SX-70 is a stunning camera. Along with film, it is one of the most technologically advanced products ever created. This is Polaroid’s finest offering; world’s one and only foldable instant SLR.
✹ Update: In this guide, I refer to the company that produces film for SX-70 cameras, Polaroid Originals — formerly named Impossible Project. It is now rebranded, again, to Polaroid.
The company that built it occupied a position of respect and commercial success similar to what Apple is enjoying today. It took Polaroid years of research to orchestrate multiple factories working in tandem, acting on a set of new chemical, mechanical, and optical inventions.
Due to the technical limitations of modern instant film, this camera tends to disappoint owners who lack knowledge and patience. In my experience, SX-70 is more challenging to operate than many fully-manual 35mm and medium format systems. It requires more insight than Instax, Polaroid Originals, and 600-series. To use it well you need a solid understanding of how to correctly expose narrow latitude film.
In this guide, I will focus on the methods, techniques, and theory that will help you produce great photographs. I will also provide the technical, historical, and cultural background for this incredible invention.
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SX-70 is the only foldable SLR instant film camera series ever created.
This guide focuses on Model 1. It features a four-element 116mm 𝑓8-𝒇74 custom glass lens that can focus as close as 10.4”/26.4cm. The shutter speeds are limited to 1/175th of a second for the fast action and up to 14 seconds for slow exposure. There is no bulb mode.
The body is a durable plastic compound that’s designed to look and feel like metal, minus the weight and the rust. The leather is real.
Its unique foldable mirror mechanism allows the lucky photographer to preview focus, framing, and depth of field exactly as it will appear on film. A split-prism aid is built-in to help find precise focus, which is manually controlled by a wheel located above the red trigger button. The distance scale is shown on a ring that surrounds the lens.
The quality of the optics undoubtedly sets SX-70 apart from the rest of instant cameras which come with plastic lenses, most of which can only focus as close as 3’/1m and are viewfinder-type.
The exposure is set automatically by the camera with an option of user-set compensation via the wheel located on the opposite side of the red trigger button. This important feature is the most confusing and difficult one to control as it provides no standard measurement reference (i.e. stops of light) and resets every time you fold your camera close.
Originally, SX-70 accepted 10-frame packs of ISO 150 Time Zero film with an integrated battery for operation. Today you can feed Polaroid Originals ISO 160 film, colour or monochrome, with eight exposures. It is not cheap, nor has it ever been.
The camera accepts flash units of two types, neither of which are standard. In this guide, I will focus on use with Mint Flash Bar 2. The original flash bar used to eat single-use bulbs which aren’t very practical or eco-friendly.
☝︎Further reading: “A Beginner’s Guide to Film Photography” — I highly recommend you start here if you are new to shooting film.
Buying guide: what you should know before purchasing your first SX-70.
Polaroid photography is expensive. Each frame you will cost you about $3, which is comparative to large format photography. The camera itself can sell anywhere between $70 and $700, 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. Keep in mind that today’s Polaroid-compatible film isn’t as reliable as it once was, thus you are bound to waste a percentage of your frames.
The cameras were made 48-38 years ago and are complex machines. Many of them have developed problems over time or became defunct. It may be a better idea for you to start with the new Polaroid Originals cameras which are typically cheaper and come with a warranty. None of them have glass lens or are foldable like SX-70 but they shoot slightly cheaper film and come with a few modern features like Bluetooth remote, “manual” mode, and integrated flash.
If you do decide to finally get your glorious Land camera and are ready to spend top-dollar, have a look at Mint Camera store. They sell them fully serviced, with a warranty. Polaroid Originals also provide that service — same as Brooklyn Film Camera.
If you live in an area that has markets or thrift stores that sell old cameras, you may be able to score a much better deal. It’s quite rare to find an SX-70 for less than $200 which is in good working condition but it is possible. With time, luck, and attention to detail you may be able to get one for less than $100. A viable option is to get a (working) beater and have it sent for CLA, spending around $200-300 in total.
