There’s no shortage of Polaroid instant cameras from the pre-bankruptcy era. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, especially, the local-to-me brand from Cambridge, MA produced over 40 models for the average non-professional photographer. Most of these similar models were actually identical in specification, they simply differed from each other in name, colorway, or the marketing material that surrounded them. And my opinion on these ubiquitous and bland Polaroids has long been that they’re… okay, but not really worth using when there are better (ie., more capable) instant cameras on the market.
I’ve spent a couple of days shooting one of these somewhat anonymous cameras, a model from 1981 which Polaroid named The Button, and it has surprised me in a number of ways. To start, it takes great photos (I really didn’t expect that). Next, I love the way it looks. And finally, the more I shoot it the more I realize that The Button is all the instant camera that most of us will ever need. Despite being just another box Polaroid, The Button is everything that a vintage instant camera should be.
What is Polaroid’s The Button
In 1972, Polaroid made history by producing the Polaroid SX-70, an SLR instant film camera that could take five instant photographs in ten seconds and fold down to fit inside a suit jacket pocket (famously demonstrated by Polaroid founder Edwin Land in front of a live audience). The impact of the folding SX-70 can’t be overstated – Polaroid sold 700,000 units in the first eighteen months of production, and photographers from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol have praised the machine. The folding SX-70 was (and remains) a marvel of engineering, a timeless product design, and a legendary camera.
When new in 1972, the folding SX-70 cost $180. This was a lot of money, and most households weren’t splurging on Polaroid’s specialized camera. To target a wider segment of the market, Polaroid set out to develop a cheaper camera that would use the same integral SX-70 instant film that the folding SX-70 camera used.
Their final design was a non-folding box camera made mostly of plastic called the One Step 1000. It was cheap to build, simple to use, and pleasantly priced at just $40. The One Step 1000 became the best-selling camera of the 1977 holiday shopping season. Polaroid had found their formula. For the two decades after the original One Step launched, Polaroid would continue to develop and release hugely successful products in the lower-spec, simple-to-use instant film camera market.
In 1981 they released The Button, a camera that, true to form, was identical in spec to the original One Step.
Specifications of the Polaroid The Button
- Camera Type – Instant film camera
- Film Type – Integral Polaroid SX70 film (3.1 x 3.1 inch image area / 4.2 x 3.5 inch with border)
- Lens – 103mm F/14.6 plastic lens
- Exposure – Automatic exposure with user-adjustable +/- 1 EV exposure compensation dial
- Focus – Fixed focus (from 4 ft to infinity)
- Viewfinder – Direct, no user aids or information display
- Shutter – Automatic with speeds from 1/200 of a second to 1 second
- Flash – Flash bar socket
- Built in strap
The Button in Use Today
The original advertisement for The Button attempted to sell the camera to children. Or rather, it attempted to sell the camera to the parents of children, encouraging them to give The Button to their kids as a gift. The ad suggested that The Button was perfect for kids because it would encourage them to learn to share, because it would nurture creative instincts, because it would help them understand their world and themselves, and because the images developed quickly (since kids don’t have patience, I guess). Wow, that’s a lot of wholesome stuff for a simple camera.
Marketing fluff aside, The Button actually is a great camera for kids (or anyone) because it truly is simple to use. We load the film by pressing a little switch on the side of the camera. This opens up the film compartment. We load the pack of film, which conveniently (or destructively, depending on your environmental bent) contains the disposable battery pack that powers the camera, and the machine pops to life. it ejects the dark slide and we’re ready to shoot our first shot.
To shoot that shot, we look through the direct viewfinder, which is massive and bright and essentially featureless, frame our photo, and press the eponymous button (which is a pretty, white pearl). The image pops out, it develops over the span of about ten minutes, and we’ve understood our world a little bit better (best-case scenario).
There’s nothing much beyond that.
The Button fits in the hands beautifully, like any old Polaroid box camera. It’s small at 5.5 x 4.2 x 3.8 inches, which is slightly smaller than the modern I-Type Polaroid cameras. And it’s light at 14 oz (396 grams), which is about the same weight as the modern Polaroids.
Polaroid Film and The Button
Polaroid – formerly bankrupt, and then formerly Impossible Project (kind of), and then formerly Polaroid Originals (kind of again), and now (finally and thankfully) just Polaroid – make four types of film. These are SX70 film, 600 film, I-Type film, and Polaroid Go film.
The Button was made in the 1980s to use Polaroid’s original SX70 film, which had an ISO of 100. Modern Polaroid SX70 film is a little bit more sensitive with an ISO of 160 – this effectively changes nothing. Put a new film pack into the machine and take some pictures. If things are too dark or too light for your liking, simply twist the exposure compensation dial on the front of the camera in the appropriate direction and take another shot. The camera does all of the math of exposure and you don’t have to think.
I used a test pack of new SX70 film that I bought from B&H Photo and the shots were a little dark for my taste. On a whim I decided to load up a pack of 600 series Circle Border Polaroid film. This film is much more sensitive to light than the appropriate SX70 film – 600 series film has an ISO of 640. As expected, the first shot was very light, so I cranked the exposure compensation dial to darken things. The result was really great, surprisingly. My shots were exposed correctly and I really enjoyed what I was seeing.
Caveats and Final Thoughts
Polaroid photos in the modern era aren’t as sharp or punchy as they were in the heyday of Polaroid. For some people, this is a big turnoff. The older men and women who fondly remember the days of their original SX70 and who have binders full of Polaroid photos that still look amazing some fifty years after they were shot just can’t get over the fact that the days of high fidelity instant film are over. I don’t blame them.
For these users, Fujifilm’s Instax film and their cameras may be a better choice. Fuji’s film and cameras make images that are punchier and contrastier, the film develops faster, and the colors and sharpness are truer to life. It should also be said that buying a retro Polaroid camera, even from a shop like mine that guarantees full functionality, is inherently riskier than buying a new camera. The newest The Button is more than 40 years old. A new Polaroid or Fuji Instax will probably outlive the cleanest The Button.
These caveats noted, The Button is a lovely camera. Instant photography today is less about making a technically perfect photographic record and more about capturing a feeling, a vibe, a mood. We make instant photos today to remember a fleeting moment, a time we’ll never live again, the way we felt on a certain day, with a certain person, in a certain place. With instant photos, we’re making memories as much as we’re capturing them. For me, The Button is exactly the camera for the job.
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