Polaroid SX-70 Camera Review

The Only Foldable Instant Film SLR

23 min read by, with images by
Polaroid SX-70 Alpha 1 in unfolded position, ready to shoot.

Polaroid SX-70 is a beautiful and immensely capable instant film camera.

SX-70’s glass lens uses its unique shutter mechanism to make the sharpest images possible with user-adjustable exposure and focus controls. This is also the only film camera for this format that can produce bokeh.

Its folding SLR assembly is a unique and the most elegant solution to the lack of compactness in single-lens reflex cameras. Who would’ve known you can pocket and instantly ready a large format film camera and then print your image in minutes!

In fact, there are tons more brilliant innovations and quirks that make this camera unique. I spent four years using my SX-70 often; this review covers everything I know about Edwin Land’s final masterpiece.

➜ Free Download: Polaroid Land SX-70 Instant Camera Guide (PDF).

A brief history of Polaroid SX-70 and the brand that built it.

SX-70 is not just a film camera but a cultural object deeply embedded in cinema, fashion, and the art world. 🥳 This year, it celebrates 50 years since beginning production in 1972. But despite its age, it hasn’t been forgotten; the likes of Andy Warhol immortalized its image in our collective minds to the point of instant recognition, and it’s been revisited countless times in books, blogs, magazines, and by YouTube stars like MKBHD.

Polaroid SX-70 next to a pack of Polaroid film in folded position. This camera makes a brilliant travel companion.

SX-70 is a camera that took an incredible effort to build by a multi-billion dollar company. The research and development that went into this product are monumental.

In its heyday, the Polaroid brand had a reputation similar to what Apple is enjoying today. In fact, Steve Jobs met Edwin Land, the cofounder of Polaroid, and described the experience as “like visiting a shrine.”

The camera was to include revolutionary optics and a complete set of photonic controls, some of which had not yet been invented. Three Polaroid factories were being built simultaneously: a negative plant in New Bedford, a film assembly plant in Waltham, and the new camera assembly plant in Norwood… Each required process machinery that was yet to be conceived, built, and installed by Polaroid engineers. Many of the most important manufacturing issues had not been solved, since the specifications of the camera and film were still changing. The SX-70 program was so complex and so extended the boundaries of half a dozen technologies that those who worked on it had difficulty in stretching their faith and their optimism beyond the piece of the whole on which their own energies were concentrated. Land was virtually the only person in the company who knew in details all the difficulties that had to be surmounted. The rest of us could only guess.

— Peter C. Wensberg, Polaroid Executive.

The iconic company began materializing when young Edwin Land dropped out of school to develop the polarizer technology. This revolutionary invention filtered partial light wavelengths, allowing the viewer or the camera to peer through reflective surfaces.

Several years after inventing the polarizer, Land Cameras began its production of instant film cameras.

SX-70, the first and only foldable SLR instant camera, debuted in 1972. At the time, Polaroid had commissioned several factories dedicated to film and camera assembly and chemical sourcing.

The camera’s name came from Land’s military background. It stood for “Secret Experiment 70,” abbreviated in the same fashion as his classified work during the Second World War.

Edwin’s experiment 70 was his most ambitious project, virtually free of compromise and incredibly complex by nature. Up until the day of release, no one could be sure that it would be possible, even for a multi-billion dollar company to complete.

But once it was built, SX-70 created a truly unique experience, unparalleled even today.

The art world reacted instantly. The likes of Andy Warhol, Ansel Adams, Helmut Newton, and Walker Evans took it everywhere. The camera became a fashion statement, an artist’s tool, and an expensive toy for the masses.

Tagged with $180, or approximately 1,320 US dollars today, it wasn’t cheap. Unfortunately, its release coincided with an economic recession, leading to disappointing sales — barely half the expected million+ units. Alas, one of the greatest photography products in history marked the start of the company’s decline.

