[Pola]roid rage

2002

[2012-09-11] The latest piece of arcania to be pulled back from the edge of extinction is Polaroid pack film (3×4 film in a metal pack). The original was consistent so long as you walked along the razor’s edge of exposure, development, and shooting film that was in-date. The cameras were largely expensive (about $1,000 in today’s dollars), underfeatured by today’s standards (though aperture-priority AE was pretty cutting edge), and oversized. Polaroid pack film died a pretty rapid death as a consumer item, but it lived on for decades as a pro proofing tool (many old medium format cameras supported Polaroid backs that provided test images of varying sizes).

Fuji picked up the baton with 100-speed color and black and white films and 3000-speed color. These films are, by any measure, better than the originals. The FP100C, in particular, is insensitive to overdevelopment, reasonably insensitive to overexposure, comes with long expiration dates, and almost never suffers from uneven development. It also comes with 10 shots per pack instead of the 8 of Polaroid. Amazing. The best part is that in bulk, FP100C is actually a lot cheaper than the Polaroid products it replaced. There is no more print/neg or extended range film, but Fuji is unbeatable for the volume products.

The original Polaroid films failed to develop and picked up color casts almost the very day they went out of date. Nevertheless, people pay big money on Ebay for expired Polaroid films to make intentionally bad pictures. Haven’t these people been schooled on Hipstamatic? This author will not descend into the fray of whether “vintage” or “distressed” photos are saving or destroying photography, but once you decide the look, why not choose the cheapest thing that achieves it?

Limited choices

Let’s talk about the things that shoot Polaroid/Fuji pack film. As a preliminary point, you should really approach buying instant hardware the same way you should approach a relationship based primarily on sex: invest as little emotion as possible in it. Part of it is that you never know when Fuji is going to quit making the film (so don’t be left holding the bag, so to speak). Part of it is that Fuji’s film offerings are limited. And part of it is that as much as you fantasize about shooting in manual all the time, a well-calibrated automatic pack camera can deliver more consistent and reliable results (on calibration, see “Rehabilitation” and below).

1. Really big, really heavy interchangeable-lens cameras. The big three of Polaroid-capable cameras are the Polaroid 600SE; Mamiya Universal with Polaroid backs, Graflex XL with the Polaroid film back. These have the best viewfinders, the best lenses, and the best overall quality. They are also expensive and should come with gift certificates for chiropractors. These cameras can also take medium-format film (with the right adaptor on the 600SE). These have no meters and require no batteries. They have synch for electronic flash. You will get first-rate results for the lenses, all of which were designed in an era where Polaroid made a print-negative film, where a negative could be fixed and projection printed. Today, with the “enlargement” limited to about 3×4 inches, the optics on these cameras arguably are overkill.

If you want a good solution with minimal hacking, try a Graflex 4×5 Speed Graphic with the Polaroid 405 back (4×5 mounting plate, takes pack film). You get macro, rise and limited fall, tilt, and even rangefinder operation. Plus it looks like an awesome retro press camera. Because it is.

At the end of the day, anything that can be adjoined to a Polaroid back can be used as a pack-film camera. In fact, when you consider poor film flatness of pack film and the low precision of the packs (which unfortunately define your film plane), all of the 600SE’s specialization may be superfluous.

2. The 180/190/185/195. The 180, 185 and 190 (European 180) have the combined Zeiss viewfinder; the 195 (like the NPC remake of the 185**) has the two-window Polaroid finder (which is brighter but less convenient to use). They predominantly have relatively fast* Tominon lenses (who? oh, yeah, large format lenses don’t have to be that good…) with an oddball shutter that has two sets of leaves for extra light-tight-ness. They have x-synch, which is good for flash photography.

*for a Polaroid. The lenses range between a screaming f/3.8 or f/4.5. The 185 has an f/5.6 Mamiya lens – but given that Edwin Land made these for his friends, I’d bet the farm they are a lot better than the slightly faster Tominons.

