Gear Review: Polaroid Cube Camera

Polaroid Cube
Polaroid Cube

Ultralight Point-and-Shoot Camera
Polaroid Cube
$100, 2 oz.

Anyone who’s lamented the weight and bulk of photography equipment in the backcountry—but wants to bring pictures back from every trip—can’t help but be curious about a point-and-shoot camera that weighs two ounces, is the size of an ultralight headlamp, cost just 100 bucks, and shoots 6-megapixel photos and high-definition 1080p video. That it comes from Polaroid, the company that changed consumer photography with instant cameras, only heightens the interest. So I picked up a Polaroid Cube for a six-day rafting trip down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River to see what kind of pictures and video it could produce.

Middle Fork Salmon River.
Middle Fork Salmon River.

The photos and video in this review were all shot with the Cube (except for the picture of the Cube, of course). In the interest of showing the raw quality of the jpegs produced by the Cube, I didn’t edit them as I normally would all photos I take. With the simplest photo-editing software, even a free one like Picasa, you could improve these pictures. But the Cube produced images that are acceptably sharp for many novice photographers, with infinite depth of field (everything in focus) and good contrast. One photo (not included here) was heavily green, a problem that occasionally arises from bright sunshine flooding directly into the Cube, throwing off its white balance, according to a spokesperson for Polaroid; but that can be corrected in editing. Like many basic, point-and-shoot cameras, the Cube has trouble getting a balanced exposure if you have too large a contrast range within the frame, such as having the sun in or very near the background. The short video clip of my son catching a trout in the Middle Fork has decent image quality.

My son, Nate, fishing the Middle Fork Salmon River
My son, Nate, fishing the Middle Fork Salmon River

The Cube’s wide-angle lens provides a 124-degree perspective (Polaroid says it cannot convert that to a millimeter measure as for standard camera lenses). The lithium battery will shoot 90 minutes of video before needing to be recharged (using a USB cord, included); the charge lasts longer for photos. A screw cap on the Cube’s back side accesses the mini-SD memory card, recharging port, and a switch to toggle between lower-quality 720p and high-definition, 1080p video, which uses more memory. (With a 32 GB memory card, there’s little need to shoot in 720p.) The Cube is splash-proof, but I also got a plastic case (sold separately, $25; with suction mount, $40) that’s waterproof to 10 meters and completely protected the Cube so I could shoot as our raft went through whitewater rapids on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. A 32 GB memory card, required to operate the Cube, is sold separately for $24.

Grant Porter of Middle Fork Rapid Transmit on Idaho's Middle Fork Salmon River.
Grant Porter of Middle Fork Rapid Transmit on Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River.

There are some downsides to such a simple and lightweight camera: There’s no indicator light for remaining battery charge. The suction mount I obtained with the waterproof case doesn’t have curved shape, so I couldn’t mount it on a helmet. But most problematic is the lack of a viewfinder—you don’t really know what’s framed in any picture when you aim the Cube. As an avid photographer, I found that disconcerting, and some of my shots were not framed the way I’d hoped. But I suspect you can get better at that with practice, and many casual shooters might not mind, anyway, given the Cube’s supreme convenience and tiny size.

The Cube Plus, $150, due out this month, will shoot 8-megapixel photos and 1440p video and sync to smartphones and tablets via wifi, allowing you to use either device as a viewfinder for the Cube Plus.

See my “12 Simple Tips For Taking Better Outdoor Photos” and “Ask Me: What Camera Equipment Do You Carry in the Backcountry?” See also all of my reviews of backpacking gear and hiking gear that I like and my stories “Buying Gear? Read This First,” “5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear,” “The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun,” and “Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?

NOTE: I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.

—Michael Lanza

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