The company adapted to the market by releasing progressively cheaper models with plastic glass and rigid bodies until completely discontinuing the SX-70 line in 1981.

Edwin Land presenting his new Polaroid camera. Wikimedia Commons.

The eventual bankruptcy of Polaroid was brought on by a brutal lawsuit with one of its former business partners. Kodak, Polaroid’s supplier of essential chemical components, has infringed on Land’s copyrights by creating similar cameras to compete in the US market. The resulting legal battle took a year off Edwin’s schedule, loads of corporation’s resources, and a devastating blow to the overall morale.

Winning the lawsuit did not help. Soon after Land left the company, Polaroid was crippled by the setbacks, vulnerable to Fujifilm’s instant film invasion.

Polaroid film got cut in 2005.

Thankfully, a Dutch company named Impossible Project bought the last remaining film factory in 2008. In 2017, they acquired the Polaroid name and IP to become Polaroid Originals. In 2020, the company (og. Impossible Project) rebranded to become Polaroid, and things began to make sense again.

Polaroid SX-70 lens and image quality.

The camera features a four-element 116mm 𝒇8-𝒇96 extraordinary glass lens that can focus as close as 10.4”/0.26m. The shutter speeds are limited to 1/180s for the fast action and can stretch up to 14s for long exposures. There is no bulb mode for this camera.

The quality of the optics sets SX-70 apart from most instant cameras, which usually come with plastic lenses and can’t focus any closer than three feet/1m away. The greatest limiting factor on the resolution of this lens is the film itself — which can be considered as large format based on its image area dimensions: 3.11” × 3.01” or 7.9cm × 7.65cm.

Though not as large as 4” × 5” for the defacto large format, Polaroid film is significantly larger than even the largest medium format exposures that measure 2.25” × 3.5”.

In practice, film for Polaroid SX-70 isn’t particularly sharp — on the plus side, it’s completely grain-free. The film’s sharpness can be improved via an emulsion lift — which is a tricky procedure that can give you unique, pleasing results. See the next two images, for example:

Polaroid SX-70 black and white film exposed with my Alpha 1. Scanned on a cheap flatbed scanner with no sharpening applied.
An emulsion lift made of two black and white Polaroid SX-70 film frames. The waterproof paper adds a ton of texture here, however, the images look a lot sharper than when encased under the plastic material within the frame.

Polaroid SX-70 lens bokeh.

Bokeh is an out-of-focus rendering quality. Though it won’t necessarily make your pictures look better, this effect is very helpful for compositions and specific applications like portraiture and experimental photography.

Lenses that can not produce bokeh are often a cheaper kind with tiny apertures or made for a camera with a very small film format. Modern mobile cameras go as far as drawing their own bokeh using AI to hide the fact that they are mounted on a tiny sensor, incapable of producing this effect naturally.

SX-70 is the only instant camera that can produce bokeh without modifications on the square frame film format. Furthermore, the fact that it is also an SLR enhances the experience of making out-of-focus renderings as you can get close to your subject for greater effect while seeing it/them as it/they would form on film.

To get the same results on a full-frame or a smaller format camera, you may need a much faster lens, perhaps an 𝒇2.0 or 𝒇1.4. But SX-70’s large film plane, combined with its ability to focus as close as a foot away, make creating bokehlicious images simple and fun:

To get bokeh with your SX-70 camera, get very close to your subject while under a slight shade or when the sun is hidden behind a substantial cloud (around EV11).

The bokeh effect will be diminished in full sun as the camera will close down its aperture to set an appropriate exposure. If you are shooting a darker scene, you may need a tripod.

Polaroid SX-70 can produce beautiful bokeh when shot in subdued light.
A bit of bokeh/background separation can still be seen with Polaroid SX-70 in this portrait of my dad. Though it isn’t as pronounced as in the photo of jensing above, I am happy with the results.

Polaroid SX-70 shutter mechanism.

