One of the nice things about doing an episode about instant film is that it is somewhat of a closed ecosystem, meaning there’s comparatively very little to actually discuss – which makes writing these show notes a lot easier than the gargantuan task of compiling episode 10’s list of Leica toys and filter info. Don’t worry though – we’re not short-changing you. There’s still plenty to get your teeth into here!
We start with the venerable but oft-ignored Instax formats from Fuji; while the Mini format tends to get a lot of publicity and pushing from Lomography with their instant backs, Tony is a big fan of the larger Instax Wide format. There’s a big difference – Instax Mini produces an image that is only 46mm by 62mm, while the Wide format cranks it up to 99mm x 62mm, which is comparable to the classic integral Polaroid formats. The downside of this is that – frankly – the camera that takes it (which, at the time of writing, is only the Instax 210 – production ended on all the others, including the oh-so-desirable 500AF) is huge, plastic and uninspiring. The major issue is the fact the flash cannot be turned off, meaning it will automatically flash if it decides it needs it; no ambient low-light photography here. Couple that with an irritating two-zone-focus system – which is not only controlled on the side where you tend to forget about it, but handily defaults to 0.9m-3m every time you turn the camera on – and it can be somewhat hard to justify the purchase of an Instax Wide camera to someone. (It’s worth pointing out that the 500AF fixes both of those problems, with always-on autofocus, a tripod mount and the option for flashless long exposures, but expect to pay at least £100/$100 more than the 210 for the privilege.)
But what do you get in return for suffering the camera’s drawbacks? Well, in short, a film that is cheaper, more stable, more reliable and more available than any other integral film available today. The colours are richer and more vibrant, too. On top of this, it’s truly “instant” – no hiding it from light or having to wait half an hour for the photograph to develop. As such, it really is the best party camera available; everyone who’s shot instant film knows the way people react to instant photography, and burning through a pack of Instax film – whether wide or mini – becomes very easy (and entertaining) on a night out.
For those seeking the more traditional style of instant integral print there is only one option: The Impossible Project. Founded in 2008 by purchasing the old Polaroid factory in Enschede, they were able to save some of the machines used for making various formats of instant film including SX70/600, Spectra and 8×10 (the latter of which we will get into later). After many iterations, the Impossible Project’s most recent release of film – known as the Color Protection series – is, to put it bluntly, simply stunning. With a phenomenal color palette, and no longer a need to shield the film from exposure after it has been ejected from the camera, this is as close to the old Polaroid film as they have yet managed to get. While Tony is still a fan of their Silver Shade (black and white) films as he sees nothing else like it on the market, Nate thinks that their color films are the bigger sellers – which may explain why we haven’t seen a new version of the Silver Shade films in over a year.
And while The Impossible Project wasn’t able to save the 4×5 machines – something many people are wishing they could have done – they’re not out of the instant large format game altogether. They’ve been working hard on their PQ series of film for the last year or two, which is an 8×10 Integral print in black and white. Some first batches have already gone out, and rumours are that a color version is to be released to the public within the next few months! This isn’t all good news however, as thanks to this resurgence of the large format instant film, prices on the Polaroid instant processors have risen in price by 1,000%!
In case you needed a reason to want to shoot large format instant film, let us introduce you to the work of Cathleen Naundorf:
(above: ‘The Evolution of Fashion I’, shot in the Galerie d’anatomie comparée, Paris.)
Cathleen Naundorf is a fashion photographer who shoots the magnificent creations of the heute couture fashion houses in France. Her work – seemingly exclusively shot on large format Polaroid film – is achingly beautiful. So much so, in fact, that it’s hard to write about it without sounding pretentious, so we’re not going to. Just go have a look at some of her photographs on her website, or if you have the best part of $200 to spend, go buy her book.
(Note: at the time of writing, a brand new copy of Cathleen Naundorf’s book is available at Amazon for $900. Yes, NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS. We wish we were making this up.)
