Polaroid SX-70 User Guide and Review

Is It Really the Best Instant Film Camera? Plus: How to Make Better Pictures With It

15 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .

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

SX-70 is small enough to fold into a purse, a tiny backpack, or a jacket pocket. It spits out 3.5×4.2” giftable Polaroid film frames that develop within minutes. The film is still in production, and the factory that makes it has no intention of stopping (it’s very popular).

But being a fifty-year-old camera with limited exposure controls and film that requires some skill to make good results, it is not for everyone.

In this article, I will briefly review this camera and help you understand whether it’s worth your time and money. I will also explain how to get the best out of your Polaroid SX-70.

Related: SX-70 Color Film Review, SX-70 B&W Film Review, A Brief History of Polaroid, Shoot Macro with SX-70, Polaroid 600 Film with SX-70 w/o Mods, Make Polaroid Emulsion Lifts & Transparencies, Make a Polaroid SX-70 Gingerbread House.

Polaroid SX-70 technical specifications.

You don’t have to be a technical person to shoot SX-70. It has automatic exposure controls, and focusing is relatively easy once you get used to the viewfinder. But the incredible wealth of innovation these cameras pack (Polaroid was the Apple of the 1970s) can not be ignored.

Polaroid SX-70 Model 1.

Polaroid SX-70 cameras expose a square 3.1” area of instant film, which is almost double the medium format area of the same shape. In 2023, you have a choice of colour and black and white film made specifically for this camera. But there are also ways to shoot 600 and even i-Type film with SX-70s.

SX-70 uses an extraordinary, high-quality 116mm 𝒇8-𝒇96 glass lens that, at its maximum aperture and a minimum focus distance of 10.4”/0.26m, can deliver as much bokeh as a 50mm 𝒇2 equivalent.

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 (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 will still be identical to that of a shutter firing 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 (which, by the way, produces no noticeable blur due to how flash photography works).

All that in a 180×105×43mm (7×4.1×1.7”) plastic body that weights 770g/1.7lb with film.

Model 1 features a brushed aluminum finish (paint), indistinguishable from metal by look and feel and genuine leather on top and bottom of the camera.

Model 2’s finish is matte black with a rubbery material for leatherette that is usually disintegrating after 50 years of life. Replacing it is neither difficult nor expensive, though time-consuming and messy.

The camera needs no batteries to operate other than the ones that come inside the compatible film packs. It accepts the special Polaroid SX-70 film but can also take Polaroid 600 film with a flash, some modifications, or in certain exposure settings.

SX-70 cameras do not work with i-Type film unless modified.

Polaroid SX-70 Model 1 (brown leather) next to Polaroid SX-70 Model 2 (freshly-replaced black leatherette).
Polaroid 600 Reclaimed Blue with SX-70 and MiNT Flash Bar II. No sharpening. Scanned with Epson ET-M2170 flatbed. For better resolution, view this on a large screen or flip your mobile device horizontally.

Polaroid SX-70 lens and image quality.

When talking about Polaroid optics, it’s important to highlight that the medium those cameras project onto is the ultimate bottleneck in sharpness and resolution.

The emulsion itself may have a very high resolving power, but the protective layer of plastic muddies the image slightly. You can improve the sharpness of your Polaroids via an emulsion lift or by separating the plastic layer — but that’s time-consuming and possibly destructive.

Polaroid 600 Round Frame Edition with SX-70 and MiNT Flash Bar II.

Nevertheless, you can produce exceptionally sharp Polaroid pictures with your SX-70; the lack of sharpness I describe above is only noticeable when you scan the film and project it on a large screen while comparing it to results from a quality lens on a medium format camera.

Up until recently, the SX-70 lens would make the absolute best of Polaroid film. It was by far the sharpest lens for the medium (all other new/vintage Polaroid cameras use plastic lenses with imprecise autofocus). But the new Polaroid I-2 had finally de-throned it with its modern plastic continuous autofocus optics. Still, the SX-70 remains the only instant film camera for the format with glass optics.