Speaking of SX-70’s lens and not mentioning its shutter would be a major omission. Aside from being an integral element of the camera’s operation, Polaroid SX-70’s leaf shutter mechanism doubles as an aperture.

Better yet, the leaf shutter/aperture’s dual-component teardrop shape openings are apparently better at rendering objects with motion blur and shallow depth of field. Another plus to this camera’s bokeh abilities.

The shutter’s fastest speed is 1/180s; however, it is sometimes interpreted as 1/2,000s based on the amount of light it lets onto film with a fixed 𝒇8 aperture… Let me explain:

Because there are no dedicated aperture blades on SX-70, the 1/2,000s is an interpretation of the minimum amount of light the shutter allows onto the film plane (this is how focal-plane shutters measure speed also). However, that is not the mechanical speed of the shutter. Instead, SX-70 has its leaf shutter blades form an 𝒇22 aperture while firing at 1/180s. 𝒇22 lets in three stops of light less than 𝒇8, which makes this action equivalent to a shutter firing 1/2,000s at 𝒇8.

Of course, the motion blur of fast-moving objects may still look like they were photographed at 1/180s, not 1/2,000s.

When SX-70 is forced to have its shutter/aperture open up fully to 𝒇8 in dim light, its maximum shutter speed is reduced to 1/70s. And with flash, SX-70 always fires its shutter at 1/40s. But the full range of its apertures (without flash) is 𝒇8-𝒇96.

Folding and unfolding Polaroid SX-70.

Polaroid SX-70 cameras, despite their blocky design, have great ergonomics. They are relatively light (740g/1.6lb with film) and fit easily in large purses, small bags, or gigantic pockets.

Unfolding SX-70 may take some time to get used to, but it’s very simple once you get the hang of it.

Essentially, you’re pulling the viewfinder cap until the camera snaps into position.

When I first tried to unfold my Land, it felt somewhat stuck, likely due to a lack of mechanical exercise. I had to lightly snap the cover-support lock (4-A) into its place with my finger to prevent the camera from closing on its own. With time, the action became smoother, and the need to adjust the lock ceased.

Folding the camera back involves pushing the cover-support lock back and letting SX-70 compress with a little help.

Over time, I’ve gotten comfortable enough with the camera to fold it with just one hand. To do so, I hold the camera in my right hand with the fingers wrapped around its top (below the viewfinder) and the thumb resting on the cover-support lock. I then turn the camera so that the lock is facing up and the lens angled up a bit as well. Then, I pull the lock and gently start flipping the camera belly-up as I wrap my fingers over the viewfinder cap and squeeze the Land into its closed position.

Loading film into Polaroid SX-70.

Loading film is easy if you know what to look for: the small yellow bar (tab) on the camera’s side.

Note: The camera has to be unfolded to accept film.

The bar unlocks the film door where you can insert your pack with the tab sticking out of the film pack facing you and the dark slide facing up.

With Polaroid Originals film, you must ensure that the film pack sits snugly in the camera. Pulling it out could be a bit of a challenge. To do so, you’ll need to tug on a flappy plastic tab that hangs from the film pack. In my case, it had to be done with considerable force and control.

If the dark slide isn’t ejected immediately after you close the film door, the best thing to do, I found, was to open the door again, then push the film in a little further and shut the door back firmly.

Recycling used polaroid film cartridges.

Polaroid film for SX-70 cameras comes with a plastic frame, a metal spring, and a non-rechargeable battery. After you finish your pack of film, you should break the plastic frame (⚠️ carefully, the plastic shards can be sharp!) and recycle the plastic, metal spring, and battery separately.

A complete guide for recycling Polaroid film with illustrations is available.

More info about Polaroid film can be found in this article and below.

Polaroid SX-70 viewfinder and manual focusing.

SX-70 is the only foldable SLR ever made besides Newman & Guardia Ltd and Zeiss Miroflex. To enable such complex mechanical operation, Polaroid built a specialized Fresnel focus screen.

