What were Polaroid cameras and Polaroid photos?

Polaroid photos (photo by allyaubry - CC-BY)

Polaroid photos (photo by allyaubry - CC-BY)

Polaroid cameras produce self-developing photos, so that you can see the photo within a minute or so. The technology was developed by Edwin Land in the 1940s. The cameras and film were sold by his Polaroid Corporation, and later by others.

The earliest of these cameras, the Polaroid Land Camera, used rolls of film and developer and was messy to use. After pulling a tab to develop the photo, you needed to coat it with fixing agent to stop it fading.

Pack film was introduced in the 1960s. When I was a child I had a Polaroid Square Shooter which used this film. You took the photo, then pulled a tab to yank the film through some rollers which spread the developer goo onto the photo (inside a thin package). After a minute you peeled the photo away from the rest of the package. The photo didn’t develop very well in cold weather, but there was a pair of aluminium plates stowed at the back of the camera into which you could slide the developing photo. You then had to put the whole lot under your arm to keep it warm while the photo developed.

The pack films came in color and black-and-white. Interestingly, the black and white film was extremely high-speed, being rated at 3000 ASA. The camera had a simple apeture switch: f8 for color, and f90 for black-and-white. If you used the f8 setting with black-and-white film you could take stunning night photos of the surrounding scenery (using a magnesium flashbulb), lighting up the surrounding hillsides. Great fun!

SX-70 film was introduced in the 70s and was a great improvement. The whole process was automatic: press the shutter and the photo was ejected through two rollers. You could watch it develop before your eyes! These photos had the iconic “squarish photo within a rectangle” shape. The blank part at the bottom was the chemical pouch, but after developing you could use it as a space to write a caption. The SX-70 film pack also contained an integral battery to power the camera’s motor.

Trivia: the 1979 movie “Hair” prominently showed an SX-70 camera being carried by someone in a crowd (presumably as a product placement), yet the movie was set in the 1960s before the SX-70 was released.

The SX-70 is no longer made, yet it remains popular with artists who show off their work at sites like And if you can’t get a real SX-70, you can “fake it” with the Poladroid software which takes a digital image and adds a Polaroid-style border. Or, you can create the Polaroid effect manually using the GIMP image editor. Flickr holds thousands of these images.

And the Polaroid Corporation? They’re pinning their hopes on their new ZINK (“zero ink”) cameras such as the PoGo. These are digital cameras with a built-in mini-printer. They offer the gratification of an instant print, although the print quality may not meet people’s expectations in this digital age.

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