**which aside from the name actually most resembles the 195 in features. The NPC remake is a much heavier-duty camera with a fixed, two-window rangefinder. The “185” appears to be a nostaglia touch for the Japanese market. If you want to buy an original 185, there is one on Ebay for the price of a small car. And no matter how many years into the future you read this article, it will probably still be there at that price.

These are cameras that you want to believe in. After all, the industrial design is incredible. The 180 in particular is a very elegant camera. But the genes of the automatic color pack cameras come out just like red hair and freckles (in fact, I have now been informed by two sources that Polaroid had parts and procedures for converting a 250 to a 180 and a 350 to a 190). The extension mechanism and focusing mechanism feel flimsy compared to the 110A/B or a Crown Graphic; the bellows are made of poor-quality material,* and the viewfinder (when it is properly aligned) looks cool and works well. But for $500 to $600, these are the best cameras if size and weight are driving your decision making.

*polyurethane for the cheapo pack camera; rubberized cheapo fabric material for the expensive cameras. I got a chuckle out of the fact that my 190 has grommets on the left side of the bellows – this would be used for the match-needle meter in the 185; apparently Polaroid was too cheap to make a separate 190 bellows!

Maintenance might be an issue (even more than it is with mechanical leaf-shutter cameras). These cameras typically are sold on Ebay by estate sale scavengers who believe that these are worth their weight in gold. The more-complicated-than-normal shutter design also pretty much guarantees that maintenance will be expensive and hard to arrange. This is not the kind of shutter that you squirt lighter fluid into, Ed Romney-style (if you do, I recommend quickly firing an old 200-volt Vivitar 283 using the sync port – you’ve already ruined the camera, so why not see it literally go up in flames?).

3. The 110A/110B/120 (originally designed for 30-series films). These cameras, if they have not been converted to pack film, are completely worthless (though the scavengers fail to comprehend this). The A has separate viewfinder/rangefinder windows and the B has them combined. Do not confuse the 110A and 110B with useless Polaroids such as the original 80*, 80A, 80B, 95, 95A, 95B**, 100, 110, 150, 160, 700, 800, 850, 900, J-33, J-66. Although these lesser cameras have the same basic chassis, they are either missing modern rangefinders or repairable lens/shutter assemblies – don’t pay a dime for them unless you are replacing a broken part from your 110A/B. The 120 is a “good” camera, essentially a 110B made in Japan. That said, the 110A/B came from an era when America was going places and everything had progressive, if not space-age names: Inconel-X, Rocketdyne, Johnsonite, Avanti. For the 120, Japan was also going places: postwar recovery.

*The Model 80 was called the “Highlander.” If there can only be one, then why did Polaroid make three?

** “Speedliner.” Based on this name, which sounded like a variety of Hudson 4-6-4 locomotive with aero cowlings, there was no chance this camera would make it out of the 1950s alive.

They are big, heavy cameras for which no native film is made (and has not been for decades). Converting them to pack film always requires the application of a hacksaw (or, more likely, bandsaw) and leaves a camera that – by modern standards – is big, heavy, relatively unwieldy to hold and focus, and they don’t really do anything that a 180-type camera does not. And these conversions are rarely pretty (Exceptions: Alpenhause and polaroidconversions.com, which both generate nicely finished units in a variety of colors). That the Ysarex was special because it had lanthanum glass is something of a modern myth: this came into vogue in the 1950s and 1960s, and many modern, high-performance lenses don’t have it. Rodenstock was not a high-quality, high-volume producer at the time – and the Ysarex was a 4×5 lens that was ported over (a 127mm was a common normal lens focal length for 4×5). According to one account I heard, Polaroid used the Ysarex because it was cheap if bought in bulk. How many Rodenstock lenses do you remember from 1950s and 1960s cameras? My bet is not many. Some Retina IIa cameras had Heligons, but that’s about it…

Conversions of the 110A/B cameras come in various other flavors, including taking 600SE backs (which bulks up the camera pretty considerably) and using 4×5 backs (and onto many of these, you can still adapt a 405 pack film holder or a standard rollfilm holder from a Speed Graphic – but why?!).

