The absolute best place to find Polaroid cameras like the Sun 600 for cheap (besides your parents’ attic) is through eBay. Please use the following link when purchasing, it helps me keep writing and costs you nothing. Thanks!
Ever since I started using Polaroid cameras for my photography work, I’ve pined for the classic Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera. I would argue it’s the best looking, best designed Polaroid camera out there, especially if you find a full metal version. The way it folds up into almost nothing never ceases to amaze me. And the best part? This baby is a SLR. What you see in the viewfinder is what you get, no impossible framing from some peep hole on the other side of the camera.
So after lusting over it and letting my honeymoon phase pass, how does it stack up as a realistic tool for today’s Polaroid artist?
Well… there are some big pros, but there are some pretty big cons as well. This is not the easiest Polaroid camera to use and it can be quite expensive if you purchase it from somebody who actually knows its value. At the same time, it gives you an incredible level of control when it comes to framing and focus. You can actually see what you’re focusing on through your viewfinder!
Since it is a SX-70 model camera, it works the Impossible Project’s PX 70 Color Shade and PX 100 Silver Shade lines of film. Don’t try to use any 600 film without a ND filter unless you like photos of solid white.
You want full control of focus and framing? Then this is your camera! A little wheel in the front acts as your focus control and the viewfinder has a split circle to aid you. If you’re not familiar with the split circle from 35mm film SLRs like the Nikon F3, the split circle is made of up of two half circles in the middle of the frame. When the lines inside of them line up, that part of the image will be in focus.
I’m a big fan of this method, and as long as you can find a straight line focus is fairly easy. Unfortunately, the viewfinder can be hard to see through and is usually fairly dark. I think this is a result of how dirty my particular camera is, but I don’t know for sure.
Exposure compensation is the same as every other Polaroid camera on the planet. Just knock the lighten/darken wheel to change exposure. Be careful, mine reset a few times, so keep your eye on it.
Finally, the shutter is the big red button right on the front of the camera. I actually had a difficult time pressing it since you don’t hold this camera the same way as other Polaroids. The lens is angled down, so you don’t hold the camera flat, but at an angle. Also, since the camera collapses, there aren’t a whole lot of sturdy places to grip.
Frustratingly, because of the weird angle that the camera has to be held, there’s no tripod screw mount. Since SX-70 has a low ISO, a tripod is needed indoors. I ended up making a weird contraption from books lying around to give the camera enough stability to make a sharp image.
Lens and Metering
I actually have the instruction manual that came with this camera, so I can report with certainty that this camera has a 116mm lens and an f/8 aperture. Remember that Polaroid is actually a medium/large format film, so 116mm makes for a fairly wide photo. It’s less wide than later Polaroid cameras, but in practice it’s about the same. It’s sharp and will serve you just fine.
Metering happens through the ‘electronic eye’ (manual’s words, not mine) off to the side of the lens. It works surprisingly well; I shot with a giant white screen behind my model with no problems.
Want to use flash? Well, just like the Polaroid OneStep Land Camera, it uses a disposable flash bar. You get ten flashes per bar as each little bulb explodes one by one. It’s incredibly bright and very effective, but good luck finding bulbs. When I visited the Impossible Project space in NYC they had a little bowl of flash bars, so you might be able to pick up some from them. Recently Impossible has released a resuable flash bar, and I’ve seen plenty of others for sale online.
Did I mention that this camera folds up? Because it does, and it’s awesome. My model has a plastic exterior with some sort of weird leather stuff on top of it with metal guts. It feels tough, but the leather is a lost cause. It looks like somebody tried to clean it with soap and ended up ruining it. Red specks come off on my hands whenever I carry it around and shoot pictures.
Maybe I’m still over gentle with it, but I treat it far more delicately than my other Polaroid cameras. I’m always afraid I’m going to break it when I fold and unfold it, but I think I’m just paranoid. The instructions warn you not to press in on the bellows, so like I mentioned above, holding this thing can be a bit more awkward than expected. I imagine with experience it’ll become second nature.
UPDATE: Something went terribly wrong inside of my camera and it’s effectively dead. I took a photo, which subsequently got jammed, and then in turned ruined the camera’s ability to fold closed. These folding cameras are fragile (especially the older SX-70 generation ones) and are relatively expensive to replace. If cost is a concern, stick with the dime-a-dozen used Polaroid cameras!
The Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera is a classic. There’s a reason why the Impossible Project uses it in the majority of their product shots and demonstrations. I honestly don’t know what is different about my ‘model two’, but I suspect that the plastic exterior was the change. If you find one of these at a garage sale or eBay for cheap, snatch it up. Even if you don’t want to use it, sell it to somebody who does.
If you’re getting it for the benefits of an SLR and its portability, go for it. On eBay you’ll pay somewhere between $50-200 for a working model. Buying online can be a risk, as most people don’t know how or simply can’t test their cameras before selling them to you. I paid $80 for mine and got a few extras with it: flashbars, instruction manuals, and a nice little man-purse for storage. (It’s just a smidgen too big to get by as a satchel, I actually had a model ask me where I got ‘the cute purse.’ Sigh.)
Also, if you’re going to use Impossible Project film, be sure to tape a dark slide just above where the photos are ejected to protect them from light for the first few seconds of development. Otherwise, all your photos will simply be blown out by the sun. The first five seconds of development are the most crucial. For improving contrast, I’ve actually had a lot of luck with keeping my film in the fridge until just before shooting.
Good luck and happy shooting.