About Polaroid SX-70: 5 Unconventional Truths Nobody Is Telling You

Over the years, we’ve sold thousands of Polaroid SX-70s. There are a couple of questions that we keep getting again and again from customers. Times have changed. We are spoiled by computers and smartphones, and the ease of tapping the screen to take a picture and then Photoshopping it afterwards. We are spoiled by filters and digital editing. Sometimes, we just forget how much technology it took to come to where we are today.

The Polaroid SX-70 is still a very good camera, but photography habits have changed and I want to close the gap between avant-garde technology in the 1970s and today’s expectations.

#1 The Lighten/Darken Dial was a Bad Design

Dr Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid, knew how to make a product intuitive and easy to use. The Polaroid SX-70 is such a sophisticated device, yet it only has one button and two dials. It’s incredible to design something like that. However, most of my customers come to me and ask these questions: What does this black-white-dial do? What does black mean, and what does white mean? How much do I turn it? Do I turn it all the way, or just one step? It’s confusing.

Sometimes, I just ask the customer to leave it alone, because it resets itself when the camera is closed. But for those who want to know more, I tell them: As a rule of thumb, turn the dial to black if you want the picture to be darker. Turn the dial to white if you want the picture to be brighter. Usually I just leave it in the middle.

As a rule of thumb, turn the dial to black if you want the picture to be darker. Turn the dial to white if you want the picture to be brighter.

Excerpt from an old Polaroid SX-70 manual

Polaroid included this dial in the design to compensate for back light and front light. I don’t want to get too technical here. I shall explain further in another article.

The problem is, how do I know if the picture is too dark or too bright when I can’t preview the picture? Remember, this is an instant camera, but it still takes 10 minutes for the picture to develop. Even if I take the next photo after the first one develops, the ambient light conditions have probably already changed.

It begs the question: How can we reliably control the brightness of the picture before it comes out? The answer we have found that works great, is to let the user preview the picture. By adding manual mode to the camera, you can use an external light meter, or a light meter app, to preview the picture, replacing the lighten/darken dial completely.

#2 To Get the Flash Right, You Need to Focus

Nowadays, we are used to TTL, auto flash and digital post editing, but back in the days, these technologies were not even available. The Polaroid SX-70 flash system was a revolutionary concept, designing the shape of the aperture in such a way so that the further you focused, the larger the aperture and vice versa. They were trying new things all the time, and it worked…

With one big assumption: the user had to focus correctly. It was a valid assumption in those days. Most cameras were manual focus. Auto focus wasn’t mainstream. People who bought cameras knew how to focus manually.

However, the assumption that all customers are good at split circle manual focusing, is invalid these days. And quite often, we get questions about why flash pictures are turning out too bright or too dark. Most of the time, it’s because of bad focusing.

Takeaway: With flash, if you want the picture to be brighter, focus slightly further back. If you want the picture to be darker, focus slightly up front.

#3 Don’t Shake it Like a Polaroid

I guess it’s in human nature that we don’t like to wait. Nobody can resist the temptation to shake the film. Shaking a polaroid won’t speed up the process. If you just wave it gently, no harm will be done. But if you shake it too vigorously, it could damage the film, causing blobs in the picture. Thousands of chemical reactions happen behind the clear plastic right after the film is ejected. Since it is an air-sealed environment, shaking it won’t help. Next time, just lay it flat face down on the table or in your pocket, away from the sunlight.

Don’t shake it.

#4 The Split-circle Was Not Meant To Be There

split circle sx-70 manual

The earliest version of the Polaroid SX-70 did not have a split-circle focusing screen, and people found it difficult to use. Dr Edwin Land did not like the idea of having a split-circle in the viewfinder, arguing that it would interfere with viewing. However, the managers in the company pushed for a split-circle because many customers were complaining. They found a middle ground and placed the split-circle in the lower half of the screen. Notice that the split-circle is not in the center like most cameras.

This worked great. Customers were pleased, and the design was used in most of the later models.

But I still get inquiries from time to time, asking why the picture didn’t come out the way it was framed. Now you know why – the split-circle is not in the center!

#5 You Won’t Get a Perfect Picture Every Time

If you want sharp, pixel-perfect pictures every time, then Polaroids are not for you. Polaroids are far from perfect. What’s happening in the camera and in the film is a far more complicated process than you could imagine. For example, a speck of dust ending up on your rollers could result in weird dots on the picture.

If you get a good camera and know what you’re doing, the success rate is not that bad. You can get good pictures most of the time, and a few that are really outstanding. But once in a while, the film will turn out weird. It’s not your fault. Read this.

But if you don’t know what you are doing, chances are, they can turn out pretty ugly. Give yourself a quick test. If you know what these words mean, you are ready to use the Polaroid SX-70:

  • split-circle
  • manual focus
  • ambient light
  • shutter speed
  • ISO

If you are not sure what these words mean, or only recognize less than two, you might want to do more research. Or just ask questions in the comment section!

2 comments

  • Dr Adrian Richard Marsh PhD

    Gary, the knowledge that the split-circle focus is deliberately off-centre by design is one of those small, but significant and illuminating facts that make one take moment to reflect. I have often thought it was my ‘problem’ that the focus was not centred, not an integral design decision. I will now rethink (and reframe) my compositions more confidently thanks to your blog – keep it up!

    • Yes I guess Dr Edwin Land wanted the experience to be, in today’s words, immersive. That’s why he was against having the split-circle. And when we think of it, if the split-circle were in the middle, it will be quite annoying. It’s an ingenious design indeed.

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