Camera Reviews

Operation Thin the Herd: Polaroid SX-70

Power lines

From the time I was a small boy, I wanted a Polaroid SX-70 camera. I was five in 1972, when the SX-70 was introduced. When I saw the camera on TV I was excited to watch it be opened: from folded flat, pull up on the viewfinder and the whole camera pops up. Wow! And then I watched it in use: press the button, and the camera ejects a photograph that develops before your eyes. Unbelievable!

Polaroid SX-70

My family could never afford a camera that cost more than a thousand dollars in today’s money. I began collecting cameras at age eight, my SX-70 fascination no doubt partially responsible. But I wouldn’t find an SX-70 I was willing to afford until 2013, when I walked into an antique store in Kirklin, Indiana, which had one that I purchased for just $40. I bought some Impossible Project Color Protection PX-70 film and took the camera for a walk.

Cars on the Street

I liked using the camera. But I was surprised and disappointed that, after all these years of pining after it, I did not love it. I was frustrated with the viewfinder, which demanded I peer through it at just the right angle to see the whole scene I was trying to frame. And the film … meh. The photo above was the most colorful of the lot. The rest were muted; all were muddy and soft and had that weird light streak down the middle.

Those film packs were expensive at $25; there was no way I’d lay out that kind of money for results like these again. I decided that I’d hang onto the SX-70 as a collectible.

Then a couple years ago I started Operation Thin the Herd. I had become more a photographer than a collector, and I owned more cameras than I could reasonably store in my home. It was time for cameras I would not enjoy frequently to find new homes. I knew some cameras I wouldn’t keep and some I would. But there were about 40 cameras I wasn’t sure about. So I started putting film through them and writing about the experience here, in posts just like this one.

You might think I finished the project because after an 18-month flurry of posts, it’s been ten months since I’ve published one. Actually, I’ve been delaying on a few cameras, and the SX-70 is on that short list. I love the idea of them, I love the looks of them. Yet I’m pretty sure I won’t like using them. I’m not ready to part with them.

Recently I saw some excellent images Gerald Greenwood was getting from his SX-70. He used a new black-and-white film from the company formerly known as the Impossible Project but now known simply as Polaroid. Go see on his blog here and here and here. His images compelled me to try again.

Wheel and rock

I bought two packs of film: Polaroid B&W SX-70 Film and Polaroid Color SX-70 Film. I waited for a very sunny day, as these films need lots of good light. I used the B&W film first. We were under stay-at-home orders thanks to COVID-19, so I shot the entire pack in one day on walks around the neighborhood.

Lowe's, reflected

The camera’s lens is surprisingly wide — it felt like 35mm, maybe 28mm, does on a 35mm camera. But it focuses surprisingly closely. I was curious how this film would render my wife’s stunning gray hair, and I was able to move to within a few inches. It’s too bad the image suffers from camera shake. Also, I had Margaret’s head centered in the viewfinder, so I’m not sure why her head is so low in the frame. The SX-70 is an SLR; what you see in the viewfinder is supposed to be what you get.

Gray hair

Speaking of the viewfinder, I’m not sure what was different this time but I had far less trouble with it. I figured out on the first frame that the trick is hold your eye back from the viewfinder a little bit. You still have to look straight on at it, and it’s easy to get that angle wrong. But I still had far better luck with it this time.

I had a great time shooting this pack of film! And I like the film, which surprises me. I strongly prefer a classic black-and-white look, like Kodak Tri-X, and this ain’t that. It tends to blank out the sky in a milky yellow. It’s not actually sharp. But something about it compels me to explore and find the subjects that make it sing.

The new Polaroid films have come a long way since The Impossible Project days, but they still have their quirks. They remain sensitive to light after the camera ejects them, especially so in the first several seconds. I bought and installed Polaroid’s black plastic shield to cover the photograph as it ejects, to keep it from being spoiled. I brought the film box with me to store the prints as I walked.

On the next full-sun day I shot a pack of Polaroid Color SX-70 film. I expected not to like after my experience with the Color Protection film. But I gave it a fair shake as I walked around my suburban neighborhood and its nearby strip malls looking for colorful subjects. I like this photo best. I love how the SX-70’s wide lens let me bring the whole sign close in the frame while still pulling in some background. The film got the sign’s yellow color right, and I enjoy how it rendered the background so dreamlike.

No Outlet

It was a stroke of good luck to come upon this red fire hydrant in front of this deep blue storefront. Framing this scene with its straight lines highlighted the SX-70 viewfinder’s inherent barrel distortion. The colors were much bolder in real life. I’m not sure how the SX-70’s autoexposure system chooses when to give deep vs. shallow depth of field, but I’m glad it went for deep here.

