A set of four Polaroids taken with friends

I have a love-hate relationship with my Polaroid camera.

On paper, my Polaroid is the perfect alternative to the point-and-shoot nature of my iPhone. It’s the ideal analog equivalent to digital photos that might as well only exist on your phone, or at most in a post on social media or group chat somewhere. I love that it produces real, physical photos that people can then take home and put somewhere they’ll see it, like on their fridge or wall, to remind themselves of a nice moment in time. The photos have character that you just can’t get when you take a photo with any modern phone, even if they’re not always perfectly in focus, timestamped, geo-tagged, or include a little two-second movie.

But in practice, there are just as many negatives as there are positives to shooting Polaroids, even though the film it uses doesn’t use negatives. Sorry, little film photography pun there.

The film that it does use is expensive, expires if I don’t use it within a certain timeframe, produces sub-standard photos if I don’t store it properly, and the photos produced are so widely inconsistent as to be basically unusable half the time.

When each photo costs you at least $3, it’s not something that you can just snap away with. I’ve been limiting myself to only taking photos of people with my Polaroid for that very reason, because if I’m going to spend that much on physical photos, I want them to be of something real, and not just some nice scenery or whatever.

But because opportunities for nice photos with friends don’t come around all that often, and I’m not taking that many photos when they do, I often find myself with leftover film. Yes, even when each pack is only eight shots, which makes a 36-shot roll of film seem limitless by comparison. I then have to either force people to take more photos to finish off a pack of Polaroids, or contend with storing it and hoping that it will still be good the next time an photos with friends opportunity comes around, then hoping that the film hasn’t expired in the meantime. Improper storage or outright expiration of the film probably isn’t that big of a deal, but with photos being so wildly inconsistent and the photos themselves costing as much as they do, I want to give myself the best possible chance of getting good photos, which is ideally with film that’s within its use-by date and has been stored correctly.

Which brings us to the other part of the problem. I’ve had such varied results shooting Polaroids that there’s always a small part of me that wonders if it’s worth it. I don’t know whether it’s because I don’t have much experience with it to get a good feel for what works and what doesn’t, or because I’m too used to my iPhone camera and its ability to produce perfect photos every, single, time, and keep trying to pull off technically challenging photos with my Polaroid, but getting good photos out of my Polaroid seems like such a coin toss at times that I wonder if there’s anything I can be doing to help my chances of getting photos I would be happy to stick up on my fridge or on my wall.

What’s interesting about all of this is that I don’t have these kinds of inconsistency issues with film. Yes, I’ve shot hundreds more frames of film that I have Polaroids. But with film, I know that when a shot turns out blurry, it’s usually my fault for not nailing the focus using the manual focus lens. Or when the image turns out under or over exposed, it’s because I intentionally wanted it to be. My film rangefinder has automatic metering which prevents the possibility of too dark or too light shots when using aperture priority, but it also doesn’t have the benefit of a flash. By doing away with any kind of adjustable shutter speed or aperture and relying on fixed-focus lenses, theoretically the Polaroid should be able to produce consistent exposures due to how simplified the whole exposure triangle is. But maybe that’s one of its limitations, in that it can only produce exposures in a few limited scenarios, and it over-relies on the flash to compensate for less-than-ideal lighting. Even in the early days of shooting film, when my very first film rangefinder didn’t have (working) metering and I had to manually meter every shot using my phone before dialling my shutter speed and aperture into the camera before taking the shot, I was able to take OK photos most of the time. Yes, in the beginning I might have had a photo that turned out too dark, or too bright, of been blurry due to too slow a shutter speed. But I feel as though I was able to pretty quickly learn what worked and what didn’t and compensate accordingly. The Polaroid, by comparison, seems to have a mind of its own when it comes to exposing correctly. What I think should be exposed correctly isn’t, and what shouldn’t be exposed correctly, is! It’s madness!

Contrast this with the other side of the spectrum, where phone cameras now do so much computational photography that you sometimes wonder if what was captured was a true representation of the scene, or simply the best possible picture. Is there a difference? Would you want a camera that took the best possible picture, even if it automatically pulls off stitches together multiple exposures to give you technically perfect photos? Or would you want a camera that accurately captured the scene as you saw it, or as you’d want it to be remembered? There are absolutely arguments for both, and I don’t think they’re necessarily mutually exclusive, either. I’m certainly not advocating for worse phone cameras, but when we can do previously-impossible feats like change focus in video after the fact, you start to wonder where the limits are.

While I realise I’ll never have perfect photos from my Polaroid in the way that phone cameras have come to deliver with effortless ease, just getting a photo that’s in focus and correctly exposed seems like such a gargantuan task at times that there are times I wonder why I even bothered in the first place. I know that there are some basics like always using the flash and sticking to the landscape lens (yes, even when I’m taking portraits) that will help my chances of capturing a nice shot, but every time I decide to get creative and do something different like use the portrait lens or don’t use the flash, it usually doesn’t work out. And like I said, that may come down to partly not having enough experience with it to know what works and what doesn’t, but at $3 a shot, can I really afford to be taking photos of random people, just to get my eye in?

And even if that was a thing I wanted to do, with a 10-15 minute develop time, how exactly would I go about doing that? I can shoot street with a film rangefinder comfortably enough, but when the product of my photography comes out instantly, there might be an expectation that the subjects get the photo. And if give away the photo and don’t end up seeing it, how am I supposed to know if the settings I was trying, or what I saw when I looked through the tiny viewfinder, worked out or not? It’s a tricky problem.

If I still want to play with instant photos, a better option might be one of the Fujifilm Instax Mini Evos. They’re based on the same instant photo tech as Polaroids, but their biggest advantage is that they can act as printers for your phone, producing physical photos from your digital shots. That feels like cheating, somehow, but if it means I know that I’m going to get usable consistency, maybe that’s worth it. Their biggest disadvantage, however, is that the photos they print are smaller than my Polaroid. Much of the appeal of a Polaroid comes from its palm-sized photos, so settling for something that produces photos half that size seems like a pretty big compromise.

It seems like the answer is to just get good, as it always is. I love taking photos with my Polaroid because it’s fun. I can occasionally get good photos with it, and once I can get shots to turn out consistently good, I’ll be much happier. But until then, I’ll have to contend with having both hits and misses, and my photos will have character. Character above and beyond any afforded by the nature of Polaroids themselves. It’ll be like they were taken by someone who was born yesterday, and who only just learned how to press a shutter button.

That’s the story I’m sticking to, anyway.

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