In 1990, Minolta and Polaroid both released an improved version of the Spectra camera called the Instant Pro and Spectra Pro, respectively. These cameras were essentially the same as one another (though the licensed-from-Polaroid Minolta does have a superficial edge in durability – more later), and they’re two of the most user-adjustable Polaroid cameras ever made. With flash, focus, and exposure controls, as well as crazy features like timed interval shooting and a multiple exposure mode, these two machines just may be the best Polaroid camera for today’s shooter.
But what the hell is a Spectra? Launched in 1986, Spectra was both Polaroid’s new film format and their new camera created to address complaints that all integral Polaroids made up to then produced images that were just too small. The classic, white-framed 78 x 78mm square images made on SX-70 and 600 film were dwarfed by the new Spectra film, which produced an image area of 92 x 73mm. It doesn’t sound like much, but this was a big difference. These machines also offered better construction, sharper lenses (glass, no less), and more features than their predecessors – all great selling points when we’re talking cameras.
But that was thirty years ago. What’s Spectra today? For starters, a totally usable camera that’s worth your attention.
Aesthetically, both machines are things of beauty (if you’re one who enjoys Polaroid machines). There’s that classic ’80s aesthetic happening here, in which angles are sharp and superfluity is eschewed. Things look purposeful and lean. Like a classic e30 BMW, there’s nothing here that doesn’t need to be here. The accents are typical-for-the-time in gold and red, and emphasize the bits that matter, like that proudly advertised coated glass lens. The body is a low-sheen, almost satin black, a choice that’s understated and appealing. The Pros are cameras that are nearly the polar opposite of Polaroids that came later, those bulbous, rounded globs of plastic that so dominated the ’90s. Yuck.
Build quality is pretty excellent, for a plastic Polaroid. Without question it feels more resilient than the integral cameras in the fragile SX-70 and floppy 600 series, which possess all the strength of a graham cracker. This is likely a result of the simpler clamshell design of the Spectra camera. Instead of a large flash bar hinging upward to reveal the lens like in the 600 series, this camera’s top simply pops upward a few centimeters to form a wedge shape. The action is surprisingly springy and everything clicks into place with much more direction than we’re accustomed to in a Polaroid machine (sans the original SX-70, which is nearly mechanical perfection).
Two things to note regarding the camera’s opening mechanism – one, it locks into place when opened, and two, failure to release the lock when trying to close it will break the camera. To close, pull back on the opening switch and press the top of the camera evenly back into the body.
Where the camera fails the durability test is in its soft-touch exterior pads. On top and bottom, the camera has a sort of rubberized pad glued to the body, and these pads in 2017 are nearly always worn, scraped, and deteriorating. The result is an ugly camera. Enterprising souls can replace these pads with their own cut leatherette or other preferred material, but this is a DIY project that not all will be eager to tackle. The Minolta version shows less tendency to deterioration, in my experience, so either search out the Instant Pro (as shown here) or just try to find a copy that’s not yet worn out. And it should be mentioned that the Minolta’s hand strap is a much better design than the one found on the Polaroid model – it has unusually fine stitching and a leatherette pad, where the Polaroid’s strap is a rather disgusting foam affair that’s always shamefully worn and secured by tenuous velcro.
Ergonomically, this might be the best Polaroid on the planet. The viewfinder is large, and clear, and well-defined, and there’s a delightfully retro electronic display that indicates focus distance and any relevant warnings. Green means go, yellow means you’re doing something wrong (too close, too far, flash issues). These warnings are also accompanied by a frantic siren sounding in your ear, and there’s a charming chime to let you know you’re out of film. I love it, but these notes can be turned off easily for those shooters who are annoyed by beeps and buzzes.
The LCD display on the back of the camera is the machine’s control center, and it’s large and well-implemented. All pertinent info is displayed in big, bold lettering, and navigating the menus is simple and intuitive. The most commonly used buttons, such as the self-timer and the Auto mode button, are right out where they need to be and ready for easy access. There’s a tripod mount on the bottom, and a shutter release on the top, and that’s just about all you’ll need.
Where the Spectra Pro and Instant Pro set themselves ahead of their contemporary machines (and many later Polaroids) is in their creative controls, controls that help us inch closer to a higher hit-rate. When we understand the camera and our environment we’re better able to adjust exposure, flash, and other settings, and these Spectra machines are among the only Polaroids that allow us this many degrees of control.
Many Polaroid cameras have no controls at all (they’re point-and-shoots of the most basic form) and others only offer a single lighten and darken adjustment. The Pro models, in contrast, offer much more. We’ve got exposure compensation for adjusting our exposure, backlighting control for when our subject is backlit, manual flash control and manual focus. What’s more, these controls can be operated in conjunction with one another. Not bad.
In addition to these adjustments, we’re also given access to some interesting (if not entirely useful) features. Multiple exposures can be made on a single frame with just the push of a button (up to five shots on a single photo). Timed interval shooting allows us to place the camera on a tripod and make individual or multiple exposures over the course of programmable time intervals, which is interesting even if I’ve not found a use for it myself (the manual shows shots of flowers blooming over time).
These things are neat additions, but they’re not going to change your world. In all likelihood you’ll keep the camera set to Auto mode and fire away. Luckily, in this mode the camera works really well. Exposures are usually accurate, and I’m willing to attribute misses to Impossible’s film stock. The camera adequately gauges available light, and even manages to understand when and with what intensity to use fill-flash to soften shadows in bright conditions.
As for image quality, well, it’s complicated. Back in the day, much copy was printed in the cameras’ manuals and press releases in which both Minolta and Polaroid claimed their Spectra machines would outperform any other model of integral camera. This was mostly on account, they said, of that luscious coated glass lens and the camera’s unique focusing methodology in which the lens elements never varied their distances relative to one another. The improved image quality was also attributed to the larger image area of Spectra film, which is notably wider than SX-70 and 600 film. On paper, this all sounds amazing. In practice, it’s a Polaroid in 2017.
Photos are possibly a bit cleaner than ones I’ve made with SX-70 and 600 series cameras, but I wouldn’t call them sharp. They retain the typical unpredictability that Polaroid, in these days of Impossible film, is known for. When conditions are right, when you’ve set your settings correctly, and when you’ve gotten a good batch of Impossible film, shots will be beautiful (if you like Polaroid style images). But just as often your shots will be spongey, with less-than-stellar dynamic range, and soft, pastel color. Is this a product of the camera or a product of the film being produced today? I suspect the latter. And with recent news of new things happening within both Polaroid and Impossible, time will tell if things are about to improve on the film front. We’ll keep you posted if the chemistry improves or the price per pack dips (two things we think really need to happen for instant photography to be sustainable).
If you’re buying a Spectra Pro or Instant Pro thinking you’ll be making rich, punchy images, you may be disappointed. I’ve seen results from some shooters that are truly wonderful, but I’ve never been able to make these kinds of shots. Mine are typically soft and ethereal, but where some people might find this annoying, these are qualities I value in Polaroid photos. I don’t really want my instant photos to be totally perfect. When I want clear, sharp photos I’ll shoot my Sony a7II or a 35mm film camera. When I want to make a photo of my kid that I can hang on my fridge five minutes later, I shoot a Polaroid.
And when I shoot Polaroid I’m typically going to choose the Minolta Instant Pro. It’s the right size, it offers the most creative control of any other Polaroid, it takes larger photos than the standard integral machines, and it has “Minolta” written on it. All good things, and if Impossible Project continues improving their film in the months and years to come, I see no reason why these Spectra machines shouldn’t be the Polaroid to own for real instant shooters.