Polaroid SX-70 – Instant engineering
The Polaroid SX-70 is a camera which I have been very much looking forward to using and reviewing for a long time. It is also a camera which has kept me from writing the review due to its iconic and daunting status. This is something that is fully understandable, the design is unlike any other camera.
Polaroid were always a company which did not adhere conventional camera design. While other companies have achieved cult following with one or two of their cameras, Polaroid seems to have achieved this with many models. Acknowledgement comes by the number of cameras being featured on T-Shirts today, aimed at the general public rather than photographers.
The challenge in 2019 is whether the new Polaroid Originals film does the camera justice. For starters, the counter is incorrect as it counts down from 10 photos, while the new film only contains 8 per cartridge. The thickness of each photo is also a consideration, with the modern film being slightly thicker and can cause issues with the rollers. A third consideration is that the new film is very sensitive to light when first ejected from the camera, leading of overexposed photos in some cases, though this has gotten much better recently.
Quality issues aside, having a company producing integral instant film for these cameras now is great. It will only get better too, which is doubly exciting. I’m just thankful I am able to use such a marvel of technology. There is something really satisfying with the whirring of the motor as it ejects a photo. It is also amazing to think it is performing hundreds of chemical reactions in a split second on each of the photos.
I have previously had up and down experiences with integral instant film cameras. I struggled with the Polaroid Spectradue to technical issues with the camera and film thickness. The Polaroid Sun 660 Autofocus Land Camerawas a much more enjoyable experience. Everything just worked.
The history of how Edwin Herbert Land built Polaroid is well covered in the Polaroid Sun 660 Autofocus Land Cameraarticle, including how originally the aim was for polarisers.
The SX-70 was first produced in 1972. This was something totally new. Not only is it the world’s first instant Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera, it also has a very unique form factor. The SX-70 can fold down flat!
The SX-70 release coincided with the release of the SX-70 integral instant print film. This started a whole generation of cameras using not only specifically the SX-70 film, but further iterations of the concept, with the Spectra and 600 films. Over time it became better quality with advancements in the chemistry being used.
The Polaroid SX-70 was produced until 1981. The early models had a flat viewfinder screen. After feedback from customers that they were hard to focus, an updated model was introduced with the split prism screen. Following that, other models were introduced including a sonar autofocus model.
With such an iconic design, the SX-70 was used and endorsed by quite a number of famous people including Andy Warhol, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans and Helmut Newton.
The Polaroid SX-70 is the quincentennial 70s icon. This copy is from the later production as it has the split prism screen. The feel and look of the leatherette remind me of The Rockford Files. The chrome fittings finish off a very elegant look.
In a flat position the camera resembles a brick or tile. The camera is opened from the flat position by lifting the viewfinder. First lift the front, and then from the back which pulls the whole camera up.
Once opened, the viewfinder is the very top section. The viewing lens sits at the back held in place by some bare brackets. It is positioned facing into the mirror, so is angled downwards. You don’t put your eye directly on the back of the viewfinder, as it is designed to be held back slightly, to allow for people with glasses. You see the whole frame. In the middle of the viewfinder is a split prism. This allows focus via the dial on the front right-hand side.
The lens on the SX-70 is a 4-element 116mm f/8 glass lens. It focuses from 26.4cm (10.4”) through to infinity. On the right side of the lens is the shutter release button, in its red glory. On the other side of the lens is the “electric eye”, which is used to determine the automatic exposure. The shutter ranges from 1/175 second to 10 seconds.
On the left front is the dial for exposure. By rotating towards the black side, it darkens the exposure, to the white side to lighten the exposure. Also at the front is the flash bar socket, which you can insert a ten shot flash bar.
The bottom of the front opens by a yellow button on the right side of the camera. This allows the SX-70 integral film cartridge to be inserted. The SX-70 cartridge carries the battery, so the camera only operates with a cartridge inserted. Once inserted, the dark slide is ejected, letting you know the camera has come alive.
Internal bellows allow the camera to be folded and unfolded, and remain light tight. They are made from a rubbery material. On the left side of the camera is the hinge which keeps the camera open, by pushing it towards the back it allows the camera to be closed down. It then reverts back to the flat position. The SX-70 has a lot of accessories, mine has a camera bag of the same period. It even has a slot for the flat SX-70.
I originally bought a Polaroid SX-70 online described as a bit dirty. When it arrived, it had more fungus than a mushroom farm. When I brought this to the seller’s attention, I was told that they said it was dirty. I mentioned this is more than that, and makes the camera unusable. I logged a complaint, and luckily the seller finally accepted it and gave me a refund.
A few months later, a friend mentioned he had his fill of polaroids and was interested in selling his SX-70. Knowing the condition he keeps his cameras in I was interested. “Shut up and take my money” I told him. I soon had in my possession one of the best engineering feats in photography.
I loaded up with colour film and carried the camera with me for a few days. Using it, I found it took a while for me to get used to not holding the viewfinder to my eye. Holding it away from my eye soon became natural though. Focusing was easy, the split prism is quite clear.
The camera worked well, though the pictures came out a bit more overexposed than I would have liked initially. I then remembered the new Polaroid Originals film does recommend that you shield the photo when it is first ejected and that it may need the exposure setting turned towards the dark side. I did notice that there must have been something on the right side of the roller as quite a few photos came out with stripe on that side.
Before I moved onto the next film cartridge, I installed a Polaroid Originals Frog Tongue. This is a device where you install over the ejection area and keeps the film shielded when first ejected. I inserted the black and white cartridge.
Disaster! The first photo got caught before it hit the roller and ejected from the wrong slot. From there it got worse. The camera then tried to eject 3 photos at the same time. I ended up having to put the camera in the dark bag and in the process the chemicals leaked from a photo into the camera. A huge clean up job later. At least I reconfirmed the rollers were clean.
I assumed that I must have installed it incorrectly, so I tried it with my next cartridge. Again it ran into problems, this time with stuck photos. Not a great run with this camera. I removed the Frog Tongue and the following cartridges ran a lot smoother. Included in this review are photos which did survive the sticky situation, as even these have a interesting look.
I love the black and white photos from Polaroid Originals. They have a timeless quality to them. The colour film does come out a little less saturated than I like, but it has a very specific look. You also have to make sure there is quite a bit of light around, the SX-70 film is quite slow.
The more I used the SX-70, the more I started to love using this camera. The unfolding, the sound it makes, the conversations it starts are all part of the experience. Sure, I don’t think I have got the best out of it as yet, but I will definitely try again.
Jim Grey, apart from being a great bloke, has a nice review of a very similar looking SX-70. He also had the stripe problem I encountered. His review is here: Jim Grey, Polaroid SX-70.
Another good review I enjoyed reading is on Casual Photophile, written by the founder James Tocchio, who is always out to help with questions. He even got to talk to a Polaroidian worker, who puts James one degree from the legendary Edwin Land himself. We all seem to have the same taste, his is also the same looking version of the camera. The review is here: Casual Photophile, Polaroid SX-70 Instant Film Camera Review – The Pinnacle of Polaroid.
Nice! I have a Polaroid Land Camera and am pretty bummed about the discontinuation of Fuji peel-apart film.
Thanks! In terms of peel apart, hopefully the Kickstarter will provide a replacement of sorts.
Well, I am a bit reluctant about any resurrection because it tends to take time for things to be right and usually it’s not cheap. I am rather thinking of selling my Land camera and my left over cache of film.