The Art of the Polaroid

Susannah and her SX-70 | SusannahConway.com

I regularly get emails asking my advice about which Polaroid camera to buy and how to use it, so I thought it would be useful to collect together some advice and links here on the site. (Also recommend checking out our book, Instant Love, as there’s much more thorough info in there!)

Even though Polaroid stopped producing film back in 2009, instant photography has never been more popular thanks to The Impossible Project taking up the mantle and recreating film for the cameras we love. In all honesty instant photography is an addiction and once you’ve started you’ll find yourself dreaming in little squares and spending your rent money on film… or maybe that’s just me. You have been warned!

I have many different Polaroid cameras but the two I use most frequently are my SX-70 (bought on eBay) and Land Camera 195 (bought from the awesome Cory at Landcameras.com). When buying any camera from eBay make sure you read the description carefully – you’re looking for a camera that’s been TESTED with film and works smoothly, preferably with clean rollers and lens/viewfinder.  There will be many cameras offered that were ‘found in my father’s attic’ and sold as seen – avoid those as they probably won’t work. I stalked eBay for weeks until I found the right camera to bid for. Be patient!

Impossible Project video: guide to buying a vintage SX-70 camera

The SX-70

SX-70 Polaroid camera | SusannahConway.com

Hands down, the SX-70 is my favourite, and not just because it looks so lovely. Before I understood about these things I thought any old Polaroid would do, but it won’t. The reason? This is an SLR (single lens reflex) camera which means you can manually focus and get lovely shallow depth-of-field effects (when the object in the foreground is in focus and the background is blurred out? That’s a shallow DOF).

Magnolia blossom | SusannahConway.com

What film to use?

The SX-70 was originally designed to take SX-70 (Time Zero) film but once that was discontinued Polaroid shooters started using 600 film in their SX-70s. Sadly that film has now also been discontinued (that was a very sad day indeed, let me tell you) so you now have two options…

1. You can still buy actual Polaroid film on eBay (mainly 600), but the prices are extortionate as sellers wise up to how rare the film is. I would strongly advise you NOT to buy film on eBay as it’s overpriced and you have no guarantee that the film has been stored correctly (all film should be kept in a fridge). Plus all original Polaroid film is now long past its expiry date which at best means yellowed film and at worst could mean a dead battery = the film pack won’t work in your camera.

2. Your best bet is to head to The Impossible Project (TIP) website and try out the new instant films they’re creating for Polaroid cameras. Every new batch of film is getting better and better — the B&W film is especially good — so invest in the company that’s keeping the instant flame alive (I’m not affliated with the company at all, by the way — just very grateful to them :D

TIP film is still a wee bit experiemental and you’ll need to shield your shots as soon as they’re ejected from your camera to protect them from the light (they say the newest film doesn’t need this but I still do it just to be sure) — use either a PX shade or the dark slide that’s ejected from the film pack. Spend some time on the TIP website to learn how to get the best results from the film.

Sunday brunch | SusannahConway.com

If you come across a few packs of 600 and want to use them in your SX-70 you’ll need to make a few modifications to your camera for the film to work properly. 600 film is four times more sensitive than SX-70 film, which leaves you with very over exposed photos (pale and washed out). To remedy this you have a few options:1. Remove the ND (neutral density) filter over the electric eye on the front of the camera
2. Use a 1-stop ND filter over the lens (tutorial for 1 & 2), or
3. Use an ND filter over the film pack
Alternatively you can set the exposure dial all the way to ‘darken’

The modifications sound complicated and put most people off; it did me at first too. I got as far as removing the filter from the electric eye (excellent tutorial in pictures here) and then found I couldn’t replace it with the clear plastic suggested (plastic was just too thick). So I left the filter off and now simply adjust the exposure dial to darken the photo – indoor shots don’t need much but in bright sunlight the dial is turned all the way to darken. I can’t tell you how far you need to turn the exposure dial as it will depend on where you are and how your camera works, so you need to spend some time getting to know your SX-70. Be prepared to ‘waste’ a few packs of film as you experiment. I don’t bother using an ND filter on the film, but you might want to try – just make sure you keep it dust-free otherwise you’ll get marks on your photos.

