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The ability to produce a photographic image has revolutionized the modern world in many ways. With a true visual record of events and people, the oldest photographs in history seem not only closer in time, but in culture and accessibility. When the camera and the photographs it could produce became a viable commodity, the contemporary world began to be more readily documented and understood by a greater number of people. Though the evolution of photography itself served to forever advance and change society, further advancements in the field would come to make them cheaper and more immediate.
With the invention of the Polaroid camera, the average person was able to take a photograph that would self process and be ready within minutes. Though they have fallen out of technological relevance, these cameras are more than just registered trademarks of 20th century nostalgia. With the company folding years ago, companies like Polaroid Originals fight to keep the legacy alive. From their initial release, to their introduction of a color model, to their innovative folding cameras, even the oldest Polaroid cameras allowed people to catch the magic of a moment with instant gratification.
Land Model 95
Though certainly few people are unfamiliar with the iconic Polaroid instant camera, few probably also know the history behind this revolutionary device. Though we have a certain image that come to mind when thinking of Polaroids, the oldest Polaroid cameras to be produced looked and functioned a bit differently. Let us start from the beginning of the "instant film camera" craze following World War II. The company began to design and build cameras in 1948 using their newly developed instant camera technology.
The first instant camera produced by the Polaroid Company was the Land Model 95, part of what would come to be known as the 40 series. It would be foolish to start this list with any other model of Polaroid or other instant camera. Being the original model offered by Polaroid, the Model 95 was produced from the company's outset as the first model. Like other later vintage Polaroid models from the 40, 30, and 20 series, the Model 95 ran on roll film rather than pack film. The lens on the Model 95 was retractable and slid in and out of the body on a set of rails.
Model 80 Highlander
The Model 80, or Highlander, was the second camera model and size that Polaroid would release. Hitting production in 1954, this model differed from the Model 95 in terms of its dimensions. The Model 80 was a mere two and a half by three and a quarter inches, whereas the Model 95 was three and a quarter inches by four and a quarter inches. While not vastly different in function from the Model 95, the Model 80 was the first camera Polaroid offered in a smaller size than their seminal models.
Though this and the Model 95 are not what we would picture when thinking of a Polaroid land camera, they were important steps in the company's evolution. Lacking the folding design of the later iconic Polaroid models, the Model 80 still retracted slightly on a set of rails like many older vintage cameras. As another camera that utilized roll film, the Model 80 was in production from 1954 to 1957, at which point a slightly modified version, the Model 80A, ran until 1959. Running from 1959 to 1961, the ultimate Model 80B was followed by the J33 model.
Model 20 Swinger
Though the introduction of the instant camera was met with much interest and curiosity, the cost of such an item at the time prevented the average person from getting one of their own for quite a long time. Being such a new technology, the earliest available Polaroid instant cameras carried a certain price premium. With the release of the Model 20 in 1965, Polaroid was finally able to offer an instant camera at a relatively reasonable price point.
At $19.95, the Swinger could be had for what amounts to a little more than $150 dollars by today's standard, not quite as much as an earlier Polaroid model. Though many later models would achieve the task of offering an affordable and functional camera to the consumer, this first attempt was the first in the long line of different and interesting Polaroid models. Because of this camera, the instant photograph became a household item, a symbol of the times and a cornerstone in the later rapid advance of photographic technology.
Model 100 (Folding Camera)
When most picture a Polaroid camera, chances are they see one of the company's iconic folding cameras. Though these were not the first products made by the company, they are perhaps their most recognizable. While one could retract the lens on the earlier Polaroid models, the lens would remain exposed to the elements and prone to scratches and shattering. Polaroid set out to create a camera that would not only be more resistant to impact and other damage, but also be more compact and easier to store and carry. Somewhat like a retractable camper, the lens and other delicate apparatus would fold and hinge into the body, which would close around it to make the camera more compact and portable.
Consequently, the folding instant camera was meant to be more portable and less prone to breakage and abrasion from being dropped or scraped by rough surfaces. Though not as innovative as the Polaroid instant camera technology it employed, this fold in camera design would become a signature of Polaroid and an iconic feature. The Model 100 was just the first in a long line of Polaroid folding instant cameras to take colorpack film, a feature that would help to make the Polaroid instant camera a cultural icon and inform future hobbyists' decision-making when considering the best film for their Polaroid they could buy.
