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Updated April 2020
Growing up, I spent quite a bit of time looking over my parents’ shoulder as they used our family Impulse AF camera, longing for the day when I could get a Polaroid camera of my own. However, it wasn’t until I was in college that I actually started using instant film as a photographic tool.
With the rise of digital, many people who are interested in in trying out instant film might find that they don’t know where to even start with analog. When I dug up that old Impulse AF and decided to try Polaroid for myself, I had no idea what I was doing. There wasn’t much on the internet that was useful, so I put together this guide to help those whose are taking their first baby steps into the fun and unpredictable world of using vintage Polaroid cameras.
A Brief Overview
I’m going to start at the very beginning here to make sure you 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 while it ejects, it sends the image through rollers that trigger development. The gray or blue haze that covers the image immediately when the photo pops out is called the opacifier, and it protects the image as the chemicals finish developing. It fades away on its own (don’t shake it despite what OutKast might tell you), and after a short wait 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 one that uses 600 type Polaroid film. 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. Polaroid is back in action these days, and you can purchase new film directly from their site.
Some people are 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 new Polaroid film for 600 cameras. Monochrome 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 user friendly to this day. That said, even I wasn’t sure what every knob did at first.
Opening 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 tape over your flash if you don’t want to fire.
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! If for some reason your camera is giving your trouble, you can check out my troubleshooting guide for Polaroid cameras to make sure you don’t have a dud.
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. Interiors can be tricky, but if you have to shoot inside or at night, read this first. 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.
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. I have a whole guide that’s all about scanning instant film.
As you get a feel for instant photography you can also start exploring the Spectra format, see what Fuji has to offer in the same space, and try out other kinds of Polaroid Originals film. Instant film is unpredictable, so let yourself have fun and go crazy!
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