaction. The image is already fully developed underneath, but the opacifiers clearing up creates the illusion that it is forming right before your eyes.

For more information about instant film and photography in general, check out the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

How long does instant film last?
It depends on the brand, but generally, instant film expires six to twelve months after the manufacturing date.

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