Growing up, there was one object in the house I coveted more than anything else – the Polaroid 600 sitting on the top shelf of our housemates’ dresser. On occasion I’d see it being passed around during house parties or thrown in the car for road trips, magically spitting out beautiful square images I’d later see pinned to a piece of corkboard on the other end of the room. But being four years old, I was never allowed to touch that Polaroid for fear that I may waste precious, expensive prints. The off-limits camera soon became a mythical object, and its legend only grew the longer it was kept our of my hands.
I never did get to shoot a Polaroid 600 while I was growing up, but I knew what shooting a Polaroid meant. During the 1980s and ’90s, Polaroid cameras (especially 600-series) represented youth, adventure, and fun. Millions of families framed their lives in the familiar square white border of 600 series film, cementing Polaroid’s place as one of the world’s most beloved camera companies.
Unfortunately for Polaroid, it’s 2018, not 1994. Polaroid as the world knew it died in 2008, was placed on life support by the Impossible Project in 2010, and has been nursed back to relative good health as Polaroid Originals in September 2017. But is PO the same Polaroid?
Although we’ve written here on the site that Polaroid’s modern-day revival is a wonderful thing for photo nerds, there’s some truth to the common complaint that Polaroid Originals is a pale shell of the former giant. Many cite the new film’s long development times, degraded image quality, and prohibitive price point. After a year of Polaroid Originals being on the market (and a year out from knee-jerk forum and comment section reactions), I think the time is ripe for a real assessment.
I needed to do something quintessentially “Polaroid.” Fortunately, a couple of bands that I play with had recently scheduled a week-and-a-half long tour up and down the West Coast, from Los Angeles, CA to Vancouver, B.C., Canada and back. If ever there was a chance to finally live out that childhood dream and shoot the glory days of youth with a Polaroid, this was it.
I chose 1981’s classic Polaroid, the Sun 660. Of the many 600-series cameras, this is arguably the most emblematic of Polaroid during the ’80s and ’90s. By Polaroid’s standards, however, it was far from special. The entire 600-series was the brand’s consumer-oriented line, and these cameras had very few real features. The Sun 660 in particular only sports a single-element plastic meniscus lens with a sluggish maximum aperture of f/11, a shutter speed range of 1/4th to 1/200th of a second, and the Polaroid Light Management System, a simple and imprecise control to manually lengthen or shorten exposure times. Of course, the whole thing’s encased in the 1980s’ material of choice – cheap, brittle plastic.
But Polaroid wasn’t going to let the consumer grade 600-series sully the reputation of high-tech quality that the brand had built with their original SX-70 folding SLR. A 600-series premium model was soon introduced, which was called the Autofocus 660 (later renamed the Sun 660). The model would use Polaroid’s novel and yet-to-be-recreated Sonar Autofocus system (the golden disc of which is gorgeous). With the Sonar Autofocus system, the Polaroid Sun 660 became one of the most streamlined and simple instant cameras on offer, and a historically popular choice for Polaroid fans past and present.
The simple operation, classic ’80s looks, and storied reputation of the 600-series made taking the Sun 660 on tour a no-brainer. But from the outset there was a glaring issue – Polaroid Originals film. At nineteen dollars for an eight exposure pack of film, this stuff is expensive. I bought three packs, which meant that I had to be extremely discerning about what I shot. I’m usually a frugal and sparing shooter, but not wasting film with the Polaroid would require real restraint. The real extent of the problem became obvious when speeding up the picturesque California coastline. Here was one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the USA and I’d not taken a single shot out of pure fear.
The film and the camera would also throw me some unexpected curveballs early on in the trip. Polaroid Originals color film, although much improved upon the original Impossible Project effort (and slightly worse than a mythical batch of film they produced a handful of years ago), simply doesn’t have the exposure latitude necessary to make the consistently amazing prints Polaroid was once known for. Any attempt at landscapes were killed by the film’s narrow exposure range coupled with the Sun 660’s imprecise light metering system. After shooting through the first pack it became apparent that no matter the situation, highlights were bound to be blown and shadows were bound to be crushed. I’d have to find a way to manipulate the Polaroid’s exposure compensation slider in order to get the shots I wanted in the light available to me. Making those famous framed shots would be harder than I thought.
