How to buy a photobooth
Updated: Feb 15
A guide to understanding the differences between vintage and digital photobooths.
You’ve decided to take the plunge and buy a photobooth for your home or business. You start is with a Google search and quickly realize that there are more options than you had thought for capturing those selfies. You see words like analog, chemical, dip and dunk, digital, vintage, retro, and the list goes on. You also notice contraptions that look more like an iPad than a photo booth.
If this is your first photo booth purchase, then you may have a lot more questions than answers. The purpose of this article is intended to guide those who are new to the photo booth business or simply want their own photobooth on which system to consider and why. In doing so, we need to contemplate what you desire from your photobooth, how you will use it, and how much work you are willing to do.
Common Photobooth Uses & Environments:
· Photobooth Vending (AKA Revenue Share, Photobooth Lease or Profit-Share): A photobooth that primarily stays in one location, 24/7/365, like a bar, arcade, hotel, restaurant, etc. in which photos are distributed per token, cash, coin or other payment method. With a vending photobooth business the main intent of the owner is to make profit from the machine in a particular venue. These vending photobooths must be equipped with currency acceptors such as a credit card swip, bill validator, or coin mechanism.
· Portable Photobooth Rental: A photobooth used for events that is mobile, versatile, and may be moved hundreds of times per year. These photobooths are primarily used for weddings, parties, bar or bat mitzvahs, and brand engagement. In the corporate world of branding and “experiential marketing”, these corporate event rentals are commonly referred to as “activations”. With a rental photobooth or photobooth kiosk, no currency is required. Photos are provided free via a push button or touchscreen start.
· Photobooth For Home or Studio: A photobooth in your personal studio, home, or other private and/or semi-private space. A photobooth for your home may be placed in your game room, man cave, bowling alley, or any other place where you just can’t live without it! It is also quite common for artists and photographers to have a photobooth in their studio for more artistic endeavors.
Depending on your goals, you probably already know why you want to own a photobooth. If you operate a hotel, restaurant, or an arcade, you clearly want a vending photobooth. If you are already in the event industry, or want to start a photobooth rental business, your use type is also obvious. However, what KIND of photobooth do you want to buy? This is where things can get a little murky. There are three main photobooth categories to consider:
Photobooth Types: Form & Printing Systems:
· Digital DSLR Photobooth: A photobooth producing photo strips primarily by means of DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) capture and digital photo printer. They typically use “Dye-Sublimation” printing technology, which is a very high quality 4 color thermal self-laminating print process. Unlike an inkjet, dye-sub prints are very robust and do not smear.
o Digital Photobooth PROS: A digital photobooth is by far the easiest to operate, repair and maintain. Custom digital photobooths by A&A Studios gives you a turn-key new photo booth with endless custom integration opportunities. Some of these customizations include sending photos via email & SMS, animated gifs, multiple print formats, logo overlays, double prints, as well as capturing user data. In addition, the photobooth can be monitored remotely, minimizing on-site visits. Depending on volume use, in many cases, a digital photobooth can be left unattended for many weeks or even months without any maintenance required. Digital photo booths are great for any use type and require the least amount or knowledge, skill and time, making them one of the best photo booth options out there.
o Digital Photobooth CONS: Digital photobooths rely on electronics, hardware and photo booth software. On occasion, upgrades or replacements may be required. A 5-7yr life span can be expected on systems that have heavy use, like in a vending environment. Some items, like strobe lighting may need to be replaced every 18-36 months. However, these components are much easier to troubleshoot and replace as opposed to a chemical photobooth.
· Open Air Photobooth (AKA Selfie Station, iPad Photo Booth, Mirror Booth): The Open-Air concept is essentially any photobooth that doesn’t have an enclosure. From my perspective, if there is no photo booth shell (i.e. no booth) then this is NOT A PHOTOBOOTH. However, the term has unfortunately stuck, and now nearly anything with a DSLR camera is erroneously termed “photobooth”. I commonly refer to these open air systems as “iPads on a stick”. Open Air photo booths commonly use the lowest quality equipment and software, such as iPads and laptops. In many cases, they do not even provide a physical print out. In addition, these machines are clearly identifiable with their green screens, lack of design aesthetic, and poor quality of construction. They are designed primarily for budget rental companies, weekend warriors, and DJ’s looking to make a quick small profit without much effort. Therefore, these ipad photo booths are almost always intended for the event and activations market. A&A Studios does not sell or market “Open-Air” booth designs and concepts. However, if you want a unique untraditional photo booth design, we can work with you to design something that creates quality images with high-end aesthetics.
o Open Air Photobooth: PROS: Inexpensive and easy to transport.
o Open Air Photobooth: CONS: Tacky, unattractive, and low-quality image capture. Not a high-quality experience or output. Not a wise investment for anyone who wants to stand out against the competition.
