Polaroid cameras are a dime a dozen, and utterly fantastic. But some are more fantastic than others. While I love the ubiquitous 600-series machines for their ease of use and their ability to pull me right back to the ’80s, I can understand why some shooters and collectors regard them as a bit boring. These are the Polaroids for the masses that we’ve all seen a hundred times, and they’re all just about the same.
But not all Polaroid cameras are so run-of-the-mill. Under Edwin Land, Polaroid was an enterprise cut from the same high tech and innovative cloth as modern companies like Steve Jobs’ Apple. No surprise then that over the course of fifty-plus years, Polaroid would release a number of exciting and interesting machines that set the then-nascent tech world ablaze. Good news for us, many of these rarer Polaroid cameras can still be bought and used today.
For serious photo geeks and lovers of all things uncommon, here are five special Polaroid cameras and the reasons they’re worth you’re attention.
SX-70 Land Camera – 1972
I begin our list with my personal favorite. If you’re going to own only one Polaroid camera, this should be the one. The masterpiece product of famed inventor Edwin Land (second only to Thomas Edison when measured in number of registered patents), this camera changed the entire landscape of American camera culture. To think that this thing came out in 1972 – it must’ve been mind-blowing.
I love it for its remarkable design – when folded closed it’s an unbelievably compact and elegant assemblage of brushed chrome and leather, and when deployed for photo-taking it’s unlike any camera in the world. This visionary design is paired with equally impressive engineering, making the SX-70 a camera of many firsts. It was the first folding SLR. It was the first SLR instant camera. It was the first instant camera to use automatic-developing integral film (this meant no waste to clean up, as all process chemicals are permanently stored in the print). It was the first instant camera capable of shooting five photos in ten seconds.
Optical prowess follows – the SX-70 uses a 4-element 116mm F/8 glass lens that makes stunning images. A split-image rangefinder equipped viewfinder allows for manual focusing as close as 10.4 inches (26.4 cm). An advanced automatic exposure system is capable of shutter speeds ranging from 1/175 of a second to more than 10 seconds, and this exposure may be manually adjusted via an exposure compensation wheel on the front of the camera, putting quality photos in the hands of masters and beginners alike.
There are a number of models available, some in different colors, some with Sonar focusing. I hold the opinion that if you’re going to own an SX-70 you might as well own the original. Look for the brushed aluminum with tan leather and no tripod socket (accessories are available). And if you want one that’s completely refurbished with a warranty, look no further than my friends at Brooklyn Film Camera.
Minolta Instant Pro – 1990
This next Polaroid isn’t quite a Polaroid at all – or rather, it’s a Polaroid in all but name. Manufactured in 1990, the Minolta Instant Pro was a rebranded Polaroid Spectra Pro. The same camera by any name, these are worthy machines by virtue of their being the most manually adjustable Polaroid cameras ever made. They also sport a high-quality coated glass lens that produces excellent images, and they produce larger prints than any other integral film Polaroid.
On the back of the camera we find a range of controls rare in instant cameras. With electronic adjustments for self-timer, built-in user-controlled flash, auto- and manual-focus, audio status signal, exposure compensation, timed exposures, back-lighting compensation, sequential exposure, multiple exposure mode… this thing has it all.
I mentioned larger prints – that’s because the Spectra series cameras are different from most Polaroid cameras in that the Spectra machines produce images that are larger and rectangular. The larger image area makes them an excellent choice for those who find the square format of 600 and SX-70 cameras limiting. But don’t worry – these larger shots still offer the iconic white framed border on every print – just make sure you buy Spectra film packs.
Users of the Minolta Instant Pro and Polaroid Spectra Pro will also enjoy a generally higher level of build and superior image quality compared to earlier non-folding SX-70 and 600 series cameras.
600 and 600 SE – 1978
Here’s another Japanese and American blend Polaroid camera. The 600 and 600SE (lovingly called ‘the Goose’ by knowing photo geeks) are essentially Mamiya Press cameras fitted with Mamiya lenses and Polaroid pack film backs. This combination created incredibly sharp and high quality images that developed instantly with Polaroid’s peel-apart film. Unfortunately, this film went away. Fortunately, Fuji’s FP100C also works! Unfortunately, Fuji discontinued FP100C not very long ago. Fortunately (again!), Impossible Founder Florian Kaps is heading an effort to keep FP100C alive. Unfortunately- eh. Enough of that. FP100C will still be available for a few years, and the 600 and 600SE can be easily fitted with a 120 film back when the instant stuff runs out.
I could say a lot about this camera’s specs, capabilities, and various configurations – almost too much for a list of this type. Let’s just keep it simple. The 600 offers just one (outstanding) lens, while the 600SE allows the shooter to swap lenses. Both come standard with a 127mm F/4.7 lens that produces sharp, brilliant photos. They’re massive cameras, extremely well built, with manually controlled aperture and shutter speeds, and a bright, beautiful viewfinder.
SX-70 One-Step (Rainbow Stripe) – 1977
The original non-folding SX-70 camera was created to offer a lower-cost alternative to the previously-mentioned folding SX-70 masterpiece, and became quite an icon in its own right. Utterly simple in design and functionality, the SX-70 One-Step uses the same film packs as its more capable sibling, and requires the user to, remarkably, press just a single button to create an image.
I love it today for two reasons – it’s less valuable than the folding version, which helps ease my mind in less-than-delicate shooting environments (like when I hand it off to my twenty-month-old daughter), and because it’s an eye-catching conversation-starter. It’s a camera that people immediately recognize, and what’s more, it gets people excited. Bring one of these to your next beach day, cookout, or concert, and you’re going to make a lot of people very happy indeed.
The plastic lens isn’t the best Polaroid ever produced, but it does the job and renders images with that lovely vintage aesthetic that we’re all aching for. They’re still relatively inexpensive, and film is readily available.
Instant souvenirs, a stylish tech accessory, and that famous rainbow stripe? Yes, this is one Polaroid you should have in your collection.
Integral 600 Series – 1980s, 1990s
I know in my intro I squawked about these being a bit too run-of-the-mill, but in all honesty you should own an integral 600 series camera for one very simple reason – they’re useful. While many of the other cameras on this list offer better optics, glorious design, or high functionality, the 600 series offers something the SX-70 film cameras don’t – a higher ISO film (600 versus 100 or 160).
What this means is that in certain shooting situations in which the SX-70 would shoot a prohibitively long exposure, the 600 series machines will not. The film is more sensitive, and will in certain instances produce sharper results than the higher-specced SX-70 cameras. Spectra cameras like the Minolta above have similarly sensitive film, so the 600 series can’t beat that machine in this regard, but they do trump the Pro in price. 600 series cameras can often be found at thrift shops, and even online, for under $20 (untested).
If you want something a bit more interesting, hunt out one of the innumerable 600 series special editions. Taz is ever popular, and if you’re into the Spice Girls we’ve got a Polaroid for you too.
And that’s the list. If you’ve got a personal favorite Polaroid let us hear about it in the comments.