These Are the Analog Cameras That Inspired Instagram

A brief history of the iconic photography app

Credit: Photograph (left) courtesy of Gado Images’ camera library; Instagram (right).

The next time you fire up the Instagram app to post a masked selfie or a close-up of the food from your socially distanced car picnic, pause for a moment and take a look at the app’s logo. What do you see? The app’s logo is clearly a stylized camera.

Instagram’s logo is an amalgam of several analog film cameras, dating back to the 1950s. And the connections between today’s ‘gram and the analog cameras of yore are more than skin deep — several iconic film cameras inspired the app’s basic functionality, its format, and its very reason for existing.

In the 1960s, American photography giant Kodak had a problem. Affluent post-war Americans loved to photograph their growing families and idyllic suburban lives. But film cameras were getting more complex and more challenging for amateurs to operate. They were also getting harder to load. Amateur photographers in the 1950s would often load a roll of film, take snapshots throughout a vacation or special event, and send the film for processing, only to discover that they’d loaded their film incorrectly or set up their camera wrong, and their photos were unusable.

Wanting to sell more film and more cameras, Kodak came up with a solution. They introduced a new line of simplified, pared-down cameras: the Instamatics. Instamatic cameras used a special film cartridge called the Kodapak (most photographers refer to it by its technical name, 126 film). Amateur photographers could pop a Kodapak into their Instamatic camera, shoot photos with almost no setup, pop the Kodapack back out when they were finished, and send it to Kodak for processing.

The cameras’ simple controls meant they were inexpensive and easy to use, and the Kodapak eliminated the need for finicky film loading and unloading. Kodak developed a flash that used a tiny explosive charge, eliminating the need for batteries in many Instamatic cameras. The Instamatic 100 came out in 1963 and cost about $140 in 2021 dollars.

Instamatics revolutionized amateur photography. Almost anyone could purchase an Instamatic camera and take snapshots of their lives. And they did — in the 1960s–1970s alone, Kodak reportedly sold 60 million of the cameras. Film for Instamatics went out of production years ago. But because 126 film is the same width as modern 35mm film, you can still roll your own (I own several Instamatics and love using them).

Instamatics took photos in a square format, which would become iconic. In 1972, another camera company copied the square format, adding their own innovations: Polaroid. Polaroid produced instant-film cameras, which take photos that self-develop a few minutes after they’re shot. While their first camera launched in 1948, Polaroid came into its own in 1972, with the launch of instant film that didn’t require any additional work from the user in order to self-develop.

Like Instamatics, Polaroid cameras are all about simplicity and capturing fleeting moments. In the 1970s, major artists like Andy Warhol and David Hockney became enamored with the cameras and their square format and took thousands of instant photos. Polaroid film is still produced, and early Polaroid cameras remain popular today.

In 1982, Polaroid and Instamatics’ square format — and the need for a cheap snapshot camera — inspired another new photographic creation: the Holga. Invented in Hong Kong by a Chinese entrepreneur, Holgas were cheap, plastic cameras that took square photos on medium-format film. They served many of the same needs as Instamatics, but for the Chinese market. Over time Western photographers started buying up Holgas. Because of their plastic lenses and low-quality construction, the cameras lent all kinds of strange effects (weird hues, vignettes, etc.) to the photos taken with them, which many photographers loved.

As the BBC reports, this photographic legacy would all come to bear when a young Stanford University undergraduate named Kevin Systrom traveled to Florence, Italy, as part of a photography study-abroad program. Systrom came equipped with a high-end Nikon camera. But his instructor — likely wanting to teach basic principles — had Systrom shoot with a Holga instead. Systrom reportedly loved the camera. Several years later, Systrom would join forces with business partner Mike Krieger to launch a tiny cult photography app: Instagram.

From day one, Instagram was littered with features and concepts inspired (or directly cribbed) from the trifecta of Instamatic, Polaroid, and Holga. The app’s name is a portmanteau of “instant” and “gram," with the instant part referring to instant cameras like Polaroids. The name may be inspired by Instamatics, too. Systrom said on the original Instagram website that the name was based in part on “old cameras we played with as kids,” though it’s unlikely Systrom would ever admit a direct connection to the Instamatic brand, for fear of running afoul of the still-extant Kodak’s trademarks.

Instagram’s original logo — which Systrom designed — was less an homage to Polaroid than a direct copy of one of the company’s designs. The early logo looks exactly like a Polaroid Land Camera 1000, down to the camera’s iconic rainbow stripe and rectangular flash.

Polaroid Land Camera 1000, courtesy Wikimedia (left), original Instagram logo (right) via Quora

When Instagram revamped its logo for the first time, its designer Cole Rise based the new logo on a 120 format camera similar to the Holga. Rise even created an unofficial back for the logo, which includes the “120” marking of a medium format film camera, making the connection explicit.

These early cameras inspired much of Instagram’s functionality, too. According to the BBC, chief among these was the app’s square format, which it shares with all three cameras. Square photos are orientation-agnostic (it doesn’t matter how you hold the camera when you take them) and look great in a grid, and most Instagram photos are square even today. The square format also harkens back to Polaroids and other early snapshot photos, cementing the app’s place in a long line of technologies for casual snapshot photography.

The app’s filters, too, mimic the aesthetics of vintage cameras. Just as cheaply made Holgas transformed photos by lending their own unique patinas and distortions, Instagram filters took photos from low-quality early cellphones and elevated them into something more striking and more artistic. “It would be hard to argue that [Instagram filters] didn’t take their inspiration from the Holga or the creative ‘toy camera’ movement,” expert Adam Scott told the BBC in 2017.

But perhaps the strongest affirmation of Instagram’s connection to vintage cameras came in 2016 when the company redesigned its logo for a third time. The process reportedly took nine months. When Instagram launched the new logo, they also released a video dramatizing the process of designing it.

The video shows the hands of a fictional design team dismantling the company’s second logo as upbeat music plays. On a table with a real vintage Vivitar SLR in the foreground, a series of illustrations of analog cameras — including an Instamatic 100 — rapidly flashes by.

As the video progresses, the old logo slowly transforms into the new one. At one point, the old logo is sliced in two and paired up with the new one, as vintage cameras (including a Holga) are similarly bisected and paired with stylized line drawings of themselves.

Instamatic 100 from Instagram’s concept video (left), Actual Instamatic 100 camera (right). Credit: Gado Images’ camera library

Ultimately, the old logo and the vintage cameras fall away, the tempo and key of the music change to something more upbeat, a final barrage of designs flashes past, and we’re left with the new Instagram logo (still in use today) against a clean, white background.

The video’s message is clear — Instagram has launched a modernized design for its logo, but that design is directly connected to the company’s past. And it’s directly connected to analog cameras, too — including both the Instamatics and the Holgas that helped to inspire the app and its features. The new logo isn’t as explicitly connected to a specific camera as Instagram’s original Polaroid-inspired logo, but it does bear a striking resemblance to the front elements of an Instamatic X-15 (shown at the top of this article).

Instagram has always been about sharing casual snapshots of your daily life (either your real one or some idealized version). In that way, the app is very much the conceptual and spiritual descendent of the snapshot cameras that preceded it. From its square format to its transformative filters, to its name and the design of its logo, Instagram draws on the Instamatics, Holgas, Polaroids, and the other vintage cameras that inspired it. Even as the app has broadened its reach, that connection — and that inspiration — has remained.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store