Monday, August 30, 2010

Bitten by the Bug

I decided that I just had to have an SX-70, partially out of nostalgia, but mostly because they are such a fine piece of industrial engineering.

When I was a kid, my parents had a white SX-70, probably around 1975 or so. My Dad bought it for my Mom for Christmas, I think. I loved the mechanics of it, and would play with it for hours, opening and closing it, watching how it folded up. I never got to shoot many pictures with it, though.

I set out to buy a single SX-70. I ended up with two.

I found Marty Kuhn's comprehensive Polaroid site The Land List, which was very helpful.

I had no idea that there were so many variants of the SX-70, or that it had been produced and sold as late as the 1990's. Prior to finding the Land List, I had only known of three types: The original silver one, the white one my parents owned (now I know it was a Model 2), and the one with the sonar auto-focus system.

Yes! Sound waves focusing your camera! I know it sounds weird today, with just about every camera having computer-controlled auto-focus as standard equipment, but back then it was pretty slick. And it was successful, as Polaroid went on to produce many cameras with the sonar focusing system for several years.

The Land List helped me eliminate what I did not want to buy, such as the very odd Model 3, which has all the mirrors and motors as a regular SX-70 SLR, but has an optical viewfinder. I can't imagine what possessed Polaroid to produce this model. But then again, Polaroid's industrial design philosophy had never strayed anywhere near the conventional.

Of course, I did what everyone does when they are looking for used cameras: Go to eBay. That was a bag of pain, as the selection was low and the prices were high. This is probably due in part because The Impossible Project has renewed general interest in Polaroids, I suppose. Just look at me and why I'm writing this post.

I looked around on Craigslist and found a fellow photographer, Brad Smith, that had four SX-70s listed for sale. Brad was a really nice guy, letting me fiddle with the cameras all I wanted. By the time I got in touch with him, he had already sold one of the SX-70s, but still had one of the original silver models with brown "Porvair" (a vinyl, leather-looking substance) models, and a couple of black-on-black SX-70 Alphas. I bought the original silver and the black Alpha SE from him. Except for the decaying black leatherette on the Alpha SE, both cameras were in good shape, with the original silver model being in very good to excellent condition.

So why did I buy the second one, the Alpha SE? Initially, I was thinking I would use it for parts if the silver one needed repair. The differences, I thought, would be fairly slight, and it would be easy to scavenge from the Alpha to repair the other camera, if need be. Also, one could be a guinea pig for experiments for mods, should I decide to do any. Such as hooking modern strobes to it.

An aside: By the way, Brad is cleaning out his equipment, and he has a lot of it, judging by what I saw. If you are interested in older film equipment from cameras to enlargers and other darkroom equipment, you might want to contact him, either by looking him up on Craigslist DC or sending me an email and I'll put you in touch with him. He asked me to pass along anyone interested in film-based equipment.

I took my new babies home and cleaned them up a little. For cameras that are 35 years old, they have been given amazing care. I ran a search on the serial numbers of each camera on the nifty Land List serial number lookup tool, and got this info back:

For the black-on-black Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera Alpha SE

Your camera has the Alpha 1 shutter design with the "hybrid" focus wheel.
Your camera is probably an SX-70 model 2 or Alpha 2.
Your camera was made on December 6, 1976 during the A shift.


For the original "stainless steel" Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera:
Your camera has the original SX-70 shutter electronic design ("hybrid shutter").
Your camera is probably an original SX-70 or Alpha / Alpha 1.
Your camera was made on July 5, 1974 during the B shift.

You might wonder why I put "stainless steel" in quotes just then. The original SX-70s were not metal at all. Actually, like all subsequent models, they had plastic bodies, with the original model having some very heavy, high-quality metal coating applied. The metal coating was so well done that some people swear that their SX-70 is made of brushed stainless steel, which is not the case at all. The white Model 2 and the black Alphas reveal the actual plastic construction of all SX-70s.

Next, I looked for the user manual for the SX-70, in case I had forgotten anything since my experiences with my parents' SX-70 as a child. Turns out, I had mentally filed away all I ever needed to know about this camera in order to use it. While SX-70s are extraordinarily technically complex machines, and doubly so due to their folding capability, from a user standpoint, they are very easy to use.

While searching, I did find a part of the instructions on focusing the camera that no longer has a current frame of reference. Over on this site, you can find a scan of the original SX-70 instructions, with this to say:

"Focusing is like tuning [a] radio or TV set to get best reception. Turn slightly past perfect setting once or twice to be sure you have found it."