Polaroid SX-70 SLR. Top: when using the viewfinder for through-the-lens composition. Bottom: when the camera uses the same lens to expose the film. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Runner1616).

Looking through the SX-70 viewfinder is a little tricky, however. It took me a little while to find the right angle to hold my eye against the finder, as shifting a bit to the side could block out the entire image somewhat unexpectedly. The viewfinder also tends to distort the view’s geometry slightly, although that issue does not appear on the film.

The SX-70 finder is very bright and easy to use with glasses. It seems to have a magnification factor of about 0.7х; the eye relief is fantastic — you can keep your eye 3” away from the glass and still see the entire frame.

Manual focusing on SX-70 cameras is easy. Whatever you see in your viewfinder is what’s going to be in focus on film. A split-prism circle in the middle of the frame is a helpful aid that you can use for sharper results. Even if your subject looks in focus, you can use the prism to align vertical lines for better precision. All this is done via the black wheel next to the red shutter button on the front panel.

SX-70’s manual focus controls are useful if you want greater creative freedom. This method is also immune to the later Polaroid autofocus devices’ Achilles’ heel: shooting through the windows. The slightly more modern sonar devices used inaudible sound signals that bounced off glass, making well-focused shots through it impossible. The original SX-70 does not have that problem.

Fun fact: early models of SX-70 did not come with split-prism aid. Edward Land considered it obstructive, though his mind had to be changed by consumer demand.

With modern Polaroid film, you may want to turn the “Lighten/Darken control” wheel counter-clockwise (revealing more of the black half of the wheel) by one notch to avoid overexposure.

Polaroid SX-70 film exposure controls.

The most difficult aspect of operating SX-70 cameras is their exposure controls. You must get the exposure right for good results, as the modern Polaroid film suffers from a limited dynamic range (explained below). Unfortunately, the camera makes figuring out the best light conditions and adjusting to ensure that the exposure is correct a challenging task.

The first problem is the fact that the camera defaults aren’t good. To shoot the modern SX-70 film, you’ll need to turn the “Lighten/Darken control” wheel counter-clockwise (revealing more of the black half of the wheel) by one notch to avoid overexposures.

You’ll need to ensure that you adjust the L/D control every time you unfold your camera — as the wheel resets to the middle position whenever you fold your SX-70.

SX-70 cameras are not well-suited for photography in severely subdued light (i.e. evenings and indoors). This is because of its limiting specs: an 𝒇8 lens with an ISO 160 film. Unfortunately, you can’t simply use Polaroid 600 film as the ISO is hard-set within the camera, and you will end up with overexposed frames — the L/D control is not enough to compensate for higher ISO.

Backlit or high-contrast scenes are difficult to compensate for with the L/D control. This is because the marks on the wheel do not necessarily represent stops, and it’s often hard to know what the camera will take as middle-grey. To add to the pain, each frame will cost you over $3; thus, bracketing can get very expensive.

Also, note that many of the SX-70 Model 1 cameras (including mine) do not support fill flash.

For better pictures, choose well-lit subjects with limited contrast (no harsh shadows).

Polaroid SX-70 film has a limited dynamic range.

Polaroid SX-70 film.

Polaroid is the inventor of the original integrated film frames that store all the chemicals needed for development in the small pouches under the thicker end of the border. It is a complex product that was once discontinued, only to be taken over by The Impossible Project and then reformulated for the modern market.

Polaroid film has a limited dynamic range which makes taking complex exposures difficult. Yes, you need some experience and understanding of how to make good exposures on film for the best results with this fully-automatic camera.

Only one company makes film for SX-70 cameras, and it’s not cheap. It will cost you a couple of dollars per frame, and each pack will hold just eight frames (instead of the original 10). Your choices are also limited to colour and monochrome film in ISO 160.

However, you may be able to modify your camera for 600 film.

