Polaroid B&W SX-70 Instant Film Review

Better Than Colour

8 min read by

Polaroid B&W SX-70 Film is a unique emulsion in that its existence is virtually a miracle. Made as the only monochrome option for film cameras that haven’t been in production for decades, it’s been sold out and restocked multiple times at my local drugstore for months.

Why choose black and white Polaroid frames over colour (even though they’re the same price)?

I love shooting colour, even when the results aren’t technically “accurate.” But colour film is incredibly complex, which sometimes takes away from the versatility of the emulsion. I reviewed the colour SX-70 film a few months back; it comes with a few inconveniences: long development times, some lack of sharpness, and a narrow dynamic range.

Polaroid SX-70 B&W film (left) vs. Instax Mini (right).

I think Polaroid’s SX-70 black and white film is an improvement over the colour SX-70 in sharpness, ability to capture high-contrast scenes and development times. Plus, the monochrome prints render warm sepia tones, vividly different from Fujifilm’s Instax cool-tinted monochrome frames.

It’s also easier to make emulsion lifts off black and white Polaroid frames.

The right side of this photo was shielded from direct light immediately after exposure — the other wasn’t. The side exposed to sunlight as it developed (left) shows less contrast and darker highlights. This film scan had its colours adjusted slightly for easy comparison; in reality, Polaroid monochrome frames usually show sepia tones to various degrees.

SX-70 B&W film development times and tips for better results.

Polaroid black and white film develops twice as fast as colour. You should start seeing the image fade in from deep blue in the first 30 seconds. It will gradually turn warm-tinted monochrome in about 5-10 minutes, with the remaining (practically unnoticeable) changes to the frame continuing for the next few hours.

Polaroid instant film is still light-sensitive as it develops. This means that if you let the sun shine onto the frame during that process, you may be losing some contrast, and your highlights may look less vivid. For best results, consider getting a “frog tongue” for your camera or take extra care to hide your film from bright light as it ejects. More info about the “frog tongue” and shielding your film.

All Polaroid film is temperature-sensitive. It’s not just the light that you should shield your frames from once they’re out of the camera — it’s the cold. Whereas excessive heat can turn your photos brownish, cold weather will keep them from properly developing. Your breast pocket is the best place to keep your freshly-exposed Polaroid film.

This goes for Polaroid frames that you have just exposed with your camera: 1) hide from direct sunlight, 2) keep in the breast pocket for 10 minutes, and 3) do not shake. Shaking may make your images blurry as the liquid chemicals swirl under the plastic frame.

Polaroid SX-70 black and white film shows sepia tones, especially after being left in bright light for a while.

How to store Polaroid film safely before and after exposure.

Polaroid film is unique because it can not last as long as regular/non-instant film. While it’s not uncommon to get good results from regular camera film that’s a decade past its expiration date, it’s unlikely that the ages-old Polaroid film pack will work at all.

This is because the liquid chemicals stored in the parts of Polaroid film are prone to drying. Like an old tube of paint, dehydrated chemicals can’t be used.

Do not store your Polaroid film in a freezer. Instead, store Polaroid film in a fridge at cold but above-freezing temperatures. This will ensure the improved stability of the chemicals without compromising their integrity. You can store your instant film for 2-4 years past the production date. But the best and most reliable results will always come out of the freshest packs.

After you’ve taken a photo on your Polaroid frame, it should be stored in the shade. I know it’s disappointing to learn that these photos can’t be safely hung on a sunny wall — but that’s always been the case with this type of film. If left out in bright light, your monochrome frames will gradually brown and begin to lose contrast. This will happen over days and weeks, so it’s certainly safe to look at your pictures in full sun — just store them in an album or a box for utmost longevity.

A deduced film characteristics curve for Polaroid SX-70 black and white instant film using measured light falloff and greyscale pixel brightness values.

SX-70 B&W film exposure guide and dynamic range measurements.

Polaroid film is difficult. Each frame costs $2, and if you don’t know how to expose your film perfectly, most of yours may be wasted, no thanks to its limited dynamic range.

To make sure that your photos do not come out with muddy shadows or parts of the frame appearing so bright you can’t see any detail, choose evenly lit/minimal contrast scenes.

Polaroid does not publish film characteristic curves. And so, for advanced photographers or anyone who can read them, I calculated my own version of them using a simple experiment setup:

I hung a sheet of paper that I lit on one side with a table lamp in a dark room. I then measured exposures using my Lumu light meter’s spot tool and marked points where the readings changed by a full stop. Next, I shot a few sheets of Polaroid monochrome film on my SX-70 at various exposure settings and picked the most legible one to scan. Lastly, I used Photoshop’s Info panel to measure RGB values at each marked point, converted that data into a graph (above) and published it as a free download on Analog.Cafe:

➜ Free Download: Polaroid Film Characteristic Curves 1st. Edition (PDF)

According to my estimates based on the above experiment, Polaroid B&W SX-70 instant film shows about 4 stops of dynamic range. Maybe less, depending on how you interpret the graph.

Olympus PEN FV half-frame SLR on Polaroid SX-70 black and white film.

Grain, sharpness, and resolution.

Measuring graininess and resolution isn’t as simple as figuring out film’s dynamic range. And thus, I’ll have to revert to sharing my opinions.

Polaroid film is a virtually grain-free material due to how the chemicals develop within its layers. It appears smooth at both ISO 160 (the SX-70 packs, including this one) and 600 (a more popular format, including the i-Type film). But all polaroid frames also appear to lack sharpness when enlarged. There are many reasons for that, including the fact that the emulsion is stored behind a translucent layer of plastic that can distort things, and there are some ways to overcome it (i.e. with an emulsion lift).

In real life, when photographed with SX-70’s excellent lens, Polaroid B&W film shows plenty of sharpness and resolution at any distance. Still, I would not expect to see tons of detail on an enlargement.

B&W Polaroid film appears sharper than its colour counterpart.

Servicing Voigtländer Vitessa L on Polaroid SX-70 black and white film.

Polaroid film size.

The image area of Polaroid film is 7.9cm × 7.65cm or 3.11” × 3.01”.

Polaroid film is larger than Instax Wide (6.1cm × 9.91cm or 2.4” × 3.9”) and Instax Square (7.11cm × 8.64cm or 2.8” × 3.4”).

Scanning Polaroid film.

Scanning Polaroid film can be tricky. I go into some detail on the best ways to digitize your instant frames in my Polaroid SX-70 colour film review.

Recycling used polaroid film cartridges.

Do not toss used Polaroid SX-70 cartridges into a garbage bin! They come with a battery that can start a fire. Instead, follow this guide on how to recycle used Polaroid SX-70 cartridges.

Binding Monochrome magazine on Polaroid SX-70 black and white film.

Where to buy Polaroid SX-70 B&W film.

For unmodified SX-70 cameras, there isn’t much choice when it comes to black and white film. When purchasing, I would check the production date and ensure that if it’s longer than a year film was stored in a fridge most of the time. I would not buy Polaroid film that’s older than three years.

That said, most Polaroid films can be bought worldwide either online (see link below) or at local film photography stores.

By the way: Please consider making your Polaroid SX-70 black and white film purchase using this link  so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!