Picking the Best Polaroid Camera – My Thoughts!

Buyers Guide: Picking The Best Polaroid Camera

In today’s digital age, many argue that instant cameras like the Polaroid are defunct or dead… we’re in their last days (get it?!). The company probably thought the same when it decided to shut down in 2008. However a group of fans along with film maker Fuji, decided to take over Polaroid’s instant film camera production. Ever since, the Impossible Project – as the group calls itself, has come up with Instant Cameras which have kept up with the modern digital era. Take the Polaroid Snap, for example, which allows you to store digital copies on an SD card or the Impossible I-1 which connects to your iPhone via Bluetooth. These cameras have successfully combined the past and present to give you a unique photographic experience.

Instant cameras have always been popular among both amateurs and professionals. While professionals used Polaroids to gauge the exposure and lighting, the average layman loved it for the instant gratification it provided. You do not have to wait to get your photos printed. Just snap, cut and paste it in your scrap book or place it on the refrigerator as fond memories. Though the demand for Instant Cameras came down during the digital age, it continues to be popular among people due to the nostalgia it evokes and of course the convenience.

Factors to consider while choosing a Polaroid Camera

Polaroid cameras have been around since the late 1940s which means there are lot of models to choose from. Polaroid Cameras have been classified into series (20s series, 30 series and so on) depending on their body shapes and kind of technology that they use. To narrow down the choice, considering answering the following questions:

  1. Why are you buying the camera? For taking photographs or for its vintage value?
  2. Do you want to buy a new camera or a used one?
  3. What kind of digital compatibility are you looking at? Eg: Storing photos on SD card, LCD display, connecting to iPhone etc.

If you want my opinion, Fujifilm produces the best Polaroid Cameras. You can see my comparison of a few of them here.

Buying a Vintage or a Used Polaroid Camera

Polaroid Cameras that can be considered as vintage models include the ones in the 80 Series, 100 Series, 200 series, 300 Series, 400 Series, and 600 Series. They can further be divided into two main categories:

  1. Series prior to the 70s – This includes 80 Series, 100 Series, and 200 series. These produced mainly black and white photos. The 300 and 400 series which were produced in the late 1970s used better technology and had colour films and better flash systems. Most Polaroids of the 70s and earlier used roll films which are no longer manufactured. Setting the exposure and focusing the lens had to be done manually.
  2. Later models – The models made in the 1980s and 90s were available in multiple colours such as brown, white and black. They mainly used pack films, with each pack producing 10 photos. There were two types of pack films, the peel-apart films and the integral films.

So, what should you look for while buying a vintage Polaroid:

  1. Film type: Pack or Roll: The roll film used in the series prior to the 80s is no longer manufactured. So, unless you are looking at keeping the Polaroid as a museum piece and not using it, go in for a model which uses pack films. The Impossible project group along with Fuji are still producing pack films for many vintage models particularly in the Series 100, 600, SX-70 and the Spectra series. It is also important to note that some roll film type cameras can be converted to a pack film version by professionals, for a cost of $300 or more, which could be more than what the camera is worth.
  2. Battery: Different Polaroid’s use different kinds of battery. It could be a regular AA type battery or a 531 or 532 battery. Cameras which used the integral film, did not have batteries. The batteries were built into the film cartridge. If you are the more adventurous types, you could easily build the battery required for your Polaroid, with help from the internet. If not you could order one from Polaroid by dialing their toll free number 1-800-343-5000.
  3. Flash bulb or flash cube: Polaroids which use a flash bulb need a flash bulb holder. Those that use a flash cube, need a focused flash unit. Both of which are not being manufactured. So, you might have to scout garage sales to buy them.
  4. Metal Body: The older Polaroids were made of medal body which meant they were heavier, bigger and lasted longer than their plastic younger counterparts. These are also quite rare, meaning they would be valued at a higher price. However, plastic ones are easier to handle and carry around in your bag / pocket
  5. Focus : Glass lens used in the Polaroid cameras were of higher quality compared to the plastic lens in the later versions. Some Polaroids had both viewfinder and range finder while others had only viewfinder. From the point of view of usability, cameras with both would be better along with glass lens
  6. Aperture settings: The number of aperture settings on a Polaroid could vary from 2 to 6. Some models have timers which let you know when to remove the film for best quality pictures.
  7. Price: Buying a used Polaroid could be cheaper, but you should also consider the cost of Films, flash bulbs and battery. With Fuji and Impossible Project coming up with digital compatible newer versions of a Polaroid, it would only be a matter of time before the older Polaroids become obsolete. So spend wisely.

