Polaroid SX-70

Fri 2012.08.31
by brian hefele

paying homage to the venerable sx-70 (click images to view on flickr)

The Polaroid SX-70 was a groundbreaking camera in 1972. Edwin Land had already impressed photographers with his film that didn’t require a trip to the photo lab. This was still a tedious process, however, requiring the photographer to time out development, stop it by carefully peeling apart the film, and probably get covered in chemicals in the process. The Land Cameras themselves were relatively compact folding rangefinders (or viewfinders, depending on the model), a trend that was losing favor in the rest of the photo world as SLRs became more accessible and popular. The SX-70, then, was impressive indeed – it retained the compact collapsible nature of earlier Land Cameras, but was a true SLR! And more impressive yet, it used a brand new integral film system which removed any chance of operator error during development, and kept the photographer’s hands clean.

manipulating impossible project fade to black film

SX-70 film also had the interesting characteristic of an emulsion that could be physically manipulated to achieve painterly effects (see Kathleen Carr’s work, such as Polaroid Manipulations for good examples and instruction). This was great for artists, not so much for casual consumers, I suppose, and eventually with the immensely popular OneStep cameras came the less manipulable and more quickly developing Time Zero film. After that, there was no SX-70 film at all, and people took to crazy hacks to get 600 film in their SX-70s. After that, there was no Polaroid film at all.

very expired time zero that i found in a model 3

Now, after all of that, we have The Impossible Project, a new era of Polaroid film in both SX-70 and 600 speeds (as well as other formats), and a return to the Polaroid as an artist’s tool. This is the main reason you buy an SX-70 today, because without the limited selection of film from Impossible, you have a funny looking paperweight. But if you’ve decided to go down the path of shooting Impossible integral film, you still have far more camera options than just the classic SX-70 folding SLRs. You can save a lot of money and get a OneStep or one of the many 600 models with single-element plastic lenses. But in my opinion (and I am not alone here), the folding SLR SX-70 is the definitive Polaroid camera.

Folding SX-70s (note: I refer to folding SX-70s, but this info holds true to the later folding 680 and 690 SLRs, which are essentially the same cameras, meant to handle 600 film) were the last mass-market Polaroids with really decent optics. The lenses (116mm/8) are four element designs, made of coated glass. Later, lesser Polaroids generally use plastic optics, of three-, two-, and even single-element designs.

model 1 and model 3 – notice the viewfinder of the scale focus model 3

The folding aspect may seem like a gimmick at first, but much like simpler folding rangefinder designs, it really is a worthwhile space-saving design. The folded up package feels sturdy, and slips easily into a bag (likely into large cargo pockets for those who are so inclined), or hangs nicely around the neck if you’re lucky enough to score an Alpha 1. Small packages are nothing notable – if you want a tiny camera, get an Olympus XA, or go all out and grab a Minox III! But to get medium format prints out of something so portable is definitely a convenience, and while the folding mechanism could have been a horrible, tacked on design, it is not, and works very well in practice.

quite a contraption.

Finally, unlike most later Polaroids, the SX-70 is actually an SLR (note that the Model 3 is the exception). Excepting very early versions, these SLRs even have horizontal split-image rangefinders to assist with focus. This is useful, because the maximum aperture diameter (f/8) is larger than, and the closest focus (~10″) is closer than any Polaroid to follow. With few exceptions (Pronto! Rangefinder and Captiva SLR come to mind), future Polaroid models are either hyperfocal/focus free designs, or rely on the user to scale focus. Being an SLR also means that there are attachment optics available for telephoto and close-up work, and since the photographer can see through them, these are actually useful.

b/w conversion in post

Using an SX-70 has its ups and downs. Again, it’s manual focus, which is a plus for most creative photographers (even the later AF models have manual focus override). Focus is a convenient wheel over the shutter button, which is smooth and pleasant to operate. The shutter release itself is a soft-touch rubber button, which while lacking the satisfying clunk of an old mechanical release, does have a reassuring resistance and a good (albeit unique) feel. Where the camera is lacking to the creative photographer is in exposure control. The SX-70 follows another trend of the time – program line exposure mode. Unfortunately, the SX-70 offers only program mode, with no ability for the photographer to choose shutter speed or aperture. Even worse, the photographer also has no indication of what shutter speed/aperture the camera is wont to use. Limited control for backlight compensation, &c., is afforded via a knob to the left (from the user’s perspective), though not labeled in EV. This compensation knob automatically resets to ±0EV when the camera is folded. Metering is decently accurate (they were apparently ‘calibrated’ at the factory by dropping different levels of ND in front of the meter cell), but is not TTL.

hydrant, old impossible fade to black

In the end, once you have an SX-70, you want to carry it around. Maybe not every day, maybe not most days, but every once in a while you buy some film and take it out, and it’s still just as charming as it was in 1972. You get used to the decisions it makes, you get used to the quirks of whatever film is being offered at the time, and though it may not be quite like any other camera you own, you love it. You don’t learn to love it, you love it right away, and you love it always. The SX-70 was a brilliant, ground-breaking design on the day Land first showed it off, and it’s still unlike anything else you’re bound to have in your collection. An expensive hobby, yes – the cameras are collectible (though not particularly rare), and the film is pricy, limited production stock made by a small company. But again, there is really nothing quite like shooting one.