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Rediscover Polaroid

Wow_1 In our era of five megapixel camera phones, ceaseless Kodak downsizing, and the discontinuation of most film cameras, it would seem that silver halide photography has taken up residence with typewriters as curiosities of the 20th century.  For a photographer, the digital revolution opens possibilities of technique and experimentation unavailable to all but the most accomplished professional photographers of years past.

Yet, there is something missing in the perfection of digital images and the creative control of Adobe Photoshop.  When image processing was new, 'overprocessed' was a style en vogue.  Like all new techniques, it had its hour of fashion.  Today, it is tiresome.  The image inside the picture has lost all nuance.  More often than not, digital photos are 'even better than the real thing'. 

Within the photographic artist is the desire for subtle imperfection; the same desire that drives audiophiles towards vinyl records and vacuum tube amplifiers.  Analog images enhance the human emotional experience because they accurately record the imperfection of the real world.

So, what is a photographer to do?  Shooting film offers a century of experiments in style, composition, technique, and alternative chemistries. However, film has one big detraction; a downside that the digital revolution has steamrolled past in the 21st century: the turnaround between taking the picture and having it developed. 

Every film photographer will tell you about the shots they lost because the lens cap was on, the film was bad, the camera setting was incorrect, or their own technique was mistaken.  In the film era, one only found out about these critical mistakes days or weeks later when the film was developed and processed.  By this time, the shot was lost forever.  Digital changed all of this with the tiny video screen on the back of each camera.

However, the inventors of the digital camera were not the first to solve this problem of image turnaround.  In 1947, a Harvard dropout was driven to invent by the impatience of his three year old daughter: "Daddy, why can't I see my pictures NOW!".  His name was Edwin Land and his company was Polaroid.

Today most people think of Polaroid photos as a novelty item.  A Polaroid captures attention but many people consider its pictures to be of low quality.  This is unfortunate because, as a professional photographers know, the Polaroid product line extends well beyond the average film and low-quality cameras carried in the drugstore.  Few know that Ansel Adams, perhaps the most popular landscape photographer of the 20th century, used Polaroid film for many of his most famous shots.  In fact, Adams' photography would not have been possible without a Polaroid film that gave him the ability to proof each shot in the field as it was taken.  Many other artists used Polaroid exclusively for the its unique properties and singular quality.

The association of Polaroid with novelty is also unfortunate because gently used, very high quality cameras are available at low cost; often lower than the cost of a single pack of film. 

In the transition from digital back to film one becomes a better artist.  Being aware of film's per shot costs makes for a better photographer.  Instead of popping off bad shots, one after another, you begin to think, "Is this picture worth $0.50?  Am I taking the time to compose it properly?  Am I standing in the right place?  Am I waiting for the right moment?"  While you have something to lose, you also have something to gain.

Most Polaroids also offer something that has become rare in our commodified, digital world; something even traditional film cannot deliver: a one of a kind artifact.  A film negative can be printed again and again.  By definition, a copy of a digital photograph is identical to the original.  A Polaroid print is unique. The copy of a Polaroid is similar to a print of a lithograph, an imperfect reproduction.

Different Polaroid camera and films will excite a photographer depending on their particular style and interests.  Instant films are made by Polaroid and Fujifilm and fall into four basic types.

Basic Categories of Instant Film

  • B&W
    • Polaroid 667, Fuji FP-3000B, Polaroid 57: This is a very high speed film (ISO 3000) without detractable grain and a nice tonal quality.  Because of its high speed, one can shoot in ambient light in almost any situation and not need to resort to flash photography.
    • Polaroid 52: A unique tonal response and very wide dynamic range makes this film unique.  It was a favorite of Ansel Adams and many other artists.
    • Polaroid 665, 55: This film delivers both a print and a large format negative (though generally not at the same time).  This film is a favorite of Annie Leibovitz for its instant results and opportunities for extreme enlargement.
  • Sepia
    • Polaroid 56: Produces instant sepia-toned prints that provide a unique look.
  • Color
    • 600, 779, and Spectra: The classic plastic encased Polaroid film.  The 779 and Spectra films provide a more vibrant and sharper image than the 600 film you'll find in the drug store.  All of the integral films can be used for image manipulation, i.e. using blunt objects to move the liquid film products around inside the plastic during development to create a very unique look.
    • Polaroid 669: A color film that is amenable to image transfer and emulsion lift, i.e. lifting the image off of the print and placing it onto metal, plastic, specialty papers or other surfaces.
    • Polaroid 690, Fuji FP100-C, etc: Very sharp and vivid instant color without the plastic of integral films.
    • Fuji Instax : Also known as Polaroid mio, this film is no longer available in the USA.  It can be purchased in Canada and online.  It is a color integral film like Type 600 but its prints are the size of a credit card and fit perfectly in any wallet.

