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Ahhh the digital online world
Polaroid ProPack Camera, Fuji FP-100C
Every moment captured, recorded and indexed within a moment’s notice from whatever cell phone or NFC capable camera that may have your fancy. From the everyday to the high end of photography, digital cameras have usurped the world of chemical photography. The days of photographic alchemists working in that wizard's den called a darkroom have for many faded into the mist of history. Names like Jerry Uelsmann who created frenetic fevered dreams in the darkroom using craft closer to magic have been replaced by Wacom tablets and Photoshop.
Yet in the past few years a growing trend towards a return to the “old ways” has been afoot. In what some may think a Luddite reaction a small but growing group of photographers have begun exploring the old analog methods of photography. Dektol and Instant Film have started enjoying a renaissance among photographers both young and old. From Holgas to SX-70’s many have taken up the old analog method of taking photographs for a more “pure” experience. Add to this the “LoFi” movement using cameras that give little control of the various parameters and these two movements converge to create a unique new artistic movement in photography. What makes the return to analog interesting is the fact that the digital revolution isn’t ignored or eschew by it's practitioners, much like actual luddites would do. Instead it is embraced and used to both enhance and help in the creative process. In this article we will look at the Instant Cameras and films and how they have made a comeback as part of both these movements.
Shake It Like A Polaroid
When one thinks of instant photography, the name Polaroid is forefront in the mind. For decades Polaroid made both cameras and film that provided the sort of instant sharing and satisfaction that today’s cell phones and social networking sites do. Unfortunately Polaroid was a victim of the digital revolution in photography filing for bankruptcy and stopping production of its instant films and cameras. Thankfully Fuji had by then started production of its own Instax instant cameras as well as film for both the Instax line and peel apart pack film compatible with professional Polaroid systems and pack film cameras. Unfortunately Instax film is not compatible with integral Polaroid systems such as the One Step, Spectra or SX-70. Those cameras would have to wait for 2010 for The Impossible Project to start production on new films that would work with these systems.
When looking for an instant camera whether used, refurbished or new, one has to determine how much control over the image one wishes. From the Holga-like Polaroid ProPack camera to the total control of a NPC-195 there is a rainbow of options available. Instant cameras come in two flavors, integral film cameras that have no real waste products and include the battery to operate the camera, and pack film cameras that use peel apart film. The most desirable of the Integral cameras is the Polaroid SX-70.
The Classic Polaroid SX-70 SLR
The SX-70 was an SLR, yes complete with mirror that flipped out of the way and a lens that you could focus by turning a dial and use a split image viewfinder. Polaroid would introduce an autofocus version as well as a very simplified fixed focus camera called The Pronto that used the same film. All these cameras shared a simple metering system that in modern terms is akin to most digital camera’s program mode, with exposure compensation provided by a “darker/lighter” dial. What makes the SX-70 and its siblings so desirable is the fact that the film called Time Zero was ISO 160, giving clean rich images with great color saturation. The one thing that makes using a SX-70 today a little difficult is that there is no PC-Sync to connect an electronic flash gun, the small holes near the shutter being for the cable release. Currently Impossible Project makes both a Color and Black & White film that can be used with any of the Time Zero cameras as well as flash bars. SX-70 cameras are available via the Adorama Used Department.
The successor to the SX-70 was the 600 series. Perhaps the most common and famous of all the integral cameras made by Polaroid, the 600 series produces an image the same size as an SX-70. The major difference is that most 600 cameras were no more advanced than the simplified Pronto, giving no control over focus. Another difference is the fact that 600 series film is ISO 640, giving lower saturation in color compared to Time Zero films. However you would have far fewer blurry pictures and of course all 600 cameras used electronic flash. For the vast majority of folks that grew up with Polaroid, this is the camera they think of. Currently Impossible Project makes both color and black and white film for 600 series cameras available through Adorama. 600 series cameras are also available refurbished by Impossible or used through Adorama.
The Polaroid Spectra
A more advanced version of the 600 with a larger image and more controls as well as autofocus, the Spectra became the integral camera of choice in most professional environments. From the camera above to medical, security and a plethora of other cameras that used the Spectra film were produced by Polaroid. Nearly all Spectras have an autofocus system as well greater control over exposure and flash than their 600 series brethren. Overall these were excellent cameras, but like the 600 series used film at ISO 640, so the color saturation and contrast is not the same as an SX-70. Impossible project currently makes color and black and white film for Spectra cameras as well as refurbished cameras for purchase. All are of course available through Adorama.