When looking at the timeline of Polaroid cameras, there were several turning points that would come to launch the brand into the stratosphere. Though the basic technology behind the Polaroid camera is pretty impressive alone, the company managed to make improvements to their products to make them better and more accessible to the people. With the colorpack film standing as the first major innovation in the company’s history, the second great moment was the introduction of the non-folding model.
Though Polaroid was already known for the amazing success of their revolutionary instant cameras by the arrival of the early 1970s, they were also known for their products being a bit costly to obtain. Because the early folding cameras had so many moving mechanical parts and required much attention and painstakingly delicate assembly, they demanded a certain premium to own. In order to get into the cheaper markets, Polaroid began to make more affordable non-folding models that required less expense and finesse to assemble.
While the technology of the Polaroid instant camera was revolutionary in its streamlining of the photo-taking process, the SX-70 camera would improve on the technology and create Polaroid pictures with the method we are all familiar with today. Produced from 1972 to 1977, the SX-70 was Polaroid's first camera to use what is known as integral film.
With this new integral film, the photograph would emerge and develop automatically without any extra steps. In past models, the picture paper was removed from the camera and had to be peeled open after one minute, at which point they needed time to dry. With the SX-70 and subsequent models, the photo would automatically slide out of the camera and self develop. The SX-70 helped to shape our cultural image of the Polaroid camera.
If it was the SX-70 that introduced the now familiar instant Polaroid print technology, than the OneStep brought us the fully realized version of the concept. The Polaroid OneStep 600 was the company's first model to use the, now ubiquitous, Series 600 integral film packs. Improving on the initial instant developing paper, the Series 600 film was meant to develop even faster than its predecessor.
Though it would see some additional adjustments over time, this camera was the first to hold this type of film and helped to develop the Polaroid camera and image as we know them. Geared more toward accessibility, the OneStep was relatively sparse and lacked both a flash and a zoom. Technologically speaking, this model was the basis for all non-folding Polaroid cameras to come.
Like any other great manufacturer of culture, Polaroid were always looking at ways to improve their products and offer premium versions of them with all manner of bells and whistles. While the OneStep was a huge success, Polaroid figured they could use the technology to build a better camera if they changed some things and added some parts.
Debuting in 1986, the Spectra series took the technology of the 600 series and tweaked it while adding some additional premium features. The Spectra series was defined by its rectangular format which varied from the traditional square 600 series. Additionally, the Spectra series cameras had higher quality lenses that offered better focus and clarity. Because these models produced a larger image, they are generally considered to take better photos than the 600 series.
Easily among the strangest of models created by the company, the Big Shot was produced from 1971 to 1973. The Big Shot, as reflected by its brief production history, was a sort of ugly duckling of Polaroid cameras. Aside from its simply outlandish looks, the Big Shot had a number of very specialized features that made it peculiar. By far the largest rigid body model the company produced, it had a fixed focus of only a few feet, designed solely for the capturing of close up portraits.
If this wasn't odd enough, it also contains a strange appendage above the lens known as a flash diffuser, which was meant to dull the light from the flash. Though not very practical for most consumers, the camera had some famous users such as Andy Warhol, who shot a number of portraits with one.
Polaroid 600 SE
While the instant camera was conceived and developed in the United States, some later versions would find the company collaborating with Japanese companies to create new models, still trying to achieve the methodology behind learning how to take the perfect Polaroid picture. The 600 SE features the Polaroid pack film equipment, though is essentially otherwise designed and manufactured to the specs of Japanese firm Mamiya. Consequently, the 600 SE has a number of features often not found on Polaroid cameras of the time.
Unlike the oldest Polaroid cameras, this camera is capable of swapping lenses, with a standard lens more powerful and crisp than those usually found on Polaroid cameras. Other features included a viewfinder and manually-controlled shutter. By using mostly features from Mamiya's specs, Polaroid was able to produce a more versatile camera that still featured their instant technology.