All of that said, the lens is well above the performance level of the automatic pack cameras, and the folding mechanism is rock-solid. From a mechanical standpoint, these make the 180/185/190/195 look a little wimpy (except for the NPC remakes, which are a lot less elegant but a lot more butch).

4. The 250/350/360/450. We’ll call these the “automatic pack cameras.” In general, these have a folding design, coated glass triplet 114mm f/8.8 lenses (about a 40mm in 35mm terms), an electronic shutter that runs from 10 sec to 1/1200 sec, six apertures (waterhouse stops) that are activated by permutations of an ASA setting and two scene settings. Bodies are stainless steel (or chromed plastic; I’ll let you hacksaw one to find out).

Depending on the model, you may get features like a mechanical or electronic development timer (neither of which really works for Fuji film with its 3-minute development time), distance-calibrated bulb flash (450), or distance-calibrated electronic flash (360). With the exception of the 360, these are not designed to be used with electronic flashes, but they can be converted with a small amount of effort.

This category also includes cameras such as the 100, 440, etc., but for reasons to be discussed below, they are not high-featured enough to merit the time and trouble of making them work.

5. All the rest. Polaroid made a lot of things that can be classified as garbage: varying combinations of plastic lenses, zone focus, and flashbulbs (but all of them shoot better and cheaper than a Holgaroid…). These cameras appear primarily designed to sell at a price point and to move as much Polaroid colorpack film as possible.* As you may have surmised, consumables are a big business – ask Fujifilm, which makes no hardware but sells millions of packs of peel-apart film a year. The one bright spot in the old stuff is the Big Shot, which uses X-synched flashcubes, has a long snout, and fixed-focus rangefinder. A favorite of Warhol, it is an eBay cause celebre.

* Were the names designed to be ironic? I mean, really, what “Reporter” would use a zone-focused folding camera that used flashcubes? Was the “Square Shooter” designed to photograph the non-hip? Some things are clear from the names: the “Big Swinger” is clearly designed with some capability for recording orgies. Let me know when you figure it out.

Konica made its Instant Press and Fuji made its FP-1 Fotorama. These Japanese cameras are expensive, provincial, and have a lot more in common with the 110A/B than they do with anything else.

Dying a most timely death

Let’s talk about the automatic pack cameras (250, 350, 450 and similarly-shaped autoexposure cameras). Many – most – Ebay sellers do not know how to test these. They buy them at garage sales, listen to see if they click, and then label them as “refurbished” or “converted.” These estate-sale pickers are fairly easily identified by their Ebay IDs or how they list the items (“I don’t know much about cameras, but this works…”). They may disclaim that they can test them at all due to “the film [or batteries] not being made anymore” (both of these claims are actually untrue). Stay away from these people. You may be paying a lot in shipping to receive a non-functional camera, paying for one or more packs of film and a battery to unsuccessfully test it, and then paying a bit to send it back. If you are really serious about these cameras, you might want to pay a bit more to get one from a reputable source (like Option8 on Ebay, otherwise found at http://www.polaroidconversions.com).

Let’s take the causes of death in turn.

First, the autoexposure system in every one of these cameras is based on a CdS cell that can go bad over a few decades, letting through too much current in low light. This causes a capacitor to fill prematurely – leading to underexposed pictures. This was a common enough problem that the Polaroid service manuals of the era specifically called that out as a failure part – when the cameras were only a decade old. Imagine what they are like at 40. There is no replacing these cells today, and the failure of a CdS cell is not usually a constant adjustment between dark and light scenes (this is compounded by the fact that the film itself has a non-linear response to light that is driven by the shortness of the exposure). The problem is not unique to Polaroid; CdS cells in other things fail too: Nikon TTL finders for the F and F2, Gossen Luna-Pros, and pretty much anything from before the early 1980s. Some type of recalibration is necessary – sometimes this can be done via adjustment of the L-D dial on the camera; sometimes it needs more.

