Updated October 2017 – There’s been some big changes in the Polaroid since last year! I’ve completely rewritten and updated this article now that the Impossible Project has become Polaroid Originals. Read on below!
Looking to get a used Polaroid camera and don’t know where to start? Want to know what the best vintage Polaroid camera is out there for your instant photography project? Never fear! I’ve drawn up this guide to help you in your quest to find the perfect Polaroid camera for you (or whoever you’re buying it for) and clarify exactly what you’re looking for.
First, Some Background Information…
First, if you’re unfamiliar with the state of vintage Polaroid cameras these days, here’s a quick rundown. In 2008 Polaroid discontinued producing new instant film and the cameras that used them. Millions of Polaroid cameras started collecting dust in attics all across the country. Unhappy with this sad state of affairs, a group calling themselves the Impossible Project purchased an old Polaroid factory and began development on new films that could be used in the older cameras. In 2017, the Impossible Project rebranded itself with the blessing of Polaroid as ‘Polaroid Originals.’ The Polaroid Originals film is a bit different from original Polaroid of yore, but it’s still fantastic. With all the new films (and cameras!) being released, it’s never been a better time to hop into the world of instant film!
However, with instant film heating up again, Polaroid cameras that were once considered worthless are an increasingly hot commodity. So it’s good to know what you’re looking for before you spend your cash on a used or refurbished camera.
It’s worth noting that Fujifilm makes their own line of Fuji Instax instant film cameras, and you’ve probably seen them out there if you’re interested in instant photography. Fuji’s cameras use a different kind of film than Polaroid. While I love Polaroid cameras and Polaroid Originals film for artistic purposes, Fuji Instax’s cheap and plentiful film is often a perfect fit for events like parties and weddings. If you’re interested in checking them out, I have a guide for those cameras as well.
The Three Main Classes of Polaroid Cameras
The primary three types of Polaroid cameras floating out in the wild are SX-70, 600, and 1200/Image/Spectra.
Both SX-70 and 600 are pretty similar, but SX-70 cameras tend to be older and use a lower ISO film, while 600 cameras are newer and are more sensitive to light. In my experience, 600 type cameras are much more dependable since they’ve had less time to age and get damaged, and benefit from newer technologies. Both SX-70 and 600 use a traditional square image and are the easiest to find.
Polaroid also made a line of cameras directed at professional industries. It’s been called Image, Spectra, and type 1200, but it’s all the same thing. The film in image cameras is slightly wider and has the same sensitivity as 600. These cameras are a bit harder to find, but have extra controls and are better for serious photographers.
When in doubt, cheap box-type Polaroid 600 cameras are usually the way to go for most people. SX-70 cameras tend to be far more finicky and difficult to use, and don’t react well to anything but bright sunlight. Spectra/Image cameras are wonderful and my personal favorites, but they don’t have the ‘traditional’ size Polaroid frame that most people love.
While there are older Polaroid cameras that use peel apart-film and even large format Polaroid backs floating around out there, we’re going to keep this simple and focus on SX-70, 600 and Image/Spectra cameras.
What to Look for When Buying a Used Camera
Buying Polaroid cameras can be tricky, because it’s often difficult for the seller to be able to tell if the camera works or not. Polaroid cameras themselves do not have batteries; the film cartridge itself powers the whole unit. So without a relatively expensive pack of film, it’s impossible to tell if the camera works or not. Often a seller will think a perfectly good camera doesn’t work because an expired film cartridge doesn’t have a charge anymore.
I bring an empty cartridge with a good battery to test cameras if I’m buying from somebody in person, but on the internet you’re just going to have to trust your instincts. I’ve had fairly good luck on eBay, but you never know for sure until you get it in your hands. Generally, you’re going to have a lot more luck with newer cameras than older ones. Once you get your camera, it’s a good idea to test it out using this guide.
Where to Buy Cameras
eBay is one of the easiest place to find used Polaroid cameras. Since you can buy them directly from other people, you can often find deals on eBay you won’t be able to find elsewhere. Even better than eBay, but requiring a bit more legwork, are flea markets, used stores, and basements.
If you don’t want to mess with the trials and tribulations of seeking out your own used camera and have money to spare, Polaroid Originals sells refurbished vintage Polaroid cameras that are guaranteed to work. You will pay a very high premium, but it can be worth it to know what you’re getting is going to actually spit out a picture. These cameras are sold through Polaroid Originals’ own site, as well as through Amazon and B&H.
Polaroid Originals is also selling their own modern Polaroid camera called the OneStep 2. It has the similar retro styling as old-school Polaroid, but is brand spankin’ new. The OneStep 2 is a fixed-focus camera, so from what I can tell it’ll be the rough equivalent to the Polaroid OneStep Closeup I recommend below, just a bit cuter. I’ll have a full review of it soon!
Specific Camera Recommendations
Now that I got you all confused, here are a few simple recommendations organized by price point and the type of photographer its intended for. Honestly, almost any Polaroid camera will do the job just fine, but I thought I’d give a few specific suggestions to help get you started.
Clicking on any of the eBay, Amazon, or B&H links below will take you directly to a search for that specific kind of camera. It costs you nothing and helps me keep this site online, so please use them!
If you have a camera in hand and you’re wondering what to do next, never fear, I have a new guide for those who are just starting from the beginning in the world of instant film!
Affordable Camera for the Camera Collector – Polaroid OneStep Classic Land Camera
If you have somebody who just wants something cool for their vintage collection, you can’t beat the iconic rainbow striped SX-70 Polaroid OneStep. They’re not the most robust camera in the world, but they’re plentiful and instantly recognizable. They’re also a lot of fun… if they work. You might run into a dud or two, but the low price tends to make up for that. Also, the controls are ultra simple, so even a non-photographer will be able to use the camera with ease. Just make sure they shoot outside. My full review. Find the Polaroid OneStep on eBay.