As mentioned above, Polaroid film isn’t particularly sharp, but that’s because the emulsion is under a layer of transparent plastic, removing which via emulsion lifts can improve image quality (but introduce other distortions).

For a complete review of Polaroid SX-70 film — see the linked article.

Polaroid SX-70 Alpha 1 next to Polaroid SX-70 Model 2. As seen from above along with packs of film and film frames.

Polaroid SX-70 in use: ergonomics.

In hand, the camera feels relatively light and easy to grasp with all of its controls placed conveniently. The viewfinder is a little tricky as it requires looking through at a somewhat restricted angle, though I didn’t find that to be a problem after some practice. The camera fits nicely in most bags and purses when folded, though it’s not exactly pocketable.

After some practice, folding and unfolding the camera takes just a second, with the most time taken up by focusing and composition.

I found my SX-70 surprisingly well-suited for street photography. Its shutter and ejection mechanisms are noisy, but there’s no sound when you manually focus the lens — unless you got the autofocus variety. And even if you do get discovered, there’s no better way to smooth things out than with a gift of an instant photo. 💝

Polaroid is great for intimate portraiture; I’ve tested it on light skin tones with fantastic results. The nature of instant film practically guarantees that no one will see your photograph until you choose to scan it and share it with the world.

Polaroid SX-70 build quality.

The body is made of a durable plastic compound designed to look and feel like metal, minus the weight and the rust. The leather is real on the debut model, Alpha 1. Unfortunately, later models use fake stuff that tends to flake over the years, leaving a nasty mess. Fortunately, there are many leatherette replacements that are relatively easy to install at home.

SX-70s aren’t particularly light, despite their plastic exterior. With film, they weigh about 740g/1.6lb.

Polaroid SX-70 cameras feel solid and much more exquisite than the cheaper 600 models or the brand new Polaroid film cameras.

They aren’t indestructible, of course, but I’ve never felt like I have to baby my SX-70. It can easily slip into the backpack without any fear of damage.

The rubber bellows are perhaps their weakest point, although mine appear flawless.

Polaroid SX-70 with MiNT flash bar accessory.

SX-70 accessories and modifications.

Polaroid SX-70 is a popular camera with a large community of people building things for it.

You can still buy single-use flashbulbs for your Polaroid, but if that doesn’t suit you, MiNT makes brand-new flashes that can use rechargeable batteries. Better yet, MiNT’s flash units come with colour filters and two settings, one of which lets you shoot 600-type film.

Taken with MiNT flash bar and a pink filter.

A variety of carrying cases, including the original leather bag and clever covers that fold and unfold with the camera, are also available for your SX-70. Even an underwater case exists!

There are also telephoto and close-up lens clip-ons and colour filters sold by MiNT (and others). You can really get creative with those.

A self-timer, wire trigger, tripod adaptors, and an ND filter for use with the ISO 600 film packs in an SX-70 camera in any lighting condition are out there for you too.

The cheapest and perhaps, the most useful mod/accessory for your SX-70 is a frog tongue. It is a flexible flap that keeps your film in the shade as it ejects from a dark environment into the blinding daylight. It’s known to yield slightly crispier images with deeper blacks.

Despite the complexity of SX-70, the camera’s legions of fans managed to take it apart, bit by bit, and create all sorts of upgrades. The best-known, commercially available mod is the SLR670 by MiNT Camera. Those machines are revamped to give you full control of shutter speeds and add a Bulb mode — plus a few other useful features non-modified SX-70s do not have.

While placing a neutral density filter over the film pack or the lens will let you shoot Polaroid Originals 600 film, there’s a better way to modify your SX-70 electronically to make it more suitable for taking pictures in subdued light. Of course, you can do it yourself if you dare; check out Analog Things’ video guide on how to perform the upgrade right.

OpenSX70 is an open-source project that gives you the means to replace the original PCB board to gain full manual control over the camera, similar to what SLR670 offers. It also lets you create multiple exposures and pair an Android/iOS app remote. There’s a video guide on how to get started with that mod as well.

