Sunday, May 25, 2014

Beginner’s Guide to Using Polaroid Cameras and Instant Film by Dan Finnen

The Polaroid camera is a well-known brand of instant camera. So called because the picture developed instantly, these instant cameras were first invented in 1923, with the first commercially available product being unveiled by Polaroid in New York in 1948. Here's a beginner's guide by Dan Finnen to help those whose are taking their first steps into the fun and unpredictable world of using Polaroid cameras.

A Brief Overview

I’m going to start at the very beginning here to make sure all of you out there are all caught up. Polaroid cameras use instant film, a type of film that requires no processing beyond being spit out of the camera and into your hand. The film comes in cartridges of 8 to 10 exposures, all stacked neatly and protected from light. When taking a photo, the camera exposes the Polaroid at the top of the stack in the cartridge, then sends it through rollers while ejecting that trigger development. The gray or blue haze that covers the image immediately when the photo pops out is called the opacifier, and protect the image as the chemicals finish developing. It fades away on its own and then you have your image!

Polaroid cameras come in a variety of types, but for our purposes I’ll be talking about Polaroid 600 cameras and film, which is what I recommend beginners start with before delving off into the realms of Spectra, SX-70 or peel-apart film.

What Do You Need?

First you’re going to need a camera, preferably a cheap and simple to use 600 type Polaroid camera. If you’re wondering what to get, you can check out my guide to buying used Polaroid cameras for much more detailed information. I’m going to be using a Polaroid OneStep CloseUp for this article, which is a very common and easy to use 600 camera.

It’s important to remember that Polaroid cameras are powered by the cartridge full of unexposed photos, so there is no way of testing a camera to make sure it works without some film. So the next step is getting some to stick into that camera. As you may or may not know, Polaroid discontinued producing film for their cameras in 2008, so you’re not going to be able to mosey on down to your local Walgreens to pick it up anymore. Lucky for us, the great folks at the Impossible Project have stepped up to create new film for Polaroid cameras.

The Impossible Project’s own website is the best way to get film for your camera. A few other stores also sell IP film, but for the freshest goods, it’s good to go straight to the source. People are still selling long-expired Polaroid film online, but I recommend avoiding it for now. This old Polaroid film is expensive, will be finicky, and will likely have a dead battery. For now, stick with Impossible Project film for 600 cameras. Black and White or Color, it doesn’t matter. Grab a few packs and meet me back here.

How to Use the Camera

Got some film? Great! You won’t be able to use your camera without it. Now, let’s walk through the various switches and buttons on this little camera. Lucky for you, Polaroid cameras were designed with the utmost simplicity in mind, and remain very use friendly to this day. That said, even I wasn’t sure what every knob did at first.

Clicking open the giant flashbar on the front of the camera is the basic ‘on’ switch that tells the camera to wake up and get ready to take a picture. There is a little LED indicator at the top of the camera that lets you know whether or not the flash is ready to go. If you don’t take a photo right away, it’ll simply turn off, and you can open and close the flashbar to wake it up again.

The shutter is a trigger on the side of the camera, which is often a button on the back side of the camera in other Polaroid models. Simply push it down to take a picture. The Polaroid OneStep Closeup has a fixed focus lens, so don’t worry about focusing. (Ignore the ‘macro’ feature on this camera, it’s worthless.) There is a hidden little shutter inside the main shutter that allows the camera to shoot without flash, but it works terribly. Just ignore it and tape over your flash if you don’t want to use it.

On the front of the camera, just below the lens, is the exposure compensation switch. Back in the Polaroid days, you rarely needed to fiddle with it, but if you’re planning on shooting Impossible Project film indoors, you’re going to need to get a feel for how to exposure your film. I recommend sliding it slightly towards dark to make sure the film doesn’t overexpose, as sometimes the automatic exposure sensor goes a little overboard in high contrast situations.

Loading the Film and Making Sure it Works

To load the camera with film, pull the switch on the side to open the bottom front flap on the camera. It will open to reveal a slot to insert and take out film. Some cameras may still have film inside them, or more likely, an empty cartridge. If you want to preserve any film that might be in the camera, take out the old cartridge in a pitch black room and put it in a container that won’t let any light in it. Otherwise, just yank out the cartridge and throw it away. If there’s no cartridge inside the work has already been done for you.

Insert your film with the dark slide facing up, the metal contacts facing down, and the tab facing you. Once it clicks in place, close the front flap. Immediately the camera should spit out the dark slide. If it does not, and nothing happens, you either have a dead battery, or a dead camera. If you’ve purchased your film from the Impossible Project, it is more likely that the camera has simply called it quits. If this is the case, the only thing to do is to test it with another pack of film or move on to another camera. That’s why I always recommend starting with cheap cameras, so it’s no big deal if one breaks down.

If the black slide successfully ejected, you’re ready to go take your first pictures!

Taking Your First Pictures

Instant film loves light, and it loves temperate temperatures. A warm, sunny, or overcast outdoor area is the perfect place to take your first few steps into instant film.When I first started shooting Polaroid film, I shot landscapes since they stood still, but now I mostly use instant film for portraits.

Taking your first picture is easy. Flip up the flashbar thingy, look through the viewfinder, point the camera at what you want to take a picture of, and click the shutter. Keep in mind, you’re not looking through the lens itself, just a little viewfinder off to the side, so the framing of your actual picture isn’t going to be exactly the same. If all goes to plan, the photo should pop out of the front. Grab the picture and immediately put it in a dark place like a pocket or inside a bag. I have a little compartment on the front of my Think Tank bag that’s perfectly sized for Polaroids. Even though the Impossible Project films are now resistant to sunlight when they pop out (they used to require protection), your colors will look best if they can develop unmolested by bright sunlight.

Be patient, and after somewhere between a half hour to an hour, your pictures will be ready! If you’re using actual Polaroid film, your wait will be much shorter and you can watch the opacifier slowly dissipate without having to worry about the light.

Next Steps

Well, you successfully took your first Polaroid picture, what are you going to do now? I suggest scanning the Polaroid for posterity and to share. Instant film is unpredictable, so let yourself have fun and go crazy!

*Dan Finnen is a writer, filmmaker and photographer based-in Chicago. He writes articles and reviews about Polaroid film, the Impossible Project film and all sorts of other fun stuff on his website. This original article was written by Dan Finnen and published here.

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