Polaroid, Impossible Project, and Fuji Instax film works flawlessly outdoors during the day. With bright sunlight illuminating the world, colors pop, cameras focus quickly, and a fantastic image is born. However, bring that instant camera inside, and often everything just falls apart. Pictures come out blurry, underexposed, or are marred by a hideous flash. How can you get outdoor-quality Polaroid images inside?
It’s important to understand why film likes the great outdoors so much. First, instant film (as well as the vast majority of 35mm and medium format film) is daylight balanced. For those who might be new to this, light actually comes in a variety of colors, with light from the sun appearing bluish in hue, and light coming from incandescent bulbs appearing yellow. Our eyes automatically compensate for this color change, and digital cameras also usually adjust their color balance as well, but film can’t do this. It only finds bluish daylight hues white, so indoor light will often appear orange.
Second, film loves the outdoors because of the sheer amount of light. Polaroid 600 and Spectra/Image have a rating of 600 ASA/ISO, which is fairly sensitive, but SX-70 only has somewhere between 70-100 ASA/ISO sensitivity, which requires a ton of light to shoot a decent photo. Modern digital cameras regularly run somewhere between 800 – 64,000 ISO when attempting to shoot indoors without flash, so these films don’t stand a chance.
So what to do? The first step is selecting the best film possible. I recommend against using SX-70 indoors unless absolutely necessary. Not only do most SX-70 cameras lack a built-in flash (we’ll get into that shortly), but the film is simply not sensitive enough to shoot without the sun. My SX-70 Sonar regularly misfires completely when in ‘dark’ conditions, completely ruining shot after shot. With how expensive instant film is today, this isn’t an easy loss to take. So go with Polaroid 600 or Spectra/Image instead.
Keep in mind, when I’m talking about ‘dark’ conditions indoors, I don’t actually mean dark. You can turn every light on in your house, and it’ll still be relatively dark compared to daylight. Most Polaroid 600 or Spectra cameras have a built-in flash, and for the most part it works pretty well. As long as your subject is close enough to the camera, it’ll definitely throw enough light on it. However, direct flash has a very specific, harsh look, and it might not be the one you want.
If you don’t want to shoot flash indoors, the first step is getting rid of it. While some top notch Spectra System cameras will let you switch it off, most 600 type Polaroid cameras are going to shoot that flash come hell or high water. I usually cut out a little square of paper and tape it over the flash since there’s no switch. Some light gets through, but it’s soft and doesn’t hurt anything. In a pinch, I’ve just covered the flash with my hand, but be warned, it gets a little hot when that thing fires.
If you don’t use flash, you better be packing your own lights. Strobes won’t work since most Polaroid cameras lack a way of interfacing with the lights. (I may be wrong about this, but I certainly haven’t figured out a way to have Polaroid cameras command strobes.) Continuous lighting is the only other option. How to use continuous lighting is an art unto itself, but for our purposes here the main thing to remember is to balance all the lights to daylight to match the film. The flash is daylight balanced so that things look natural indoors, so your lights will need to be too. Some lights (often LED or fluorescents) will be daylight balanced, but the rest will need to be gelled blue.
Personally, when I’m doing a studio shoot with color film, I will use daylight balanced continuous lighting. With 35mm that tends to be plenty, but with Polaroid I try to use the flash whenever possible to augment the light in the room. Strangely enough, the exposure sensors on Polaroid cameras tend to overexpose indoors, resulting in blurry or blown out pictures, so I always recommend setting exposure compensation about a stop down.
I Hope this helps with a rather tricky point of using film that I’ve run into over the years. Generally, the best thing to do is utilize the sun whenever possible. Shooting during the outdoors or in a room full of window light will almost always result in the best results. However, if you’re restricted to night hours, have a specific look you want to capture, or live somewhere like Chicago where it’s way too cold to shoot outside for half the year, you’ll have to figure out through trial and error what works best for you.
Good luck and happy shooting!