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Polaroid / Instant Photography: A Brief Overview

Introduction

It may be commonplace to refer to all instant photos and cameras as “Polaroids” these days, but how did we get here? How did Polaroid become one of those brands, like Xerox, Band-aid, and many others, that represent their industry well enough to become the namesake of it?

And why instant photography? What about this style of photography seems to pull people in so easily? Despite being generations apart, people who grew up shooting Polaroid and people who grew up shooting Fuji Instax are pulled there by the same feelings.

In the video below, Nico and Nuno give you a brief overview of instant photography. After that, we’ll delve into the history, formats, and cameras commonly used for instant gratification.

History

1948: Early Years

The Polaroid company was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA by Edwin Land. Land dropped out of Harvard University to invent things in his garage, which led to the Polaroid Land Camera Model 95 being produced in 1948.

The original camera is said to have been inspired by Land’s three year old daughter being confused why she couldn’t immediately see a photo she had taken.

Before Polaroid got into cameras, they did what their name implies; put polarizing filters on things. These anti-glare filters fit nicely onto goggles, rangefinders, and other tools that proved very useful to the United States during World War II.

Land actually invented the polarizing filter by sneaking into a Columbia University lab. The comparisons between Edwin Land and more recent eccentric inventors, like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, are common.

Also common is Land’s name in the list of US patents. His 533 patents are second only to Thomas Edison.

Following his daughter’s confusion over not being able to see a photo, Land set to work developing the first Polaroid camera. The model 95a Land Camera was released in 1948 to.. Instant, ha.. Success. In 1954, the camera cost the equivalent of 745 Euro and used Polaroid’s proprietary Type 40 roll film.

These cameras work by taking a photo on a negative, then spreading chemicals onto a positive using the camera’s rollers. It’s a bit of a sandwich, with a negative and a positive holding developing chemicals between them. After about a minute, the film could be removed and the negative peeled away from the positive.

From this point, Polaroid made incredible profits not just on the sale of cameras, but film as well. As much as Kodak dominated the 35mm film industry, especially in the US, Polaroid had an even stronger grip on the instant photography market.

The company is famous for taking legal action against competitors, or anyone who hoped to enter the instant market. Kodak’s line of instant cameras was the topic of a lawsuit within six days of its announcement. Court documents proved that Kodak had been developing instant film of their own, but chose to copy the SX-70 instead when it became clear how far ahead Polaroid was.

1972: The SX-70

The big thing that inspired Kodak’s copying was the then-new Polaroid SX-70. This folding, premium instant camera was the first to use Polaroid pack film, which completely changed the instant film world.

No longer was the photographer required to pull the film out of the camera, wait awhile, and then peel two halves apart. The SX-70 ejected the film and the photographic process was held within a plastic case, which made developing even easier.

The Kodak lawsuit took ten years to be settled, but the courts eventually ruled in Polaroid’s favor, effectively taking out their biggest competition in their home US market. Kodak’s advertising budget during that time ended up helping Polaroid sell thousands of SX-70 cameras.

Edwin Land eventually retired after an instant video cassette format failed to take off. It was Polaroid’s first big failure during his tenure, and in 1981 he resigned as chairman.

Polaroid failed to innovate at the rapid pace of the past during the 1980s and onward. Their new lines of film, such as 600 and Spectra, offered variations on the SX-70 idea but not outright innovation. 

As disposable cameras and rapid-development, one-hour photo kiosks sprouted up around the world, the need for instant photography diminished. The other options were considerably cheaper, and many offered higher quality as well. Polaroid declared bankruptcy in 2001 after decades of losses.

1998: Fujifilm Instax

Three years earlier, though, in 1998, Fujifilm made the shocking announcement that they would be creating their own instant photography line. The Instax line would borrow many improvements from Kodak’s own attempt in the 1970s in an attempt to lower per-shot costs.

Fujifilm Instax Mini did not become a hit overnight, partly due to agreements with Polaroid to not sell the cameras under the Fujifilm name in the US and other patent issues. Once Polaroid completely stopped the sale of instant film in 2008, though, Fujifilm became the only major player in the instant space.

Fujifilm was able to make film and cameras on such a scale that their per-shot cost was much lower than Polaroid’s, even during Polaroid’s prime. This appealed to a new generation of consumers who had access to digital cameras and wanted instant photography for tangible memories.

Despite things like the Impossible Project (now Polaroid Originals) becoming a significant player in the instant space, Fujifilm is the dominant market force. Their Instax cameras are, by their own admission, more successful than their X-series mirrorless cameras. Fuji’s numbers indicate that they sold around five million cameras in 2016, up from only 100,000 cameras in 2004.

Formats

As you can see, through the years there have been many different types of instant film. These films and their cameras have different sizes, color formulas, and other innovations that are worth exploring.

