Update April 2020: To keep everybody confused, Polaroid Originals has rebranded to ‘Polaroid.
Update September 2017: The Impossible Project has renamed itself ‘Polaroid Originals’ as part of a major rebranding effort. The film itself is still the same, so for our purposes in this article the Impossible Project and Polaroid Originals are the same. To clarify, ‘Polaroid Originals’ are the films and cameras developed by the Impossible Project, while just ‘Polaroid’ refers to the original instant film line that was discontinued in 2008.
The absolute best place to find Polaroid cameras like the SX-70 Sonar for relatively 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! Find the Polaroid OneStep Sonar Camera on eBay. You can also purchase a refurbished version of this camera directly from Polaroid.
The original SX-70 OneStep Land Camera is the ultimate Polaroid camera. Edwin Land’s baby, it was a luxury camera that remains a marvel to this day with its clear images, beautiful design, and ability to collapse down into a flat rectangle. First debuting in 1970, some version of the legendary SX-70 remained in Polaroid’s camera lineup even as the market was flooded with cheap plastic boxes. The SX-70 Sonar OneStep Land Camera is just a variant of the original Land Camera with an autofocus mechanism grafted on.
In case you’ve never used one, the SX-70 OneStep Land Camera folding SLR line is a revelation compared to the cheap box rangefinders that Polaroid pumped out for decades. The camera is a real SLR, meaning you can view your shot directly through the lens. You can actually see your framing and focus before shooting! The Land Camera SLRs also featured the best lenses Polaroid had to offer, and don’t rely on sloppy fixed focus lenses.
That bring us to the SX-70 Land Camera Sonar OneStep. How does it stack up with the rest, and how does it compare to other Polaroid SLRs? Right up front, I have to say it’s easily the best SX-70 camera I’ve ever used. If you’re shooting primarily Time Zero (where did you find it? Can I have some?) or Impossible Project PX 70/100 films this is the camera to get. You can even use PX 680 and Polaroid 600 with an Impossible Project ND filter, making the camera quite versatile. It’s not quite as pretty as a pristine original SX-70 Land Camera OneStep, but it works much better in actual use.
The lenses on the SX-70 Land Camera OneSteps are always awesome, and the Sonar is no exception. If you’re used to a fixed focus camera like the Polaroid Land Camera or the Polaroid OneStep Closeup you will see a noticeable increase in sharpness with the SX-70 Sonar.
Those used to 35mm or digital SLRs might be surprised by the level of distortion in the viewfinder. Because of the mirrors, lenses, and other gadgetry that lets the camera fold up, the image you see in the viewfinder is super distorted. I shot a photo with several straight lines and was horrified by the crazy bulging distortion. However, the photo showed none of it, so it’s nothing to worry about. It does, however, make framing a hair more difficult than SLRs of other formats.
Compared to the manual focus SX-70 OneStep Land Camera, the viewfinder is brighter and ever so slightly easier to see through. Mostly this is because the manual focus prism thingy (I’m sure that’s the technical term) is removed in favor of a clear viewfinder. Even without it, I found manually focusing on the Sonar model to be fairly easy and intuitive.
The big feature of the SX-70 is the autofocus module, which is awkwardly grafted onto the head of the camera. It’s obvious that the camera wasn’t originally designed with the sonar bar in mind, but it’s not too intrusive. I’m always worried that it’ll snap off, but it’s been pretty sturdy so far. A socket for flash bars sits on top, and I highly recommend making use of it if you’re planning on doing any indoor shooting. The Impossible Project sells some flashbars that are reusable (the original flash bars held ten single use bulbs.)
By default the camera is set to autofocus mode. Press down halfway on the shutter and the camera will kick up a racket attempting to find focus. It’s fast, but it usually has to search a bit to find its mark. Overall, I was impressed by its accuracy. However, with sonar type autofocus systems, the camera will always focus on the object closest to the camera. If you plan on shooting through a window you better switch over to manual focus.
Switching to manual focus is easy. Simply hit the button on the left of the sonar bar so that it reveals a red warning mark. The wheel above the shutter now allows you to control focus. Personally, I found myself using manual focus quite often simply because it was so enjoyable to do so through the big, bright viewfinder.
Without any Time Zero film, I can’t accurately state how good the exposure is on the SX-70 Sonar actually is. However, I can say with certainty that if you are planning on using Impossible Project PX 70 or 100 film you better throw the exposure compensation all the way over to dark or your images are going to be blown out. It took me nearly a whole roll of film to figure this out, but pretty much without fail my model overexposed. I haven’t used the camera with a flashbar yet, but I would assume it’ll tend to overexpose then as well. Remember, Impossible Project films tend to have a slightly higher ISO than original Polaroid films.
It’s not a big deal to adjust the exposure compensation wheel, but every time the camera is unfolded it resets back to the default position. What was once a great example of attention to detail actually works against you now, as you’ll have to reset the exposure compensation wheel every time the camera is unfolded.
I’ve heard of people cutting out small pieces of ND to cover the little exposure window below the exposure wheel, which could be an effective solution if you have trouble remembering to adjust the wheel.
There’s no denying it, the plastic sonar module is grafted onto an otherwise stunning metal camera. It makes the camera weirdly long when folded up, but it’s not too intrusive when the camera is in shooting mode. The sonar module also makes the camera a bit too long to travel well when folded and it seems like it would be in danger of getting snapped up.
The metal and leather exterior feels tough, but there’s something about the folding/unfolding process on these cameras that always makes me worry I’m going to break it. These cameras are expensive, so unlike the cheap plastic box models, it’s a big deal when one dies. My SX-70 OneStep Land Camera Model 2 recently died on me when a plastic roller mechanism in the back of the camera snapped and I can’t even fold it up now to store.
SX-70 cameras have been around for decades, so you’re looking at a much higher failure rate than with 600 cameras like the SLR 680 or 690. Know the risk before going in, and if you’re on a job be sure to bring more than a single camera with you.
In other build quality notes, there is a ribbon cable on the side of the lens module that also makes me worry a bit. It’s completely exposed, so be careful if you’re in a damp or wet environment.
The Polaroid SX-70 Sonar Land camera (I still don’t know the exact order this jumble of words is supposed to go in) is an excellent camera, and the best for serious shooters of SX-70 type film. These days there isn’t much reason to go for the lower sensitivity line of film (Time Zero used to be awesome), but if you do, this is the camera to get. The only way it gets better than this is with the Polaroid 680 or 690, the best SLRs that Polaroid ever made.
If you just want a thing of beauty or Edwin Land’s pure original vision, go for the original SX-70, but for practical use the Sonar variant is far superior. The clear finder makes it much more fun to shoot and autofocus is never a bad thing to have, even if you don’t plan on using it much. Just be careful with it and make sure you keep a backup SX-70 type camera on you while you’re out shooting.