I admit, this is a camera purchase I put off for a long time, but I’m happy I now own one. Why the hesitation? First, the expense. The original SX-70 has a cult following among instant photographers and has maintained its value. Finding one that functions correctly and looks good comes with a high price tag. You can buy an SX-70 from Impossible or Photojojo that has been refurbished, but it comes with a steep price tag, usually $300 – $450 (US). When they refurbish the SX-70, they replace the leather, clean, replace parts (motor and flash electronics), and test each camera. One critical component replaced are the rollers. The rollers are essential to any model of Land Camera. The rollers spread the reagent and developing components as the film is ejected from the camera. If the rollers aren’t clean and don’t press firmly on the film, the photo will not develop correctly, or at all. When Polaroid originally manufactured these cameras, the rollers were coated with a Teflon substance. A material that would grip the film coming out of the camera, but would facilitate the rolling movement necessary to spread the chemicals evenly. Over time, this coating on the rollers can break down. If the rollers aren’t cleaned frequently, white pieces of the reagent can remain on the rollers and eventually wear down the coating, or create a rust-colored residue. If you buy any Polaroid Land Camera, make sure it’s been tested with film. I purchased mine on eBay and since I couldn’t test the camera myself, I made sure the buyer had with a fresh pack of Impossible film. If you’re shopping online for a Polaroid camera, you’ll find a large price difference between cameras that have been tested, and those that are sold “as is.” Be cautious buying from sellers that state, “I have no way to test this camera.”
My second hesitation with purchasing this camera were the doubts I have about the reliability of Impossible film. If you check online forums and reviews, there’s no consensus among photographers regarding Impossible’s film. It’s expensive, and based on my own experience with their 600-Series film, it’s not as reliable as the original produced by Polaroid. That’s not to say that in the future it won’t be. And that’s not to say that the results aren’t artistic or enjoyable. There’s a reason why the company is called The Impossible Project. Reverse engineering and recreating Polaroid’s original formula with new chemicals is a massive undertaking. The original SX-70 film contained thirteen layers of chemistry, a thin plastic sheet on top (Mylar), with a black backing. The chemicals had to be self-contained within a pouch on each frame (the larger white film border at the bottom of each photo). If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the documentary Time Zero: The Last year of Polaroid Film. This film explains the final years and months of Polaroid’s warehoused inventory of SX-70 and 600-Series films, the hoarding that started to take place by photographers, and the confidence placed in the hands of Impossible to re-create two of the world’s most notable film formats.
Short History of the Polaroid SX-70 Camera
After Polaroid’s wartime production of bomb sights and goggles, the idea of instant photography was patented by Edwin H. Land in 1943. The story is told that Land’s daughter asked why she couldn’t see a photo taken after it was taken, thus creating the idea for instant photography. The name SX-70 actually means “Special Experiment” used within Polaroid that replaced the name project “Aladdin” in the 1960’s. Seventy was the next numerical number used by the company as it conducted such experiments. The shape and size of the camera was directed by Land himself as he wanted it to be small and no bigger than a paperback book. The design was created by Polaroid’s top engineer, Dick Wareham in 1965. The SX-70 camera and film was introduced to the public in 1972. According to The Land List, three variations of the original SX-70 exist. The first production models from 1972 – 1977 had a plain ground glass focusing screen. This is the model that I own. Later models have a split-image rangefinder circle and much later models have a split-image rangefinder circle and focus scale. The camera attracted serious photographers because it was the first instant SLR camera (Single-Lens Reflex), viewing and focusing was done directly through the lens. As the popularity of the camera grew, so did the technology. One of Polaroid’s bold engineers, Phil Baker, complained that the camera was too difficult to focus. Land threatened to fire him, but agreed to a redesign of the camera. By 1978, Polaroid released the first auto-focus instant camera with the use of sonar. This technology was used to “ping” subjects in front of the camera and the returning signal would allow the camera to focus automatically. While the sonar module added extra size to the camera, it was very accurate and remained part of Polaroid’s camera designs into the 1980’s. Along with auto-focus, other features were added over the years like a tripod socket, fill-flash using Flashbars, along with black and white colored camera bodies.
These are my initial test shots with the SX-70 and Impossible SX-70 Color Film. The camera is fun to use. It is slightly difficult to focus, but at f/8 – f/22, it’s a little forgiving. I actually enjoy the rangefinder focus on the older Land Camera models that use 100-Series film. The camera is unique and attracts attention while using it, making it a fun conversation piece. Between the design, the SLR functions, I can see why it has such a popular history and cult following. I’m still hung up on the focus difficulty. Land claimed that people didn’t understand SLR’s and placed blame on the agency marketing the camera. In 1975 Polaroid had television ads that showed consumers how to focus with the camera. The results with the Impossible color film are about what I expected, but are also what was expected for instant images coming from this camera with original Polaroid film at the time. There’s not a lot of color saturation, in fact the colors seem a bit muted. However, I think it’s subjective and some photographers may desire this look. The documentation that comes with Impossible’s film instructs you to keep the photo out of direct light after it’s been ejected from the camera. I did this while I was out shooting, placing each freshly taken image into my camera bag, only to find out later that some of the white reagent had leaked from one or more photos on to the other images. Not a big deal, but I see this as one of the minor imperfections that Impossible has to overcome. Another being the area of the photo that has dissolved away or appears as an undeveloped patch. This can be seen at the bottom of my photos. Again, this can be subjective to the photographer and many Polaroid fanatics like this look. I see it as a defect in the film itself, but that’s just my own opinion. In the future I will be posting some images and reviews of the Impossible B&W Film for 600, B&W Film for 600 Hard Color Frames, B&W Film for SX-70 and B&W Film for SX-70 Black Frame.