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” on eBay. What this will do is ensure that your SX-70 has a working reflex mirror, frame counter, and an ejection mechanism. You can ensure this by pressing the shutter button, listening for a mirror slap and observing a tester frame, which could be a piece of cardstock cut to size, eject. 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 an overall condition.
A working reflex mirror and ejection mechanism should typically 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 that 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 other online marketplaces that sell these cameras may be a bit of a gamble. While there is no guarantee that your in-person fleamarket purchase will work even after a complete inspection, it’s even more difficult to gauge functionality via pictures alone. In this case, reviews, detailed description with good photos, and prompt communication are the indicators to look for. Ask for additional photos through the viewfinder, close-up of the lens, and any parts that you feel would give you a better idea. Understand return policy, border taxes, shipping, and repair expenses should you end up with a broken or beat-up camera.
Whichever path you choose, unless you’re spending the big bucks at the above-mentioned refurbished camera retailers, be patient, diligent, and do your research.
How to open, close, and load film into your foldable Polaroid camera.
It’s really easy to unfold your SX-70, though it takes some getting used to. When I got my camera, I had to look up a proper way of doing it online. Mostly because I was afraid of forcing anything; it does require a little extra effort, especially if it’s been stuck in the attic for all those years.
In my case, I had to push the cover-support lock after opening the camera up into its place with my finger. With time, the action became smoother, so that I could get picture-ready in one smooth motion.
Folding the camera back is possible with just one hand. To do this, I hold the camera in my palm (see #4 in the diagram) and push the cover-support lock back with my thumb. The camera begins to fold on its own, at which point I am able to reach the leather-covered part of the viewfinder with my thumb and press it down. Don’t drop it!
There are a few videos out there on how to operate your Polaroid camera. One of my personal favourites is this long-form advertisement. The ten-minute special which has been viewed on YouTube alone over 400,000 times has all the instructions you need along with a whole bunch of other fun stuff.
Loading the film cartridge is just as easy as opening the camera. As long as you can find the yellow tab, you’re good.
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 tongue that hangs from the cartridge. In my case, it had to be done with considerable force and control. Trust yourself and be careful; it can be done.
The dark plastic film cover that Polaroid Originals decorate with witty tips should get ejected as soon as you close your film door. If it doesn’t, try opening the door again, pushing the film in a little further and shutting it firmly.
Keep in mind that you should not close the camera while the exposed film or film cover is sticking out. This may damage your SX-70 and crease your film.
If your camera is in good condition, opening, closing and loading it should be easier and faster than most, if not all, other film cameras. It’s that good.
How to focus and set the correct exposure for your camera.
Focusing SX-70 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 an aid that you can use for sharper results. When looking at vertical lines, such as a person’s nose, you should try and align them. Low light or fast motion is very likely to introduce blur into your image due to slow film and shutter speeds. Ample light will produce the best conditions for a crisper image.
When you frame your subject through the viewfinder you may find the image to be somewhat distorted, bulging out. This is a necessary limitation that had to be made in order to allow this complex system to fold as it does. Your exposed prints should not have this problem.
Fun fact: early models of SX-70 did not come with split-prism aid. Edward Land considered it obstructive to seeing the subject.
Exposing Polaroid Originals film with SX-70 correctly isn’t always easy. The film has a very limited latitude, which leads to excessive and unpleasant contrast in certain lighting conditions, such as high noon. The shadows may become inky smudges and highlights can get bleached out.
Monochrome film will not make things any better, though colour emulsion will add muddy hue shifts to a strongly lit scene. With Polaroid film, I strongly recommend you choose soft lighting, such as early morning or about 1-2 hours before the sunset. Foggy days are great, so are well-lit interiors.
There are exceptions, of course. The photograph of a classic car at the very top of this article was taken in the mid-day sun. What made it work is the smooth paint job and a general lack of jagged or uneven shadows. The camera has no issues adjusting to the lighting conditions, but the film demands either smoothly-lit surfaces or limited light intensity variation.
