I’ve been drawn to Polaroid photography since I was a kid in the 1970s. I 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’ve tried every kind of Polaroid camera for which you can still get film. I really hoped I’d find joy in an integral-film camera, the kind where the print shoots out of the camera and develops before your eyes. No luck; they all yielded soft, muddy results.
I got sharper photos with truer colors from the older packfilm cameras, the kind where you peel the backing off after the print finishes developing. I started with the big, folding cameras, but found them to be complicated to use and take a hard-to-find battery. Also, they tended to put too much pressure on the plastic Fujifilm film packs, making it very hard to pull the first few prints out of the camera.
Rigid-bodied packfilm cameras don’t have 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 Polaroid 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.
Here are all of the Polaroid cameras I’ve reviewed: the Automatic 250 (here), the Big Swinger 3000 (here), the J66 (here), the One600 (here), the OneStep 600 (here), the Pronto! (here), the Pronto Sonar OneStep (here), and the SX-70 (here). You can also see all of my camera reviews here.
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.
My Colorpack II came with a few flashcubes, so I took a couple shots with them. In this photo I focused on the basket of bulbs on the coffee table. The flashcube properly lit only ten feet or so and led to lifeless colors.
I tried again on an early spring day, shooting colorful flowers. This is where the Colorpack II and the FP-100C really shone.
The actual prints look far 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.
I tried a pack of the black-and-white FP-3000B in the Colorpack II. I’ve loved this film every time I’ve used it in other packfilm cameras, but on this overcast day I got nothing but muddy grays. (I also started scanning the borders of the prints, as that appears to be the convention among packfilm shooters around the Internet.)
So I went back to the color FP-100C and kept on getting wonderful results.
You never know just how a packfilm print will turn out. The jelly might not spread evenly across the print, leaving undeveloped corners. You might not manage to pull the print out smoothly, leaving overdeveloped streaks behind. But that’s part of the fun.
And then the party was over: Fujifilm quit making packfilm. I had two packs of FP-100C in the fridge. I shot them up to say goodbye.
Naturally, by this time I’d shot this camera enough that I fully had the hang of it, and got a bunch of prints that satisfied me deeply. The candylike color and the almost-but-not-quite sharpness remain deeply appealing to me.
As of this writing, you can still buy expired Fujifilm packfilm on eBay. But at $30 and more a pack, I’ve decided to let packfilm go. Farewell; it was a great ride while it lasted.
See more photos from this pack in my Colorpack II gallery.
The Polaroid Colorpack II is, to my mind, the best Polaroid camera in modern use. It was, anyway, until Fujifilm quit making the film. The Colorpack II gave pretty good image quality with almost no fuss.
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.
But so what? Only a Polaroid camera could give you a good print in a minute. That will always be deeply charming.