Cameras, Photography

Polaroid SX-70

Polaroid had been in the instant-photography business for a long time by 1972 when it introduced the seminal, revolutionary SX-70. At last, instant photography was one-button simple.

Polaroid SX-70

Earlier Polaroid cameras all involved pulling the photo out of the camera, waiting some amount of time for the image to develop, and then peeling the photo off a backing. It was a fussy, messy process, and entirely too easy to get wrong. The SX-70 changed the game. The camera ejected the photo, which developed before your eyes in a few minutes. No pulling, no peeling.

I was five when Polaroid introduced the SX-70. I remember feeling raw awe over such a magical device. I desperately wanted to hold one in my hands and to press its red button. But such things were unattainable to my working-class family; the SX-70’s $180 price tag might as well have been a million dollars. It’s equivalent to $1,000 in 2013 dollars.

That’s not to say my family didn’t value photographs. Mom saved green stamps for a long time to earn a 126 camera with a rare built-in electronic flash. She recorded family events with that camera for 20 years and has boxes full of square snapshots to prove it. But even if you could get SX-70 cameras with green stamps, the $7 ($39 in 2013) film packs would have kept Mom away.

I came upon my SX-70 last year in a small-town antique store. I talked the fellow down to $40 and walked out in sheer glee over my good fortune. Check eBay: SX-70s routinely sell for $100 and up.

Yet I hedged on buying film for it. Genuine Polaroid SX-70 film has been out of production since about 2006. The Impossible Project has been trying for years to make a good substitute. Given that they had to start from almost scratch, lacking any of Polaroid’s original formulations, that they have succeeded at all is a modern miracle. But their early efforts were far from right, remaining highly sensitive to light for several minutes after being ejected from the camera. You had to shield a print as it ejected or it would be fogged. What a pain. And the film was and is shockingly expensive, at about $25 for an eight-exposure pack. So I held off.

But then they introduced a more resilient film called Color Protection that still developed best in the dark, but it no longer needed to be shielded upon ejection. And so I tried it. When I inserted a pack into my SX-70, I was both thrilled and relieved when the camera immediately ejected the plastic cover that protected the eight exposures below. The camera worked! There’s no way to test an SX-70 without film, as the pack contains the battery that powers the camera. Polaroid engineers wanted fresh film always to mean fresh power.

I was surprised to find it difficult to frame shots with my SX-70. You have to hold the camera just right to see anything in the viewfinder, and I had some trouble with it. But with care it is possible to fill the frame, as this through-the-viewfinder photo proves. The SX-70 is an SLR; what you see is what you will get.

Through the viewfinder - Polaroid SX-70

I had an errand to run in a little business district near my home. It’s part of a wonderful residential neighborhood full of early-20th-century houses, with cars parked at the curb. I walked the neighborhood with my SX-70 looking for colorful cars to photograph. Because most cars today are white, black, or some shade of beige. I spent a couple hours walking to find and photograph seven colorful cars.

The eighth, or rather the first, was my car in my driveway. I needed to see what kind of exposure the camera would yield. Yet impatience got the better of me and I photographed the next two cars without knowing. The original SX-70 films developed in minutes; not so films from The Impossible Project. The Color Protection film develops in 30 to 40 minutes. It’s a drag, really. But finally this shot finished developing, and I could see that it was a bit overexposed.

Cars on the Street

This Mercury Sable wagon was the first car I photographed on the street. It was especially overexposed. I helped it along some in Photoshop after I scanned it.

Cars on the Street

The SX-70 has but two controls: a focusing wheel above the shutter button, and a lighten/darken wheel opposite it along the front panel. I moved the wheel to the second tick mark on the darken side and kept shooting. I guessed right, as this photo of a Chevrolet Camaro attests.

Cars on the Street

The focusing wheel moves smoothly, and if you can get a clear image in the viewfinder it’s easy to home in on sharp focus. I’m sure my troubles with that viewfinder were made worse by my haste; I was, after all, crouching in the middle of city streets to get these images.

Cars on the Street

The lighter streak down the middle of each of these prints tells me that my SX-70 needs a cleaning. The rollers inside the camera do get dirty, and I’m sure sitting unused for who knows how long doesn’t help. A voice inside my head nagged me to clean the rollers before I used the camera, but I’m altogether too good at ignoring that voice. I like this photo of a Honda Civic for the dreamlike  sky.

