Low Light

The combination of Polaroid’s SX-70 and Impossible Project’s film is outstanding for many, many reasons – but low light isn’t one of them.

From my limited technical and historical understanding, the SX-70 was never was a fast camera to begin with. Neither it’s lens nor it’s film rating allowed it to snap photos the way most modern cameras do. Coupled with my love of shooting 600 film which requires an additional ND filter over the lens AND adding to the fact that it is a manual focus camera (at least my SX-70 Kuro is) – you have a nice book of recipes for disaster – or imperfect shots shall we say.

But again, therein lies the beauty and challenge of instant photography. Risk, challenges, different results all lead to learning – and I’m convinced this makes one a better photographer and makes one cherish the moment and the photo much more.

The way I see it, there are four ways around low light challenges. Three are presented here from my library of comedy of errors.

The first and most stubborn way around this is of course to pretend that there is no problem. You hold the SX-70, hold your breath and pray. Sometimes you do get really nice shots and sometimes you shake the camera minutely enough to trigger a blur. The main problem arises because the SX-70 doesn’t give you any type of feedback about how long it is going to adjust the shutter speed to compensate for the amount of low light – so this makes things a little bit of a gamble.

The photo of my wife taken in a restaurant shows the slight amount of blur you could get in a totally enclosed and artificially lit location. On the other hand, a little bit of daylight allowed me to get this really dreamy picture of Prudence.

One of the worse cases to get, is when I encounter a situation where I know there’s not enough light so I try and compensate by turning the SX-70’s exposure dial to the lighter side – this results in a blurred and over-exposed photo because of the longer shutter speed.

The second and my least favorite way around low light conditions is to use a flash. I’ll openly admit this – also because I’ve tried and not found a single helpful source on the internet – I’m bad at this. Shooting with a flash is really tough. The variable is not just the lighting condition. The type of flash matters (I have both the new Mint / Impossible flash bar & the traditional GE / Polaroid – flashbulbs – flash bar). The number of subjects matter in their distance and positions. I’ve found that each pack of film you shoot requires recalibration. And finally, I’ve found that when shooting with the new Mint flash bar; the distance to the subject / focusing really has not helped me – and so far produced less than pleasing results.

The picture on the left of Michael and Zev was shot with a lot of evening light and with the Mint flash at full power. The image on the right is of dad, sitting a meter away with Mint flash at half power.

Photo on the left was taken about a 1.5 meters with GE flash at full power and it produced a full-blown over-exposed shot. Picture on the right is taken with Mint flash at full power and SX-70’s exposure wheel almost wide open.

It has been hard to get a pleasing shot but when I do, it is very nice.

This was taken randomly but under challenging conditions. Prue was coloring under florescent lighting, on a bright afternoon with the light coming in behind her from the balcony. I love how the camera and the Mint flash correctly got both exposures perfectly.

I actually prefer the GE / Polaroid “old school” flash bar. It’s brighter, seems a little more consistent, and being an actual light bulb – it seems to just add a little more character and nostalgia to the shot. Notice how it even captures the acrylic children’s painting hung on the wall in the background.

A third and obvious way to deal with low light is to use a tripod. I was inspired to do this after reading a blog post on Toby Handcock by The Impossible Project. It’s amazing because this is such an obvious solution and yet until reading this post, I never thought to associate night photography and long exposures with – an instant camera. And yet if you think about it, this is exactly what the SX-70 was built for. It has the capability to automatically compensate for low light with exposures lasting more than 10 seconds. Incredible for a camera built almost 40 years ago.

These two photos were taken with only the streetlamps as a source of light. Each exposure was longer than ten seconds.

Using a tripod indoors works well too. The only tricky part is making sure the subject doesn’t move too much. Said subject being my 10+ year old cat, Rei.

Still this opens up some great new opportunities for me to explore and experiment with. I plan to do a new project where I shoot some of my favorite things and hobbies. Not bad to start off with two of pet loves – my Pro-Ject Audio turntable and some rainbow-colored sunflower seeds (yum)!

There is also a fourth option. It’s to use Polaroid’s original self-timer. I just got one in the mail and hope to have some feedback on that soon.