You must use and understand exposure compensation dial to take decent photos. It’s located at the front of the camera, the opposite side of the focus wheel.
The dial is admittedly of a bad design. It provides no reliable measurements, i.e.: exposure stops. It resets to the middle position every time you close your camera. The dark/light colour can easily be misinterpreted.
Here’s how it works. Turning the dial so that you see more black will yield a darker image and vice-versa. The new Polaroid Originals film is more sensitive than the Polaroid film made when the camera was manufactured, thus you need to turn the dial “L/D control” to reveal more black by one mark to expose your film correctly 🛑. If you are looking at the camera from the front, turn the dial counter-clockwise by one notch/mark. Failing to do this may result in over-exposed photographs. You must repeat this step every time you open your camera.
If you dare to shoot against the sun or have any sort of complications in your lighting conditions, you will need to adjust your exposure to fit the scene. If you’d like to see more details in the shadows, you can set the dial to the middle, or further clockwise. Each notch may yield up to 2-3 stops of light difference thus you must use them sparingly. There’s no good way to measure the results ahead of time, other than to trusting your camera’s internal meter and using the control sparingly.
One more thing to keep in mind is the limitations of the lens aperture, film, and shutter speeds. Your lighting conditions must provide enough illumination to avoid long exposures, otherwise, motion blur will smudge your photographs significantly. Aim for something that looks like one to two hours before the sunset or a bright scene with very little contrast. However, even in the full sun, fast movements will smear your images.
Despite the challenging exposure controls and modern instant film shortcomings, the camera is capable of producing beautiful blurry backgrounds i.e. bokeh. Like a true large-format system.
SX-70’s lens opens to a maximum aperture of 𝑓8, which does not sound like much. Until you realize that the large exposure area, combined with a close focus distance can make for a significantly more dramatic effect than most rangefinder-type cameras with a fast 𝑓2 lenses.
To get the desired effect, you will need to shoot in a moderately-lit shade to force the camera’s internal meter to keep its aperture at its widest. Getting as close to the subject as possible will further exaggerate the bokeh, giving your film a creamy, smooth texture.
Polaroid cameras do not usually produce sharply defined balls of light as most other lenses do. Some photographers find this to be a highly desirable result, forcing certain manufacturers to adopt apodization filters which create a similar effect.
How to shoot with Mint Flash Bar 2 in low light.
Mint Flash Bar provides a way to expose your subjects in the dark. Some SX-70 cameras let you flash your subject in the daylight, providing fill light for softer shadows. Mine doesn’t — it will only activate it in the subdued light.
The flash itself is very easy to operate. Turn it on to its maximum setting and wait for the green light.
Exposing your scene correctly, however, is not so simple. If it’s really dark, you may have some trouble focusing — just do your best. From there on, you will need to place your subjects at an equal distance away from the camera. I’ve had good results at about 3 meters or 9’10” away and the exposure dial set to one notch towards the light. Anywhere closer than that or more exposure compensation may yield bleached out subjects.
The focus wheel aids the system’s calculation of the camera’s aperture/exposure; the further you focus — the wider the aperture will become.
As with daylight exposure, you will be forced to experiment with a very expensive film.
Available SX-70 accessories and modifications.
There are plenty. The flash unit described above, of which there are two Mint variations, plus the original version with disposable bulbs. A variety of carrying cases, including the original leather bag and clever covers that fold and unfold with the camera. An underwater case, too. There are also telephoto and close-up lens clip-ons and colour filters, sold by Mint (and others). A self-timer, wire trigger, tripod adaptors, and an ND-filter that could be placed over the ISO 600 film pack.
The cheapest and, perhaps, the most useful mod/accessory for your SX-70 is a frog tongue. 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 take control of shutter speeds, which are upgraded to go as fast as 1/2000th of a second and as slow as bulb.
