SX-70 Camera Comparisons*
--Testing Which To Use When Exposing Polaroid Originals Film--
Here I am again doing an article, because I just could not seem to find elsewhere, answers to the questions I had on the subject. This article is designed for the person who wishes to have additional information about which SX-70 folding camera might suit them best with Polaroid Originals instant film. The article is longer than might be expected. With so many varibles involved, longer explainations were required. It is worth following through to the end.
This comparison is divided into three pages. This page provides
the overview. Page 2 discusses how the testing was administered,
and the cameras themselves. Page 3 are the test results and any
conclusions. I initially thought I would provide a much more
conclusive and comprehensive comparison. I believed that I could eliminate peripheral
issues in the SX-70 image capture process, and obtain answers to the
> Which SX-70 model can produce the sharpest image?
> Does a "refurbished" SX-70 produce sharper images than any other old SX-70?
Turns out the answers are not definitive, because there are too many variables. I initially wrote this article in my mind before completing the testing. I thought I knew many of the answers. Turns out I did not! What I did learn is that defintive answers are not always possible with the SX-70 system.
While I did expend a considerable amount of film in different conditions, (8 packs of current Porlaoid Originals) it quickly became clear that under many of the testing conditions, the results just confused the matter. Therefore, trying to answer the basic premise of image sharpness, I settled on a small number of test comparisons which I believe provide an idea of what the user can expect. I have used individual SX-70 cameras off and on since their inception. I was however not prepared for the results produced. This article will explain those surprises.
This is not intended to be an instant film comparison, although maybe it should have been. However, several film based deductions might be gleaned from the results.
As of today (September 2018) there is only one choice in currently produced instant film sized to fit SX-70 cameras. That choice is Polaroid Originals film. These tests are not about shooting expired Polaroid or even leftover Impossible Projects film. If you wish to shoot hipster type images using this old film, which may not even completely develop, or hazy dream like images, then this article is not designed for you. The comparison does not attempt to convince people that the images from SX-70 cameras are going to provide you with exceptionally clear, well exposed, images having broad exposure latitude. Such images from Polaroid instant film was not obtainable when the cameras were new, nor are those expectations available now. Such were the limitations of Polaroid film back in the day, and those limitations still exist today in the form of Polaroid Originals film. You would be smart to be fully aware of what can be expected before you enter the SX-70 market.
My tests are for the person who accepts the limitations of camera and film, but still desires to shoot with these old cameras, and are trying to decide which SX-70 folding camera to pick. An untouched 40 year old original SX-70 camera, an automatic focusing Sonar model, or one of the refurbished SX-70 cameras available from various vendors currently doing such work. This is important to know, because the cost difference can be from $50 or less to $800 or more. If you are in a position where money limitations are the overriding factor in you decision, your answer is simple. Purchase garage sale SX-70's (folding or box) until you possess one that functions reasonably well and shoot with it.
If you wish to do your own SX-70 repair, go for it! I however do NOT recommend that. I have done simple repairs on various cameras for many years. I have even done complete refurbishing of some cameras. The SX-70 seems different to me. Not impossible, but different and finicky. For my money, I will never touch another instant camera for repair again.** That's my opinion.
So, if you are still reading at this point, what is in this article? Information and some image comparisons of four different SX-70 cameras of various models and conditions. One camera has had nothing done to it. Two have been refurbished by 2nd Shot. One is the flagship model from Mint Camera. Alongside these are comparison images from a camera using Instax film, and finally images of the same scenes using a high end digital camera. The digital camera is the control. All images were processed in Photoshop as little as possible. Mainly only to get the instant photo into a digital format for display in this article. No preference of cost is included. Simply how the operation, image clarity, and reliability compares between the cameras.
All the film images were scanned, and no adjustments for exposure or color correction were made. A very slight amount of sharpening was applied in Photoshop, simply because of the normal loss of clarity when scanning. I did not use my Epson film scanner for these images. Normally, I scan using my best film scanner (Epson 650) and ViewScan software with output in a RAW format. That makes it more likely to obtain a finished image that was what I saw in my mind's eye when I captured the image. In this case I wanted to obtain, straight from the scanner, the closest representation to what the image actually looks like when held in your hand, so no other adjustments were made. My normal film scanner would not do that.
