Polaroid Spectra – Almost Instant

Square instant photography too limiting? Want a camera that fits nicely on The Love Boat set? You have a preference for the Polaroid integral instant film?  There is one camera that fits this bill, it is the Polaroid Spectra!

The Spectra uses the same film formula as the Polaroid 600 cameras but is in a wider format rather than the more well known square.  The Spectra is more advanced and complicated than the Sun 600 series, and generally produces a better quality result.  Aimed at the more advanced user and unlike the 600s and even the 1000 series, it offers quite a few extra controls.  It does still maintain the Polaroid ethic of the time, to ensure it remains easy to use.

The shape of the camera is very sharp and very much functional.  Almost like an SX-70 when folded down, but not as thin.  When it opens up though, it reminds you of a Sun 600 that is partly open.  But this is part of a design which works, opens up only as much as needed and even open is quite easy to hold in the hand with the hand strap.  The shape could be compared to the DeLorean in Back to the Future.  Sleek but with angled edges to it, and if used well can take you back in time (technically all photography does that, as it captures a moment in time).

The Spectra is part of the Polaroid Image System of cameras, which use the type 1200 film, but generally only referred to as the Spectra film.  A very similar camera was also released under the Minolta brand, called the Instant.  Where this film differs is that rather than the traditional Polaroid image with a square size of 79 x 79mm (3.1 x 3.1in) it produces a wider image at 92 x 73mm (3.6 x 2.9in).  While this is not a big increase in real estate, it does allow photos to breathe.

If you are more inclined towards the square format, the Polaroid Sun 660 Autofocus has been reviewed here previously.  Based on that experience, the expectation from this review was quite high.  Let us find out a bit more about this camera and see how it measures up to expectations.

History

Rather than repeat the history of Polaroid and Edwin Land, this was covered in the review of the Polaroid Sun 660 Autofocus.

The Spectra is part of the Image line of cameras which Polaroid introduced in 1986, with the aim of capturing more of the advanced photographer market for integral instant film.  Integral instant film had the reputation as more useful for family and fun, while pack and pull apart instant film was considered the more “professional” instant film.  Spectra was the name Polaroid used mainly in North America and a handful of markets.  In Europe and elsewhere it was labelled as the Polaroid Image.

The film itself was identical in formulation to the 600 film, utilising the same chemicals, border and ISO.  The difference was purely in the dimensions of the photo, slightly wider and not as long.

Polaroid was already operating without Edwin Land in 1986 when this was released and the Spectra was an attempt to stop the company’s decline.  By the late 1980s and early 1990s one hour processing for 35mm film was already pushing the relevance of instant photography out of the mainstream market.  By appealing to the more discerning photographer, with more controls, it was hoped this would bring sales back up.

This Spectra was the first model in 1986, with many different models right through to 2004.  The top of the line was the Spectra Pro with a glass lens and an LCD for the available controls which was released in 1990.  Minolta also released a Polaroid made version of the Pro, even before Polaroid themselves, called the Instant Pro.  Some special editions were released including a macro version.

Camera Specifics

The Polaroid Spectra is an instant film camera utilising type 1200 integral film released in 1986.  The camera is designed to fold down into a sleek profile when not in use, and instantly pops up for use with a slider on the left side, under the hand strap.

The film is loaded through the front by pressing down on the lever on the right side, which opens the drawbridge.  The film cartridge is inserted straight on and when the drawbridge is closed, the camera ejects film’s dark slide.  The resulting photos are sized 92 x 73mm with the classic Polaroid frame.  There is now 8 frames per cartridge with Polaroid Originals.

The shutter button is on top, near the back on the right.  It forces the user to hold the camera with both hands, with the hand strap on the left and to be able to press the shutter release, holding the camera steady with the right palm as leverage.

The camera shoots through a Polaroid Quintic 125mm f/10 plastic lens made of three elements.  This equates to 46mm if compared to a 35mm camera.  Exposure is automatic, as is focus with the sonar autofocus system.    All these components are, including the flash, revealed when the camera is opened.

Controls are located at the back to the right of the viewfinder.  Options the camera allows are metric/imperial selector, sounds on/off, self-timer, autofocus/infinity selector, flash on/off and exposure adjustment.

Next to the controls is a triple electrical insert for the remote control.  Also there is the flash charging indicator lights.