Second, compounding the problem is that the cameras were originally designed for mercury cells (anything that is a PX-anything was originally mercury). Mercury cells have a relatively constant voltage that stays flat until the batteries die. But they did not run at the 3v of the last Polaroid-supplied cells – and certainly do not run at the 3.3v of lithium CR123As (a common conversion). Every little bit of voltage helps create even more underexposure. If you’ve used alkaline batteries (like 625As) in an SLR designed for mercury 625s, you know exactly what will happen. And again, this is not a linear error: it will hit you hardest in low light, precisely where your ability to judge exposure is the least.

Finally, things age. Battery leakage with mercury or carbon-zinc batteries can be a real mess, but alkaline cleans up with white vinegar. Bellows fail (not as badly as leather). Lenses get fungus (very infrequently, thankfully, because Polaroid made pretty much every “leather” part of the cameras out of synthetics that do not absorb the moisture that feeds fungus. And that caustic Polaroid paste can rust out the roller assembly frames.

Rehabilitation

If you have one of these cameras and want to learn how to make it behave, I have a 12-step program. Auto pack cameras have two major redeeming features that manuals do not: very fast top shutter speeds and infinitely variable exposure. Fixing the exposure is the one you might want to zero in on.

1. Stop worrying about the development timer. The electronic development timer on old pack cameras does not go long enough to reliably time Fuji FP-100C. The former times to 2 minutes; the film really requires 3 – and has about 4 hours of dry-down time in which the picture will darken by what might look like 1/2 a stop of exposure. Sufficient development is the cornerstone of evaluating everything else.

2. Get some modern batteries in there – and stick with them. For the 3V cameras, you can either get snap-end alkalines, put in a AAA holder, or convert to lithium. The latter options can be executed by anyone with basic soldering skills. Whatever you choose, you need to commit to regular battery changes before the voltage drops significantly. Remember, these cameras used cells with very flat discharge curves and under instructions to replace the cells once annually.

3. Clean the rollers. The stainless steel rollers in the camera are often encrusted with the development paste. Though not as noxious as the paste actual Polaroid films used, the Fuji paste is still messy and still can corrode steel parts.

4. Press down the springs before loading. Polaroid packs had metal casings; Fuji has more flexible plastic. Old Fuji films had a flat back that was distorted by the springs in the camera, causing frames 1 and 2 (the “bonus” frames – Polaroid only gave you 8) to jam in the camera. The new Fuji packs have cutouts. With these, it should not be necessary to cut the springs out to prevent the black paper leader and the film from jamming.

5. Fan the white tabs. When you load the film, load the left end first, right end last. The white tabs hang outside the well that the film sits in. Gently fan them.

6. Before you completely close the back, pull the black cover on the film pack out about an inch. This will give you more leverage to remove this tab when the back is completely closed. You won’t accidentally expose the first frame – because that black paper wraps all the way around the film pack.

7. Take the shot. Remember, the “wide” aperture of the camera is f/8.8, which is very slow for a handheld camera. So hold your breath. And keep holding the shutter button until the cocking lever pops up. If you let go prematurely, the exposure will end too early.

8. Wait for the development. If you are shooting a relatively rapid sequence of pictures, don’t start timing until you shoot the last one. Then wait 3 minutes and open them in sequence (the exposure numbers are stamped on the back of each).

9. Don’t make snap judgments about exposure. As I mentioned in #1, wait a long time after peeling before changing the lighten-darken dial.

10. Use the lighten-darken dial. You have enough range to brighten by 2 stops (4x the exposure) and dim by 1 stop (1/2 the exposure). The big marks are one stop; the small marks are 1/2. In the old days, Polaroid had such consistency problems that every pack of film came with a base calibration (“one small mark to ‘lighten,'” for example). But with the high consistency of the Fuji film and the poor linearity of the metering you need to understand these settings.

11. Invest in flash if you need flash. These cameras (except for the 360) all have M-synch, which means that the camera will ignite the flashcube 20ms before the shutter fully opens. This is because a flashcube contains oxygen and magnesium foil and does not reach full brightness for a fraction of a second. Why Polaroid was so bent on using these is unclear; it may have had something to do with the reciprocity characteristics of the early pack film (a super-fast flash exposure might change the effective speed of the film).

