A Polaroid update
Yes, someone still makes Polaroid instant cameras, and the film that goes in them.
A couple of years ago, I bought a new Polaroid OneStep+ camera, and wrote about it. I haven’t used it as much as I had hoped — I have gotten spoiled by the excellent cameras in my last three Google Pixel phones, and the Polaroid pictures, to me, look a little muddy. But it’s still fun to take an instant photo, and I ordered a new pack of film yesterday, for the first time in probably a year. I think when it arrives, I’ll use it on a sunny day to take some photos of the square and courthouse.
If you didn’t know that Polaroid cameras were still being produced, you’re not alone. But I think it’s an interesting story. (Much of what follows is repurposed and updated from my two-year-old post.)
The original Polaroid, founded by visionary Edwin Land, created the field of instant photography. In 1943, Land — who was already an inventor and entrepreneur — was on vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his 3-year-old daughter. He took photos of the beautiful scenery and she, with her innocent wonder and curiosity, wanted to know why she couldn’t see them right away.
Land, a chemist who had created the Polaroid company to sell a filter for polarizing light, was prompted to develop an instant photography system. The first Polaroid cameras, using peel-apart film, were introduced in the late 40s, and then in the 1970s came a new system which produced a dry photograph with no peeling or waste. The flagship for that new system was the beautiful, collapsible SX-70 camera, one of the most stylish and ingenious devices ever produced.
Land was a lot like Steve Jobs (Jobs cited Land as an inspiration, and the men eventually met and admired each other). In 1972, Land held an Apple-like product announcement in which he pulled an SX-70 out of his coat pocket, unfolded it, and began taking photos, one after the other, to the surprise and delight of the crowd.
Land only wanted to sell the SX-70, with its beautiful design and high-end features. Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive would no doubt have agreed. But the camera was quite expensive and other Polaroid executives eventually convinced Land to also sell cheaper, plastic cameras that would be more affordable to average households, thus allowing Polaroid to sell more film, leveraging its considerable investment and trying to hold off any possible competitors.
Up to this point in the story, Eastman Kodak had been one of Polaroid’s suppliers and had helped find practical, affordable ways to scale up manufacturing of the instant films invented in the Polaroid laboratories. But in 1976, Kodak introduced its own instant photography system, violating a number of Polaroid’s patents. A lawsuit, which dragged on for 11 years, was the result. Polaroid won that case, but soon afterward, both Polaroid and Kodak would be shadows of their former selves, as a new form of photography — digital photography — took the forefront. Both companies were so fully invested in film photography that they were slow to realize what was coming and weren’t able to pivot as quickly or completely as they needed to.
There were Polaroid digital cameras and computer printers, but many were produced by east Asian companies that were simply licensing the Polaroid name.
Even so, there were, and are, still devoted Polaroid instant camera users. In 2008, when Polaroid announced it would no longer produce instant film, a Dutch engineer who had worked for Polaroid decided he was going to keep the system alive. He and a couple of partners, with backing from investors, founded a company called The Impossible Project. (Land once said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”)
They bought some of Polaroid’s old equipment and facilities but didn’t have access to all of the company’s proprietary secrets, and so they had to reverse-engineer some of their own chemistry. That’s why their film doesn’t behave exactly like the old Polaroid film. Even so, it was instant film that would work in Polaroid cameras.
The Impossible Project catered to Polaroid devotees. They started refurbishing old Polaroid cameras and selling those, too. They eventually introduced their own new instant camera, the I-1, which got mixed reviews.
Then, in 2018, the primary investor in The Impossible Project ended up buying what was left of the Polaroid trademark and intellectual property. So The Impossible Project changed its name to Polaroid Originals, and eventually just Polaroid, even though it’s not actually the same company that Edwin Land founded. The new Polaroid made another stab at introducing its own cameras, and its new models were more warmly received than the Impossible Project’s I-1 camera.
The new cameras were actually inspired by one of Polaroid’s classic instant cameras, the OneStep. They have the same basic shape and appearance, but they introduce some new features. The OneStep+, the camera I own, connects to your smartphone by Bluetooth. You can use your phone as a shutter button (helpful for taking selfies, or group shots in which the photographer wants to be included). You can also use the app to fine-tune a couple of camera settings, or to take a digital photo of your Polaroid photo so that you can share it with friends or post it to social media.
There’s also a device called the Polaroid Lab which can make Polaroid prints of photos you’ve taken on your smartphone.
Independent of Polaroid, Fuji has had success with its Instax instant film cameras. Those have a much smaller format — sort of “fun size” photos, ideal for kids, parties, and so on. Polaroid has now decided to enter that market with a new small-format camera of its own, the Polaroid Go, which looks like a shrunken version of the OneStep.
The new Polaroid film, due to its slightly different chemistry, is a bit fussier than the old Polaroid film. It takes longer to develop itself, and they recommend that you shield a newly-shot film from the light — if only by leaving it face-down on a surface — while it develops. Half the fun of the old photos was gazing at them as they gradually emerged from the haze. They also recommend that you store film cartridges in the fridge, pulling them out and letting them come to room temperature before you put them in the camera.
Polaroid Originals makes film for both its new cameras and classic Polaroid cameras. The SX-70 film and the 600 film (made for the cheaper cameras that followed the SX-70) are more expensive because each film pack must include a battery. The old Polaroid cameras did not have a battery in the camera; each pack of film included a battery with just enough power to run the camera and the flash for the number of photos included in the pack.
The new cameras have an internal rechargeable battery (you plug the camera up to a USB port or USB charger to recharge it) good for shooting 15–20 packs of film on a single charge. That’s a lot less wasteful, and it means they don’t need a battery in the film pack. So Polaroid sells I-Type film for the new cameras; it’s the idential film and cartridge used in the 600 film, but it’s slightly cheaper because it doesn’t include a battery. The new cameras can use either 600 or I-Type film; older cameras must use the 600, because they need the battery.
Many of the people who use Polaroid cameras are artsy types, and Polaroid caters to them by offering both black-and-white and color film, as well as film with black or colored frames (as opposed to the standard white frame).
It’s interesting how having a 10-pack of film changes your outlook as a photographer. With a smartphone or digital SLR, your best strategy is to take lots and lots of photos, and then sort through them looking for the best ones. With a limited number of shots, that’s just not possible. You have to make each shot count, or you’re wasting money.
Anyway, even though the Polaroid film hasn’t always lived up to my expectations, instant photography is still a fun change of pace. I’m glad it’s still around.