Fine Tuning SX-70 Exposures with a Variable Neutral Density Filter

Note: There is a video version of Using the Zone System with Polaroid SX-70 Film, Part 1 at the bottom of this post.

It would be nice to adjust exposures in ½ EV increments with my MiNT SLR670-S camera. Unfortunately, the camera can only make full shutter speed adjustments, one EV at a time; there is no ability to select in-between speeds. While most manually-controlled cameras allow f-stops to be set in half or third stop increments, the original SX-70 cameras that MiNT refurbishes have a ‘fixed’ f/8 aperture. 

All too often, I will take a meter reading only to find that the best exposure lies between two shutter speeds, for example between 1/125s and 1/250s at f/8. Because I can’t change the aperture, I’m forced to choose the lower shutter speed, which will result in a slight over-exposure, or the higher shutter speed, which might be darker than I wanted.

Because I’m shooting Polaroid SX-70 integral film, which has a very limited latitude, especially in the highlights, these seemingly minor compromises in exposure can have a major impact on the quality of the final photograph.

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Using the Zone System with Polaroid SX-70 Film, Part 2

Note: There is a video version of Using the Zone System with Polaroid SX-70 Film, Part 1 at the bottom of this post.

In Part 1, I explained the theory behind the Zone System, how I thought it might benefit today’s serious SX-70 photographer and I painstakingly outlined my process for taking the photos required to make a Zone Ruler. If you haven’t, I recommend you take a look at Part 1 before continuing with Part 2.

In Part 2, I analyze my set of “towel photos” taken with Polaroid Color 600 film, build a Zone Ruler, provide some practical tips for using the Zone Ruler in your own SX-70 photography and show a number of photos I’ve taken over the last six-plus months using my Zone Ruler.

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Using the Zone System with Polaroid SX-70 Film, Part 1

Note: There is a video version of Using the Zone System with Polaroid SX-70 Film, Part 1 at the bottom of this post.

SX-70 film is a remarkable feat of engineering. To think that the entire photographic process—taking a photo, developing the negative, printing the negative, developing the print, framing the print—is all done in one step: take the photo and a finished, framed print is ejected!

That magic comes with a few downsides, the most concerning being the limited latitude or dynamic range of the film. While most camera films might be expected to have a dynamic range of 8-9 f-stops between black and white with an extensive range of grey values in-between, SX-70 film has a much smaller dynamic range. Simply put, SX-70 film is extremely contrasty. The film loves low contrast scenes shot in overcast conditions but good luck capturing a bright sunny scene with deep shadows.

In an effort to gain some level of creative control over the SX-70 film’s limited latitude, it occurred to me that the Zone System might be worth exploring.

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The Polaroid Folding SX-70 on Steroids: A Review of MiNT Camera’s SLR670-S

The MiNT SLR670-S (right) and the original Polaroid Alpha 1 (left)

One of the frustrations of working with the Polaroid SX-70 camera is its fully automatic exposure system. As a well-seasoned photographer, I am accustomed to being in full control of setting aperture f-stops and shutter speeds to determine the correct exposure for my pictures. For Polaroid cameras—including the sophisticated folding SX-70 camera of the 1970s and 80s—the sole user control is the uncalibrated exposure compensation dial allowing the exposure to be adjusted lighter or darker by some unknown factor. Getting a good photo on the first try is unlikely and, on occasion, I have used an entire film pack to get one decently exposed image.

There is but one way to gain some semblance of exposure control on an SX-70 camera and that is to buy a specially modified version.

Enter MiNT Camera, a Hong Kong-based company that refurbishes vintage folding SX-70 cameras, installs new electronics and a new electric eye, reclads the camera with black or brown leather and adds a small exposure control module—something they call the Time Machine—that attaches to the camera’s flash socket. MiNT produces three versions of its camera: the SLR670m has the Time Machine, works with SX-70 and 600 films manually and with SX-70 in Auto mode or with the Time Machine detached; the SLR670-S adds an Auto mode for 600 film and the camera natively shoots Polaroid 600 film with the Time Machine detached; the SLR670-X adds external flash sync and metal cladding instead of the regular leather cladding. There is also a SLR670-S Classic model but it appears to use a pre-Alpha 1 version of the SX-70 camera and does not have a tripod socket—which I consider essential—or neck strap loops.

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Cold Weather Photography with a Polaroid SX-70

One of several limitations of the current crop of SX-70 films is their sensitivity to temperature. Taking a picture below 13°C could result in a dark, muddy image with a blue/green cast and lacking contrast. Technically, the developer “goo” that spreads across the image as it is ejected from the camera is, more likely than not, to spread unevenly, creating white splotches, spidery lines and/or a snowy field of white specks on the finished picture. 

Which is a dilemma if you live in Winnipeg, Canada as I do, where the winter lasts at least ffive months and the temperatures can dip into the minus 20s and 30s Celsius for days on end.

Packing my beautiful Polaroid folding SX-70 camera in a camera bag and waiting for summer to return, is not an option. I need to find a way that allows me successfully make a Polaroid picture in the midst of a cold prairie winter. 

What follows is a video outlining what works for me and a few pictures taken using my cold weather technique.  

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