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Not your daddy's Polaroid
The Polaroid Z340, available now at Adorama, holds the distinction of being the world's first digital instant print camera, and while it pays homage to the Polaroid SX70 series of cameras, it is most definitely of the digital world.
The Polaroid Z340 (which is available now at Adorama), the world's first digital “instant” print camera, bears more than a passing resemblance to such legendary cameras as the Spectra, but instead of using instant film packs, it has a Zink digital printer onboard that takes special 3x4-inch Zink printing paper, also available at Adorama. I had an opportunity to field-test the Polaroid Z340. Is it a true digital reincarnation of the classic Polaroid instant camera? Or is it something better, worse, or just digitally different? Let's find out!
First, a Quick, Opinionated Historical Digression
Dr. Land's original Polaroid instant camera was, arguably, the world's first instant social image sharing device. You took the picture, it popped out, and you passed it around as the image slowly appeared (in the SX-70 format). For decades, in its various incarnations, Polaroid was wildly popular—in fact, the Adorama Used department carries many classic Polaroid cameras. Then digital cameras arrived; in a few years, the instant print camera seemed obsolete. How could anything compete with the image on the LCD screen, which could be printed out as many times as possible? Then the Internet, and social networks, hammered a few more nails in Polaroid's coffin. Or so we thought.
Polaroid went bankrupt and the new bank-owned entity that used the name Polaroid killed its instant film line in 2008, only to revive selected emulsions it on a limited basis a few years later thanks to fan uproar and pressure from a group of former factory workers who started The Impossible Project, which manufactures Polaroid-compatible instant film that has gained a cult following. The film is pricey—it runs about a dollar a print. And you only get one copy: a unique, low-tech original.
While some may wax nostalgic for the original film Polaroid, the end result was inferior to traditional film. You could only get one print (with the exception of certain peel-apart emulsions for pro use that left you with a negative as well as a print), in one size, and image quality was not on par with traditional film. You could not make duplicates (at least not without going through several painstaking steps). When digital came along, it offered infinite copies, better image quality, and instant gratification via the LCD monitor in the back of the camera. Online sharing made it even easier to send images to loved ones, and now in the era of smart phones, all you need is a data plan or a hot spot. Heck, images out of an iPhone, especially one decked out with iPhone photo accessories that are sold at the Adorama iPhone Toolshed, knock the socks off any Polaroid film print (unless you use one of many “instant print” filters available on numerous apps...).
Normal color mode renders colors faithfully in most shooting conditions. Want to go retro? See below!
Two vintage color modes can be set when you're shooting or can be applied after the fact. Above and below: Two very different vintage modes look more like old Polaroids.
There are two black-and-white modes—high and regular contrast—as well as negative mode, above.
The Polaroid Z340 aims to bring the concept of an instant print camera into the 21st Century and address the issues that doomed the film Polaroid as a mass market product. First, there's the printer: It's a built-in Zink printer, which utilizes an, inkless print process, instead using heat to activate color chemicals embedded in the printing paper to create the image. (By the way, Adorama carries a stand-alone Polaroid printer, made by Zink that is designed for use with any digital camera.) Load the paper (which costs 60 cents per print, nearly 40% less than modern Polaroid film print) in the back of the camera. Prints come out the front, fully developed, in about a minute.
The Zink print I made of father and daughter showed an overall purplish hue. The 14MP digital image file, however, showed faithful color.
The quality of the Zink prints is OK for snapshots and the immediacy of sharing but doesn't match the quality of a good print out of an inkjet printer or online photoprocessor. But keep in mind that the 14MP digital image files are stored on an SD, SDHC or SDXC card (all of which are available at Adorama), and you can always fine-tune them later and pretty much print them as large as you'd like (although by the time the reach poster-sized, they might not look so great). That's an option you never had before with a Polaroid camera.
You also can choose which shots you want to print from the Polaroid Z340 by simply pressing the big, can't miss it Print button, another big advantage over Polaroids of the past. You can print right after taking a shot, go back later and print while scrolling through your day's shoot in preview mode, or print nothing until you've transferred the files to your computer, which saves money and battery life.