SX-70 glass lens shows no significant vignetting. Chromatic aberration does not meaningfully show up on the frames while viewing normally. I am yet to notice any flaring, even when I point the camera directly at the sun as I did for this ltd. 600 Green Duochrome review. There is a lot of contrast in all frames, though the extremely narrow dynamic range of the entire Polaroid film line is the most likely cause of that.

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

Polaroid SX-70 lens bokeh.

Perhaps the most sought-after quality of the Polaroid SX-70 lens is the bokeh that you can get with it — especially when photographing at short focus distances in the shade with no flash and a steady hand (or a tripod).

The objects in the background and foreground melt away into creamy fuzz with this lens. I think this adds a flattering effect to images that you manage to expose correctly, get the focus right, and avoid camera shake.

Keeping a camera steady and paying attention to an SLR focusing prism can come after exposing a few rolls of 35mm film on any pre-autofocus SLR. However, getting the exposure right is exceptionally important for Polaroid film as its dynamic range is limited to 3-4 stops.

Polaroid SX-70 exposure controls.

SX-70 cameras offer no true manual control over exposure other than directing the camera’s bias 1.5 stops up or down from its middle position (each notch is .5 stops based on my tests). Polaroid recommends shooting their film with the SX-70 exposure adjustment set to -.5 stops (wheel turned one notch counter-clockwise, revealing more black).

Note that SX-70 cameras reset their exposure “Lighten/Darken” control each time they are closed shut mechanically. My copy does not do that anymore, as the part responsible for this function had worn out.

From the printed manual included with the camera.

The sensor appears to be center-weighted, and there’s no exposure lock function on the SX-70s. This is disappointing because the work of the photographer now includes wrestling and hacking the camera to “see” as it should with its 1970s “electric eye” design. This means some backlit scenes may work with Polaroid 600 film only, which will require some trial/error. Other kinds of lighting should work as well as you’d expect from a point-and-shoot film camera.

It’s unfortunate that such a great camera appears to be almost deliberately designed to make precise exposures difficult. Combined with the noticeable $19.99 or $2.50 per frame of Polaroid frames (but fair in comparison to all film media — in 2023), all new SX-70 owners should expect to burn a few packs of film just to learn the camera. That, of course, doesn’t mean those packs won’t be fun to shoot!

Polaroid SX-70 Color with MiNT Flashbar 2 + pink gel.

Last but not least, camera shake needs to be considered for all photos taken without flash in light any dimmer than full sun or a slight shade. At its fastest, the leaf shutter is quick enough to avoid blurring your shots, but the giant mirror underneath the incredible foldable design slaps hard — this shakes the camera and introduces motion blur in medium to deep shade without a flash. A tripod is helpful, but some SX-70 models have no tripod hole (!) — like mine (Model 1), which is the most popular model.

Evidently, medium shade or around EV 12 on a light meter is when you can get the strongest bokeh effect on your SX-70. The shutter should still be sufficiently fast in this light, but you may quickly notice that any darker scenes will begin to get blurry without solid support for the camera.

Using flash can also be troublesome as the MiNT Flashbar 2 isn’t powerful enough to light anything further than five metres/16’. The bokeh will become significantly less permanent with the flash but may still be noticeable at the shortest focus distance.

Polaroid SX-70 Model 2 and later will let you use fill flash.

At the beach on Vancouver Island with the dogs. Polaroid 600 Green Duochrome  film with SX-70.

How to open SX-70, test operation, and load film.

In the closed position, SX-70 is a flat box the size of a thick notebook. But once opened, the camera gains nearly 40mm/1.5” in height to become a fully functioning SLR with a system of complex mirrors. All this happens within a second in a motion that’s as magical as revealing a complex origami shape.

Left: light path through the viewfinder and during exposure in an unfolded SX-70. Right: how to open/unfold and close/fold a Polaroid SX-70 camera.

Naturally, care needs to be taken while handling tools made more than half a century ago. But in general, SX-70s should be able to handle normal operation without falling apart. Polaroid SX-70 camera bellows are made to last.

The only issue I’ve had with my copy during the past five years in use occurred inside the film ejection mechanism. Thankfully, I was able to find a solution that was relatively easy to perform and needed no replacement parts (TBF, the solution is a bit of a hack as the Polaroid repair manual called for the replacement of the entire block).