While placing a neutral density (ND) filter over the film pack or the lens will let you shoot Polaroid Originals 600 film, there’s a way to modify your SX-70 electronically. You can do it yourself if you dare. Also, check out Analog Things’ video guide.
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, and add faster shutter speeds, 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 as well.
Another simple mod by Analog Things demonstrates how you can create double-exposures with an otherwise non-modified SX-70.
Finally, a report on converting a broken Land camera into a working digital camera is documented here. Please don’t do this to fully-operational SX-70s.
How Polaroid film works.
Instant film is an incredibly complex product. Peeling the frame apart will reveal many layers. The aluminium foil that creates the white frame around the image, the black backing which includes the negative, the white opaque layer of titanium dioxide, a positive image layer, opacifier, and a plastic protective layer on the front. And that’s just what’s visible with the naked eye and separable by hand.
Instant film is the world’s most chemically complex man-made thing. There’s nothing in the modern age which can do what it can do. It is an entire science and an entire art form unto itself. – Stephen Herchen, Polaroid Originals Chief Technology Advisor.
When the Polaroid Originals, formerly known as The Impossible Project, had acquired the last remaining Polaroid factory they had no chemistry or suppliers. It took one year of runway for them to reinvent the film after that faithful event on October 2008. The Impossible Project succeeded.
Their early tests suffered from the inability to fix the image, having it gradually fading into a brown hue. Some prototypes consistently got infected by fungus. It took over nine generations (the link does not mention the series which came out after Polaroid acquisition) to get to the current state of “new” instant film. The packs sold in stores today are made with a different formula, different chemicals, under new management.
The company is still working on improving the emulsion.
In a nutshell, the light from the camera exposes the silver bromide compounds in the negative layers with dyes. The developer fluid, stored in the thick part of the frame, is spread over the film with camera rollers which creates a transport mechanism for the chemistry to migrate to the positive-forming layer. At the same time, an opacifier temporarily blocks all the light from entering the frame as the picture is ejected into the brightly-lit world.
✪ Note: The opacifier layer in Polaroid Originals does a great job blocking most of the light to create a safe environment for the chemistry to form an image. However, it is still recommended to shade your film from direct light as much as possible while it is developing. Keeping it in the dark ensures deeper blacks and better overall contrast. You should also store your developed polaroids away from bright light as they tend to turn brown and fade if you aren’t being careful.
Light and Film (Time-Life) highlights the unique property of instant film seldomly mentioned today — it’s lack of graininess. Due to the short distance between the layers, the molecules have little opportunity to clump into grain particles. This results in equally smooth images at ISO 100 and 3000.
Because of the layered nature of instant film, shaking the picture does nothing but interfere with a stable chemistry transfer. Resulting in less defined photographs that develop no faster than when held normally. Instant film is not a wet dollar bill.
The path to the invention of this fragile medium was a long one. Just to add colour to the results, Edwin Land and Howard Rogers had to test over 5,000 compounds until the “magic molecule” was found.
The first instant film was a peel-apart type. It required the photographer to pull the frame out of the camera and carefully separate the negative and positive layers. The last batches of peel-apart film were produced by Fujifilm and discontinued in 2016. Today you can pre-order a variant called One Instant which comes with one shot per cartridge.
The modern integrated frames were a result of Land being convinced that keeping things in one package would yield less waste. Alas, the plastic box and the disposable battery which came in the pack are still taking a toll on the environment. The most responsible thing you can do today is to rip the remaining box apart and recycle the metal spring, plastic shell, and the battery separately. New instant cameras from Polaroid Originals feature i-Type packs which are not equipped with batteries.
Special effects and image manipulation.
Polaroid film, specifically Polaroid Originals, gives its owners the unique freedom to create etchings, transparencies, emulsion lifts, and mosaics. Double-exposure, film soup, baking and other effects are also possible with the emulsion, but the above-mentioned four are unique to this particular medium.
Etching or film manipulation is one of the easier techniques that lets you create a unique look for your prints as soon as they come out of the camera.