Above: Colors were faithful and not overly saturated in digital file, above; below: same image converted later into high-contrast black-and-white.
Beyond its distinctive Polaroid features, the Polaroid Z340 offers a full range of digital camera features, including:
- A 2.7-inch flip-up LCD monitor that displayed images well in bright sunlight, and either lies flat against the camera top or flips up for an almost-eye-level view;
- Normal color, two “vintage” color and black-and-white modes that emulate the look of (wait for it!) old Polaroid emulsions, sepia and negative images (can be set before the shot or can be applied after the fact in preview mode)
- 28 scene modes;
- Close focus to within 2 inches of the lens;
- Average, fine and superfine image quality settings;
- Saturation, sharpness and contrast control;
- A choice of screen displays including a histogram
Above: Good clean color image shows lots of detail. Below: Sepia mode is turned on, works well in this photo of New York's historic "Ladies' Mile" district on 6th Avenue in Chelsea.
In other words, the Z340 has most of the amenities you might find on a typical digital compact camera; notably missing? Manual ISO settings, manual focus, and HD video (the camera will record standard 640p footage with sound, making it the first instant print camera to record any form of video).
The Z340 focuses to within 2 inches—not bad for a "simple" non-zoom camera. Yes, there's "digital zoom" which simply enlarges the pixels and reduces image quality. I don't recommend using that mode.
I found the Polaroid Z340 to be easy to use, although at first it was a bit awkward to hold because of its more horizontal orientation. The included hand grip is very helpful for carrying and comfortable to hold. Scrolling through the various functions became intuitive after a few minutes of use. Minor focus lag was apparent (about ½ second at most) but not objectionable. Loading the paper was easy, and it took about 60 seconds for a print to emerge.
The cost per print is around 60 cents, which is an improvement over the $1 per print cost of the film version. I showed the print around to several photographic friends and they all agreed the image was generally sharper and more color accurate than analog Polaroid prints. That's not to say print quality was accurate. It wasn't; black suits were rendered purple-blue, and open shade scenes had a bit too much pink in them. Skin tone quality varied slightly. If you make a lot of prints, power will drain rapidly (officially, the battery will crap out after 30 prints but if you do a lot of shooting and then start printing, it probably will run out of juice sooner). I recommend bringing along a second (or even third) battery, which you can purchase at Adorama, if you plan to use the print button a lot.
A bonus for street photographers: With the LCD monitor laid flat, I was able to shoot inconspicuously on the streets. The shutter is very quiet, allowing for stealth images like this one, right down the block from Adorama's New York headquarters.
Don't let the average quality of the Zink prints fool you, though. The Polaroid Z340 delivered excellent digital image files with pleasing, true color under all but the most trying lighting conditions. You can rest assured that any prints you make by, say, sending the files to an online photofinisher such as AdoramaPIX, will come out as good as anything you can get form any other digital camera. The “vintage” filters (which can be set before shooting or applied after the fact, a nice convenience) are especially appropriate for shooting with a camera with the name Polaroid on it.
Close focus, vintage mode combine here for an interesting, gritty look. The Z340 might not be everyone's cup of tea (or coffee) but if you're looking for a camera that will spit out a print on the spot, it's the only game in town, and pretty good one, at that!
Conclusion and recommendation
The Polaroid Z340 ($249.99 at Adorama for camera only, $279.95-$349.95 with photo paper packs; additional photo paper packs range from $17.99 for a pack of 30 to $50.94 for 3 packs, a total of 90 sheets, all stocked by Adorama.) is a great camera for breaking the ice at parties, when traveling, and you want to gain the trust of indigenous people, and for general shooting. It is limited by its non-zooming lens, its bulk, and its lack of ISO and focus control. But it is otherwise a full-featured, modern digital camera that was fun to use while overcoming several key objections to old-fashioned Polaroids. Printing and passing around prints got a lot of conversations going—social image sharing without a smartphone, data plan, the cloud, or a WiFi hot spot—and for many people, that's worth the price of admission.