Since the ejection mechanism is usually an indicator of multiple issues with the camera, a good way to test an SX-70 is with an empty film pack and a dark slide. If the battery is fresh, inserting the cartridge properly should trigger the camera to eject the dark slide card. You can reload your cartridge with the darkslide by inserting it into the slit covered by a thin plastic flap. Using a dark slide with an empty pack spares you from potentially ruining the whole pack of film with a faulty camera.

Left: an example of a dark slide that the camera ejects with each new film pack inserted. Right: how to load film into an SX-70.

To load the camera, you’ll need to press the small yellow tab on the side of the camera when it is in the unfolded position. The door that covers the film (just below the lens) will flip down to open. If there’s an empty pack of Polaroid film inside, you can pull on a thin plastic tab attached to it to extract it. Inserting a fresh pack is as easy as opening the packaging and sliding the pack right side up snuggly inside the bay.

Then, close the door shut and wait for the dark slide to come out immediately after.

Polaroid SX-70 viewfinder.

Looking through the SX-70 viewfinder is a little tricky. It took me a few tries to find the right angle to hold my eye against the finder at first. If you aren’t aligned correctly, the view may appear obstructed — if you’re having trouble with yours, keep adjusting until you find the right spot.

The SX-70 finder distorts the view slightly and has a magnification factor of .7x. But it has an excellent eye relief distance (easy to use with glasses). Plus, it’s very large and bright.

Manual focusing on SX-70 cameras is relatively easy. Whatever you see in your viewfinder is what’s going to be in focus on film. When photographing up close, especially in the shade, it’s important to set the focus accurately, which is when the split-prism area in the middle of the finder can be helpful.

The focus wheel is located right above the red shutter button and the lens. You can also zone focus your Polaroid SX-70 using the markings on the lens barrel as an indication of distance.

The somewhat rare Polaroid SX-70 Alpha 1 camera did not have the split-prism aid. Edward Land thought it would be obstructive, but the feedback he got from his first customers was that they wanted precision focusing.

Recycling used polaroid film cartridges.

Polaroid film is made of hundreds of components. So, as a whole, it does not belong in a blue bin. But used Polaroid film packs are easy to take apart and recycle by breaking apart into three components: the plastic housing, the metal spring, and the battery. See my step-by-step guide for recycling all Polaroid film cartridges responsibly.

Is the Polaroid SX-70 the best instant film camera?

Aside from favourable pricing, used mass-produced film cameras made by the legendary camera maker are known to last. As long as your SX-70 is well taken care of and is functioning properly, it will likely last many more years. It may even outlive the newer instant film cameras since it was developed by a billion-dollar company in its prime.

SX-70s feature exceptional design. A foldable instant film SLR with a glass lens — we may never see anything like this made ever again.

However, SX-70s are not easy to use — despite their simple controls. Correct film exposure is paramount for making the best of the finicky film, and the lack of true manual controls makes that difficult. Expensive or time-consuming modifications will give manual control, but that would be a different price point.

The new Polaroid I-2 is a good alternative for its built-in manual controls; however, it’s neither foldable nor as beautiful as the SX-70.

No other vintage or modern Polaroid camera comes close to the SX-70 or the I-2 in terms of image quality.

Instax film can be advantageous with its seemingly better dynamic range and colour accuracy. Instax Wide is larger by area than the typical Polaroid film. New cameras for this format come out every year, including adapters and methods to shoot it with medium and large format cameras.

If you are concerned about ease of use and consistency in results, Instax may be a better choice. But if you want to have the best lens* and the most elegant camera — nothing beats the SX-70.

✱ — SX-70 cameras have a better lens than I-2, in my opinion, for their proven track of delivering quality images 50 years after the production date and a (subjectively) nicer-looking bokeh.

How much does a Polaroid SX70 camera cost, and where to find one.

In 2023, Polaroid SX-70 cameras can be found costing anywhere between $100 and $300. You may even get lucky sometimes and find it for less than that. Or you may spend more on a refurbished unit with a warranty. Many places sell those cameras online, and some stores sell them in person. Wherever you get one, ensure that you’re being sold something that’s been tested to make sure you aren’t wasting any film.

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!