Once you have made up your mind on the kind of Vintage/ used model you are looking for, the next question is where would find one and what price to pay for them. Ebay is a good option to buy Polaroid cameras. Even if you are not keen on buying online, you can keep a watch on the closing prices for the model you are looking at to get an idea about how much you could pay for it. You can then scout second hand stores, garage sales and flea markets to buy your product. Some of the highly valued vintage models are 110 pathfinder series which use roll film, 180, 195, SX-70 foldable camera.

  • Testing a Used / Vintage Polaroid

You have finalized the model, you have found the model that you want. It is still wise to do a couple of tests to confirm that the Polaroid is in working condition before you make the final payment.

  1. Bellows: If your camera has bellows, make sure that it does not leak light which will make the pictures appear foggy. You do this by extending the bellows, removing the pack films and looking towards the lens while pointing it towards a light source.
  2. Shutter: To test the shutter, you need to make sure that your battery is not dead. Then put your finger over the electric eye beside the lens and cock the shutter. If it is working fine, you will hear 2 clicks within 2-10 seconds gap. You would have to insert a film pack to ensure that exposure is working correctly.
  1. Buying a New Instant Digital Camera

After Impossible Project took over production of Polaroids, they continued to produce some of the popular series like the SX-70 and a few models in the 600 series. So, you could find a brand new camera in these versions. Fuji came out with their own versions called the Fujifilm Instax versions which became just as popular as the old Polaroids. You can see their selection on Amazon.


Points to consider before buying a new digital instant camera are

  1. Display: Most Polaroid digital cameras come equipped with TFT LCD displays. They could vary from a 3inch just display screen to a 4 inch touch screen.
  2. Storage: These digital Polaroids have internal storage of upto 4GB and can be expanded using a SD card of upto 32GB.
  3. Bluetooth and Wifi Connectivity: This feature allows you to connect the Polaroid to your iPhone or Android. Polaroid Socialmatic even connects to your email via wifi and allows you to mail some of the photos.
  4. Video Mode: Many of these digital Polaroids come equipped with a speaker and a microphone, so that you could record videos, with a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels. You can even record 30 second voice memo for still pictures.
  5. Batteries: Unlike their old cousins, new Polaroids come with rechargeable batteries which are either built in or can be removed for charging. Important to note would be battery life. How many photos can you print before you run out of battery. Polaroid ZIP Mobile Printer has a battery life of 25 photos
  6. Special features: Other special features which could be available are, blur function, red eye effect, multiple image layout, self timer
  7. Price: Higher the features, higher the cost. Carefully evaluate the features before buying a Polaroid. Prices could range from $100 for a Polaroid Snap to $369 for a Polaroid Socialmatic. In some cases, there could be alternatives from other companies available like Fujifilm Instax Mini 8 which is just $55. (Note: Prices mentioned here could vary everyday depending on the website you are buying from)


Using a Polaroid Camera

Unlike the modern day point and shoot cameras, using a vintage camera with a film pack takes time to get adjusted. Even if you do get hold of the manuals for these cameras, it could be a while before you can start snapping like a pro. There are many tutorials available online like http://polaroids.theskeltons.org/film1.htm which provide illustrated step by step instructions on how to use a Polaroid. However, here are some general steps on using a vintage Polaroid

  1. Install battery in the battery compartment
  2. Insert the film pack at the back of the camera, while ensuring you that you pull the black tab all the way out.
  3. Set the camera to the type of film you are using. The options available could be 75, 150, 300 and 3000, depending on the camera model
  4. Choose the aperture setting: indoor or outdoor, with or without flash
  5. Extend bellows if your camera has one and cock the shutter.
  6. Look through the range finder and focus by aligning the two images. In the later versions, focusing can be adjusted by pulling the scissor type lever up and down.
  7. Hold the camera ready and press and release the shutter to take a picture
  8. Pull the white tab and then the larger yellow tab. The time for development of the picture depends on the type of film the camera uses. It could vary between 15 seconds to 4 minutes. This information will be available on the pack. Check the time required for development before you peel the picture.

