Land Camera

Design Friday. The Polaroid SX 70.

When I was younger I wanted a Polaroid SX 70. I thought these were the coolest cameras around, and even after I bought my first SLR I still wanted one. There was something about the look of the camera, the quality of the prints, and the fact you could manipulate the image during the development process by pressing and scratching the surface.

As it turned out, I never got one. By the time I actually got around to getting an SX 70 Polaroid had stopped making them, and I didn’t like the model they replaced the SX 70 with. Then the film became harder to get, and I simply moved on. And recently, as you might know Polaroid has gone under, instant film stopped being made, and all things Polaroid seemed to be over.

The good news is, the Impossible project started making Polaroid film, and Mint is now selling completely rebuilt SX 70’s which are available at Photojojo. Both of these things are good news to my ears, because now I can get one of the cameras, and there is film available for it if I do.

The Polaroid SX-70 had many sophisticated design elements for the time. It was a collapsible SLR that had a very complex light path for the view finder. The system required 3 mirrors, one with a Fresnel lens reflector. Each mirror featured unique aspheric shapes which were set at odd angles to needed create an image on both the film and in the viewfinder. The body featured precision parts and a body that was manufactured from glass-filled polysulfone, a rigid plastic which was plated with copper-nickel-chromium. This gave the SX 70 the look and feel of solid metal, but at a lower cost to manufacture. Later, models 2 and 3 switched to ABS plastic which was easier to crack and break. The film featured a flat, 6-volt “PolaPulse” battery to power the camera electronics, drive motor and flash.

The folding body had a ground breaking style that was unlike any other camera on the market at the time. Brushed chrome and genuine leather panels helped to elevate the finish of the camera and market it to high-end consumer market and photography enthusiasts. The camera came with an entire line of accessories including a macro lens with 1:1 resolution and a focus distance of as close as 5 inches, Tripod mount, electronic shutter release, the folded body became its own carrying case, later versions were available with a sonar based autofocus system. The SX 70 simply looked at felt upscale, not like a point and shoot instant camera.

There were a variety of SX 70 models starting with the original in 1972. All SX 70’s shared the same basic collapsible design and aesthetics. The first SX 70 model had a plain focusing screen. This was because Dr. Land wanted photographers to think they were looking at the subject rather than through a view finder, improving the shooting experience. When many users complained that focusing was difficult, especially in dim light, Polaroid introduced a split-image rangefinder prism. This feature became standard on all later manual focus models.The later SLR 680/690 models updated the basic design of the Sonar Onestep to more modern standards by incorporating support for newer 600 cartridges instead of SX-70 cartridges, and a built-in flash instead of the disposable Flashbar.

The original SX 70 film was introduced in 1972, and was a success despite problems Polaroid had early on with the integrated battery packs. Over the course of the next few years Polaroid continued to improve film quality, development speeds, and color quality. By 1980, Polaroid introduced Time-Zero Supercolor in which the layers in the film pack were altered to allow a much faster development time, richer, brighter colors than the original 1972 product. Along with the consumer grade film, Polaroid introduced professional quality film geared directly to the pro market as the SX 70 began to be used to proof studio shots.

The battery that was used in the consumer film was designed with a specific purpose. As long as film was in the camera, the battery would never be exhausted. This insured that the camera motors and exposure control, and other electronics would always work when you were shooting. The “Polapulse” battery was configured as a 6 volt thin flat battery, and used zinc-chloride chemistry to provide for the high pulse demand of the camera motors, and was years ahead of its time.

When you look at the SX 70 today, the design styling still seems fresh. Especially when you compare it to all of the retro-styled digital cameras that are released today. While the build quality might appear cheap in photos, the reality is that the original SX 70 was a solid, well-built camera that used high quality materials, design and manufacturing processes.

With so many iPhone and Android photo applications trying to emulate the look of vintage Polaroid photography, it’s tempting to get the original. This post is for my friend, and photographer David Biegelsen, a guy that appreciates what a good film camera can do.

All photos courtesy of Photojojo