Jared Lichtenberger Photography


A Simple Guide to Polaroid Cameras

So you want to get into instant photography?

Taken with Polaroid Automatic 100 Land Camera // Fujifilm FP100C

And no... I'm not talking about Instagram. I'm talking about original instant photography, POLAROID!

A Brief History:

Before looking into the various types of cameras, I recommend that you have a general overview of the instant photography timeline, which took place from 1948 to 1997. If you'd like to skip over this information and jump right into finding the right camera for you simply scroll to the next section.

In 1948, Edwin Land and Polaroid introduced the very first instant camera. The Polaroid Model 95 retailed for $89.95 back then and set the stage for a new era of film photography. By 1956, Polaroid had produced its one-millionth camera and had taken the world by storm. Now, up until 1963 all film was black and white. But in 1963, Polaroid introduced Polacolor instant color film, and during that same year they released the Polaroid Automatic 100 Land Camera. This was the first fully automatic pack film camera. This camera is one of the top sellers in my Etsy shop because of its build quality, automatic exposure control, and ease of use. In the late 1960's, Polaroid released the Swinger camera which was largely popular among younger crowds. Polaroid continued its successful reign of instant photography in 1972 when they introduced the Polaroid SX-70, a folding, automatic exposure camera. In just one year the demand for this camera had Polaroid producing five thousand SX-70 cameras PER DAY! By the time 1977 rolls around, Polaroid released the OneStep Land Camera, which became the best-selling camera in the United States. The OneStep Land Camera is the "iconic" Polaroid camera with its rainbow stripe and it just happens to be the camera that Instagram used as inspiration for their logo. Following the OneStep Land Camera, Polaroid released the highly popular Sun 600 and color type 600 film in 1981. Then in 1986, they introduced the Polaroid Spectra System, which required a new film format that was more rectangular than the 600 film. Finally, in 1997 Polaroid released the Polaroid OneStep Express, a type 600 camera.

Now this is not an exhaustive list of all Polaroid instant cameras. Many of the models listed above had multiple variations, and there are other types of instant cameras that I did not list because film is no longer available for those models. In 2008 Polaroid shut down their instant film labs and ceased production on all instant film. Since then, The Impossible Project purchased the last functioning Polaroid factory and has re-formulated film for type 600, SX-70, and Spectra cameras "to save 200 million Polaroid instant cameras from becoming utterly useless." Fujifilm also continues to produce two films, color and black and white, for the Polaroid Automatic Land Cameras.

Which camera is the right camera for you?

Let's take a more in-depth look at each of these Polaroid cameras.

Polaroid Automatic Land Camera

Polaroid Automatic 250 Land Camera

The Polaroid Automatic Land Cameras are some of my favorite vintage instant cameras! Aside from the beautiful and vintage look of the bellows, these cameras are just plain fun to shoot with! So lets talk specifics...

The Automatic Land Cameras vary in their specifications. However, they all have a similar construction. The cameras were built with either a glass or plastic lens, a metal or plastic body, and some form of rangefinder viewfinder. All of the Automatic Land Cameras, with the exception of the Models 180 & 195,  are equipped with a battery powered light meter positioned next to the lens. There are a set of tabs (Labeled "1") on each side of the camera. These can be pushed from side to side in order to extend and retract the bellows of the camera, which allows you to bring your subject into focus. Attached to the lens housing there is a lever (Labeled "3") that needs to be pushed downward in order to cock the shutter. When the shutter has been cocked and your subject is in focus, you then press and hold the red button atop the camera.

Once you've taken the photo, you slowly and carefully pull the white film tab from the side of the camera. This will expose a larger black tab, which you need to slowly pull out at an even rate. This will pull the film through a set of metal rollers inside the camera and spread the development chemical across the film. The film needs to develop for a specific number of seconds before you can peel apart the negative image from the positive. The development time depends on the temperature of your environment. Colder temperatures require longer development times, while warmer temperatures require shorter development times.

This camera is one of my favorite cameras to shoot with! Yes, it is big and bulky, but it is a guaranteed conversation starter when you pull it out. People always want to know when it was made and how it works. A big advantage that this type of Polaroid camera has over other cameras is its film cost. A pack of Fujifilm FP-100C (color film) will cost you $10.99 from B&H Photo. The pack of film includes 10 exposures, making each individual exposure worth $1.10. Other Polaroid cameras take film that will cost you approximately $3 per exposure. The final thing that I love about shooting with these cameras is the size of the resulting images. The film that is manufactured by Fujifilm is 3.25 by 4.25 inches, which makes a really nice sized print. I have also heard of people scanning the film negatives to achieve awesome digital scans.