Field | SusannahConway.com

Getting the 600 film pack inside the camera is another operation, but simplicity itself after you’ve done it once. From the Found Photography tutorial: ‘When you look inside the empty space where the film will go, you will see a piece of square metal sticking up. This spring is what catches on the two center “nubs” of the 600 film cartridge. You can either cut the nubs off, or you can use a card, or old Polaroid picture, to cover the nubs as you slide the film in… [continue reading here and watch a video clip here - she also shows you how to use a ND filter on the film pack]

Land camera 195

Polaroid 250 Land Camera | SusannahConway.com

My other favourite camera is my 195, which looks almost exactly like the camera in the photo above with one important difference: the 195 is fully manual so I have the ability to set the shutter speed and aperture. This is the game changer, friends. Before I invested in my 195 I was getting adequate shots out of my 250, but now I can control the shutter speed and aperture? Perfectly exposed shots almost every time (you still get a few duds, but that’s part of the fun ;-).


Shots taken with my 195 | SusannahConway.com

Obviously, to be able to use a 195 you also need a light meter. Polaroid no longer makes film for these beautiful cameras so I use the very lovely Fuji FP-100C pack film. The ISO is 100 so you need plenty of light or a tripod.

Sadly (and stupidly) Fuji have discontinued their B&W film (FP-3000B) but for now you can still purchase packs in camera stores and online.

Polaroid cameras | SusannahConway.com

Obviously the SX-70 and 195 are just two of the many different camera models Polaroid produced over the years. The Impossible Project also makes film for Spectra cameras — readily available on eBay for a fraction of the price of their SX-70 sisters — and as mentioned above Fuji still make pack film you can use in the various Land cameras. Lots more info on both of those in the book and in Amanda’s blog post here.

The Impossible Project film

 

Karen | SusannahConway.com

The Impossible Project launched in 2009 with a sacred mission to ‘re-invent and re-start production of analog integral film for vintage Polaroid cameras’, which they achieved! TIP are now selling their own brand B&W and colour integral film in their online store. The new film is designed to be used in your vintage Polaroid camera — read more about their journey here and here.


5th Avenue, NYC | SusannahConway.comMusic Hall | SusannahConway.comAllpress in Shoreditch | SusannahConway.comLaurabell | SusannahConway.com

But haven’t Polaroid just launched a new instant camera?

 The ‘new’ Polaroid 300 camera is in fact a Fuji Instax Mini camera (below) with Polaroid branding on it — the big wigs who now own the Polaroid brand name were canny enough to jump back on the instant film bandwagon (despite having discontinued their own film, a decision I’m guessing they might now be regretting!). Fuji has continued to make instant film for cameras and the Instax mini has been around for a few years; it has a fixed focus lens and produces cute business card-sized photos. While it can’t be compared to the wonders of the SX-70 and 195, it is definitely a fun camera to play with — I’ll be giving mine to my nephew when he is old enough to use it (every child should have an instant camera!)

You can buy the Instax Mini from Amazon and Photo Jojo.

Fuji Instax | SusannahConway.com

How do you get your Polaroids on your site?

I scan all my Polaroid shots with my Epson 4490* scanner (using a resolution of 400 dpi with the image size set to 8×8 inches) and use Photoshop to remove any dust from the resulting scans. I also adjust the colour to get the image as close to the original shot as possible – I use Image > Adjustments > Selective Colour. If needed I’ll lighten the image using Curves… and that’s it :)

* Just upgraded to the Epson V700 – I can recommend both scanners for Polaroid scanning

Useful links

Our book, Instant Love: How to Make Magic and Memories with Polaroids (Chronicle Books) is definitely worth a read :)

Roger Garell sells reconditioned SX-70s, Land cameras & accessories on eBay
Cory at landcameras.com sells reconditioned Land cameras & accessories
Nate also sells reconditioned & modified cameras
Gerri sells tested Polaroid cameras including Spectras and 600s
SX-70 on Wikipedia
Polaroid SX-70 Flickr group
Polaroid 680 Flickr group
Peel apart (pack) film Flickr group
The Impossible Project
Polaroid manuals
Original SX-70 info film by Charles & Ray Eames
Polanoid
How Polaroid film works
How to do emulsion lifts
The Hacker’s Guide to the SX-70

Some Polaroids I love:

Jen Gotch’s April in Paris
Cori Kindred
Matt Meyer
Andrea Jenkins
Jen Altman
Amanda Gilligan
Grant Hamilton
Sarah Rubens
Brooke Schmidt
Chloe Aftel
Annette Pehrsson