Digital Polaroids are relatively easier to use and finding a manual for a one is not that difficult. Apart from loading the film pack for printing, most digital Polaroid settings are similar to their other modern digital cousins.

Camera Care and Protection

Once you have bought a Polaroid, also learn how to keep it top condition so that you can continue using it for a long time. Here are some things that you could do:

  1. Keep the rollers always clean. If they get dirty, they could cause spots or streaks on your photos. It would be great if you could clean them every time you change the film pack. If this cannot be done, at least make sure you clean them once for every 4-5 pack changes. Use only soft cloth moistened with water for cleaning and not any cleaning agents or alcohol. Make sure that they are completely dry before loading the film. Do not use sharp objects like tweezers, blades or even finger nails for cleaning
  2. Clean the tab slot or the film holder as often as possible with a cotton swab or a moistened cloth
  3. Repairing a Polaroid could cost you a lot of money. So keep it safe by using a camera strap all the time.
  4. Use a good camera pouch. Most analog Polaroids can get easily damaged if exposed to low temperatures, rain, wind or even too much direct sunlight.
  5. Always ensure that you take out old dead batteries before they start leaking.
  6. Store unused film packs in the refrigerator between 5-10C ( 40F – 50F). Never freeze them or expose them to bright sunlight. Film packs have expiry dates. Photos from expired film packs are not that great. Take the films out of the fridge an hour before you load it to you camera. It needs to be at room temperature before you can start using it.
  7. If you are note a Do-It-Yourself person, there are websites like http://landcameras.com/repair/ which could give your cameras a full tune up once in a while for a price. They even undertake repairs, should your camera need one.

Tips for great shots with a Polaroid

On a concluding note, here are some tips which could help you shoot better photos with your Polaroid.

  1. Take a few practice shots to get to know your camera. These are different from your iPhone camera or other point and shoot cameras.
  2. Check the recommended film exposure settings provided with the camera before taking shots. Over exposure or under exposure could spoil your photos
  3. Time required to develop the photo could range from 15 seconds to 4 minutes depending on the type of film being used. Make sure you give it enough time before peeling off the protective layer. If your film does not have a protective peel, then keep the photo upside down.
  4. Keep the photos for drying naturally and never attempt to wave the photo dry as it could affect the photo quality. Photos from new cameras could take 4 minutes to dry while those from older ones could take 10 – 40 minutes.
  5. While pulling the film tab out of the holder, make sure it is parallel to the back of the camera and not at an angle. Pull with moderate speed. Pulling it out too fast or slow or at an angle could cause it to have spots and streaks
  6. Avoid exposing films to extreme temperatures. Exposing a film to low temperatures could cause the photos to lighten and exposure to high temperatures could cause photos to darken or take on shades of red and orange.
  7. If you are looking at long term storage of your photos, make sure you store them with a drying agent like a silica gel.
  8. If you notice that the lighter portions of your photos have yellowed, keeping them in daylight or under fluorescent light for a few hours could correct the problem
  9. Polaroid photos often have a protective polyester outer layer which can be cleaned. You can check out Polaroidmanipulation.com for more details on this
  10. You can scan all you Polaroid shots into a nice collage and store it for a longer time on your memory stick
  11. If you are using integral camera, do not throw away the empty cartridges. Since the batteries are built into the cartridges, they can used for testing Polaroids you find at garage sales.

This guide was aimed at giving you a bird’s eye view of everything you need to know about owning and using a Polaroid. Hope it helps you discover the joy of clicking with an instant camera. Happy clicking.

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