Although the 400-series cameras use Hi-Power flash cubes, which are supposed to be X-synch, there is really nothing such as X-synch on these cameras as delivered (or on flash cubes…). There are people who have – anecdotally – tested these and concluded that they work with electronic flash, but observation through the back of the camera shows non-circular white images – indicating synching error. You can generally get away with using an older flash fired on full power (giving a long pulse that exceeds the “open” time of the shutter), but it does not fire with the power you would expect – and you will not always get full frame light coverage.

The good news is that converting these cameras to perfect X-synch requires bending a copper contact (as well as some quality time with a modern electronic flash repeatedly checking the shape of the flash through the lens). People of moderate mechanical ability can handle this. If you want to use cubes, get a 450, which has a sophisticated, distance-corrected flashbulb flash. This louver-operated correction (shared with the 360’s electronic flash) is not fooled by subject reflectivity and comes out looking good most of the time.

12. Understand the film’s latitude and color. Fuji FP-100C has almost no tolerance for underexposure, and it has a very cold color balance (at least in my testing). This makes it possible to take reasonably well-balanced pictures in room light or daylight. Be careful about pictures taken in shadow. An 81A gel can help (increase exposure by a little under one small mark). Attach a circular piece of the gel to the inside of a Polaroid 585 UV filter for easier handling. In any situation, err on the side of mild overexposure. Note also that the blue cast sometimes diminishes during drydown.

Fixing exposure!

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Ok, so I got to 12 steps before the big secret. You can generally figure out how to make these cameras work. I had a 360 that was massively underexposing. Here is how I figured out how to fix it.

1. Collect materials to make a filter pack. Get a roll of Scotch tape, a ND 0.3 gel filter (hint: Roscolux swatch books have a 50% transmission grey), a pair of scissors, and several boxes of (color) film. Make sure the camera has batteries in it – the kind of batteries you intend to use long-term.

2. Set the L-D dial to the center point. Shoot an average daylight scene (>= EV 10). Develop. Wait. It will likely be dark. Stick one layer of gel filter over the CdS cell (not the lens!). Take a shot. Develop. Wait. If it is still too dark, add another layer and repeat the other steps. On my camera, for example, I figured out that the “normal” exposure was approximately 2 stops off. So ultimately, I used 2 layers of ND filter. You can also use 75% transmission filters if you really want to fine-tune (but it does not seem necessary).

3. Then go to low light (< EV10). Shoot a picture with your filter pack. You will probably find that your pictures are too dark – and blue. No surprise here – slow shutter speeds and low light cause sensitivity loss (reciprocity error) and color shifts in FP-100C film (it’s documented, but it’s a bit worse than Fuji’s graph’s suggest). Dial the L-D dial to +1 and try it again. As long as you can do it within the +2 range the camera gives you, you are fine. You will need to add an 81-series filter to warm things up, though.

Note that FP-3000B (black-and-white) seems to have less of a problem with reciprocity error (and obviously has no color issues) – so once you “zero” the camera outdoors, you should be good to go for most conditions. Be careful with this film – it has little tolerance for overexposure.

4. Why are we doing it this way? Since time immemorial, Polaroid pack cameras have been designed for bright sunlight or flash (hence the f/8.8 maximum aperture). Color film has the best color when shot at a speed of 1/60 or higher. Although these cameras can shoot long exposures (up to 10 seconds), the film won’t – at least not without major correction. That’s also a reason why you want to use the maximum aperture even outdoors with color film. The f/17 aperture at the “bright sun” setting for 75-speed (FP-100C) means that except on the brightest days, your shutter speed will drift into the danger zone for exposure/color shifts and camera shake. Shooting indoors with ambient light, you are really exceeding the camera’s design intent – and so you should be ready to compensate the exposure.

5. Note that any such calibration is only good for the particular camera and type of batteries it is running on.

6. If you suffer from chronic overexposure, you can use a similar process but tape the gel to the back of the lens (inside the camera). Calibration procedures are essentially similar.