Thankfully, the large format options aren’t limited to Impossible’s attempts at reviving 8×10 instant film (with the insane prices that the film processor now goes for, anything that avoids having to obtain one is good in our books); New55 are working on a new version of the positive/negative Type 55 that was massively popular with photographers in the past. Thankfully, they are also improving on it massively, with a new product that reduces the amount of waste and ensures both the print and negative are correctly exposed (and usable – something that apparently wasn’t the case with the original Type 55). Currently, they’re producing small runs of the film by hand (!) as they tweak the process, and they’re getting bloody good results:
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, we end the discussion of Polaroid cameras by debating just how bad most of them are: bad or really, really unbelievably bad? Case in point: the Pronto, an SX-70 type camera with yet another plastic lens and that sign of high-quality design, front cell focusing. (Of course, the limitations – sharpness-wise – of front cell focusing are largely negated by the limitations of the Polaroid format, but the point remains the same.) They’re largely designed to be cheap family cameras – and not for serious high-quality landscape photography and the like – and while they’re fit for purpose, it’s tough to justify using them elsewhere when there are better options. Like the original SX-70, for example.
Another example of this design policy within the old Polaroid company is the Colorpack series, which were rigid-bodied (and again, largely plastic-lensed) versions of the earlier folding pack-film cameras. Common mostly because of the lower prices they sold for when they were first released, they’re all over the place now – but there are obviously much better options for the peel apart user.
Worse still are the completely abandoned instant formats (of which there are many). Of course, Kodak’s legally-crippled attempt has to get a mention, but Polaroid were prone to just leaving a format behind as they moved on. The cameras abandoned in this way are too numerous to mention, but we’ll say this: know what you’re buying. If it’s not obviously a Spectra, 600 or SX70 series camera or takes the 100series-compatible Fuji peel-apart films, don’t touch it with a bargepole. Due to most Polaroid cameras having a plastic body, it won’t even be any good as a paperweight! If you’re ever in doubt, check the Landlist, which is probably the most comprehensive guide to Polaroid cameras in the world.
As we move onto books (of which there are many published regarding the world of instant film) we discover that one of Nate’s favorite topics is the king of instant film himself – Edwin Land. Of the many biographies written about Land, Nate has personally only rad two. Those two books are Land’s Polaroid by Peter C. Wensberg and Insisting on the Impossible by Victor K. McElheny, but Nate’s personal favorite is Land’s Polaroid. It is more concise and still gives you a wealth of information on both the man and the company, whereas Insisting on the Impossible tends to dwell on one subject for a touch too long from time to time.
Other biographies on Edwin Land and Polaroid include: The Instant Image: Edwin Land and the Polaroid Experience by Mark Olshaker, Fall of an Icon: Polaroid after Edwin H. Land: An Insider’s View of the Once Great Company by Milton P. Dentch and Instant: The Story of Polaroid by Christopher Bonanos (this was the one Nate was not too keen on).
While not directly linked to instant photography, Ansel Adams’ series of photography instruction books (The Camera, The Negative and The Print), do refer to instant photography on occasion. They’re included here more for the fact that they are simply the most comprehensive guide to black and white photography available, and should really be mandatory reading. Even if you’re only ever shooting integral film in a cheap 600 series camera, a good understanding of exposure and the Zone System can go a long way.
Polaroid Manipulations: A Complete Visual Guide to Creating SX-70, Transfer, and Digital Prints by Kathleen Thormod Carr covers a topic that we did not spend a lot of time discussing, but we still wanted to drop in this little book. In it, Carr describes the various techniques used to manipulate an SX-70 print, details all the tools needed to do the job, and includes example photographs from artists. This guide can be easily found second-hand and covers the history of the SX-70, how to properly expose an image and how to manipulate, hand color, transfer and print the final image.
Nate is the only one in this group who has even attempted a transfer, so we will be sure to bug him about it more on a future episode.
While all these books are quite good in their own respect, if you are looking for something newer and – how should we say it? – not so “textbook-y”, Polaroid Love may be the book for you. Published in 2012, it is a comprehensive guide to all things instant film. While the main subject of the book is by far the standard SX70/600 style of photo, the book is sure to touch upon other formats (Instax, Spectra etc.) as well as giving basic how-to’s on manipulations, transfers, and other fun instant film projects.
Our final book is The 365 Project, collecting a series of instant photos by our very own Nate Matos. For the last two and a half years, Nate has been shooting at least one photograph on instant film every single day, and this book compiles the highlights of his first (Impossible-only) year. Of course, the project is still ongoing; you can find the latest work on his Tumblr, although at the time of writing it hasn’t been updated for two months. We will have to start poking him with a very large stick to get him uploading the photos again.
We end on a ridiculous note: the aforementioned 365 project has cost Nate a small fortune. Simon calculates that Nate spent $1,375 on Impossible Project film for his 365 project in 2011 ALONE. Instant film photography is not a cheap hobby by any means.