Red, White, and Blue

I wanted to see how close I could get to a subject with the SX-70, and I wanted to see how the Color SX-70 Film rendered purple. I got to do both with some little purple blooms I found where our driveway meets our house. Again what I saw in the viewfinder doesn’t match this frame — I put the flower a little higher and a little more to the right. Also, these flowers are a much deeper purple in real life. The film also rendered my concrete driveway with a mild pink hue. Even in blazingly bright sun, up close the SX-70 and this film give a lot of blurred background. The SX-70’s 116mm lens starts at f/8 (and goes to f/22), an aperture I don’t normally associate with shallow depth of field. But that’s my 35mm film bias showing.

Purple flowers

This film is leagues better than the Color Protection film I tried several years ago. But it’s just not as good as the old Polaroid films in terms of color accuracy and sharpness. Here’s the only print I own made on original Polaroid color film. I made it in 1985 in a Polaroid photo booth, the only one I’ve ever seen. That’s me on the bottom with a couple of buddies. Check out that accurate color and excellent sharpness! The print still looks as fresh as new after all these years.

This isn’t entirely a fair comparison as I don’t know what kind of Polaroid film this was (though it shares an SX-70 print’s aspect ratio), and it wasn’t shot in an SX-70 camera. But this print is typical of the Polaroid prints you could get from Polaroid’s best cameras, ones with glass lenses like the SX-70.

If you liked these images, by the way, see more in my Polaroid SX-70 gallery.

I am so pleased that I had such a good experience with my Polaroid SX-70 this time — I had fun using it. And I’m still in love with this camera’s design.

I’m not in love with the color film, but I am impressed with how much better it is than the old Impossible Project film. I do, however, want to explore the possibilities of the interesting black-and-white film and will buy more. It’s still wicked expensive at $25 a pack — each time you press the button, you spend more than $3. So this will be more a once-a-year treat than an everyday thing.

I’m sure you won’t be even slightly surprised by my decision on this camera.

Verdict: Keep

Get more of my photography in your inbox or reader! Click here to subscribe.

Last updated on 18 August 2020 by Jim Grey

Standard

34 thoughts on “Operation Thin the Herd: Polaroid SX-70

  1. Glad this camera’s a keeper. I really like the one of Margaret’s hair. There’s something quite ethereal about the B&W film, which that shot demonstrates nicely. I’m still trying to work out what makes the best subjects for it.

  2. I am older than you and was captivated by the Polaroids that expanded via the bellows and shot only b&w. The instant pictures were like magic!

    There was one at a former office that I dusted off and ran some film through in the 80s. It was about $1 a shot then (a lot) but rendered photos with a classic, old school look I loved. For some reason the SX-70 never had the same appeal for me, but I like seeing the results you got.

    Now we all have instant photography for free on our cell phones.

    • You may be speaking of the old packfilm cameras. Those were peak Polaroid, delivering the best image quality. It’s a shame the film isn’t made anymore.

    • I will be surprised if there are further significant leaps in image quality on the SX-70 films. Polaroid is focusing all of its attention on its I-Type cameras and film, and to a lesser extent on the 600 films. I don’t think they’re doing significant, if any, work to make the SX-70 films better anymore.

  3. Christopher May says:

    Glad that you were able to connect with this camera! For some reason, I never connected with integral film Polaroids. I think part of that is because when I was growing up, they were big, clunky 600 series things that produced soft results. And I never got around to trying pack film cameras until it was too late and Fuji discontinued FP100C. So my instant experience has been limited to Fuji Instax. I keep thinking about trying the 8×10 Polaroid but the stuff is never in stock, is eye wateringly expensive when it is ($18/shot) and requires an initial investment in the film holders and machinery needed to develop the pictures). It would be fun to play with but for now it’ll have to remain the equivalent of the SX-70 in your youth.

    • This is my first time connecting with an integral-film Polaroid and it’s not for lack of trying.

      I’m curious about Instax. Not sure I want to buy one however as I feel like I probably won’t like it.

      • Christopher May says:

        I feel like the colors from the film are a lot better than what I’ve seen out of Impossible/Polaroid but they still lack sharpness. Part of this might be due to the cameras I tried — the ill fated Jolly Look and my wife’s Fuji camera. I’m going to try using a pack of film on my 2-1/4″x3-1/4″ press camera one of these days. The individual pieces of film can be loading into the sheet film holders for that camera, and then reinserted to the pack for development. Kind of a pain, but it will be using a good quality lens and I’ll know what kind of sharpness I can expect from Instax and if it will hold any appeal for me.

        • I hadn’t heard of the Jolly Look cameras. I just looked them up; how interesting. $69 isn’t bad.

          If you try the Instax film in your press camera I hope you’ll share on your blog — it will be a useful experiment.

        • Christopher May says:

          The original cardboard Jolly Look was something of a disaster. I was one of the few Kickstarter backers that actually got my camera and just didn’t like it in the slightest. It’s flimsy and hard to use (you have to prop the bellows with straws and the shutter is barely functional).