Wow, I had forgotten about the "fine tuning" knob on my parents' old TV until I read that. Another tiny thing eliminated by the Digital Revolution.

Monday, August 23, 2010

I had posted a few months ago that Polaroid was going to start making instant film again, but it was not the kind of film I was hoping to use. It was for their 300 product, which does not work in the SX-70 or 600 series cameras.

Meanwhile, The Impossible Project (which I'll call "TIP" from here on out) has rescued a Polaroid plant in Enschede, Netherlands, from destruction and has been starting to make film for old Polaroid cameras, and have recently released a color version of their film that works in the SX-70, and can be made to work in 600 series cameras with a little light-sensor trickery. A 600-series color film is in the works, according to TIP.

I have put a few pictures here in small sizes, but you can see all my trials with the TIP film on my Flickr page. If you are looking at this blog post much after August 2010, look in my set "Impossible Project/Polaroid."

I ordered 3 packs of the PX 70 Color Shade/First Flush film for the SX-70, and one pack of PX 600 Silver Shade film. Each pack contains 8 exposures. I have to hand it to TIP: They got the film to me in just three days! And even though they are still building the film packs using the remaining stock of Polaroid batteries, the packs I've used so far are functioning fine. I understand that they plan to start making new battery packs at some point.

So far, I have gone through the Silver Shade and one and a half of the Color Shade packs. And it's been a little bit of a fun learning experience for me, because unlike my fantastic, does-everything DSLR, I am once again forced to think about exposure more critically. The Polaroid also has a fixed, short telephoto lens on it, and the format is nearly square, which is different than what I been accustomed to with my DSLR. I also put a restriction on myself that I would not be tempted to digitally alter the photos, even just fixing basic stuff like straightening crooked horizons.

The first film I tried in my daughter's cast off Polaroid OneStep Express was the PX 600 Silver Shade. Despite its name, the pictures come out with a dark sepia toning, which lends kind of an eerie, ghostly look to the photos. I really like this look.

Here are some shots of using the PX 600 Silver Shade and the OneStep Express.

The film, being somewhat experimental, has imperfections, but I prefer to think of them as "character traits." Each picture seems to be unique in where and how the imperfections appear. Sometimes there are small individual white dots, other times they are patches of red dots in the shadow areas, and in one instance, a huge blob of something in the emulsion. And the chemicals in the film do not appear to be spread evenly by the camera's ejection rollers, at least in my first pack of Silver Shade. You can see dark bands around the perimeter of the photos where the camera'a ejector rollers apply less pressure to the emulsion due to the extra thickness of the white border layers. The color shots from the PX 70 film seem to have a more even application of the chemistry, but they still show some darkness at the edges, particularly in the underexposed shots. All in all, I still think it gives the pictures an interesting feel.

Then I moved on to the PX 70 Color Shade in the OneStep Express. The PX 70 film is rated at ISO 125, and the camera is designed for ISO 640, causing the shots come out underexposed by about 2 or 3 stops even with the camera set to maximum overexposure, which is limited to a change from normal of about 1.5 stops. So further trickery would have to be done by partially covering the light sensor on the front of the camera with some electrical tape or similar. I tried putting my finger over the entire sensor and got a large amount of overexposure, with the picture becoming extremely washed out.

Now, one thing about the PX 70 Color Shade film: It is extremely sensitive to light as it is ejected from the camera, unlike the Polaroid films. For whatever reason, the Silver Shade is not quite so sensitive as the Color Shade. It's not that the Silver Shade is perfect, though. It is wildly sensitive to temperature during development, which can be highly interesting. You can see this effect when comparing my Silver Shade shots to one another. When I was shooting the Silver Shade, ambient temps were around 88F/31C, but I was putting them in my air conditioned car as soon as I could, but conditions were not controlled at all, so some variation occurred. And I'm okay with that! This is fun stuff!

According to TIP, they say the first 10 seconds after the shot are critical, and recommend placing some kind of cover, at least as simple as your hand, over the film and immediately placing it in a pocket or other dark place. On their site, they have a couple suggestions on how to do this here.

I made a crude box out of cardboard and masking tape for the OneStep Express. Yes, it is ugly and could use refinement, but it works!

After the first pack or so, I was hooked! But I was a little frustrated by the OneStep Express camera, being that it had a fixed focus and sub-par (probably plastic) lens. It's kind of like using a self-developing Holga.

Maybe I should check into getting an SX-70….