· Vintage Photobooth with Chemicals (AKA: Analog Dip & Dunk): Chemical photobooths, as the name implies, use photographic chemistry and light-sensitive paper to produce photo strips. These analog photobooths have not been manufactured in a factory setting since the late 1990’s. Therefore, all vintage chemical booths on the market today are either used or sold as restored machines. Analog photobooths have a variety of model names, manufacturers and some variety in their processing systems. However, all of them rely on the reversal process. (For more on that subject process see our blog post). There is no intermediate film negative, as such, the image is exposed directly onto the paper as a negative, then reversed to a positive via the chemical process.
o Vintage Photobooth with Chemicals PROS: Amazing archival quality photos with rich depth on true photographic paper with the classic 1-5/8” x 8” photo strip. Cool factor: It is pretty rare to own one of these antiques and they are getting harder to find. Vintage chemical booths are great for personal use and in some residential settings IF they have good ventilation (See cons on chemistry as to why you need proper ventilation).
o Vintage Photobooth with Chemicals CONS: To start, analog photo booths lack almost all of the customization and remote access features available with digital units. While that’s a setback, there are larger issues that hamper their desirability. Foremost, vintage chemical photobooths are known for being unstable, prone to breakdown with various fits of jams, chemical issues, electrical hiccups, and strobe problems, to name just a few. It should also be noted that analog photobooths employ 110AC voltage and a wire harness (connections) that are placed perilously close to wet chemistry and moving parts. This can be very dangerous, possibly lethal, for those who are not experienced photobooth operators.
Vintage analog photobooths also use hazardous chemicals that are corrosive, toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic, and bioaccumulative. Therefore, chemicals MUST be disposed of through a third party disposal company, which is costly. Dumping these chemicals down a municipal drain is both illegal and ecologically irresponsible. Due to these toxic concerns, governmental agencies around the world have designated some of the ingredients in photobooth chemistry as “substances of very high concern”. This means that the future of these ingredients is possibly subject to an outright ban or restricted use of the highest order, making analog photobooth operation uncertain. This is especially a concern for photobooth operators in the United Kingdom and European Union. Shipping photobooth chemistry requires hazardous material designation and cannot be transported via air. These chemicals also require special HAZMAT and MSDS documentation when be transported across borders, making it more difficult to import and export them.
Analog photobooths need weekly maintenance with frequent chemical adjustments, chemical changes, and cleaning. A chemical photobooth will last a very long time if properly maintained and cared for; however, the long term availability of the photobooth paper is questionable. As of 2021, only one factory in the world, located in Russia, still produces limited runs of B&W paper designed specifically for photobooths. Production of color photobooth paper stopped in the early 2000’s. Therefore, future paper stocks are always at risk of going extinct, making your investment a potentially very large paperweight. With all of these factors in mind, chemical photobooths are best suited for environments where a technical support operator is always nearby. Vintage photobooths are not ideal for vending or events due their weight and temperamental nature. Unfortunately, given all of the frustrations and challenges with analog photoboooths, we often see business owners giving up and their machines becoming derelict.
Our Recommendation: Digital Retro Photobooth
For those not already in the dip and dunk photobooth industry, we always advise going with a digital retro photobooth system no matter what your use type is. If you want things to run smoothly with the least amount of headaches, a digital photobooth is the smartest and most efficient option. If profit is NOT your main objective and you enjoy countless hours tinkering and fixing problems, you may be well suited for a vintage chemical photoboth. A&A Studios offers fully customizable “Digital-Retro Photobooths” that are the perfect combination vintage aesthetics, with the ease and flexibility of modern digital systems.
The Digital-Analog Divide
When I started A&A Studios, I already had extensive experience in photography, darkroom process, electro-mechanical expertise, as well as a background in architectural practice. There was no doubt in my mind that there was nothing that I could not tackle in the photobooth world. While I was inevitably successful in my pursuits, I was quickly humbled in the beginning by just how nuanced and complex these machines are. While photo booths can be complicated, learning about how to buy a photo booth doesn’t need to be.
Since its inception in 1839, photography has been a confluence of art and science amidst a seemingly never-ending cascade of invention. Talbot and Daguerre, the defacto fathers of photography, fought various campaigns in an effort to convince the photographic community that their method was superior. Eventually, both of their processes over a century, with the help of many innovators (like George Eastman’s Kodak, Edwin Lan’s Polaroid, Agfa Etc.), would come to form the backbone of modern commercial and amateur photography.
Flash forward to the year 2000, when digital cameras were just starting to be a commercially viable replacement to film photography. Just over 20 years later, digital photography has eviscerated the analog market without much of a fight. Digital photography has become a ubiquitous part of the human experience via smartphones, social media and other facets of everyday life.
Today, more images are produced within 24hrs than in all of 1850. There has been resurgence in analog practices amongst artists, digital natives, and hobbyists, but there has been no crushing wave or revolt devastating mainstream digital photography. Make no mistake; analog photography has indeed lost the popular photography war. As someone who sharpened his teeth in the darkroom as a teenager, I surely lament that shift.
Does that mean film photography is dead? Certainly not! It is alive and well for those who appreciate a slower and more revealing photographic practice. With all that said, the swarm of common arguments that one medium is better than the other are just plain silly. Anyone who has worked with film commercially may never want to look back from digital. Conversely, for those who relish in the magic of looking through a negative on the light box, or watching a print emerge in developer under the dim red light, digital can never compare. Both mediums have their place and neither is inherently better (in the opinion of this writer). Like many others, I have always argued that the image, story and experience captured should, and often does, transcend the medium. The other arguments can be left to those who peep pixels and pour plates.
Alas, this article is not intended to be a history of photography or a technical investigation on the merits of any given photographic medium. The brief aforementioned history is illustrated simply to understand some of the passions behind the digital-analog divide that is also present in the photobooth world.
No matter what system you have or decide to go with, we can help provide solutions to all of your photo booth needs. Contact us today for a one-on-one photobooth consultation.