Callery pear

Callery pear flowers
Polaroid SX-70
Polaroid SX-70 Color Film
2020

I was surprised that nothing in this print was in focus. When I had this frame in the viewfinder, the bunch of flowers at lower left was perfectly in focus.

My recent outings with my SX-70 were a lot of fun. But also, the times photographs didn’t turn out the way I expected (as here) lead me to want to keep using this camera. I’d like to build my skills with it and find its limits. Finally, the available films are good enough to permit it.

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Film Photography

single frame: Callery pear flowers

Out-of-focus flowers from my Polaroid SX-70.

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Temporary Hours

Temporary hours
Polaroid SX-70
Polaroid Color SX-70 film
2020

It was strange which businesses stayed open and which closed during the stay-at-home orders. This car wash near my home stayed open. I assume it’s because they can probably get away with having just one or two people operate it. It’s fully automatic otherwise.

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Film Photography

single frame: Temporary hours

Car wash on instant film.

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America's Diner

America’s Diner
Polaroid SX-70
Polaroid Color SX-70 Film
2020

When I was in my 20s and didn’t make much money an occasional dinner at Denny’s was a treat. Super Bird sandwich and fries, please.

I don’t know whether my palate has become more sophisticated, or whether the quality of Denny’s food isn’t what it was 30 years ago, but I don’t enjoy Denny’s all that much today.

However, one of our kids was on the crew that opened this Denny’s a few months ago. For a few days before they opened, the crew’s friends and family got to dine for free with the crew member while they all learned the ropes. That free dinner was delicious. The Super Bird is still on the menu after all these years.

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Film Photography

single frame: America’s Diner

Polaroid photo of a brand new Denny’s diner.

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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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Camera Reviews

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.

By the way, if you like instant photography, also check out my reviews of Polaroid’s packfilm Automatic 250 (here), Big Swinger 3000 (here), and Colorpack II (here), and integral-film One600 (here) and One Step 600 (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

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.

Cars on the Street

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.

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

See more from this camera in my Polaroid SX-70 gallery.

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.

Yet these SX-70 images are still magical. The colors aren’t true to life, but 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.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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