Polaroid SX-70 Land Instant Camera Review

The Incredible, Foldable Instant Film SLR

25 min read by
Polaroid SX-70 Model 1.

Polaroid SX-70 is an undeniably beautiful and capable instant film camera. It’s nice to look at and a pleasure to hold in hand; it’s surprisingly compact for a large-format* camera. Aside from its impressive specs, SX-70 is a cultural object, deeply embedded in cinema, fashion, and the art world.

✱ — Polaroid film’s image area measures 3.11×3.01”, which is smaller than the common large format’s 4×5”. However, it’s significantly larger than the medium format’s max 2.25×3.5” area.

This in-depth review will guide you through the SX-70’s brief history — from the grandiose beginnings to the modern revival — and discuss the camera’s creative capabilities. From its unique 𝒇8 glass lens with a leaf shutter that doubles as an aperture to the remarkable SLR finder to the film that’s been brought back and re-engineered by the community-led effort.

Free download: SX-70 shooting guide, history, special effects, accessories, and maintenance.

An earlier, extended version of this article is available as a PDF download to Analog.Cafe members (it’s free and takes one second to sign up). The PDF features a deeper dive into this camera’s features and use scenarios not mentioned in this article. It is a 30-page printable book that you can read at your leisure, offline.

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

Polaroid SX-70 Model 1.

A brief history and the cultural impacts of the Polaroid brand.

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.

SX-70 is a camera that took an incredible effort to build by a multi-billion dollar company. The research and development which 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 has met Edwin Land, the cofounder of Polaroid, and described the experience as “like visiting a shrine.”

The iconic company began materializing when young Edwin Land dropped out of school to develop the polarizer technology. This revolutionary invention filters partial light wavelengths, allowing the viewer or the camera to peer through reflective surfaces. Today it is used in many LCD installations. It can also be bought as a screw-on filter for digital cameras that adds contrast and enables the photographer to take photographs through reflective water 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.

Edwin Land presenting his new Polaroid camera. Wikimedia Commons.

Despite being suggested as a sexual innuendo by New York Times, its 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 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.

Once built, the product has created a truly unique experience, unparalleled even today. There was simply nothing out there that could produce prints of this quality in such an elegant construction.

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 of the expected million+ units. Alas, one of the greatest photography products in history marked the start of the company’s decline.

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

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 at 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 Polaroid name and IP to become Polaroid Originals. In 2020, the company got rebranded back into Polaroid.

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”/26.4cm. 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.

The quality of the optics undoubtedly sets SX-70 apart from most instant cameras, which usually come with plastic lenses and can’t focus any closer than three feet.

Polaroid SX-70 can produce beautiful bokeh when shot in subdued light.

SX-70 is capable of producing beautiful bokeh (when shot at about EV11). Its lens opens to a maximum aperture of 𝑓8, which may not sound like much until you learn that the large film plane, combined with a close focus distance, can make for a very dramatic effect, much more pronounced than an 𝑓2.0 lens on 35mm/full-frame.

The lens does not typically produce sharply defined balls of light as most other glass does. However, some photographers find this to be a highly desirable outcome, which pushed certain manufacturers to adopt apodization filters that create a similar effect.

From what I’ve seen, there’s virtually no chromatic aberration and barrel distortion. However, it’s hard to judge the lens’ sharpness as the SX-70 film sold today isn’t sharp itself; plus, the plastic layers on top of the emulsion further blur the image below.

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.

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. 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 will still look like they were photographed at 1/180s, not 1/2,000s.

Also, 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 while the apertures it creates range between 𝒇8 and 𝒇96.

My dad on Polaroid SX-70 colour film.

Readying Polaroid SX-70.

Polaroid SX-70 cameras, despite their blocky design, have fantastic ergonomics. They are relatively light 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 bit of 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 the film is easy if you know what to look for: the small yellow bar (tab) on the camera’s side. 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 need to 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.

Polaroid SX-70 viewfinder and manual focusing.

SX-70 is the only foldable SLR ever made — other than Newman & Guardia Ltd and Zeiss Miroflex. Folding Reflex Camera. Better yet, it has a specialized Fresnel focus screen along with a variety of other innovations that make the camera possible.

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 of this is done via the black wheel next to the red shutter button on the front panel.

SX-70’s manual focus controls are fantastic 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 would bounce off glass, making shots through glass impossible — 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 and punishing 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 very difficult.

The first challenge 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.

Next, 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. Note that this isn’t necessarily the case, as older cameras may have had that functionality broken over the years, and some models simply do not do that. So you’ll just need to check.

SX-70 cameras are also not well-suited for photography in subdued light. After all, an aperture of 𝒇8 with ISO 160 film isn’t good enough for artificial light or deep shade. 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. Hence your darker scenes will need to be shot with a tripod or flash.

Finally, backlit or high-contrast scenes where you’ll be forced to choose what will be properly exposed and what isn’t are nearly impossible to figure out with the L/D control. This is because the marks on the wheel do not necessarily represent stops, and it’s often difficult to know what the camera will take as middle-gray. To add to the pain, each frame will cost you over $3; thus, bracketing can get very expensive.

On the last note, many of the SX-70 Model 1 cameras (including mine) do not support fill flash; thus, you may not be able to soften the shadows that already appear as impenetrable blacks on the modern film.