The chemicals that form the image are malleable for a short while after being spread over the layers. During this time, typically within a few minutes of the exposure, you can take a dull pointy object to move them around.
I found it helpful to rub the front of the image with my hands to transfer some of the oil from my skin, creating a slippery surface for my tool to slide on.
Film transparencies are more challenging. They are the result of peeling the layers just right, separating the positive from the white titanium dioxide paste, and the negative.
In my experience, transparencies are practically achievable only with the current monochrome batches of Polaroid Originals film. If done correctly, they look incredibly impressive and have a lot of creative display potential.
For a complete tutorial on how to make one of your own, head over to the “Polaroid Emulsion Lifts and Transparencies” article.
Polaroid emulsion lifts are perhaps the best known and most impressive technique when it comes to instant film. They create flowy distortions, add texture to the image, and let the author enlarge the exposure up to 1.5 times of its original size. In some cases, they can even add more contrast and clarity to the photograph, and let the artist layer images as if they are taking double-exposures.
As with transparencies, only certain film stocks give way to create emulsion lifts. Be sure to check out the link above for a modern guide on how to do this right.
This effect used to be practised with Fuji peel-apart film when it was in production. Remarkably, it is also possible to achieve with certain digital prints.
Mosaics may not seem special at first but the instant nature of Polaroid film makes it possible to compare the results and adjust prints as they are being made. Even with digital camera equipment, one would have to assemble the images on a laptop to understand where things should go.
Perhaps the simplest trick in the book is peeling the white border away from the film. It can be achieved by slicing a thin sliver off the borders and lifting the frame. The result is a raw image with a black unexposed border. More details with illustrations on how to do this right are a part of the above-mentioned guide to emulsion lifts.
Fixing and maintaining your Polaroid SX-70 camera.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have my camera in overall great 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 to image quality was due to using a fresh film pack and not letting the camera sit without use. There are still occasional smears in the middle of my instant frames, a small artefact which I’m willing to live with.
The camera and the film are meant to ideally operate at room temperature, minimal environment 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 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.
A complete repair manual PDF could be downloaded from this link.
History and cultural impact 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 from a billion-dollar company. The research and development which went into this product are unprecedented.
In its heyday, Polaroid 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 “like visiting a shrine.”
The path to the uprise of the iconic company that built the camera began with young Edwin Land dropping out of school and developing polarizer. This revolutionary technology filters partial light wavelengths, allowing the viewer or the camera to peer through reflective surfaces. Today it is used in many LCD display installations. It can also be bought as a screw-on filter for digital cameras to add contrast to the images and enable the photographer to take photographs through the sparkling water waves.
Several years later, Land Cameras began production of instant film cameras. Catalyzed by their creator daughter’s enquiry as to why a photograph couldn’t be seen right away.
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, as well as chemical sourcing.
Its name, despite being suggested as a sexual innuendo by New York Times, came from Land’s military background. It stood for secret experiment 70, abbreviated in the same fashion as his classified work did during 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 that Polaroid was at the time.
Once built, the product has created a truly unique experience, unparalleled even today. There is simply nothing out there that can 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, creating art on the go. The camera became a fashion statement, an artist’s tool, and an expensive toy for the masses.
Tagged with $180, or approximately $800 US dollars today, it wasn’t cheap. Its release has unfortunately coincided with an economic recession, leading to sales that resulted in barely half of the expected million+ units. 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, however, was brought on by a brutal lawsuit with one of its former 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, corporation’s resources, and a devastating blow at the overall morale.
Winning did not help. Soon after Land left the company, crippled by the setback, vulnerable to the Fujifilm’s instant film invasion. Just over a decade later, the digital revolution came and kicked everyone’s ass.
Polaroid film got cut in 2005.
A Dutch company named Impossible Project bought the last remaining film factory in 2008. In 2017, they acquired what was left of Polaroid (name and IP) to become Polaroid Originals. We now have a new film producer, though SX-70s will never be made again.