Fuji currently manufacturers it's own instant camera line based on it's own integral film called Instax. The above 210 creates an image that is about the same size as the Polaroid Spectra. Fuji's film is available in Mini and Wide sizes. The wide as noted above is closer to Spectra size while the mini is very small. Also both films are rated ISO 800, giving a little less color saturation and contrast compared to Impossible or original Polaroid films.
For the ultimate in integral film quality you will need a Polaroid 8x10 Processor. Available as both the automated version above or a manually cranked unit with it's own film holders, either will allow the use of Impossible's current black and white 8x10 integral film which is ISO 640. Unlike the older Polaroid version which was peel apart, the new Impossible film is an all in one integral film, much like Spectra or 600 film. One thing to note is that Impossible recommends that you keep the film out of sunlight to cure for at least 30 days. Curing time can be reduced by using a storage box and silica gel packs. An 8x10 camera is required and nearly all the hardware needed is available through Adorama's used department.
Finally for those attached to their Instagram filters, Impossible has created the Instant Lab. Using an app available for your iPhone and iPod Touch, you can print directly onto either 600 or SX70 film using this device. I myself have used this and found it a wonderful way to share images I have taken with friends. Next let us discuss cameras that use peel apart film – the famed Land Cameras and other systems that use this film.
The Super Flexible
Many professionals will remember Polaroid Pack film. Available in a range of ISOs and color and monochrome stocks, today our options are limited to two stocks, the ISO 100 color FP-100C and the ISO 3000 FP-3000B. The good thing about these films is that they will work with all pack film cameras and backs ever made. While the cameras I will mention next will all expose the entire imaging area of the film, these films can be used with a variety of medium format and 35mm systems by simply mounting the appropriate back to your camera. Please note with the exception of the 405 back (which we will discuss below) the image created by these backs will be the same size as the negative used by that camera (the exception being the Holga Back). Another benefit of using Pack Film over Integral film is with a small amount of effort one can recover a negative that can be printed from or scanned for outstanding image quality and of course enlargements. We will discuss that in more detail in Part 2.
From Left To Right: The Polaroid 195, Polaroid 180 and NPC-195 Manual Pack Cameras
Pack film cameras (also known as Land Cameras) can be broken down into two groups, automatics and manuals. Manual systems allow the full control of shutter and aperture. Because of this these systems usually sport the best optics and of course demand the most money on the used market. Also they all have sync posts to attach say a Pocket Wizard and allow the use of advanced studio lighting, giving incredible flexibility. All of these systems use a rangerfinder for focus and a separate window to compose the image. One other benefit of these systems is the fact they do not require a battery for operation.
From Left To Right: The Polaroid 420 and Pro-Pack Camera
Automatic cameras on the other hand have auto exposure systems. These units require a battery for operation, and may have rangefinder focusing systems or a “guesstimate” system similar to a Holga. Unfortunately unless one is using the Pro-Pack Camera (also sold as the EE Special and Reporter) one will have to modify the camera to use modern batteries. Another issue is using flash. Older Automatics like the 420 shown above have a sync post that will allow you to use a Pocket Wizard if you like or any other electronic flash at an aperture of f8 for 100 or f42 for the 3000 film. The Pro-Pack camera on the other hand uses a dedicated flash controlled by contacts at the bottom of the camera. Again to use studio flashes one would have to place them in “slave” mode and meter for f9.2 for ISO 100 and depending on if you set the meter to 3000 or 3000ER apertures of f54 orf11 for ISO 3000.
From Left To Right: The Polaroid 600SE and 405 Back
Finally those looking for the ultimate in control and interchangeable lenses there is either the Mamiya built Polaroid 600SE rangefinder or the Polaroid 405 back that allows the use of pack film with 4x5 cameras. Personally I prefer the 405 as it can be used with field cameras that weigh just a bit less than the 600SE. However the rangefinder on the 600SE allows for faster focus and of course a more responsive experience.
In the next part we will discuss integrating these cameras and the images they produce into your creative workflow. Feel free to ask questions below in the comments and I'll be happy to answer them.