Impossible Instant Lab Universal Review

By Yvonne

Impossible Project Instant Lab Universal makes Polaroid photos using images from your phone. Although it is expensive, the results can be stunning.

Impossible Instant Lab Universal Review

Impossible Instant Lab Universal

The pros

  • Stunning results.
  • It is easy to use
  • Android and iOS compatibility
  • Adjust manual exposure.
  • Function for scanning documents
  • Werner Herzog-voiced audio tutorial.


  • It is expensive to purchase and to use.
  • It can be difficult to automate exposure.
  • Windows Phone support is not available.

Instant film is a popular choice despite the high price. Many instant film enthusiasts still love to buy old Polaroid cameras, load them up with Impossible film. These prints have a unique look and feel that is unlike anything else. They are glossy with a lo-fi appearance. Impossible InstantLab Universal (249) brings instant film's unique appeal to every image you load onto your smartphone. You can use it to capture a photo with your iPhone or create a well-crafted image with an SLR. Although it is expensive, the quality of its results is good enough to earn an Editors Choice Award.

Although it is easy to mistakenly call Instant Lab ($204.95 on Amazon) a printer. The Instant Lab uses a lens that projects images directly from the smartphone screen onto instant film. It is compact enough thanks to its collapsible design, and the included USB cable that charges it.

The device measures 2.8 x 5.9 x 4.4 inches at their smallest and weighs in at 1.4 pounds. It also comes with a cloth pouch. It is approximately seven inches high and requires you to open its bellows to make it work. Film loads into the base—current Impossible film packs contain 8 exposures, and sell for around $24. Compatible with SX-70 and 600 film formats.

To run Impossible Project and expose, you will need to have an Android or iOS smartphone. Although the first Instant Lab was limited to a small number of devices, the Universal Lab has three sensors. This eliminates the need for multiple sensors and allows images to be projected straight onto film. Impossible tested the Lab on many devices including the iPad Air and full-size Android phones such as the Samsung, HTC and Google.

Only one thing you need is to ensure that your device runs iOS 7 (or Android 4.0) or later versions. You should ensure that your device has a minimum of four inches screen size and a resolution of 300ppi. To be secure, it must weigh less than one pound. Windows Phone is not supported.

Simply launch the app and place the phone on the cradle to create an exposure. To start an exposure, pull out the dark slides (located at rear of base). A second audio cue will let you know when it is time to move the dark slide back into base. Then use the front button to eject your photograph. If you have difficulty hearing, the rear LED on your smartphone will light up to indicate when it is time to replace or remove the dark slide.

To protect the film from sunlight, an opaque piece is placed on top of it when it ejects. Current Impossible color film requires you to block light from hitting the image while it's developing—the process takes about 35 minutes. Impossible claims to fix this problem with its future emulsions. The first is Generation 2.0 Black & White, which does not have this issue.

Thanks to the audio tutorial, it is simple to use. The app's voiceover is by Werner Herzog, a German filmmaker and Internet star. You will be guided through using the app and device by his hypnotic voice.

You must first choose the film type you are using. Every film has an associated default exposure time. However, you can adjust the exposure by clicking in a specific area of the image. I found that the results were better when leaving the exposure at default—images tend to be a bit overexposed otherwise, as the app suggested longer exposure times for many of my test images. You can manually adjust the exposure time if you have a photo that is too bright. However, at only $3 per image you won't need to do too many trial and error.

It also has a scanner function. The app uses the camera on your smartphone to take a picture of your Polaroid printed. It will tell you how to take photos at angles to reduce reflections and also includes tools to correct keystone distortions that can be caused by shooting from an angle. You can see the images made with Instant Lab in person. Even though the best reproductions are not as good, the app also has a tool to remove keystone distortion.

The scanning function is useful if Impossible film was taken with a Polaroid camera. Flatbed scanners can be used to scan images at a better quality. However, Newton's rings are undesirable artifacts found around the areas of the image that touch the scanner glass. You can also photograph Polaroids using a macro lens and a high resolution camera. To digitize these sample images, I used the Nikon D810 (Amazon price: $1889.00) and a 55mm Micronikkor lens with manual focus.

Impossible Instant Lab Universal gives instant film-like results to digital images. Its price—and cost to operate—doesn't make it for newbies who just want to dabble in instant film (a Polaroid 600 from eBay and single starter pack of Impossible film is a better option if you want to dip your toes in the water). The Instant Lab Universal can be used if instant film is appealing to you and you want your digital images to look the same.

The Instant Lab Universal is easy-to-use, has manual exposure control and creates photos that are unlike any lab or inkjet photo printing. Although instant film is a niche product and can be expensive, it's well worth the price. The results, in my opinion, are well worth the entry fee, making Instant Lab Universal Editors Choice.

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