by Mark Meyer · Posted in: essays
Sadly, recent events at the Polaroid corporation have led to the discontinuation of their instant slide film. All the suppliers I have used in the past have since run out of stock and our little slide processor has become a museum piece.
If you are like me you are probably tired of the film companies telling you that the only important qualities in film are super saturation and fine grain. It's becoming difficult to find a film with a respectable amount of grain these days although a few people are still resisting the velvia craze by holding on to their kodachrome with clenched teeth. If you like shooting chromes but want something a little off the beaten path I suggest you try some of the Polaroid instant monochrome slide films.
What you need to get started
Before you start you will need some film, a 35mm camera, and a 35mm Auto Processor. The processor is a little machine will fit on your desk (it's about 8.5" long) and allow you to process all of the instant slide films in two to four minutes. It will set you back about $110.00. It's not often that you get this much fun for $110 without risking jail time. It is very easy to use. Each roll of film comes with a development pack looks like an inkjet cartridge with a piece of film sticking out of it You pop this into the machine and hook the leader onto a roller. Next, put the film in the machine and hook its leader onto the same roller. Close the lid, press a lever, and turn the crank. Wait two to four minutes depending on the film, push the lever back up, turn the crank some more and you're done. I don't know what goes on inside the machine during all this, but when you open it, looks the same as it did when you closed it except the film inside the can is now developed. I open the film can with a bottle opener and mount the slides right away. Polaroid and others make slide mounting machines that seem pretty slick but I just use scissors and some Gepe glassless plastic mounts. Be warned that the emulsion on these films is very fragile so you need to be extra careful handling it. At one time Polaroid made an automatic processor. I hear they can still be found used but have never one. One of the challenges with the hand-cranked unit is getting consistent results because the speed you turn the crank affects the development of the slide. I imagine a motorized unit would help in this regard.
This is the closest of the three to normal B&W film. It has a relatively low grain. Not relative to traditional slow B&W films but to the other Polaroid slide films. It also has a much lower contrast that the others. It is rated at ISO 125 but this is a little misleading. Unlike normal slide film, it is difficult to overexpose this film. The highlights resist burning out completely, but the shadows block up easily. I find myself shooting this a full stop over the suggested exposure most of the time. This has the effect of bringing the details out of the shadows while not effecting the highlight area much at all.
This stuff is unlike anything else you can find. Both PolaBlue and PolaGraph are intended for making slide show titles. PolaBlue is for those titles with white text on a blue background. Because of this it has very high contrast and forms a negative image. The highlight areas become blue and the shadow areas are white. It is not a good choice for sports because it is rated at ISO 4 when shot with tungsten and 8 when shot under sunlight or strobes. It also requires four minutes in the processor rather than two. This is a film that challenges your creativity. I find it difficult to get much that I really like from it because it is difficult enough to visualize you final image as a negative let alone a blue and white negative. Nevertheless, I shoot this film when I am feeling extra crafty or want to get out of a rut. When shooting this it is good to remember that no matter how much light you put on the film it won't get anything denser than a medium-dark blue. Also because of its enormous contrast the image will either want to go completely blue or white. There is very little middle ground, but this is where it is interesting. There is a small area in the midtones where you can achieve a lovely dithered effect. In the flower shot above, I wanted to have a solid background and be able to see the veins in the petals. Knowing that I would get a solid blue background with lots of light I just put the flower in front of a large softbox pumping out 1200 watt-seconds. The background went blue and the areas on the turned white because I added no front light. The petals and stamen are backlit and fall right in the middle. Subjects that don't require much shadow detail work well with this film. So do subject like glassware where an inverse image looks more or less normal.
This is my favorite of the bunch Like PolaBlue, it has very high contrast, but forms a positive black and white image. It is rated at ISO 400 but can be pulled a stop to 200 if you adjust the processing time to 1 minute instead of two. Pulling the film will result in somewhat lower contrast. The slides are not really neutral in color balance but rather have a faint, warm tint to them; not as strong as a sepia toned print but similar. There isn't really any gray in this film. Highlights go completely white and shadows go black. The areas in the very narrow midtone range take on a grainy dithered look that give this film a very unique look. PolaGraph has a very small latitude for exposure. Even a half of a stop makes a large difference in the final slide so it's a good idea to bracket you r shots. I prefer this film with subjects whose form can be expressed totally in black and white like the cookie cutters above or subjects that are very low in contrast like the espresso cup.
All the film is expensive. You can expect to pay about $10-$13 for a 12 exposure roll of film. Keep in mind this also includes the processing pack so you don't need to pay for processing like normal slide film. PolaPan is also available in 36 exposure rolls which sell for $20.00 locally in Chicago.
All of the films must be stored properly. People get weird about keeping normal reversal film cool. I often hear of people going on vacation and getting all bothered about how they will store there slide film when they travel. I often wonder if these folks are shooting Revlon ads on vacation. Most slide film handles mistreatment quite well unless you have very exact color standards to meet. Polaroid slide film doesn't. I left a roll of PolaBlue on my desk for a two months and when I finally ran it through the camera I ended up with a couple of blurry, blue smudges where I was hoping for brilliant pictures. The stuff kept in the fridge worked fine. Keep this stuff in the fridge and only buy it from a store that keeps theirs in the fridge. The boxes have dates in them too, so check that when you buy the film. I wouldn't waste my money buying it from close-out bins. Many places in Chicago won't stock this film because it sells so slowly and must be tossed after the expiration date. I have always been able to find it at Calumet. I imagine B&H stocks it as well.
PolaPan and PolaGraph have a very reflective surface. This can be a problem with some camera meters. Use a handheld meter if you can. The surface can also make the slides difficult to scan. If you are having trouble try flipping the slide over and scanning it from the other side.
This film makes lovely reversal prints. I print these on an Epson, but I know people who like to make traditional reversal prints from it as well. I normally print these with a slight tint . If you give this to someone to print make sure they understand how fragile the surface is. The emulsion will scratch off with very little effort