Back in the ‘90s, you either had a flip Polaroid camera, or you wanted one. At least that’s how it felt in post-Soviet Russia. The imports just began flowing across the border, made to satisfy the formerly-forbidden cravings for foreign goods in a country where everything was locally sourced since WWII.
My parents were lucky enough to afford and care about creative tools like Polaroid’s newest instant camera system. It remained with us for a few years until we packed our stuff, along with a few precious little square frames to make a big move to Canada. The rest, including our 600 system, was sold and given away.
Polaroid 600-series cameras come in a vast variety of designs. The plastic injection mould bodies retain the same basic structure: a flip cover that hosts the flash and a base with integral electronics, a plastic lens, and a film ejection mechanism. The shape and colours given to the shell, however, may defy practical limitations. The cameras sport a range of designs, from retro-modern to insane, some shaped like cartoon characters, French fries, or lego bricks.
My Sun 660 LMS, freshly purchased at a local thrift shop, shares its basic features with most of the cameras in the long line of 600s. A plastic 116mm 𝒇11 lens with autofocus and auto-exposure, a simple viewfinder with a minimum focus distance of one meter and a 1/4 to 1/200 shutter.
The flash fires in all light conditions, though it’s easy to bypass by pressing down on the “inner” shutter button — a sleeve for the red button that could be pulled on. Unlike many integral systems of the time, it only takes ten seconds to charge, and it happens to be very bright.
The camera has an exposure compensation notch, which has to be slid about a third of the way towards the dark side. This is because the new Polaroid Originals film is slightly more sensitive than the long-expired Polaroid film from the ‘90s.
It may take some time to get the right exposure with this camera since the film is very finicky about light; the slider could be counter-intuitive at times. This guide, for a pricier SX-70 camera, has detailed instructions on how to master the light, and it applies to 660 just the same.
Sonar focusing mechanism. The camera’s peculiar focusing system uses sound, inaudible to the human ear, to determine the distance to the subject. Once calculated, one of the internal “template” lenses slides-in behind the main one to “correct the vision.” Due to the mechanics of this apparatus, shooting out of the window does not work. The sound waves reflect off the glass, and whatever’s beyond it is very likely to be out of focus.
The 600 isn’t a particularly expensive camera — neither does it feel like one. It’s rather bulky, about the size of a small watermelon when closed, weighing just about a pound. As you could imagine, a large plastic box with lots of air inside does not yield a feel of a quality product. Neither the less, this Polaroid is very sturdy. Despite its appearance, it is capable of producing good quality images; many copies remain functional far beyond its three decades since production. This is more than I could say for most pricey gadgets produced today.
Shooting Polaroid 600.
In the ‘90s, this camera was made for everybody. That being said, today’s instant film isn’t the same stuff, which makes operating 600 somewhat tricky.
In its heyday, Polaroid, the brand, used to be regarded as highly as Apple Inc. today. Unfortunately, an extensive lawsuit against Kodak caused immense drainage of innovation, morale, and talent within. The company continued to lose its ground in the years that followed until it shut down the last factory in 2008 and remained as a shell of a brand. A small team of passionate photographers did manage to revive what was left of Polaroid, including the film line. However, they were not able to salvage all of the formulae and tooling.
☝︎Further reading: “Polaroid Introduces New Camera And Film” — The New York Times.
The new film is a continued re-innovation; it does not come close in colour accuracy and exposure latitude to the stuff produced by the former giant. Despite all that, I love the way the new film looks. Still, it’s very easy to mess up.
New Polaroid film does not work well in harsh light. It gets colour shifts in the dusk. Even in perfect conditions, it may not come out looking right. It takes effort and experience to get it to work, which isn’t cheap, considering how much a pack of film costs.
Be ready to “burn” your first pack just to get the hang of your camera. I found that shooting in daytime shadows gives it the best balance of light and contrast. As mentioned above, the exposure compensation slider should be positioned about third-of-the-way towards the dark as a starting point, whereas you can adjust it gently with every exposure until satisfaction. The 600 camera requires some distance from your subject, at least a meter, and its flash will not correctly light your scene if you’re more than seven meters apart. On top of that, it takes over ten minutes to fully develop your exposures, which you should not shake, hide from the sun, and keep at room temperature.
Polaroid 600 vs. SX-70 and Instax.
At first, it may seem that the 600 is a bottommost choice of the trio. Instax uses a stable, quality film that’s cheaper and easier to work with; SX-70 is an old legend that can’t be touched. In practice, the picking may not be so easy.
Polaroid SX-70 folds into a compact shape, it feels and looks great, and comes with a glass lens and SLR viewfinder that can be manually focused as close as 10.4”/26.4cm. It also costs significantly more than the 600.
Despite its superior construction, SX-70 uses the same film technology as the 600 and is prone to similar drawbacks when it comes to getting a good exposure. The lens of the pricier model is clearly superior, though unless you are taking close-up shots, the end-results may look fairly similar. This is because you are looking at a relatively small frame, plastic lenses aren’t as bad as they say, and the large exposure area of the negative is able to correct a lot of the optics’ shortcomings. Also, SX-70 does not carry a built-in flash, and the film it uses is two stops slower, making it tougher to shoot in low-light situations.
Instax is how I got started with instant film. This system is the most popular camera produced by Fujifilm; it’s sold everywhere. It’s cheap, and the film works very well. There are a variety of cameras for it, including one made by Leica and even a TLR made by MiNT. Still, it’s missing a few things.
Despite its imperfections, Polaroid film feels special. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia for those of us who shot the original Polaroids back in the day. Or the fact that it’s been “saved” by an underdog. Its “experimental” nature adds an element of surprise, and when it does get distorted, it feels warm and organic. The possibility of emulsion lifts alone is a reason enough to shoot this incredible format.
In the end, the choice depends on the type of photos you’d like to take, whether the cost is an issue, and how much you care about the camera itself.