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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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