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

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Blind shadows

Blind shadows
Polaroid Colorpack II
Fujifilm FP-100C
2017

The unattractive drapes that covered my sliding-glass back door had long been an embarrassment: rumpled, dirty. But they did the job of blocking the setting sun as it blinded people in the family room who were just trying to watch TV.

There always seemed to be a more important thing to do rather than put up the vertical blinds I envisioned there. But preparing to sell my house has moved me to do several projects that somehow never seemed quite important enough before. It’s a shame I won’t live here long enough to enjoy them. At least I should be gone before they, too, become rumpled and dirty.

Photography

single frame: Blind shadows

Photo: Shadows from the new vertical blinds over my sliding-glass door.

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BlueIndy

BlueIndy
Polaroid Colorpack II
Fujifilm FP-100C
2017

Most people need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. We’re wired to maintain the status quo; we just want things to stay the way they always have been. Or return to the way they used to be, because weren’t things just better then? I suspect we want an idealized view of the past, because that time makes sense in retrospect.

Indianapolis residents are generally not happy with the changes to transportation infrastructure here over the last 10 years or so. They shake their fist at lost driving lanes thanks to added bike lanes. They protest the coming rapid-transit bus and the corresponding loss of a driving lane on a major north-south corridor. They hope like hell the roundabouts that have proliferated in the county to our north don’t start showing up here, too. And they scream over the prime parking spaces lost to a controversial electric-car-sharing program — this one, called BlueIndy.

Presumably smart, yet certainly politically ambitious, people drive changes like these. Let’s assume altruistic motives. They’re trying to move Indianapolis toward a future they envision, one that will come whether we are ready or not. But such leaders have guessed wrong before, and we’re all happiest to have forgotten those failed initiatives.

Photography

single frame: BlueIndy

Photo: BlueIndy cars parked in Broad Ripple, Indianapolis.

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Film Photography

The finest Polaroid photograph I’ve ever seen came from a photo booth

The finest Polaroid photograph I’ve ever seen came from a photo booth.

photobooth85

On this spring day in 1985, the year my friends John and Jim and I all graduated high school, we were out being silly together and came upon photo booths at a mall. One was a traditional four-photo-strip booth, but the other promised Polaroid prints. I’d never seen a Polaroid photo booth before, and I’ve never seen one since. We piled in, I fed it a buck, and it took this big, beautiful photograph. (I’m on the bottom with the cheesy grin.)

Check out that sharpness! Dig those great colors! And those colors lasted — I scanned this 32-year-old print only recently.

If only I could get this kind of color and sharpness from my integral-print Polaroid cameras. I’ve shot several, including the vaunted original SX-70, and I’ve been dramatically unimpressed with the prints all of them created. How did this photo booth do such solid work?

But my disappointment with Polaroid photography isn’t really the point. I really want to tell you about a blog that features photobooth photographs.

Katherine has loved photo booths since she was a girl in the 1970s. She steps into them whenever she finds them — a rarer and rarer occurrence these days. And she collects forgotten photos from booths. And she shares them all on her blog, Photobooth Journal.

Today Katherine shares this photo, plus some other photobooth photos of this goofy trio and of just me, on her blog today. Click here to go visit and see!

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Photography, Stories Told

Photographic holiday memories

A rerun, from 2008 and 2012, as this Christmas nears. Now with new photos.

supershooterboxes
courtesy giambarba.com

My grandparents always owned the latest Polaroid cameras, and they passed on that tradition in 1977 when they bought my brother and me Polaroid Super Shooter cameras for Christmas.

When I unwrapped the gift, I remember thinking how cool the box was. I liked the box so much that I kept my camera in it for the almost 30 years I owned it. Not long ago I learned that the box, like all Polaroid packaging of the day, was designed by Paul Giambarba, a top designer who was a pioneer of clean, strong brand identity.

polaroidtype108

I remember how easy it was to spot Polaroid film on the drug store shelf because it had the same rainbow-stripes design elements as the camera’s box. Film and developing for my garage-sale Brownie cost about half what a pack of Polaroid film cost, but the colorful Polaroid boxes on the shelf always tempted me. I often decided that next time I bought film, I would save my allowance for the whole month it took to afford a pack of Polaroid.

My brother also got a guitar that Christmas morning. My new camera came with a pack of film, so I loaded it and shot this photo of him on his first day with his guitar. He played this guitar for 20 years — he looked strange as an adult playing a kid-sized guitar!

rickguitar1977

20 Christmas Days later, when my older son was not yet a full year old, my wife gave my brother her old guitar. Our boy, drawn to the music, wouldn’t leave his uncle’s side as he played that evening. Steadying himself on his uncle’s knee, he looked up with wide amazement in his eyes.

002-christmas-proc

May this holiday bring you the gift of excellent memories to share with your loved ones down the road.

When I first posted this, in 2008, Paul Giambarba himself left a comment! It was a thrill. I followed his blog for years. He discontinued it a few years ago, and thanked me in a final post for saying kind things about his work. None of this would have been possible without the Internet!

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Wash Out

Wash out
Polaroid Colorpack II
Fujifilm FP-100C
2016

At last, election day. More than anything, I feel relief that the campaigns are ending. However it turns out, it won’t be a washout.

Normally I’d tell you to get out there and cast your vote, even if it’s for the candidate I don’t like. Am I wrong somehow this year not to want to say that, to ask you to just stay home if you’re not voting for my candidate? Because the other choice is too frightening to contemplate?

What’s even sadder is how, given that I’m not revealing my choice, you can read that last sentence to apply to whichever candidate you like.

Film Photography
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