Polaroid Type 40 (Roll Film)

  • The original Polaroid instant film. Introduced alongside the Type 95, which was the first Polaroid-produced camera.
  • Introduced in 1948.
  • Black and white only.
  • 8 images per roll.
  • Image size: 8.3×10.8cm
  • ISO: Various

Polaroid Type 100 (Pack Film)

  • Peel-apart film with a wide variety of uses. Commonly used in medium and large format cameras with compatible film backs for measuring light conditions.
  • Introduced in 1963.
  • Color and black and white options (Includes Fujifilm FP-100C)
  • 8 or 10 images per pack.
  • Image size: 8.3×10.8cm
  • ISO: Various

Polaroid SX-70

  • The first self-contained, self-developing instant film cartridge. Originally introduced with the revolutionary folding SLR camera of the same name.
  • Introduced in 1972.
  • Contained a battery that powered the camera.
  • Color and black and white options.
  • 10 images per pack.
  • Image size: 7.9×7.9cm
  • ISO: 150

Polaroid 600

  • A more consumer-oriented film cartridge. Cameras were more cheaply made, and often came with built-in flashes.
  • Main difference in the film is the ISO, otherwise identical to SX-70. Packs can be modified to fit in either camera, although exposure will be incorrect because the cameras were only designed to use films with correct ISO.
  • Introduced in 1981.
  • Contained a battery that powered the camera.
  • Color and black and white options.
  • 10 images per pack.
  • Image size: 7.9×7.9cm
  • ISO: 600

Polaroid Spectra

  • Slightly larger film introduced alongside the technologically-advanced Spectra cameras. These cameras offered electronic autofocus, programmed auto-exposure, and more creative controls than past models.
  • Polaroid Originals remake of Spectra film has been discontinued.
  • Introduced in 1986.
  • Contained a battery that powered the camera.
  • Color and black and white options.
  • 10 images per pack.
  • Image size: 9.2×7.3cm
  • ISO: 600

Polaroid i-Type

  • Format originally introduced by the Impossible Project for their successful i-1 camera. 
  • Essentially 600 film without an internal battery pack. Cameras that use i-Type film have battery packs of their own, to lower per-shot cost.
  • Introduced in 2013.
  • No internal battery.
  • Color and black and white options.
  • 10 images per pack.
  • Image size: 7.9×7.9cm
  • ISO: 600

Fujifilm Instax Mini

  • Comparatively tiny frame, different chemical foundation and camera design to make improvements to the original SX-70 formula. 
  • No mirror needed to reverse the image, and some processes were moved from the film pack to the camera to lower per-shot cost.
  • Introduced in 1998.
  • No internal battery.
  • Color and black and white options.
  • 10 images per pack.
  • Image size: 4.6×6.2cm
  • ISO: 800

Fujifilm Instax Wide

  • Larger Instax film, designed around the “golden ratio” 1.618:1
  • Essentially the size of two Instax Mini frames put together.
  • Introduced in 1999.
  • No internal battery.
  • Color and black and white options.
  • 10 images per pack.
  • Image size: 9.2×6.2cm
  • ISO: 800

Fujifilm Instax Square

  • Square format Instax film, designed to emulate the older Polaroid films that Instax is now synonymous with.
  • Instax Square cameras are generally higher end, with digital screens and more creative controls, especially compared to Mini cameras.
  • Some Instax Square cameras are digital/analog hybrids, more like cameras with built-in printers than just cameras.
  • Introduced in 2017.
  • No internal battery.
  • Color and black and white options.
  • 10 images per pack.
  • Image size: 6.2×6.2cm
  • ISO: 800

Fujifilm FP-100c

  • Fujifilm’s version of Polaroid 100 pack film. It remained in production for decades due to its use by professionals in instant film backs for 4×5 and 120 film cameras.
  • Daylight balanced for 100 ISO, allowing for easy compensation and exposure calculation for studio use, landscapes, and complicated light.
  • Introduced in the 1980s, discontinued in 2016.
  • No internal battery, is peel-apart film that produces a negative and positive.
  • FP-100c is color only, although there were black and white FP films.
  • 10 images per pack.
  • Image size: 8.3×10.8cm
  • ISO: 100

Why Shoot Instant? Conclusions

Instant photography has never been cheap. In fact, it’s far cheaper now than it ever was, even in its prime. With cameras hovering around the 100 Euro price point and Instax film being around 1 Euro per shot, the instant market has never been more economical.

That being said, the instant market was never about the film economy. While type 100 pack film may have saved photographers some money on 120 film, instant photography was always about saving an instant and not having to wait to see it. 

There have always been sacrifices in quality and price for the sake of convenience, and in today’s digital world the power of Instax shows us that people still yearn for tangible results. More than the nostalgia of a film negative, almost all people get excited looking at an instant photo.

The allure of the immediate result is what made digital overtake film in the first place, but that left behind the tangible result of the print and negative. Only instant photography combines immediacy with a tangible result, and that is why it has survived and thrived in an increasingly digital world.

Whether you’re a diehard user of the original SX-70 or someone who brings an Instax Mini to parties, you’re partaking in the same analog ritual originally created by Edwin Land in the 1940s. You’re responding to the same urge that his daughter had to see and hold the photos she took instantly.

So who is it for? Well, instant photography is for everyone who loves tangible, permanent results. If you’re reading our blog, you probably like analog things. Try a Polaroid, or even an Instax if you haven’t. Having those memories develop in your pocket is an entirely different experience.

Filmi, Technical/Educational