I recently finished the book Instant – The Story of Polaroid by Christopher Bonanos. The book recounts the story of the Polaroid company from the birth of Polaroid inventor Edwin Herbert Land in 1909 through a number of incredible creative successes, a decades-long courtcase against Kodak, the 2001 bankruptcy and beyond to the birth of the Impossible Project. Bonanos’s book reads like a novel, a page-turner, in part because of the writing, but also because the history of the Polaroid company is that full of magic. And isn’t that fitting? When I shoot Polaroid, I feel that magic myself.
Legend has it that Edwin Land came up with the idea of instant photography in 1943 after coming back from a walk with his 3-year-old daughter. They had been taking photos, and his daughter supposedly asked him: “Why can’t I see the picture now?” I remember so well from my own childhood the magic of getting to see the picture immediately.
Me, sometime in the mid-eighties. Photo credit to either my Dad or my Grandfather.
A couple of years ago I noticed that more and more of my Flickr acquaintances were shooting Polaroid again. Remembering the sense of wonder Polaroid photography evokes, I realised I wanted to do the same. But with so many different camera types out there, where to start? This post is a recounting of my Polaroid experiences to date with the three main types of so-called integral film cameras, where integral refers to film that integrates the entire process of development so that the photographer doesn’t have to do anything but watch as the image emerges from the camera. I hope it can be of use to you if you are just starting out with Polaroid, and if you are an experienced Polaroid shooter, I would love to hear about your own experiences and how they compare to mine.
I first started looking for second-hand Polaroids for sale in Norway. At this point I knew nothing at all about Polaroid cameras. The best choice I found at the time – I could afford it and knew that the Impossible Project was producing film for it – was a Polaroid 650. This is the familiar classic, black, box-y Polaroid camera type from the 1980s, and turned out to be a great choice. This is the very first image I shot with my Polaroid 650. To this day it remains my favourite of my own Polaroid work.
I like my 650 for being solid and dependable. There are no fiddly bits I have to be careful with and it has never had a mechanical failure. The settings are of course somewhat limited; there is an exposure correction slider and a focus slider with two settings, 1,2 m – infinity and 0,6 – 1,2 m.
And speaking of focus: according to the Land List, the 650 differs from its predecessor the 640 in that it has a built-in ‘close-up’ lens for subjects closer than 6 feet. In my experience, this lens doesn’t make much of a difference; I’ve found that this camera usually doesn’t do well with close-ups, as you can see for example from the rather ghostly wine glasses and candles in the foreground here.
All in all, just like Kirstin in her post 5 Tips for Polaroid Beginners, I recommend a Polaroid 600 type of camera if you’re just starting out.
Bosanos talks about the Polaroid company’s projects during World War II, which included but was certainly not limited to bomb sights and flight goggles. When the war ended, Polaroid had to find something else to make money on, and turned from the art of war to a far more peaceful and life-affirming pursuit – the art of instant photography. The last two projects before the war ended in 1945? They were called SX-68 and SX-69. Thus the apparently un-pretentious and opaque name ‘SX-70’ fits the camera perfectly when we know that SX stands for ‘Special Experiment’.
There hardly exists a more elegant – or magical – camera than the SX-70. First released in 1972, this was Polaroid’s first integral film camera. When folded down, it is flat and compact and easy to carry, but it un-folds with just one click to become this stylish, distinctive-looking camera.
My SX-70 used to be my Grandfather’s, and came to me by way of my Dad. When I got it, the first thing I did – before even testing it with film in – was to photograph it.
When it comes to actually using the SX-70, I have had mixed results. On the one hand, the focus system of the SX-70 – which is in fact an SLR – is a lot better than on the 650. When the stars align – that is, when the film is good and the light is just so and I managed to set the exposure dial correctly – I have achieved the most delicious bokeh with this camera.
I shot this for Roid Week 2012 using expired, original Polaroid film.
Then there are all the times when the stars don’t align. The primary reason for my SX-70 failures are due to Impossible Project’s PX 70 film. I struggle to compensate correctly for the fact that it’s a very fast film, and often end up with images that are either over- or underexposed. That being said, the PX 70 film has such a charming look that I enjoy the results anyway.
The SX-70 does not have the comforting solidity of the 650, but is rather a delicate instrument. The auto-focus on mine sometimes gets ‘stuck’, making the camera produce a weird ticking sound. The collapsible bellows is fragile and, from what I have read, very difficult to replace. I have not had any serious mechanical trouble with it so far, and I plan to keep it that way.
Next up on my list of Polaroid experiments is to shoot more with my Spectra (thanks to Mortal Muses founder Tammy Lee Bradley!). The Spectra was a new line of integral cameras introduced in 1986. It uses a film type that is slightly wider than other types of integral film, and the camera itself has a lot more settings: to mention some, you can turn off the flash, a huge advantage compared to my 650, there is a self-timer, which makes it perfect for double exposures and self-portrait work, and you can turn off the autofocus.
Living in Norway, Polaroid film is all the more expensive and difficult to get hold of, so I haven’t shot much with this camera yet, but I look forward to treating myself to some film and enjoying the challenge of shooting a wider film than I’m used to.
The first Spectra image I shot with the old film that came with the camera.
There is so much to know about instant photography and its history. Here are a few resources that I enjoy.
- Jennifer Altman, Susannah Conway and Amanda Gilligan: Instant Love
- Christopher Bonanos: Instant. The Story of Polaroid
On the Mortal Muses
- Debra: Tips for Shooting Polaroid Film When it’s Cold Outside
- Debra: Double Exposures with the Spectra
- Kirstin: Five Tips for Polaroid Beginners
- Lindsey: Why she thinks the Spectra is a great camera
- Lindsey: Self-portraits with a Spectra
- Meghan: Peel-apart Film and Polaroid Pack Cameras
- All Mortal Muses posts tagged “Polaroid”
Online resources and inspiration
- The Land List: “An Ongoing Project in Cataloging Polaroid Cameras”
- Instant Options
- The Polagirlsclub
~ Happy ‘Roid Week from Jenny.