SX-70: The Truly Innovative Camera

Polaroid SX-70

 

I thought I had not been susceptible to commercials. But I bought this camera on eBay almost immediately after seeing this 1970s TV commercial. If you don’t want to develop a desire for this camera, don’t watch. You’ve been warned:

 

 

I spent money which I had not planned to spend… and I don’t regret it. Few cameras had I enjoyed using so much, and few had given me so great results. The photographs are slightly blurred, have totally “non-digital” colors, and beautifully render people’s faces. Despite small maximum aperture of f/8, the depth of field can be very shallow (DOF depends, among other things, on the size of the projected image which here is larger than your typical medium format – the almost square image’s size is 77 by 79 mm). I wish the cartridges were not so expensive. I would not go out without my SX-70, even more as it fits in a (large) pocket.

 

Polaroid SX-70

 

SX-70 was the life project of Edwin Land who, in addition to being the CEO of Polaroid, or maybe in the first place, was an inventor and scientist. For his love of science people would call him “dr Land” even though he did not carry an academic title. Land put a lot of work and energy into the Alladin project which, after the launch in 1972, became officially known as SX-70. Polaroid SX-70 Land is an instant single lens reflex camera with full exposure automation. One cartridge was enough to take 10 pictures (8 with the replacement cartridges available today and described further in this article). A sophisticated design with mirrors (including Fresnel’s mirror) makes the final picture look presisely like the image seen in the viewfinder. In addition, the camera folds flat which complicated the design further. When holding the folded SX-70 it is hard to believe it contains all the optical, mechanical, chemical and electronic systems shown in the video clip above. Quoting Fortune magazine (1972), “(…) the mere production of the SX-70 must already be counted as one of the most remarkable accomplishments in industrial history. The project involved a series of scientific discoveries, inventions, and technological innovations in fields as disparate as chemistry, optics, and electronics.”

 

 

Polaroid SX-70

 

SX-70 was so innovative that the American journalists often referred to magic when describing its debut. At the launch conference Edwin Land pulled the camera from the pocket of his jacket, casually shot several pictures of the unsuspecting audience, and promplty showed them the developed images. The impression he made can only be compared to the iPhone launch keynote by Steve Jobs. The Life magazine of October 27, 1972, run a long article on the invention, titled “Latest Bit of Magic”, and featuring Edwin Land on the cover. Inside the magazine we can see the picture of a woman in a lab examining concave mirrors (one of the key elements of the SX-70’s optical system), a diagram of paths the light rays take inside the camera, as well as photographs taken by Life’s proffessional photographer Ko Rentmeester using this camera. The article mentions 17 chemical layers comprising the light-sensitive material, the radical shortening of development time (the image is developed after the picture slides out of the camera, in a “darkroom” created by a light-proof layer), the 2.5 years of total computing time required to calculate the perfect curvature of the mirror, the integrated circuits equivalent to 300 transistors (Land: “consumer electronics will never be the same after today.”)

 

 

Polaroid SX-70

 

SX-70’s targed audience was the large market of amateur photography enthusiasts, and despite the high price ($180 which roughly translates to today’s $1,000) SX-70 did sell very well. 700,000 cameras were sold before mid 1974. Then modified versions were introduced, including ones with pioneering autofocus systems, as well as cheap models using the same cartridges but based on a different design (non-SLRs). At the same time the “amateur” SX-70 gained recognition from renowned artists, including Andy Warhol as well as the legend of American photography Walker Evans who otherwise tried to steer clear of color. The competition did not remain idle. Kodak, for example, built its EK4 and EK6 instant cameras breaching at least a few Edwin Land’s patents. They got sued by Polaroid, lost, and were forced to pay $900 million and cease the production and sales of these cameras.

 

 

Polaroid SX-70

 

The camera is easy to use. All you need to do is insert the cartridge (which also contains a 6-volt battery to power the camera’s electronics), set the focus, and press the button. The first models did not provide any focusing assistance, but in response to customer requests Polaroid added split screen which makes focusing much simpler. Exposure is set automatically. The maximum aperture of the four-element 116-mm lens is f=8, and the shutter speeds range from 1/175 second to over 10 seconds (the commercial mentiones 14 seconds, the Life Magazine 15 seconds, and Popular Mechanics quotes an even wider range from 1/200 to 20 seconds). In challenging lighting conditions exposure can be corrected using the knob on the left. Minimum focusing distance is impressive (as little as 26 cm) and it can be shortened even further using special lenses. The slot above the front panel can be used to connect a dedicated 10-shot flash. With plugged-in flash and very short focusing distance the camera stops the aperture down to as far as f/90 (according to Popular Mechanics), ensuring exceptional depth of field in close-up photography.

 

 

Polaroid SX-70

 

Polaroid ceased production of SX-70 cartridges in 2006, but enthusiasts of the camera can purchase replacement cartridges at Impossible Project, a company which acquired a part of Polaroid plant in Enschede and manufactures SX-70-compatible cartridges (as well as cartridges for some other Polaroid models). The materials are not manufactured according to Polaroid’s formulas which remained proprietary, but they do their job. They react to light in a bit different way (exposure has to be “darkened” using the left hand-side knob), and the photographer cannot smudge the still-wet emulsion right after exposure (this quality of the original materials was used for impressionist painting-like special effects). Another difference compared to Polaroid’s material is that an Impossible Project picture has to be placed in a dark place after exposure, eg. in a pocket or box. Also, the original Polaroid picture would develop in a few minutes; Impossible Project material, on the other hand, needs between 10-20 minutes to develop. After using Impossible Project materials for a while I have observed their high sensitivity to temperature. The color temperature on a finished picture corresponds to… air temperature at the time of picture taking. The warmer the surroundings in which the picture developed, the warmer look the colors. Pictures taken on a chilly spring morning have a dominating bluish tint; those taken in warmer temperatures indoors have correspondingly warmer colors. Last but not least, it must be noted taht Impossible Project cartridges are expensive. One color cartridge of 8 sheets costs 20 euro. The best deal is to buy a 5-cartridge set (92 euros as of now) to which they will add a free album.      

 

 

Polaroid SX-70

 

 

 

 

Polaroid SX-70

 

Polaroid SX-70

 

Polaroid SX-70

 

 

A portrait taken with SX-70 on Impossible Project material.

 

 

A portrait taken with SX-70 on Impossible Project material.

 

 

SX-70. Impossible Project.

 

 

SX-70. Impossible Project.

 

 

SX-70. Impossible Project.

 

 

SX-70. Impossible Project material. The artifact on the left is a result of electric discharge, and the one at the top is where light-sensitive emulsion was not spread properly. Taking photos with an old Polaroid can give unpredictable results which makes the excerise even more fun…