The Packaging of Instant Film

  • Integral Film - This is the icon of Polaroid.  You press a button and a picture is ejected from the front of the camera.  The picture then develops before your eyes.  It has a white bar on the bottom and is encased in plastic.  The image size ranges from credit card size through 3.6" x 2.9".
  • Pack Film - This film type is also known as 'peel-apart' instant film because one removes it from the camera, waits a specified development time, and then peels apart two sheets to retrieve the finished picture.  This type of film is not encased in plastic and the print is not immediately recognized as a Polaroid.  The image size is 3 1/4" x 4 1/4".
  • Sheet Film - This film type is very similar to the pack film in that it is 'peel-apart'.  However, instead of coming in packs of 10 exposures, each sheet is loaded separately.  This allows a photographer to use removable back cameras and choose the film type (Polaroid, negative, slide, color, B&W) for each exposure.  The image size is either 4" x 5" or 8" x 10".
  • Huge Sheet Film - This film is special order and you will never use it.  It is available in a number different sizes as large as 3.5 ft across by 9 ft high.  It is used in a few special cameras around the world for studio portraiture.  The print quality is pretty incredible and needs to be seen in person.  If you pay attention, you can find one at a traveling museum exhibit near you.

Whatever film you choose to use, expense is an issue.  Search online for the best prices.  Drug stores and local camera shops have the worst pricing.  However, you can check out local camera shops and ask for expired film.  Expired B&W film often shows no signs of aging.  Expired color film sometimes has shifts in the hue of developed prints.  Depending on your technique, this may or may not be desirable.  Generally you can purchase expired film at 60-70% off the retail price. 

Recommended Cameras for Shooting Polaroid Film

  • SX-70: This was the original integral film camera and it is still very popular today.  An original, leather bound SX-70 may cost between $50-100.  A later model, sans leather and sometimes with sonar autofocus, can cost as little as $5.  The original SX-70 film has been discontinued but for about $10 you can modify this camera to shoot the Type 600 Polaroid film found in most drug stores.
  • Spectra 1200 or Spectra Onyx: These are higher end cameras than the Type 600 models sold in most drug stores.  They were originally designed for law enforcement and medical documentation.  The film they use is sharper and more vibrant that Type 600 models.  Many drug stores do carry this film.  These cameras offer a number of creative options including control over exposure, flash, and focus.  Also there are a number of inexpensive accessories including a close-up kit (not macro), copy stand (1:1 macro), color and special effects filters.
  • Polaroid 360: This camera shoots all Polaroid pack film including the recently discontinued Polaroid 8x square film format.  With a glass lens, leather bellows, integral electronic development timer and removeable electronic flash with exposure compensation, this camera was the top of the line when it was introduced in 1969.  In today's dollars it would have sold for $1000.  It can be purchased today for between $5 and $30 depending on condition and included accessories.
  • Medium Format Camera : Polaroid backs are available for most medium format cameras.  These allow you to shoot pack film as well as all of the 4 x 5 sheet film with your existing camera and lenses.  Also, if you are shooting medium format film, there are Polaroid films designed to match the response of B&W, color negative, and slide film.  Shoot Polaroid as your test shot, check it, and then load your traditional film and be assured the exposure, composition, and look of your shot is correct.
  • Large Format Camera : A 4 x 5 large format camera such as the Graflex Graphic series allows you to use Polaroid sheet film.  Usable cameras can be found at $50 and up.  Being large format, these cameras generally offer movements. This, in itself, is interesting and Polaroid film allows for a quick turnaround between exposure and print that are essential for learning to use this type of camera effectively.

Instant photography provides the immediate results we expect in the digital age while offering all of the unique benefits that artists expect from traditional film media.  Give it a try.  You'll be hooked.

August 27, 2006 in Art | Permalink


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» Omnimatter: Rediscover Polaroid from Photon Detector
Aaron Muderick has written a solid primer on Polaroid photography: Every film photographer will tell you about the shots they lost because the lens cap was on, the film was bad, the camera setting was incorrect, or their own technique was mistaken. In... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 30, 2006 6:50:36 PM


Nice article. Minor corrections: pack film is also available in larger sizes such as 4x5. http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=ja&u=http://www.fujifilm.co.jp/instant/products/pa_film_l.html&prev=/search%3Fq%3DFP-100B45%26hl%3Den%26lr%3D%26rls%3DGGLG,GGLG:2006-17,GGLG:en

Large format cameras: they don't just take "Polaroid sheet film", but with the right back (e.g. Pola 550) also pack film.

And Polaroid is not the only player in this. Fujifilm also makes film, so perhaps "Rediscover instant film" is more accurate.

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Posted by: Alpa | May 7, 2007 2:14:23 AM

Hi Aaron,
Thanks for the great article! I am currently researching/hunting for a Polaroid 360 on ebay. What's the deal with the battery? If it's missing is it easy to find? Is it rechargable? How long does it last? Thanks!

Posted by: memapete | Feb 25, 2008 8:54:27 PM