7. Now you can get on taking Polaroid pictures of heavily-tattooed blonde women (or is that singular?). Only this time, the effects will be under your own control and not be at the mercy of a decrepit camera. After all, your desire to do the heavy lifting is why you don’t use Instagram, right?

Flash with the 360

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The Polaroid 360 is an odd bird – it has a rechargeable flash that charges for an hour and then (hopefully) shoots 20-30 pictures. The 360 flash interfaces to the camera via a four-pin connector that gives a ready light on the camera and overrides the shutter operation. It also interfaces with a moving lever in the flash shoe that tells the flash the distance at which the camera is focused.

The flash always fires at full power, and moving white louvers cut the output light as appropriate to close distances. The louvers move moderately between 3 and 10 feet and are fully open at 10 feet and beyond (the actual usable range of these flashes is generally about 3-6 feet). The L-D control on the flash gives a lot more control – closing the louvers almost completely at the darkest setting – and between it and the main control on the camera, you can shoot balanced fill shots.

The problems with this flash, though, mirror those of the automatic pack cameras. The NiCd batteries in the flash go bad over time, and even when rebuilt, once the battery is depleted, that means no more flash shots for at least an hour. Because every exposure is at full power, and because the unit has a dump circuit that completely empties the capacitors when you take the flash off the camera, battery life is pretty dismal. If you go for a flash converted to modern, removable batteries, make sure it takes AAs or lithium-ion cells. AAAs do not have the grunt required to charge the capacitors in this flash.

Capacitors also go bad over time – and this can reduce flash power. You might really need to crank up the LD control on the flash.

If you are outdoors, it does not hurt with 100-speed film to turn the camera’s L-D control to +2. This helps keep the ambient exposure in line (otherwise, it could be very short).

The Miniportrait 203: The Next Big (or Little) Thing?

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I’m very surprised that no one has yet caught on that the cheapest manual Polaroid camera is the 203 Miniportrait. This camera, originally designed to take passport pictures, has two 125mm lenses, can shoot two of the same or two different pictures on the same sheet of film, has a built-in flash (you pick the aperture on the camera based on focused distance), manual shutter speeds of 60 and 125* and manual apertures of f/8 to f/32. It also has an x terminal that lets you attack with a Metz 45 flash. The internal deisgn of the camera is interesting; it uses two servo-actuated counter-rotating disks to fire one or both shutters.

*Note that there is a “version 2” of the 203 with a blue face that does not have a shutter speed control or 1-2 indicator for which frame is being taken. It does, however, have solenoid-activated shutters and the ability to rapidly fire each shutter in succession, facilitating multiple exposures. Later cameras such as the 209 followed in the tradition of 203.2, immediately eliminating the distance rangefinder and progressively eliminating manual functions.

The catch, of course, is that the 203 (like its big brother, the 403) is only designed to shoot at about 1m. The camera has a sonar rangefinder to tell you when you are within the minimum DOF at f/8. Like a more hip version of the Big Shot, it’s for taking head-and-shoulders shots. The model 78 supplemental lenses (essentially -1 diopters) take the focusing distance to about 2m. Since the lenses are stackable, I suspect that you could get close to infinity focus by using two or more.

These cameras have generally had hard lives and are designed for tripod use, but if you are physically fit and have some creativity, they are a lot cheaper than shelling out $600 for a 180 plus $120 for close-up lenses.

Brilliant!

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4 responses to “[Pola]roid rage”

  1. Luke says :

    Hey, Great article but I think Fuji stopped making the peel-apart films over a year ago.

    • The Machine Planet says :

      I know… It’s sad. Check the date of the entry at the beginning. This is part of a slow upload of a lot of stuff from the old site. When it’s all up, I will begin correcting the post dates (i.e., this would go back to 9-11-2012).

  2. Paul De Zan says :

    It may have been an absolute POS camera, but this Swinger TV spot was incredibly effective for Polaroid, a pros-and-dads company that did manage to break into the youth market at a critical moment.

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