Meet the PolaFlex, a Custom-Made Polaroid TLR by Douwe Krooshof

Meet the PolaFlex, a Custom-Made Polaroid TLR by Douwe Krooshof

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In September, 2023, when the Polaroid I-2 finally came out, my expectations were sky high. But the first reviews left me disappointed. A plastic lens? A viewfinder camera? Manual control only via a menu? I will not enjoy shooting this camera. And no, I will keep my 700 euro (thank you very much).

At this time I was shooting a lot of Fuji Instax Wide on a Frankenstein Polaroid 160 that I had made a couple of years earlier. It had an old darkroom lens on the front, and half an Instax Wide 300 camera on the back. The images it made were very nice, but the wide aspect ratio wasn’t doing it for me. I wanted square instant pictures, the iconic Polaroid format!

In the aftermath of the I-2 launch, I was chatting with my friend Nuno on what we thought the I-2 should have been. This got me thinking. If I were to make a Polaroid camera, what camera would I try to make?

It would have to offer real manual controls and be suitable for use with studio flash. It would need to focus accurately, and have an excellent lens. It would have to be joyful to look through the viewfinder and compose the image, and at the same time, I would need to be able to make it in my kitchen. Oh boy!

I soon determined that if I were to make my own Polaroid camera, it would have to be a TLR.

The TLR is the Goldilocks design of the camera world: easy-to-use, great for portraiture, allows image composition and focusing on a beautiful ground glass, and yet the design is relatively simple. Relative being the key word.

At this stage, I didn’t yet have the courage to commit to making anything. Surely this was a bit of an unrealistic project! But my notebook was already filling up with tiny sketches of how the mirrors would need to be arranged, and where the focus rack would need to go, and what kind of parts would be suitable. When I learned that reusing the development unit portion of an old Polaroid OneStep2 camera was easy (thanks to @identidem.design), something changed. I actually could see a path to building a Polaroid TLR.

I had to do it.

Instax Wide film – beautiful, but too wide. (Emilie, Berlin 2023, @emilie_payet_artist)

The design and build

I own a 3d printer. I own a laser cutter. I’ve repaired and hacked cameras before, and I’ve built my own UV enlarger, so keep in mind that this was my starting point.

The design of the camera is very Bauhaus. Form follows function. There were two major design decisions.

First, I cannot stand mirrored portraits, so the camera has two mirrors. One between the taking lens and the film, the other between the viewing lens and the ground glass. It is the first twin-lens-twin-mirror-reflex in the world!

Second, I wanted this to be a portrait camera that could take a tight headshot, so the camera had to have bellows like a Mamiya C-series TLR. All the other parts were just the result of constraints set by the design.

Sketching the basic set-up on paper was not that challenging, but this changed when I started making the design in Fusion360 (CAD). Not only did all the parts have to fit into a small space, but they had to be the right size, and they needed to respect the limitations of the 3D printer.

I made a few tests to get the light path right, and to test the design of the focus rack. A couple months in, the major mechanical design was completed. I printed the body of the camera for the first time and ten hours later I got a first impression of the camera’s size and presence. Changes were needed of course, but I was very happy to see something real after many long evenings of measuring, calculating and designing.

But it didn’t stop there. To complete the build required that I learn how to make bellows, cut mirrors, and make ground glass, to name just a few of the new skills I had to learn.

And where optics are involved, there is calibration to be done. Tweaking the distance from the viewing lens to the ground glass took a couple packs of film, and there were some frustrating moments along the way. But it worked out in the end.

The finished print of the camera body.

Making the bellows.

The result is the PolaFlex, the first ever Polaroid TLR!

It has a Schneider Kreuznach Symmar-S 135/5.6 taking lens and a full manual shutter/aperture with pc-sync. The bellows focus runs on aluminium rods in polymer bearings and has zero backlash. The focus is two-sided like on a Mamiya. The ground glass is large and has a fresnel to brighten the view. There are parallax marks to aid in composition. The film ejects with a button press on the back of the camera. You can recharge the battery with USB-c. Not bad for a first try.

And the funny thing, is that I hadn’t really shot any Polaroids before I built the PolaFlex!

The camera in use

I really enjoy making things, and sometimes that’s the only goal I have. But when I build cameras I want to use them.

I’ve already had a few sessions in the studio with the camera and I’m very happy. The lens really shows what Polaroid film is capable of, and it truly shows what an awful disservice the plastic-lensed box cameras do the film.

It is also a joy to hook up a sync cable and use studio flash. Just meter for your aperture, set it, and get reliable exposures. Since Polaroid is almost large format you do need to take the bellows factor into account for close-ups, and on the topic of close-ups, I love taking portraits with the PolaFlex. TLRs are great for portraits and everyone loves the look I create with the camera.

Through the viewfinder!

What’s next

I’ve had a lot of positive reactions to the camera, and it has taken me a bit by surprise. Lots of people ask me when they can buy one, and assume that I’m gearing up for mass production. That was never the plan, but I’m going to do a build guide for the next version. That second iteration will be based on lenses that are easier and cheaper to find, and it will incorporate some lessons learned and (hopefully) some fancy touches, such as an indicator needle for parallax and bellows factor.


Our guest author articles are sent in by amazing photographers and writers all over the world. Today’s guest author…

Douwe Krooshof is an Amsterdam-based maker, photographer, and analogue enthusiast whose personal work can be seen on Instagram, at www.cyanotypist.com.

 

More on the PolaFlex can be seen on Instagram here.


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8 comments
  • This is utterly brilliant, and really impressive!

  • Douwe – dood! – this is fantastic! I lost interest in any of the current instant film cameras because frankly their results were terrible. As well as the user interface.
    Yours is what should be.

    Plus your portraits are great!

    • Thanks! I think it was the same for me! I just wanted a fully manual ergonomic camera that makes the film shine!

  • Can you explain the mirror on the taking lens further, I think I don’t understand it. Usual TLRs have one mirror on the viewing lens, and the image is left/right inverted (I guess that’s what it is? At least following movements is confusing sometimes). In a SLR viewfinder, a pentaprism pulls everything into the right way.
    But what is your second mirror doing? The light goes through the lens onto the mirror and then to the film? So, is horizontally placed instead of vertically? From the top image, I guess that’s what it is?

    • So, this may be a bit confusing when you’re unfamiliar with Polaroid 600 film. The film is exposed on the front and the image also appears on the front. So unless you put a mirror between the lens and the film, you end up with a mirrored photo. All Polaroid sx70, 600, and I-type cameras have mirrors between the lens and the film. I followed this design!

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