Polaroid SX-70

Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera

The Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera is, in my opinion, one of the most beautifully designed cameras of all time! It's collapsibility and iconic look is very appealing to many Polaroid enthusiasts. So, how does this camera differ from the others?

Well, this camera followed the Automatic Land Cameras, mentioned above. It was designed to be collapsable and more compact than its predecessor. Along with the change in design, there was also a change in film size. Polaroid introduced, with this camera, that classic square photo with the white border. The film, originally produced by Polaroid, came in a pack of 10, but now is produced by The Impossible Project and comes in a pack of 8. I really like the thoughtful design behind the way these cameras work with the pack of film. The SX-70 Land Camera does not take any batteries itself. Instead, every pack of film has a pair of button cell batteries along the bottom of the pack. These batteries come power the camera when the pack is inserted.

Once the camera has been opened up from its collapsed position, you simply press the yellow tab along the side of the camera to open the film slot in the front. Slide your pack of film into the camera and close the front. You will hear your camera's internal mechanics operating and then the dark slide will be ejected from the front of the camera. Now, you're ready to shoot! The black dial just above the shutter release button allows you to move the lens forwards and backwards to bring your subject into focus. On the opposite side of the camera, you are able to adjust your exposure with the white and black dial. To make your photo darker, move the dial so that the black side of the dial is showing more than the white. To make the photo lighter, move the dial so that the white side of the dial is showing more. This mechanism works by "tricking" the camera sensor. When you move the dial so that the black side is showing, a plastic screen moves out of the way of the sensor so that the camera sensor receives more light. This causes the camera to think that a lot of light is going to hit your film so it makes the shutter open and close quicker, leaving you with a darker image. The opposite occurs when you move the dial toward the lighter side. A plastic screen moves in front of the sensor to "trick" the camera into thinking that there is not a lot of light hitting your film. Therefore, the shutter stays open longer and lets more light hit the film, resulting in a brighter image.

After you have focused on your subject and adjusted your exposure (if needed), press and hold the red shutter release button. You will hear the internal mirror flip up and then back down and your film will eject from the front of the camera passing through a set of rollers on its way out. The rollers burst the development chemical and spread it over the film to produce the instant image.

I'm a big fan of this camera for a number of reasons! First, it's compact and easy to carry anywhere. I once brought this camera into a concert venue in the back pocket of my jeans! The second reason I love this camera is because of its beautiful design. I really like the way that the brushed metal, matte black and brown leather look in combination with each other. And finally, I am a fan of this camera for the images it produces. They come out sharp, with a nice depth of field and in classic Polaroid, square format.

Polaroid 600 Camera

Polaroid Sun 600 LMS

Let's wrap this thing up by talking about the Polaroid 600 type cameras. If I were to ask a group of people to draw a Polaroid camera, my guess is that a large majority would picture this type of camera. This camera was one of Polaroid's more consumer level cameras that the general public had an easier access to.

The 600 type cameras work very similarly to the SX-70 Land Cameras. However, many 600 type cameras included a built in flash and they took a new type of film, 600 Film. The film still had that classic square format, but was rated at a higher ASA; 600 ASA to be exact. These cameras were very simple in nature. They all sported a fixed plastic lens with a separate viewfinder. Some models included a close up feature which allowed you to slide a small plastic magnifier in front of the lens and viewfinder to take a closer image. Pictures with these cameras are sharpest between four and five feet. 

A small level on the side of the camera allows you to open the film compartment on the front of the camera. Film packs work just the same as the SX-70 with two button cell batteries along the bottom of the pack to power the camera and the flash. Loading the film ejects the dark slide, and on many of these models you can hear the flash begin to charge up. You're able to adjust the exposure when the Light Management System (LMS) just below the lens. To take the photo with flash you press and hold the red button on the side of the camera. To take the photo without the flash, use the smaller black button that lies just beneath the red button. Flash was recommended for all photos with this type of camera, however your images will turn out just fine if you have good natural lighting without the flash. Film ejects out of the front of the camera just like the SX-70. It passes through a set of rollers and spreads the development chemicals across the film to produce your image.

This type of camera is great for the individual that is just getting into instant photography. The camera itself is capable of producing awesome results and it won't cost you an arm or a leg for the camera like some other models do. It's limitation is in the fixed focal length

Again, this is not a list of every Polaroid camera ever made. Just a simple guide to a few of the various types of cameras out there. All of these cameras, and more, are available in my shop.

If you have questions or comments, please do not hesitate to post them below!

Cheers & happy shooting!