Words and Images By Paul Ravenscroft
When Polaroid closed its last film factory in 2008 in the face of the digital onslaught, the classic square format instant medium looked like a doomed anachronysm. But from the ashes arose The Impossible Project, a group of former Polaroid employees led by analog entrepreneur and instant enthusiast Dr Florian Kaps, who bought part of the factory in Enschede, Holland, with a mission to save instant photography. Recognizing the massive challenge they faced, they took inspiration for their name from a famous quote by Polaroid founder and technical genius Edwin Land: “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible”.
The enormity of the challenge became clear immediately, not least that many of the chemicals Polaroid had used were now either commercially unavailable or banned under consumer legislation. Their first black and white production film two years later, based around a completely new proprietary chemistry, was far from perfect; critics quipped the only impossible thing about the film was getting a decent shot from the pack of eight.
Fast forward to today and the latest, third generation films – black and white and colour, and including the Spectra rectangular format and even 8” by 10” - are far easier to shoot. Indeed The Impossible Project, having saved the film format, this May released the first new instant camera in a generation, the I-1, riding the current trend for all things analog from watches to vinyl. Now lifelong instant addicts like me, trendy analog-obsessed youngsters and a small group of artists and professional photographers are once again growing the interest in this unique format.
The results you can get from the latest film can be wonderful, with saturated colours and balanced tones, yet retaining the dreamy soft textures beloved of instant fans. However the new Impossible films retain some quirks, and to get the best out of them, which can be tremendously satisfying, there are a few basics that may not be obvious to the first-time instant photographer.
First Things First
When Polaroid was selling millions of the “plastic box” 600 series of cameras in its 1980s heyday, most had fixed focus. With these cameras, unless your subject is in the “sweet spot” of sharp focus, your images will not be sharp. These cameras are fun but if you plan to shoot regularly you’re better off investing a bit more in either one of the autofocus models – including the sensibly-priced autofocus 600s or Spectra cameras – or a classic manual focus SX-70.
As with most things, the more you spend, the more features you get, enabling you to get better results and be more creative. If you’re working on a budget, have a good think before buying. If it’s just a “party camera” I’d recommend a 660 or 670 (faster film, high-quality sonar autofocus, and built-in flash); if you envisage taking more creative photos, think about investing in an SX-70 (classic manual focus folding 70’s SLR) or even an SLR680 (an upgraded SX-70 with sonar autofocus and built-in directional flash). Whichever you choose, remember that all Polaroids are vintage cameras. I’d advise against buying any camera which isn’t explicitly advertised as fully working; if it doesn’t promise that, you’re likely to be disappointed.
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Blinded By The Light
When Impossible “reinvented” Polaroid’s complex chemistry, their biggest challenge was the film’s “opacifier”. This chemical layer, less than width of a human hair, protects the still-sensitive film from light as it is ejected from the camera before it dissolves to reveal your image. The opacifier in Impossible’s film is still imperfect (although vastly improved) and for best results it is best to shield the film, especially in the first few seconds after it is ejected in bright sunlight. Although this sounds fiddly, Impossible now sells a “frog tongue” device, a thin, unobtrusive sheet of film that catches the front edge of the film as it ejects and rolls out to shield the image. Get one!
Although most of the millions of cameras Polaroid sold were functionally basic, virtually all of them did have a simple plus/minus exposure adjustment, handy for backlit shots and other unusual exposure situations. It’s more than handy for shooting Impossible, because since it was first launched the film has always been “fast”, that is its real ASA/ISO is slightly higher than advertised (and the film more sensitive to light), both for the 600 ASA films and the 100 ASA. In practice you’ll find that most of your shots will benefit from a slight reduction in exposure to account for this, achieved by moving the slider or wheel (depending on camera model) slightly towards the black area. Set the exposure adjustment to neutral for all flash shots.
Like the original Polaroid films, Impossible’s chemistry can be used in extreme temperatures but to avoid colour shifts and development issues you should take a few simple precautions. On a day when the thermometer is down near zero, try to keep your camera warm before you take the shot and once ejected slip the film into an inside pocket or tuck it in your armpit to keep it warm during development. On a hot summer day try to keep your camera out of the sun and place the ejected image somewhere cool; perhaps carry a cool bag or a put the photo near a cold drink.
Clear A Space In Your Fridge
Having said the film has to be handled carefully when shooting in the cold, for longevity it is best stored flat in your fridge, like most analog films (but never your freezer!). And remember each new film pack needs about half an hour to warm up after being stored in the fridge.
Kept properly, Impossible say new film stock will function perfectly for up to a year from the manufacture date stamped on the box. My experience suggests that fridge-cooled film can last a lot longer without any discernible changes.
Keep Your Rollers Clean
Inside the front of all Polaroid cameras are two sprung rollers. As the film is ejected it is squeezed between these two rollers, breaking the “pods” containing the development chemicals (in the fat white strip at the bottom of the film) and spreading the goo evenly across the image. Over time however chemicals leaks from the pods and other dirt that accumulates inside the film chamber can adhere to the rollers, causing the chemicals to spread unevenly as the film is ejected. This is simple to remedy; the rollers are easily accessed with the film door open and cleaned with a cotton bud soaked in pure alcohol. It is time well spent to check your rollers before inserting a new film pack to avoid the frustration of images ruined by uneven developer spread.
Save The Planet
Edwin Land, Polaroid’s founder and technical genius, was an early environmentalist. He hated the chemical mess and waste paper left over from his first generation “peel apart” instant films, and was inspired to create the “integral” format that we think of as Polaroid (and now Impossible) film today. In the spirit of the great man, both Impossible’s paper/foil packaging and the empty film cartridge are manufactured to go in with your everyday recycling. Go on, you know it makes sense!
Whilst you’ll be lucky to get eight Pulitzer contenders from your first pack, if you add your creativity to following these simple rules you’ll be amazed how much fun you can have shooting instant pictures; and in no time you’ll be experimenting with some of the amazing effects you can create. Three years ago I rediscovered instant film, some thirty years after driving my parents crazy wasting all their Polaroid film. Today, thirty-odd instant cameras later and with a fridge full of film where the milk should be, it’s my favourite format. Try it, you might just fall in love too.
- West End Cameras stock a range of Impossible film and accessories. If you would like any further advice please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org