My idea of a good time is walking round a cemetery and hanging out with dead people. Handy, as I live near the UK’s largest cemetery, and I’m not great at small talk.
I bumped into an old girlfriend a few weeks ago.
She asked me if I had any regrets. I told her I was really sorry I hadn’t shot more Kodachrome.
A few days later, pondering the look on her face, I realised that might not have been the answer she was looking for.
But as film photographers, regrets and disappointments are what we’ve come to expect. As well as Kodachrome, I really wish I’d shot a load more of Fuji’s Black & White pack film before it bit the dust in 2014. Kodak’s Panatomic X is another one, although that’s mainly because it sounds like something out of a 1950s sci-fi film. And not hiring someone to follow me round and document my entire life in wonderfully wobbly Super 8 was clearly a mistake.
The good news is that these days film photography is once again in the ascendancy. New emulsions are emerging and old ones resurrected. But the first such disappointment for me personally was when Polaroid stopped making instant film in 2008.
Back In An Instant
Most people know the story by now. At its peak in the mid-70s, an estimated one billion Polaroids were being shot each year. Yet fast forward two decades and the instant photography market was being devastated by digital. By 2008 Polaroid had called time and stopped making film for its cameras.
Enter The Impossible Project. They bought the production machinery from Polaroid for $3 million and leased part of the former Polaroid plant in Holland. But with no raw materials and suppliers, they effectively had to reinvent the film from scratch.
I’d been a Polaroid shooter for many years and I remember being excited that I might be able to continue. But it soon became clear that the price was prohibitive, and the early iterations of the film were extremely flakey. My camera was relegated to the back of the cupboard, where it would spend the next ten plus years.
Back To The Future
This year I thought it might be time to take another look. I’d heard the film was much improved. The price is still a bit eye-watering though; £17 per pack, and where the old Polaroid had ten shots per pack, now you only get 8. That’s about two quid a pop. Ouch. Whatever, let’s go crazy, I thought. But would my camera still be working?
Polaroid SX-70 Sonar
The original SX-70 is a work of genius. A manual focus SLR that produces instant film and folds flat. At some point Polaroid thought that the autofocus malarky other manufacturers were putting in their cameras might catch on. Thus the Polaroid SX-70 Sonar was born.
It’s clear the bug-eyed autofocus component on top has just been grafted on to a standard SX-70. This has the disadvantage of making the folded camera an inch or so longer. But the autofocus itself is super-snappy, and the viewfinder large and bright. I’m assuming the focus works by chucking out sound waves until it hits something and measures the distance, although anyone who’s not a scientific moron may correct me on this. One thing I quickly realised was that if you attempt to shoot through a window the camera will focus on the glass. Fortunately, there’s a manual focus option.
I gave the rollers on the camera a quick clean and pushed in the film cartridge. Out came the dark slide with that familiar Polaroid whirrrr – a good sign.
Like the original film, the battery is in the film pack rather than the camera. But unlike the original which had an ISO of 100, the new film is ISO 160. As there’s no direct way to adjust the ISO on the camera, I thought I’d have to use the lighter/ darker wheel to compensate. But no. As you’ll see, the exposures are spot on. However, you’re going to need a lot of light to get sharp hand-held shots as the maximum aperture is f/8. Shutters speeds range from 1/75 to ten seconds.
Each shot takes up to about 15 minutes to fully develop, and it really needs to do this out of direct light to stop it being washed out. I have a small tin that I immediately pop the photo in.
So here we have it, my first pack of polaroids in over ten years. One thing’s for sure; there will be more.
Q: Are there advantages when your girlfriend goes on holiday without you?
A: Duh Yeah! You get to look after the puppy for a whole week
And much of that week was spent chasing him round the garden with a Polaroid, trying to get him to stay still.
The Impossible Project – now called Polaroid Originals – has had remarkable success since its inception in 2008. When Polaroid announced they would stop making film, the IP founders had a Victor Kiam-esque moment and bought the company. Well, some of the machinery at least.
And as much as I’ve admired them over the years, I’ve avoided resurrecting my own Polaroid SX-70. The early formulations of the film were quite flakey, and the price continues to be expensive; roundabout £17 ($21) for 8 shots. (NB I can’t quite believe 17 quid currently only buys 21 bucks).
Nevertheless, recently lamenting the loss of my Polaroid Land Camera has made me reconsider. The latest iteration of the film seems stable, and all things considered I can afford the odd pack here and there.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say when I’ve shot all eight frames. That could be a little while yet though because, at over two quid a pop, I’m a little bit selective about when I press that shutter button.
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