I have for office work, an Epson ET-3750 combination printer/scanner. Not what you would think of as the best option for scanning a photo. Surprisingly, with the default setting, it does quite a good job at rendering as closely as possible, what the photo actually looks like. I would not want to print any large size copies of the images from these scans, but for screen sized reproduction, it worked well. So I used it for these instant photos. This does limit the enlargement of each image, but I think you will find that the resolution of SX-70 film is not that high in the first place.
I have included in this testing, for comparison, the only other currently manufactured instant film, Instax. I used a camera that is modified to accept Fuji Instax Wide instant film. I have done this because you may find that you really do not want an SX-70 after all. Everyone says the SX-70 is 1970's sexy, but you may find that is not what you are after. The only way to know is seeing images from the other type of instant film, side by side with Polaroid Originals SX-70 & 600 films.
Another thing to understand is that SX-70 based cameras come in many different arrangements. Over the years, SX-70 film based cameras were produced by Polaroid cheaply and expensively. This testing only deals with original SX-70 based folding camera models, not any of the subsequently much cheaper versions. Again, if cost is your main restriction, one of those cheaper models may serve you well. Also, available as a refurbish option is to have exposure metering changed to allow SX-70 cameras to use 600 ASA film instead of the much slower 160 ASA film, close to film speeds that the cameras were originally designed for.*** I have included such a converted camera in these tests.
It is a wise idea, no matter which camera you may end up settling on, to first go out and purchase the cheapest SX-70 that still functions and play with it. Take a pack of instant film with you when purchasing, to test in the camera. You can reload already exposed film back into the cartridge for function testing as necessary before you make that initial purchase. This may save you a lot of money in the end, in both camera and film cost. Then, using some of the suggestions below, you can do some test shots designed to make you comfortable with your particular camera and how it uniquely operates. Matt Widmann of 2nd Shot has a great post on his blog about what to look for when purchasing an SX-70 camera. (http://2ndshotsx70.blogspot.com/2017/01/tested-and-working-balance-and-clarity.html) Do not do these things and you will never achieve any level of comfort with the camera and always be disappointed. It is natural to believe that you are wasting money by using a couple of packs for just testing. That is about $40 after all. But that is penny wise and pound foolish. Know what the camera will do BEFORE you start taking your desired images, and you waste far less money in the long run! Remember that you might have to compensate for the difference in film speed between the original ASA100 & current ASA160.
The final thing I need to comment on, is just how difficult these comparison tests were to conduct. I shot several more tests than appear in this article. They were not included because the results were just so poor and worse, not always reproducible from camera to camera. Night shots. Portrait shots. Low lighting indoor shots. That is not to say that I did not obtain some good shots in those conditions, just that the ability to do so was very random. Constraints of the film and the many idiosyncrasies of each individual camera, made the process very tedious. What I learned about the reasons for those idiosyncrasies are found later in this article.
To eliminate the possibilities that quick exposure to light might still affect the outcome, each camera used a frog Tongue. I waited at least one minutes before quickly removing the image and immediately placing it into a dark, cool place for development. Each pack of film and the cameras themselves were kept cool during development, even though many of the shots were exposed in 90 degree weather.
I have shot many SX-70's, but normally I use a single camera. This makes me able to become familiar with how that specific camera handles most different shooting situation. Trying to do it with several different SX-70 cameras at a time was nearly impossible. Settings, handling, and focusing was so different for each camera, even though they were the same model, it became infuriating, and often produced very poor results.
Stack upon these constraints the fact that every camera responded differently to every other camera, in each lighting condition. One camera in direct light might shoot with a neutral exposure setting. But get that camera in a shade condition, and the exposure wheel needed to be dramatically changed, one or more marks. Then take that same camera into a different still lighting scene and it would require exposure wheel changes in the opposite direction. Each and every camera in the tests at times responded this way, and at least somewhat differently from the other cameras. I believe that much of this problem is caused by the film, but not all. Very frustrating. After I completed the tests I reached out for feedback from a person who actually refurbishes these cameras. Incite gained from that information was illuminating. More details are found on page 3.
Film Overview: I think that most
people do not really understand self-contained instant film and are misled
and let down with results. Integral film works because it contains
layers of emulsion dye and layers of developing dye sandwiched within its
sheet. Developing and fixing chemicals are stored in a sack in the white
border on the bottom of the image. When the film is pushed through
rollers and out of the
camera, the developing process begins. Polaroid created this process
many years ago and built cameras around this idea.
