For a few years now I’ve had an old Polaroid Spirit 600 sitting around which came in a box of stuff from my father. Apparently he used it at work to take pictures of stock at the clothes retailer he worked for, to send out to smaller branches that didn’t have enough warehouse space to maintain their own stock. I’d never really thought about using it, and hadn’t really looked for film, although I was vaguely aware you could still get it.
When Polaroid officially announced that they had ceased all production, I initially imagined that that was it, and the Spirit would remain untouched on a shelf. Then, from nowhere, The Impossible Project was announced – saying they had saved the European factory and were going to recreate instant film. Given the name and circumstances, I was fairly skeptical, but lo and behold after a few months they announced that they had managed to produce some workable integral film.
Integral film is the kind most people probably think of when they imagine a Polaroid – a white rectangle with an almost square image off-centre, that pops out of a slot in the front of the camera and develops in front of you. No waiting for the correct time and peeling apart, no messy and caustic chemicals, just a nice self-contained package with a pretty picture. Technically it’s a remarkable material, and neater still given that the film pack also contains the battery for the camera.
The first film announced was a black and white material called “Silver Shade”, available for the SX70 type cameras (called PX100), and for 600 type cameras (called PX600). Later, Impossible announced a colour film – PX70 Colour Shade – designed for SX70 cameras but supposedly usable in 600 cameras too. As scans of photographs taken with these films appeared in various places I became more and more interested, so when I looked at the Impossible site to get some of their remaining stock of peel-apart films for the Super Colour Swinger I thought I might as well order some of the integral materials to try out in the Spirit 600, so I got a 3 for 2 pack of PX70 and a single pack of PX600.
I’m going to talk more about the specifics of each of these films in a couple of posts that hopefully will follow soon. For now I’ll discuss a few things that are common between the two types.
Firstly, the camera itself. The Spirit 600 is a pretty basic camera with a single element plastic lens with a 116mm focal length and widest aperture of f/11, and there are basically no controls. The shutter speed is automatic, controlled a photocell next to the lens. You can try to lighten or darken the image using a lever which slides a mask over the photocell window which seems to cover 0%, 25% or 50% of the window on it’s three settings. The only other control is the shutter release itself, which can either be just the shutter, or also fire the built in flash. When the shutter fires there’s a small click, and then a loud grinding whirr as the film is ejected out of the slot in front of the camera.
At this point you might expect to be able to watch the image magically appear, but with the Impossible films that turns out to be, well, impossible. Unlike the original Polaroid films, these new experimental materials are very sensitive to light while developing, and so their advice when shooting is to shield the film from light for a few minutes after shooting. I tried this a few different ways, most of which are pretty awkward with such a disastrously unergonomic camera as the Spirit 600, but finally settled on using a light proof black plastic bag from a packet of photographic paper held over the exit slot with gaffer tape. The film exits safely in the dark, even on a sunny day, and I just leave it in there until I’m done shooting.
I started shooting the films in the autumn, which meant that I was in no danger of getting outside the recommended temperature limits. Usually in fact it was pretty cold, and so I left plenty of time for the film to develop. My impression was that Impossible are right when they say their films keep developing for several minutes after exposure, especially the PX70.
Another difference between original Polaroid film, and the Impossible materials is that you get only 8 shots in an Impossible pack, compared to 10 in the originals. I’m not sure if this is cost-driven, but it may also be a limitation of the new film itself. The camera seems to be struggling slightly to eject it, so I wondered if the Impossible film is thicker than the original. This would also explain some of the effects I’ve noticed on the films as due to inconsistent spreading of the chemicals by the rollers. Of course this could also be a fault or wear in the camera.
Finally let me say a little about the general quality of images. As you might expect from all of the above they’re not stunning. The fixed focus plastic lens is pretty poor. The instant prints themselves look OK, but even slight enlargement shows them to be soft, and close-ups are impossible. The viewfinder is awful – it’s also missing a bit I think, which doesn’t help – and suffers terribly from parallax because of the large offset from the taking lens. This camera was clearly designed as a cheap family snapshot maker, and it shows. Group portraits on a beach would be fine, but I found it hard to bend it to my will in more creative situations.
However, as we’ll see in the next couple of posts, where I’ll be discussing the two Impossible films, I found the film itself a lot more fun. I can’t help feeling it would be a lot more fun with an SX70 but for now the Spirit will have to do.