Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible. – Edwin Land
I have been shooting with a variety of cameras for a while now. I also familiar with the Polaroid brand. One would think that I’d have heard about one of the coolest camera ever a little earlier. I’m talking about the Polaroid SX-70 series, and in particular, the original SX-70. Here it is
This camera is considered the crowning achievement of Dr. Edwin Land, the founder and primary innovative driving force behind Polaroid, which brought instant cameras to the world. An what an achievement it was! Made in the 1970s, the camera doesn’t look at all out of place in a modern camera arsenal. In fact, it was described as the most complicated piece of equipment after the Hubble Space Telescope! Compared with its supposed successors, the SX-70 exuded a certain grace and beauty that was never matched. The metallic finish was all-class, and the leather finishing is a really nice touch. It’s definitely not too much to claim that the camera was more like an artpiece than it was a tool. The understated branding on the camera also adds to the elegance that this camera simply has oodles of!
Opening the camera up is simple enough, though it does not quite “click” into space. What you do is pull on the viewfinder segment until the strut on the left side (see second picture) is vertical. To close, simply push the strut backwards. Focusing is via a plastic eyepiece, that receives the image from a plastic parabolic mirror. Perhaps because it is made of plastic, the viewfinder isn’t exactly the sharpest. Unlike modern SLRs, the camera also does not project a real image onto a ground glass, which means that the image changes dramatically when one’s eyes are off-axis with the viewfinder lens. It takes some getting used to, but it’s no big problem. What is a big problem is getting good focus. This is especially true for close focusing, wherein image-blurring becomes a more significant issue. My copy does not have a split-focusing circle, or a distance scale for that matter, so that definitely complicates things. Although Dr. Land objected to having the split circle in his camera, I am glad that the marketing people/engineers got this part right.
The camera is surprisingly ergonomic, despite being pretty hefty and oddly-shaped. Focusing is done via a wheel in front and can be performed with the index finger, while the middle finger stays on the shutter button. There is also an exposure compensation wheel on the left, right above the electric eye (photocell). The camera is set up for ISO 150 film, so in order to use the ISO 600 film, one has to either
i) Install an ND2 filter on the lens (not recommended as it makes the whole scene very dark, and almost impossible to focus);
ii) Install an ND filter over the film pack (better, but we lose the faster film speed for indoor shots, and also the ND gel can get ejected sometimes. The ND gel must also be kept clean); or
iii) Adjusting the timing circuit by swapping out the capacitor, which converts the camera for 600 film permanently.
I took the third approach, and it has been great so far. I’ll add some details as to how to perform the swap in a later post.
As most of you will know, Polaroid, as a company, essentially ceased to exist about 5 years back, following some pretty disastrous management errors, and also the ponzi scheme involving a businessman who bought over the company. Original Polaroid film have all expired, though some will continue working if they have been frozen. Do take note that the film pack also contains the battery that powers the camera, so some boxes with good film will nonetheless have dead batteries, and this can cause unexpected shut-down of the camera, resulting in a trip to the repairman. These films are also incredibly pricey, so unless you have some money to spare, I will recommend against buying them.
An alternative is to buy the film from The Impossible Project, which is experimental at best. The biggest problem with the film is the prolonged light sensitivity, which makes it necessary to shield the film post-exposure. This takes away part of the joy of using Polaroids – the near-magical experience of seeing the image appear as the opacifier fades away. They are also extremely expensive, at almost 24 bucks for a pack of 8 pictures, working out to about 3 bucks per shot. One solution is to use their so-called “poor pod” packs, which contain 1-4 poorly-sealed film pods, which result in partially undeveloped images. However, at about half the regular price, this might well be the cheapest way to get started with integral film. So far, most of the packs have about 2 to 3 problematic frames, which isn’t too bad. Not good for mission-critical shots, though.
Since I use only TIP film packs, I cannot really comment about the actual image quality of the camera. There are many artifacts that appear when shooting with the experimental film, and it can be a tad unstable after exposure. However, I will say that the experience is great. I never thought I would say this, but the black frames really make the images stand out (when I first heard about it, I thought to myself that it is merely another gimmick from TIP. But having seen the pictures, I have to applaud their efforts, and commend the very nice presentation). The soft-ish images look adequately artistic, while allowing one to just make out enough details to appreciate it.
The SX-70 is a unique piece of work from a man many considered to be a true genius. The camera is well-built, and it can rightly be considered a premium camera. Despite having been released almost 40 years ago, the charm of this futuristic design continues to shine through. There are a few cameras on ebay, and I will not hesitate to recommend buying one for less than 100 bucks. But you have to act fast, since the recent resurgence due in part to TIP has made these something of a must-have collectors’ item for your run-of-the-mill hipster.
By the way, the flickr SX-70 group is a great way to get connected with other users of the camera.