Another simple mod by Analog Things demonstrates how you can create double-exposures with an otherwise non-modified SX-70.

Polaroid 600 round frame, exposed with Polaroid SX-70 with MiNT Flash Bar 2.

Fixing and maintaining your SX-70.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have my camera in great overall shape. Other than gently wiping my rollers with small amounts of warm water on a cotton swap, there hasn’t been any need for repairs.

In many cases, a major improvement in image quality was due to using a fresh film pack and not letting the camera sit without use. However, there are still occasional smears in the middle of my instant frames, a small artifact with which I’m willing to live. If you have the same issue and would like to have it fixed, try wiping your rollers; if that doesn’t work, you can get them replaced.

The camera and the film are meant to operate at room temperature, with minimal moisture and dust. Should you still have issues with your machine, consider the list of the resources I’ve assembled below:

One of the most common fixable problems is a broken coupler. The symptom is a jammed ejection mechanism. The fix involves taking the camera apart and replacing its bottom leather. The steps are illustrated here.

Polaroid SX-70 repair services and resources.

Brooklyn Film Camera is one of the most known repair services for SX-70s. Give them a try if you are in the area.

Polaroid Originals may also be able to fix your camera. They handle inquiries on a case-by-case basis.

MiNT Camera does repairs also. Give them a try if you’re located in Asia.

Finally, a complete repair manual PDF is available at this link.

The costs of shooting Polaroid SX-70 and alternatives.

Polaroid photography is expensive. Each frame will cost about $3, comparable to large format photography. The camera can sell anywhere between $70 and $1,000, depending on condition, seller, and whether it’s been modified.

These cameras were made almost half a century ago and are complex machines. Many of them have developed problems over time or are defunct. If that sounds like too much risk, you may start with the new Polaroid I-Type cameras, which are typically cheaper and come with a warranty. None of them have glass lenses or are foldable like SX-70, but they take slightly cheaper film (because it does not need an integrated battery) and come with a few modern features like Bluetooth remote, “manual” mode, and integrated flash.

There are also other instant film options, mainly Instax film cameras.

How to test Polaroid SX-70 cameras to see if they are working.

When shopping for an older Polaroid camera in person, bring an empty film cartridge with a working battery. If this is your first instant camera, you can buy an empty cartridge or a special “tester.” This will let you test your SX-70’s reflex mirror, frame counter, and ejection mechanism. 👇

How to test Polaroid film cameras: insert your empty pack, press the shutter button, listen for a mirror slap and observe a test/blank frame eject, which could be a piece of cardstock cut to size. A mirror slap should sound like a dull flick of a leather belt; you should feel it shake the camera just a bit.

Your inspection checklist should also include: unfolding the camera, checking the lens, bellows, viewfinder, and overall condition.

A working reflex mirror and ejection mechanism should indicate that the electronics are intact. Being able to fold and unfold SX-70 without problems or too much resistance ensures the structural integrity of the complex mechanics. The rubber bellows, a flexible thin skirt that ensures no light enters the camera, should have no holes and feel soft to the touch.

A Polaroid viewfinder is expected to distort the view a little bit, making it bulge evenly; other than that, you should be able to see a bright, sharp image with a split-prism focus aid. Shine a light through the lens to ensure there is no fungus, a growth that would look like a web of organic-looking lines, cracks, or milky residue. A little dust is no problem.

Where to find (and buy) a working Polaroid SX-70 camera.

eBay, Etsy, and online stores that sell these cameras may guarantee a working condition. These are loved cameras with many refurbished/repaired options available. But do check your seller’s rating/reputation and ask key questions that the listing may omit, like:

Does the camera work, and has it been tested with film? Are the lens and the viewfinder clean? Does the shutter and ejection mechanism work?

A link with a few good buying options for SX-70 cameras can be found below. 👇

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