My best advice is to choose well-lit subjects with limited contrast (no harsh shadows) while shooting your SX-70. You may be OK shooting at EV11 — a medium shade (see Sunny 16 calculator for visualization) — this will get your Polaroid to open its aperture up to 𝒇8 and get the full bokeh. But anything darker will benefit from a tripod.

Polaroid SX-70 film pro’s and cons.

Normally, I don’t review film along with the cameras. However, Polaroid SX-70 film is an integral part of the camera experience, and thus I’d like to cover it briefly in this article.

A failed Polaroid frame. Most likely, the result of the chemicals drying. Nevertheless, there’s something appealing about this image precisely because it broke down.

SX-70 differs from all other film cameras (other than Instax) in that it has an extremely limited choice when it comes to film. You can only shoot Polaroid-branded film. Generally, your choice is either black and white or colour. You may also be able to shoot Polaroid 600 film in your SX-70 with modifications or if you shoot with MiNT Flash Bar 2. Whatever you put into your camera, however, is all made at the same factory with more or less the same formula.

Polaroid SX-70 film sold today has a narrow dynamic range, and it’s not particularly sharp. It’s practically impossible to shoot in high-contrast settings, and it takes over ten minutes to develop. Shaking it will likely move the chemicals around and make your pictures blurry. After being shot, it should also be sheltered from the sun and kept warm (near body temperature).

Polaroid film has a relatively high failure rate; some frames may never develop (maybe one in a hundred). Its shelf life is pretty short — just a couple of years in a fridge; it should not be kept in a freezer. You should also keep your Polaroids out of direct sunlight as it may bleach them.

Scrapbooking with Polaroid film.

Polaroid film does not produce colours as accurately as many modern emulsions do, and it will not retain as much detail.

Nevertheless, it is the only film that will do the job.

On a positive note, the experience shooting Polaroid film is something I recommend everyone tries. It feels magical when it works. Good results can become the little treasures you can keep in your scrapbook, which is more convenient and pretty than digital files. Polaroid frames are even better than regular or chemical prints of the same size — they are thicker, aesthetically pleasing and have space on the back where you can write.

Polaroids that do turn out “broken” also tend to fail gracefully. This film’s colours are warm, and the imperfections can look pleasing also.

Better yet, you can get very creative with Polaroid frames: from frameless exposures to emulsion lifts to etching.

A note on scanning Polaroid film.

Polaroid creates large positives that you can scan with your phone camera. The challenge, however, is to avoid the glare on the highly-reflective plastic layer. I’ve been angling my camera in a way that pushes the glare to the side or off the frame. This often leads to perspective distortions which I fix in Photoshop.

On a flatbed scanner, you’ll get better results. However, newton rings are very likely to appear in your images — sometimes they are hard to notice, other times they’re plain and distracting. One solution is to create a small air gap between the scanner glass and the film; others suggest special anti-newton ring glass. I simply use Photoshop’s healing brush — although it has its limitations.

A wall of Polaroid exposures with their frames removed.

Polaroid SX-70 in use: camera ergonomics and practicality.

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 needed for focusing and composition. Although I also recommend paying particular attention to light — as outlined above, SX-70 film is very finicky, and your camera may need an exposure adjustment before taking a shot.

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. Of course, the nature of instant film makes for the greatest privacy there could be while taking pictures — there’s no lab needed to develop your film, and you don’t have to scan anything. In fact, most of my Polaroid photos remain unscanned as they stand perfectly on their own without the need to be projected on a screen or printed.

One thing to note: the modern Polaroid film has only eight frames per pack, which means that if your SX-70’s frame counter (a small window at the back) reads “2” — you’re out of film.

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 over 740g/1.6lb. They certainly feel solid, and there are no cheap vibes, as with the 600 models. These cameras are manufactured with a lot of precision and are on par with the very expensive film cameras in their finish quality.

The cameras 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 — the laptop section — without any fear of damage. There’s no “precious” factor either; these foldable Polaroids are working cameras.

The rubber bellows are perhaps their weakest point, although mine appears flawless, 30 years since production.

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.

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.

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 yet 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 ideally operate at room temperature, with minimal moisture and dust around. 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.

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.

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

Polaroid SX-70 buying guide.

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

Most large format film cameras will deliver more detail and versatility in terms of how you could take the images. However, SX-70 comes with unparalleled portability as well as a large format-sized negative, positive, mounting frame, and instant developer chemicals.

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.

When shopping for any 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.” What this will do is ensure that your SX-70 has a working reflex mirror, frame counter, and an ejection mechanism. You can test them by pressing the shutter button, listening for a mirror slap and observing a tester 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 its overall condition.

I love my Polaroid SX-70. So much so that I made a gingerbread house shaped like one!

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.

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.

eBay, Etsy, and online stores that sell these cameras may guarantee a working condition of your camera. In which case, ensure that the return shipping is either free or that you are aware of the fees that may arise — including import taxes.

Armed with the knowledge above, your diligent research should lead you to a happy acquisition. Remember, those cameras are technological marvels built to last, and they should generally perform well. There are tons of copies out there that work just as well as they did when they left the assembly line.

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!

Good luck and have fun with the amazing instant film!