Many photographers love the joy of film. Part of that joy comes from delayed gratification. Not being able to see your photos for weeks as you go through roll after roll is always a suspenseful treat. Yes, many of us love the “payoff,” but I prefer my results like I like my coffee- in an instant.
The Polaroid 600 was the first camera I ever picked up, even before a digital camera (a surprising fact, considering that I’m quite young). Because of this I understood early on just how expensive film photography can be.
I joined the film community around the time that Impossible Project was attempting to revive instant film. They pulled out all the stops in those days: new films, new (refurbished) cameras, new accessories. I ate it up. I snagged a great, foldable Polaroid 600 camera that still works to this day (almost six years later). Since then I’ve worked my way though DSLRs, which opened the door to mirrorless cameras, analog SLRs, point and shoots, and a whole bunch of other formats which help me scratch my photo itch.
When I was asked to review the new Polaroid Now, I instantly (pun intended) recalled the fond memories of my Polaroid 600 (which had been collecting dust for some years). I was ecstatic to get back into the art of instant film. Ready to see what upgrades Polaroid had to offer, I graciously accepted the offer and before I knew it the Polaroid Now was in my hands.
When I first laid eyes on the Polaroid Now, I was impressed with its sleek design. Polaroid’s first new camera since their bankruptcy (the OneStep 2) was a reimagining of the original One Step, complete with iconic rainbow stripe. The Polaroid Now comes a couple of years later, and can be considered a streamlined evolution of the OneStep 2 design. It comes in a variety of different color choices and special editions as well – the one they sent me was a handsomely reserved white and gray model.
I immediately dove into research before using it. I wanted to know the ins and outs of this camera so I wouldn’t mess up a single, expensive frame. I saw a lot of neat things: Polaroid says the lens is sharp, that the updated autofocus is fast, and that it has a few nice features – double exposure, self-timer, flash. After that, I went to work.
When beginning to shoot photos, I immediately noticed the lack of a tripod mount (a ludicrous omission). My mind immediately imagined motion blur and the inability to take long exposures. I later learned that the lack of a tripod mount wasn’t the only thing holding the Polaroid Now back from certain exposure techniques.
I loaded the camera with the correct film pack; Polaroid’s newest film, called “I-Type.” Polaroid’s new film is great, the best it’s been since the original company went kaput. The main advantage of I-Type film is that each pack is less expensive than the film made for older cameras. This is possible because the expensive old packs each contained their own batteries to power the old cameras. The new packs do not contain a battery. Instead, the battery for powering the new camera is intelligently housed within the camera. Practically, what this means is that I-Type film costs $16 per pack, while 600 series and SX-70 series film costs $19 per pack.
With my pack of color I-Type loaded, I went to a park surrounding a historic Harriet Tubman statue along the Delaware River, mere blocks from my house. I searched for interesting compositions I could fit within the Polaroid film’s square aspect ratio. I framed up Harriet Tubman herself. The sun was setting allowing for a gorgeous glow against the snow that had fallen the day before. The sky behind created a nice gradient, transition from day to night. I snapped four separate photos. With the rather nice lighting conditions, I was surprised when each picture came out under-exposed. I thought maybe it was the cold temperatures, or that the flash might not be able to reach as far as I expected. Regardless, the pictures made for an interesting story.
Something else I quickly learned was that the viewfinder of the Polaroid Now isn’t clinically accurate. It reminded me of my early struggles with rangefinders, each composition was not how I wanted it to be, with some photos poorly composed or misaligned. I realized once more what I’d realized years before: with multiple variables, Polaroid photography can be unpredictable and disappointing.
Later that week, it began to snow again. I decided to Doordash to make some extra cash, with the Polaroid Now buckled up in the passenger seat in case I came across any interesting compositions. Sure enough, I was able to shoot (although under-exposed again) a quiet street corner as the silent sun was setting behind translucent clouds. Though it may have been technically under-done, I thought this photo came out gorgeous!
The snow flakes that the flash captured against the empty street corner and its towering street sign made for a beautiful story. With these under-exposed photos, I learned that when there is some light to work with, Polaroid film likes to add a mix of green and blue to their shadows.
As the night went on, the Polaroid Now and I traveled through the streets of Northeast Philly delivering food. I stumbled upon Nifty Fiftys, a popular 1950s-themed milkshakes bar. Wanting to see how the polaroid treated neon lights, I framed up the restaurant on its dark street and hit the shutter. Surprisingly, something actually showed up in the frame: only the neon signs. The surrounding darkness had no color at all, just void. It was a pleasant treat to see that with the right conditions there were no weird colors in the shadows at all.
