What I’ve Learned After a Year of Taking a Polaroid a Day

When I opened a Polaroid SX70 as a Christmas gift from my wife last year and began my 365 day challenge last year to take one Polaroid picture a day, I didn’t realize how quickly time would pass nor did I have a true appreciation of the task at hand. It’s been a great experience and, as I wrap up the year and consider continuing the project into the next year, I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned in the event you’re considering a similar project of your own.

Here are a few things worth considering if you’re into Polaroid photography and want to take your instant film game to the next level with a 365 Polaroid a day project:

  1. It’s educational. I wasn’t overly impressed with my first shots and even then I probably spent too much time trying to get the ‘perfect’ shot to post. I was still learning the cameras (which added to the challenge–each camera has its own personality and may handle the film a little differently so switching between cameras adds to the overall learning curve), learning the film, and really coming to terms with what I didn’t know about composition and exposure. With most Polaroids, the ISO speed is constant and the aperture and shutter ranges are fairly tight so you get a good sense of how your camera will perform in a variety of lighting conditions. Soon you’ll understand which camera to use, when you’ll probably need a flash, and how much a tripod can make a huge difference regardless of the lighting conditions. My photography skills have improved over the course of the year and I’ve seen the impact in my digital photography where I may have been much more reliant on the camera to make decisions for me prior to beginning this project.
  2. It’s demanding. Because you have to pay attention and be a bit more disciplined with each shot (you only have eight exposures and the film isn’t cheap, but we’ll get to that later), you have to think about what you’re going to shoot and how you’re going to use the camera to capture the image as you want it to be made. Am I using the right film–100 or 600 ISO? Is my shutter speed going to be fast or slow enough to capture the mood I’m looking for? Am I certain that I can nail the proper exposure? Should I use my tripod to ensure a sharp image or will I be ok doing this handheld? All these decisions must be made quickly or you risk not getting the shot you want or burning through some exposures unnecessarily in order to get the desired result. But once you get what you were looking for, and if you get it on the first attempt, there’s no better feeling knowing that you’ve captured a one-of-a-kind, original, analog photograph that represents your artistic perspective.
  3. It’s unpredictable. Even though the Impossible Project–the only current manufacturer of Polaroid-equivalent film that works in SX70, Spectra, and 600 integral film cameras–has continued to improve their film since buying the last Polaroid factory in 2008, the end result can be unpredictable even when you’ve spent time planning for the perfect shot. Your rollers may be dirty resulting in some dots or lines in the final exposure. The film chemistry may not develop fully or be entirely spread across the photo resulting in some undeveloped spots or spider-like spots along the top or sides of the shot. I’ve noticed when using 600 film in very bright environments, my shots aren’t crisp but come out looking like impressionist paintings–a nice surprise effect but not what I intended. Sometimes, you just have to go with what you get and be comfortable that that’s part of the challenge of current day Polaroid photography.
  4. It’s frustrating. With so much of this type of photography requiring you to study the craft, be disciplined in how you approach each shot and still being subject to a bit of unpredicatability, it can be very frustrating if you don’t force yourself to be patient and take you time. Even in the best of circumstances, you’re likely to be very frustrated that you saw an image and an interpretation in your mind’s eye that just wasn’t done justice in your captured exposure and you missed a fantastic picture. I’ve been there many times. Sometimes I’m just happy to have witnessed the event or seen the image and it’s enough to know that I was skilled enough to appreciate it. Other times, I’ve been fortunate enough to make the capture on a second camera or with my phone as a bit of insurance that I have the image digitally if the analog version doesn’t come out quite as planned. No matter how frustrated I might get, I have to remind myself that it’s only one or a few exposures that didn’t pan out and it’s nothing like the old days where you waited for 24 or 36 exposures to be developed only to discover that none of them were good. I’m ok with being a little frustrated every now and then.
  5. It’s expensive. If you’re up for the learning experience and the discipline required to master your craft, the next biggest obstacle will be the expense of making the magic happen. Instant photography using Polaroid cameras isn’t cheap with Impossible Project film averaging $24 for eight exposures. You can get it a little cheaper if you buy more than one cartridge at a time but the savings aren’t so significant that you’ll want to spend hoardes of money that you don’t have and aren’t otherwise willing to spend on your art. Each snap of the button is equivalent to the cost of a Starbucks tall latte and I keep that in mind whenever I don’t get the photo that I want because of my error or some problem with my camera or film. I’ve averaged a 30% success rate during my year of photos which means I’ve taken closer to 1,100 photos to get the 365 that I’ve posted but that also includes other shots that I may not have posted in addition to wasted shots or surprise victories. That’s close to 140 film packs at $24 a pack to say nothing of the multiple cameras that I’ve purchased every since The One that my wife gave me last year to ignite the spark–significant cheese invested in my instant analog pursuits but I have to say that I’ve enjoyed every moment.
  6. It’s fulfilling. As a result, I’ve become a better photographer and I’ve established a niche for myself that is shared with a small circle of similarly minded creatives who find satisfaction in the analog undertaking that is Polaroid photography. It’s an escape from megapixels and sensor size, autofocus points and ISO performance, lenses and TTL strobes–it’s photography where subject and light are complimented by composition and perspective. Click and create once and done. I’ve probably spent the equivalent or less than I would have spent on digital camera equipment and as I roll into the next year, I’m hoping to improve my success rate and get even more creative with what I call Polajournalism–using a Polaroid camera to do more street and photo journalism work.

So, there you have it. A year and 1,000 plus Polaroids later. If you enjoy the nostalgia of Polaroid pictures and want to begin your own journey, consider a picture project of your own. Whether one a day, or one a week or one whenever you can get it done, give a try and try to be consistent allowing for a miss every now and then and you’ll be surprised with what you can accomplish and how much you can grow in your art.

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