Film Overview: I think that most people do not really understand self-contained instant film and are misled and let down with results. Integral film works because it contains layers of emulsion dye and layers of developing dye sandwiched within its sheet. Developing and fixing chemicals are stored in a sack in the white border on the bottom of the image. When the film is pushed through rollers and out of the camera, the developing process begins. Polaroid created this process many years ago and built cameras around this idea.Today there are only two companies that produce film which develops via this process.
Polaroid Originals (First named Impossible Project) is a shoe string company conceived with the idea of producing film for old existing Polaroid instant cameras. They use legacy Polaroid machinery that is approaching 50 years old. They have had to totally re-invent the Polaroid process, because the chemicals used in the original are illegal, and are no longer available. Not having unlimited funds, the company has had to in effect, sell prototype films to the public, to fund continuted process development. This has resulted in earlier production films having many issues. The client base has stuck with the company however, and newer generations of film from Polaroid Originals has better colors and shorter developing times. There still needs to be improvement in the substancial percentage of "bad" images. The creators of this new company were obsessed with the idea of bringing all these old Polaroid cameras back to life using this new film. They are achieving that goal.
Fuji Films is a multi-billion dollar company that has nearly unlimited development budgets and has produced a new form of the instant film called Instax. Created just a few years ago on new equipment, using new techniques, they now manufacture and sell a very high quality and reliable film product. It produces a finished image that often seems sharper and has more vivid colors.
Polaroid Originals instant film (Especially color) can seem somewhat washed out. It is also not as crisp and clear. Must be initially shaded from strong light, and takes a long time to fully develop. But there is more to it than that. It is often forgotten that some of these constraints have always been a part of SX-70 images. If you view old 1970's SX-70 images, they are very similar in result to the points I just mentioned. I purchased an early SX-70 in 1975. In preporation for this article I dug out my shoebox of old SX-70 images from that period. Maybe a couple of hundred images in total. You can see in those images many of the problems found in the currently produced products. Clarity is poor in comparison to todays expected results. Color is a bit flat. Some even have development streaks just like today. But that is part of the charm of SX-70 film. The film was marketed as "instantly" providing one with a snap shot in their hand. This had not been possible until that time. So Polaroid Originals deserve a break. The current film is very slow to develop, but they are improving and are not really that far off from what was expected back in the day. This is the best method of putting millions of these old Polaroid cameras back into use. Just don't expect Ansel Adams results or you will be disappointed.
Fuji Instax instant film is more crisp and clearer, and produces bright colors as one would expect from a 21st century technology. The problem with the Instax image is the factory cameras produced for this film. They are poor, simple cameras that do not allow manual settings. This is how Fuji purposefully designed it. This is fine for a fun, quick, snapshot shooter. Photographers however turn up their noses. The solution is marrying this Instax film with good quality lenses to produce a better image. That is what occurred with the comparison camera used in this testing.
So, if you are obsessed with seeing the sharpest, most colorful images, you will not achieve that with the SX-70/600 type Polaroid Originals film or SX-70 cameras. In the 1970's Polaroid Company did not achieve that. They did not want to. These cameras were produced for snapshots.
If you understand the differences, fully understand your individual camera, and appreciate what can be done with the SX-70, you will produce some wonderful images and have fun. If not, you will be left unsatisfied!
*The information in this article is to help provide general real-world guidance to someone trying to decide on an SX-70 camera. It is based upon my observances using my equipment. Someone else obtaining different results is an understandable occurrence and does not mean that either opinion is false. Cameras can provide different results from camera to camera. However, if you have any knowledge that information I have provided is totally inaccurate, please let me know. I am not a scientist.
**All three of
these remanufacturer's I have had exerience with and have been satisfied:
2nd Shot of NY: https://www.2ndshotsx70.com/ (Now out of this business)
Mint Camera of Hong Kong: https://mint-camera.com/
Option8 of Florida: http://www.instantoptions.com/
***Allowing the SX-70 to shoot 600 ASA film as described here is NOT placing Neutral Density film over the 600 cartridge and thereby slowing the effective film speed to 100 ASA, rather it involves changing the light metering so that the meter correctely responds for 600 speed film and no longer meters correctly for 100 ASA film!!!