After multiple attempts to determine how the camera treated low light situations (which was fairly poorly) I wanted to feed the camera as much light as possible to see how good its “sharp lens” really was.
Instant film isn’t sharp. There is never a truly “sharp” image compared to what a medium format or 35mm film camera can do. With this in mind, I took the camera on a train. I snapped a picture of the train tracks, one of my favorites from this pack. It came out better than I expected. Almost corner to corner, you can truly make out everything in the photo, a luxury I really didn’t have when taking landscape photos with my old Polaroid 600.
On the train, there was a beautiful pink wall that I realized would look great in a Wes Anderson film. So, I composed it just like he would. I centered the wall, made sure the seats were straight, and so on. What I forgot about was the rangefinder-esque viewfinder I mentioned earlier. My developed composition was not quite what I’d seen through the Polaroid Now’s viewfinder. It was crooked, with a seat cut off, and let’s not mention the harsh flash that bounced off the wall. But, with film, it’s all about learning.
To this point, I realized, the Polaroid Now wasn’t really offering anything better than or different from the sort of experience and photos I’d get from my ancient Polaroid 600. The new Polaroid Now lens didn’t seem to do anything better than what my old 600 lens could. And sure, the Polaroid Now had a self-timer and flash, but so does my old 600 series camera. The only thing the Polaroid Now offered that my older Polaroid didn’t, in fact, seemed to be the double-exposure feature. So, I loaded a pack of black and white film and jumped into more experimental photography.
To test out the Polaroid Now’s double exposure, I posed my friend, snapping a frame of her facing right and a frame of her facing left. The final product came out better than I thought, showing an instant two-headed figure you would never see outside of that frame. It was gorgeous to me.
I jumped from under-exposure to double-exposure. Eager to test the limits of this camera, I craved over-exposure. I had no clue how I would even achieve this. The Polaroid Now is as simple as the most basic point and shoot. With no aperture or shutter control, and no exposure compensation (something many older Polaroid cameras offered) I had no way to control the light the camera beamed onto its frames. I was stumped.
So, I tried flooding my subject with light. I took the brightest flashlight I owned and shined it directly into my subject’s profile, creating a nice spotlight for her to stand in. I snapped the photo. Just as I suspected, the Polaroid Now over-exposed her face. What I was ecstatic to see, was a perfect outline of her profile. I was impressed, but I’d be more impressed if I were able to control the light straight from the camera.
In love with the look of the black and white film, I walked around my neighborhood to snap some more frames. I went up to weeds blowing in the wind and snapped a photo to depict some motion. I was surprised to see the weeds were over-exposed, or pleased to see the film’s attempt to give an accurate picture of these beige plants in the harsh noon sunlight. When I took a picture of the house adjacent to them, I was greeted with some nice contrast to compliment its awning; but, making the weeds now over-exposed. With the Polaroid Now I’ve noticed it’s a very subject-focused camera. Its autofocus is really quite impressive. Almost all of the time, the camera has focused correctly (and exposed somewhat properly) the subject which I had intended.
With most of my experimental tests out of the way, I decided to have fun with the Star Wars themed film I had picked up. A few friends and I had bought a stormtrooper and Darth Vader mask as props for this themed photoshoot. We traveled to a local state park and had fun with the camera as the sun went down. The under-exposure I was accustomed to during golden hour allowed for a nice galaxy far-far away look.
After most of my tests and three packs of film, I sat down to ask myself a question, what did I really think of this camera? I’d say it’s all about preference. If you’re looking for a camera on the cheaper side, and you don’t much care about having creative control over exposure or focus, the Polaroid Now is a good choice for you. The autofocus works great, and most of the time the camera exposes well enough that your memories will be recorded in all their vintage charm. For just $99, the Polaroid Now will be a good enough camera for most people who are looking for a cute and simple instant camera.
However, as a photographer who loves to experiment and one who doesn’t like to waste film on imperfect exposures, I want more control in my instant camera. The Polaroid Now’s lack of control over shutter speed, aperture, focus, or anything else, plus its lack of a tripod mount, make it not much more than a fun toy. For my money, the Bluetooth-enabled, full-featured Polaroid OneStep+ is a far better camera for just $40 more.
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