Luxury Option for the Camera Collector – SX-70 Land Camera (Silver Version)
The silver SX-70 Land Camera is quite possibly one of the most beautiful cameras ever made. The SLR series was Edwin Land’s signature design, and made no compromises. If somebody wants an amazing camera to put on the shelf and admire, this is the one. Cheaper than the 680 I recommend for serious professionals, this camera is pure eye candy. As a camera, it can be slightly temperamental and prone to break, but responds well to some TLC. Since it’s an SLR, this camera makes it easy to frame your shot and ensure your focus. Quite simply, it’s a blast to use. The picture above is the sonar variant and I reviewed a plastic version, but the metal non-autofocus models are the true beauties. My full review of a similar model. Find the Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera on eBay. Find a refurbished original SX-70 at B&H.
Cheapest Option for the Photographer – Polaroid OneStep Close-Up 600
The Polaroid OneStep Closeup is a workhorse of a camera that just keeps going. It’s also quite cheap and readily available on both used sites and refurbished. Despite its fixed focus and slightly bulky size, I use this camera constantly just because I know I can always rely on it. This camera also works great with Polaroid Originals films and makes a great addition to a serious photographer’s collection. While I’m singling out the OneStep Closeup, there are tons of other similar variants of this kind of fixed-focus 600 type camera that are often referred to as ‘box cameras’ due to their shape and plastic-y design. These cameras are all pretty much equally good as the OneStep Closeup. My full review. Find the Polaroid OneStep Closeup Camera on eBay. Find refurbished at B&H. Find used on Amazon.
Midrange Option for Both Amateur and Pro Photographers – Polaroid Impulse AF
The Polaroid Impulse AF isn’t the prettiest girl on the block, but it gets the job done and done well. Despite the cheap body, the camera is sturdy and features a fantastic sonar autofocus system that ensures your images are always in focus. Because it’s not fixed-focus like the CloseUp, images are slightly sharper. The best part of the Impulse AF is that it has one of the brightest viewfinders of any 600 type camera. The Impulse AF is a great camera to start out on (it was my first camera) and grows with the photographer if they decide to get serious about instant film photography. My full review. Find the Polaroid Impulse AF on eBay.
Midrange Option for the Pro Photographer – Polaroid Spectra System (1200 Type)
The Polaroid Spectra System is a fantastic camera that has some of the best controls and features you’ll find on an instant camera. It features a readout in the viewfinder that tells you exactly the focus distance as well as the ability to turn flash on and off. In addition it features a rugged, compact design that folds closed to protect the lens. Best of all? This camera is fairly affordable because it falls outside of the mainstream 600 and SX-70 type cameras. For all serious projects, this is the camera I reach for. My full review. Find the Polaroid Spectra System Camera on eBay.
Luxury Option for the Selfie Photographer
Shopping for a selfie fanatic? Before they became Polaroid Originals, the Impossible Project debuted their first instant film camera, and it uses the same film as Polaroid 600 cameras. The camera is chock full of wild new features that Edwin Land could’ve only dreamed of. It was also very expensive when it first came out, but B&H now sells it at a significant discount. The Impossible Project I-1 is the perfect instant film selfie camera. You can connect the camera to your phone to use as a remote shutter, and the camera focuses much closer than the average Polaroid. With older Polaroid cameras, you’re going to need a buddy, but the I-1 allows one to take amazing selfies with minimum fuss. Did I mention the ring flash that makes for flattering portraits? When it comes to self portraits, none of the other cameras on this list come even close to the I-1. Get one while you still can! My full review. Find the I-1 on Amazon. Find the I-1 at B&H.
Luxury Option for the Serious Photographer – Polaroid SLR 680/690
The Polaroid SLR 680 or 690 is the big daddy of Polaroid cameras and the tool of choice for many of the biggest professional analog photographers working today. A robust design perfected from Edwin Land’s original folding camera, it features a fantastic sonar autofocus system. Best of all, since it’s an SLR you can accurately compose your image and even manually focus. You just get can’t better than this in the instant film world. My full review of the Polaroid 680. Find the Polaroid SLR 680 Camera on eBay.
If you’re interested in working with SX-70 film instead of 600, the Polaroid SX-70 OneStep Sonar Land Camera is the precursor to the 680 and is also an excellent SLR camera with autofocus capabilities. I recommend going with the 680/690 if money is no object simply because 600 film works far, far works in most lighting conditions. It’s wise to invest in a flashbar with any SX-70 camera. My full review of the SX-70 OneStep Sonar Land Camera. Find the Polaroid OneStep Sonar Camera on eBay.
Find the SX-70 Sonar refurbished at B&H.
Purchasing Film for Used Polaroid Cameras
You can buy all the used Polaroid cameras in the world, but without film they’re nothing more than pretty paperweights. These days genuine Polaroid film is all but nonexistent, and even if you can find it, it costs a fortune and has a high rate of failure. That’s where Polaroid Originals comes in to save the day.
Polaroid Originals makes color and monochrome films for each of the three most popular types of Polaroid cameras out there. As long as you know what kind of camera you have, you’ll be able to find some film for it. Don’t know what kind of film you need? I have a whole article to help you figure that out. I recommend getting a pack of the newest generation color film to test out a new camera, as expired Polaroid and older Polaroid Originals (or Impossible Project) film can often spaz out and fail.
Good luck and happy shooting!
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