          They have a new wood model that looks like it might be a better camera but after my first experience, I’ve kind of been turned off by the company, so I’m passing for the time being.

          Will be sure to post any results I get with the press camera!

      • I’ve got a couple of Instax cameras – an Instax Mini 9 (which was a treat that I bought myself while on holiday in Italy a couple of years ago), and an Instax Wide (which I picked up from eBay for around £20). They’re fun cameras to use and the Instax film is reliable and consistent. While image quality probably isn’t the best, the Instax Mini disguises most of the flaws with it’s small, credit-card-size photos. The Instax Wide seems to heve reasonable image quality, although probably not as good as something like the SX-70, and certaily far from what I would get from pretty much any other camera..

        The film is expensive so I don’t shoot it often, but there’s something undeniably special about getting the print in your hands within seconds, watching the image appear from nothingness, and then having a physical memento that you can scribble a note on and stick to the fridge door. I’ve got more physical prints of my family on Instax since I bought the cameras than on any other format.

  4. Until the end of April there is a special, 15% off on Polaroid film at their site! Buy it in the three packs and save even more! I particularly like the muted almost monochromatic color it produces but agree with you, its not as good as the original Polaroid! That was really something special! Great Blog by the way!

  5. Greetings. Thank you again for a great camera review/ experience. There is something compelling about the Polaroids. Slightly off topic but relevant. My 22 year old daughter was finally diagnosed with ME last summer. To cheer her up on one particularly bad day I bought her a Polaroid 636 and some film.Too say she was thrilled would be an understatement. She now shoots her favourite things with this camera, even though she has a digital camera! The power of Polaroid !
    Thanks again
    Andrew

    • That’s the close-up camera, right? That would be fun to play with! There’s always been something compelling about instant photography. I hope your daughter’s diagnosis leads to good treatment.

  6. That shot of the power line is such a perfect composition; sharpness, simplicity, subtle contrast, symmetry, and a slight departure from verticality all work so well together. The picture of Margaret’s hair seems equally good to me in spite of sharing so few of the compositional features of the the first picture. Part of what makes all of the images compelling is that they give us permission to set aside our preconceptions about what makes a good picture, to appreciate what is before us without reference to classic examples or transitory styles.
    I did little with polaroid, but when I look back on the few images I have they exert a unique attraction for me that makes me wish I had been more courageous in exploring the capacities of that system. I am also reminded of how much I like the work of the New Mexico artist, Harold Joe Waldrum, who made thousands of those little square pictures.

    • Thank you for your compliments!

      I wonder what it is that gives us that permission to set aside our preconceptions. That we don’t expect much from Polaroids and so are open to taking whatever we get from it and judging it on its own merits?

      I’ll look up Harold Joe Waldrum; thanks for the tip!

  7. It’s a shame you never got to shoot any of the old roll film Polaroids with film types 42 or 47. They were vastly superior to the newer cameras, even the top end SX-70 models.
    Of course there was also the Swinger, which was as bottom end as you could get.

    • I had a rollfilm Polaroid for a while, it had been my dad’s dad’s. I would have loved to try it but the rollfilms had been out of production for a very long time before the camera reached me.

  8. The wheel and stone is my favourite photo, and Lowe’s is nice and dreamy. I keep hoping that Fujifilm will start making black and white film for my SQ6. It’s already available for the other formats, so perhaps it’s just a matter of time.
    The photo quality of the SQ6 isn’t great, but it’s better than I expected. The greatest thing about the camera is having it when you’re with people. I was out with a couple of students last semester and they were pretty thrilled to get prints right out of the camera. Film is expensive, but it was money well spent in this case.

  9. tbm3fan says:

    Wow, a lot of comments already and it is only 08:30 PST. I need to get up earlier although I have already been up 24 hours now. Another bad day again. Moving on someone wanted to donate some cameras to me and I said great. Then I saw what was in the box. Three Polaroid cameras. Ugh! Had to open my mouth. There was an Automatic 250, a 600 and an SX-70. What do you do with them? No film via Polaroid and whatever may be out there, is in my mind, obscenely expensive for so few shots.

  10. When I started reading this Jim I was kinda hoping that it would be “Goodbye” just so I could take it off your hands but I am glad you found a better experience and the pictures are great. I love the design of these and would love to have one but I can’t see me shooting it really as the cost is so great (as you say) they are a beautiful design though.

    • I’m relieved that the current films are okay enough for me to want to use them again! That’s where I was hung up. If I had this beautiful camera with no good film to use in it, what would be the point?

  11. Nice article. I have one pack of film left that needs to be used up so I think I might try the one shot a day approach that Gerald used. After that I think mine will go in a box for a long time as I can’t justify the price of the film at the moment.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.