The first leg of the tour up to Canada was filled with fighting the Sun 660 and PO’s film. Not wanting to screw up a shot, I often put down the Polaroid in favor of my backup Nikon F3. It didn’t help that some of my other bandmates took their Fuji Instax cameras on tour as well, and shot away with reckless abandon at every stop on tour, producing photos with richer colors and more accurate exposure overall. I was beginning to think that my adventure with the Sun 660 was a wash, and that maybe the book really had closed on Polaroid film and cameras.
By the time we reached the US/Canada border, tour fatigue set in. We had crammed five shows in five days and drove across three states (one of which could contain three or four respectably sized states on its own) and all the energy and romance of tour had effectively burned up like so much gas through a carburetor. Vancouver brought an off day, and I was able to escape and see what the province’s license plates proudly call Beautiful British Columbia.
It was here that I decided to give the Sun 660 another try. My Canadian cousin, who was kind enough to house all eight of us on tour, took us up to Burnaby Mountain, a park with a vantage point with some of the best views of Vancouver. My bandmates scrambled all over the park and onto some of the monuments, which served as a perfect backdrop for more than a few photos. The Sun 660’s exposure compensation slider performed beautifully for a backlit photo of my bandmates, and the Sonar autofocus nailed a portrait of Lisa, the frontwoman of one of our bands. Unfortunately, my luck would run out on an attempted photo of the bay, as the bright Vancouver sky blew out on the print, along with the finer details of the far off mountain.
Our day off continued into Stanley Park, a place known for its lush green and scenic drive. We drove in and ended up at Prospect Point, a traditionally picturesque point that boasts the best view of the Lion’s Gate Bridge, among other things. The entire crew went down and snapped pictures, and I came away with a particularly satisfying shot of my bandmate Jonny, his face being slashed by the lens flare of the Sun 660’s plastic meniscus lens.
Reviewing my shots on the way back south from Canada, my faith had begun to be restored. I’d finally started to become comfortable with the Polaroid Sun 660 and was starting to understand the film’s limitations. Even the shots from the beginning of the tour, the ones that I’d originally thought a waste, started to bring the nostalgia so critical to Polaroid Originals marketing department.
The days rolled on and we played our way through the smaller towns of Bellingham and Olympia in Washington, this time making the most of any chance to savor the quiet moments before jumping into the nightly chaos of the show. It was precisely in these moments where the Sun 660 came into its own. I started to choose my subjects more carefully, and only take pictures of things, places, and people I really wanted to remember. I could’ve accomplished that just as well with any other camera, but there was something more rewarding about doing it with a Polaroid.
Just as I started to get into the swing of things, I found myself back home in Los Angeles. Exhausted and tired from three straight days of shows stretching from Oregon down to the central coast of California, I hauled all of my belongings back into the familiar confines of my home, and conked out.
The morning after a tour, no matter how long or short, is a tough one. It’s difficult to unpack your bags, reorganize your things, and realize that your life probably won’t feel as interesting as it was just a day before. The post-tour blues started to hit me pretty hard until I opened up my camera bag and found all of the trip’s Polaroids strewn about the bottom, with that familiar Sun 660 sitting atop the heap.
I stopped unpacking and flipped through each one, recalling with vivid clarity each day of the tour. I remembered the rock skipping contest and impromptu band photoshoot in Olympia, the huge logs of fallen redwoods in Humboldt County, even the church in Seattle where I dodged a bumbling tweaker after a particularly rough show. And every single one of those memories came bordered by those familiar white frames of my childhood, only this time, I was the one that had shot them. Childhood dream, fulfilled.
But the question still remains – is Polaroid really back? After living with one for a week and a half I can say that it is, and it isn’t. On a technical level, Polaroid’s probably not going to come back. We may never be able to relive the days of Polaroid’s amazingly vivid color film, the two-minute image development time, or the widespread availability of such film. Even so, the images from Polaroid Originals film and the Sun 660, though technically inferior, still evoke the pure nostalgia of old-school Polaroid. The romance of making memories with a genuine Polaroid is still there, even if it isn’t quite the same these days.
While looking back at the images from the tour and wishing it could happen all over again, I realized something very important about touring, about Polaroid, and about life itself. We may not be able to relive the glory days, but at least we can look back and realize how lucky we were to have lived them at all.