Cars on the Street

I am so glad I finally got to experience an SX-70, 40 years after first being dazzled by its magic. But I can’t imagine that I’ll use it again. The film is too expensive and the image quality isn’t that good. And I was surprised by how much difficulty I had with that viewfinder.

Still, the SX-70 is leagues easier to use than my favorite Polaroid camera, the large, unwieldy Automatic 250. It uses the older peel-apart films, which inherently require more care and fuss and always result in a sticky backing that has to be thrown away. But I get far sharper and better-exposed images from it.

But these SX-70 images are still magical. The colors aren’t true to life, but they’re true to the camera, and they create an appealing world into which I wish I could step. My time on the streets of Indianapolis with the SX-70 in hand seem somehow different from the images that resulted, as if the camera reached through a dimensional portal to capture the moment on a different plane.

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14 thoughts on “Polaroid SX-70

  1. KeithM says:

    You have the same problem with your SX-70 that I had with mine, Jim–chronic overexposure. And we solved it the same way, moving the lighten/darken control one tick toward darker. I used mine for several years, and have four enlargements hanging on my office wall. In certain conditions it was capable of good shots, but ultimately the film was too expensive, and the controls were too limiting. I used mine from 1975 to about 1981, when I bought a Canon A-1.

    It’s still in the closet. Maybe I should put it on ebay.

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    • I thought surely the exposure challenges I had were related to the Impossible film, but based on your comment I guess it’s just endemic to the camera. I don’t mind the limiting controls that much, but I do wish it were easier to use the viewfinder and that the shots were crisper.

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  2. Some nice shots, however I can see why you wouldn’t want to spend $24 to do it again. Looks like you got a good deal on it and it sure isn’t a bad camera to have in a collection. I think that the instant photography is pretty popular right now. I went to a camera sale a while ago and there were a lot of young people there buying Polaroids.

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    • I am just clearly more into sharpness and accurate color rendition, I guess. If the films and cameras supported that, I’d be more willing. I do enjoy shooting instant but hedge on the cost because of the quality.

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  3. Brandon Campbell says:

    Awesome, I wish they had kept the manual focusing capability on the newer Polaroids. As a kid I was often frustrated by the “5 feet to infinity” fixed focus on my 600 (as well as many cheap non-instant cameras of the time). My mom’s old Kodak instant camera could also be focused, but it wasn’t an SLR like the Polaroids, it showed a circle that got bigger or smaller and you were supposed to match it to the size of your subject’s head.

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    • As a kid, I would have been thrilled with a point-and-shoot Polaroid. I have a couple now, including a Pronto that I haven’t used or written about — and after my SX-70 experience, I’m unlikely ever to use it, as it couldn’t possibly be better than the SX-70 and at $25 a film pack I’m going to shoot the camera that yields the best results.

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  4. Here’s some advice for anyone wanting to collect SX-70s. These cameras aren’t as rare as some might think. Polaroid made a lot of them. They could be considered the Ipods of their time. So go to shopgoodwill .com and you’ll find plenty to bid on. That’s how I got the 12 cameras I have. Including and Alpha and an Alpha 1. Next thing if you get some Impossible film and use it, save the cartridge. The batteries are much better than the original and you can use it to test a camera you may find at a yardsale or something. Just test it before you make an offer. With that said about the battery be cautious about buying original Polaroid film from ebay for the sx70 or 600 cameras because the batteries may be dead

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    • Thanks, Chelcie, for the perspective and advice. I have bought cameras on shopgoodwill but I’ve gotten a lot of broken ones — they almost never test the cameras they get. So I’ve decided that I’ll buy there only if the price is low enough that I won’t care if the camera isn’t fully functional.

      I am kind of puzzled by the prices the SX-70 commands given how many were made.

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  5. John Smith says:

    I want one. Although, I imagine I would tire of it after a few packs of film. I like shooting my Land pack film camera, but fussing with the Fuji film in it is a pain.

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    • I’ll shoot my packfilm Automatic 250 over this SX-70 any day because the photos are simply better. I have a pack of color Fuji film chilling in the fridge right now for it.

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  6. The Impossible Project have refined their films a little since you used them, but the prices haven’t dropped. I don’t have an SX70, but I do have a cheapie ‘Button’ instant camera.

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    • I love it that they keep refining their films. I’ve kind of given up on integral-film Polaroid photography and have listed all of my integral-film Polaroids on eBay — except my SX-70. I’m keeping it because it is a beautiful and fascinating machine. Whenever I get the hankering to shoot instant, I’m going to get out my old packfilm Colorpack II and load some FP-100C. I get better results there every time.

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