The viewfinder is located to the left of the camera.  Apart from framing the image it also has some information displayed.  A great feature is that it has a ready and focus indicator letting you know that it has locked onto focus with the subject.  What is even niftier is that it also displays the distance in your chosen measuring system type.  This can be seen without firing the shutter, by half depressing the shutter release.

The camera covering is a rubbery material which does not seem to age very well, but is quite comfortable to hold.  Finally there is a tripod socket on the bottom.

The Experience

To say my expectation of using the Spectra was high, you would be understating it.  I had fully enjoyed using the Sun 660 even though historically I am not an instant photographer.  So much so, that I was impressed enough to purchase the Spectra when I came across it in a charity store.  In the wait until I was ready to order my next lot of film, Impossible became Polaroid Originals and updated their formula, so the prospect of the better film also excited me.

 

When the film arrived, I duly inserted the cartridge and was very pleased to see the dark slide pop out.  I was ready to go!

I frequent a few camera collectors and film shooters forums online, so I decided it would be nice to post that I was going to use this camera for Polaroid week.  Messages came back quickly, telling me that these cameras are known to suffer a design fault from the Impossible/Polaroid Originals film.  The fault is where the taken frame does not eject fully and jams up.  This is apparently caused by the mylar strip used at the front flap of the cartridge to keep the film light tight.

Another theory is that they can only fit in eight frames in the cartridge, when originally Polaroid had ten, meaning they are thicker, causing them to jam in the rollers.  A third theory is that the capacitor on these older cameras is not holding as much charge as when it was new.  This could mean it does not have the strength to eject the photo, as the new Polaroid Originals Spectra film holds a battery exactly the same as the old Polaroid film.  Maybe a stronger battery may solve the issue.  I discounted a fourth possibility, which was the arm that eject the photo may be bent, I checked this and it is in good condition.

With this warning in mind, I headed out to La Perouse, a popular coastal area on the east side of Sydney, used a lot by couples for wedding photos.  Luckily I was using it as a second camera to another Polaroid (a 110b converted to a 4×5 camera), because it got stuck on the first frame.  My heart sank.

When I got home, I put the camera in my dark bag and opened up the cartridge.  I removed the mylar strip as per this video. I put the first frame back in the cartridge and when I inserted it into the camera, it ejected it successfully.  The photo below is the result from that experience, as you can see the chemicals got all messed up by my thumbs pushing it back in and I suspect some initial drying.

Result of pushing film back in after it got jammed.

So armed with a camera that in theory was going to work for me, I set up my dog as a test subject.  Picture taken, ejection completed, success!

The joy was short lived, not only was I then experiencing the photos randomly jamming in the camera, I started to get blank frames coming out intermittently.  I put this down to the fact I had to reinsert photos in the dark bag, so soon afterwards when I finished the colour film, I inserted the B&W version of the Spectra film and off I went to Surry Hills, an inner and trendy suburb.

It did not go much better and in the end I have had lots of potential masterpieces (I am sure they would have been some of my best work!) that either came out blank or jammed in the camera.  Considering how expensive this film is, that is heartbreaking.

Left: The Spectra cartridge with the mylar strip pulled out
Right: Wasted opportunities, either messed up or blank pictures

You may think that this is a very negative review of the Spectra, and to a point it is influenced by the bad experience I have had and which I believe is fairly common, in regards to the non-ejecting photos.  Interestingly, I really liked using the camera.  From a design point of view, it makes sense.  It is all business.

Being a Polaroid you expect very minimal control, and while this does have extra, it is exactly what an instant camera needs.  The controls are very easily accessible and very easy to understand what each one does.

Holding it is very easy, and because of its construction in plastic, it is very light.  One thing you need to get used to is that it will attract attention and draw you into conversations with strangers.  To me this is always a plus.

Do I recommend the camera. Yes and No.  I did not get the number of photos I wanted from it, and there is technical problems with the new film.  So from that point, no, I would not necessarily go out of my way now to get one.  But, and this is a big but, the film is being improved all the time.  If Polaroid Originals either makes the opening larger, or thins the film to the original depth, and possibly increases the size of the battery in the cartridge, the Spectra makes a fantastic camera to own and use.  Maybe worth getting one now that they are very cheap and holding onto it.  The results I did get from it when it worked well are definitely worthwhile.

Final shot which was not ejected properly.

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