Here are all the reasons I shouldn’t like Polaroid photography:
- The cameras are large and cumbersome.
- The cameras usually offer primitive focusing and metering.
- The lenses are so-so at best, and dreadful at worst.
- The film is expensive, from one to three dollars a print.
- The color films give funky alternate-universe hues, and the black-and-white films aren’t very contrasty.
Yet I remain drawn to Polaroid photography. Like a little kid, I still get excited over holding a developed print in my hands a minute after pressing the shutter button. So I’ve tried any number of Polaroid cameras looking for the one that balances cost and ease of use with the best possible quality photographs. It’s been a frustrating and expensive journey, but I think I may finally have found The One: the 1969 Polaroid Colorpack II.
I hoped to find a truly good integral-film camera, the kind where the print shoots out of the camera and develops before your eyes. I had no luck; even the venerated SX-70 yielded soft, muddy results. I got sharper photos with truer colors from my packfilm Automatic 250, an enormous and complicated folding camera. Like all folding Polaroids, it takes a hard-to-find battery. When I adapted it to use AAA batteries, it gave me no end of electrical troubles. Also, the folders were meant for the discontinued metal-bodied Polaroid film packs. The modern Fujifilm pack films are plastic-bodied and compress too much inside the folding cameras, making it very difficult to remove the first few prints. The rigid-bodied packfilm cameras (like my Big Swinger 3000) don’t have either of these problems, but almost all of them come with plastic lenses that lead to soft results that distort in the corners.
But then I learned that most Colorpack II cameras came with a three-element, 114mm f/9.2 coated glass lens. The Colorpack II was the first rigid-bodied packfilm camera to accept both color and black-and-white films. It cost $29.95 when introduced in 1969, which is about $190 in 2014 dollars. That may seem expensive, but it was a bargain compared to the folding packfilm cameras, most of which cost more than $100 new. Colorpack IIs are plentiful and eBay overflows with them. Right away I found one for twenty bucks shipped.
I inserted two fresh AA batteries into the Colorpack II, for without them the shutter won’t fire. Then I loaded a pack of color Fujifilm FP-100C and started shooting. I shot the entire pack of film around the house, as the snowiest and coldest winter in my 20 years in Indianapolis severely curtailed my photography. But I was pleased. The colors are decent and the details are reasonably sharp. The corners are soft, but not unacceptably so.
I missed my Automatic 250′s wonderful rangefinder as I twisted the Colorpack II’s guess-focus ring. The camera focuses down to three feet. But I was glad for the Colorpack II’s automatic exposure system, which is coupled to an electronic shutter that fires from about 10 sec to about 1/500 sec.
This is my favorite shot from the pack. Standing in my office, I photographed the back yard through the window. The scan doesn’t do this image justice, especially given that vertical-line artifact across the image. Really, all the prints look better than these scans – they’re sharper and more colorful. I punched them up as best I could in Photoshop. Perhaps with more practice I’ll learn to scan my Polaroid prints without losing their essence.
My Colorpack II came with a few flashcubes, so I took a couple shots with them. These photos of my Christmas tree were the first I shot with this camera when I got it in late 2013. I focused on the basket of bulbs on the coffee table. With the Darken/Lighten control set all the way to Lighten, the available-light shot at left held the shutter open for so long that I thought something was wrong with the camera. Giving up, I moved the camera, and then the shutter closed, leading to the light streaking at the bottom. I rather like the effect. The flashcube let the shutter open and close quickly, but properly lit only ten feet or so and led to lifeless colors.
See more photos from this pack in my Colorpack II gallery.
These results are better than you’d get from a Kodak Instamatic, which was 1969′s typical point-and shoot camera. But even the most entry-level 35mm SLR of 1969 can blow the pants off any Polaroid camera.
With this camera I intend to get instant photography out of my system. I have two packs of FP-100C and two of discontinued black-and-white FP-3000B in the fridge for just that purpose. But I’ll wait for a warm, sunny day so I can really take the Colorpack II out and put it through its paces.
Do you like old cameras?
Then check out my entire collection!