Square format, instant(ish) images, iconic and fun. No, not insta-social media, but a camera developed at the pinnacle of a company’s history. The Polaroid Sun 660 Autofocus Land Camera was sold at the time when Polaroid was a powerhouse in the photographic industry and was considered one of the most innovative companies across the world.
There must be something hardwired into human beings to share images, especially when recording a memorable moment. Before the internet brought us the multitude of social media sites and apps, in the days when people rang each other to talk from a fixed line phone, Polaroid was producing cameras which allowed a you to make a photograph and then share it with another person on the spot. Grant you, if you wanted to share it at any distance, you would have to put it in an envelope and post it, which then would take anything from a few days to over a month.
One of the most recognisable sounds in the world is the whir of a Polaroid camera, with integrated film, taking a photograph. There is something hypnotic about that sound and then the satisfaction of seeing the machine spit out what is effectively a marvel of chemistry, in some cases with over 500 chemical reactions being performed in sequence.
You do need to remember that these days it is not recommended to shake the photo for the image to appear. Shaking will only mix the still unhardened chemicals. That is paired with the misconception that the photo is being developed as the image appears, but in reality, the development has already been completed, it is only the top layer returning to being transparent which is allowing the image to be seen.
While the Polaroid company was viewed as a modern company in the late 20th century, in-fact there is a long history leading up to the iconic cameras which are popular even now.
The man responsible for Polaroid was Edwin Herbert Land (1909-1991). In fact, he was responsible for more than just the company, he effectively conceived and perfected instant photography. When he was young he was fascinated with by light and drawn to the effect on it by natural polarisation.
As a young man, Land attended Harvard University studying Physics, but left after a few months to follow his passion researching polarised light and considering ways of applying it to more practical uses. He moved to New York to conduct his research, which he did in the New York Public Library and during the night at Columbia University. By 1929 he submitted his first patent related to transparent polarising sheets which were flexible.
Land partnered with a Harvard colleague, George W. Wheelwright III (1903-2001), and they formed Land-Wheelwright Laboratories based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The company manufactured polarisers which were used in sunglasses, 3D glasses and as filters for photography. In 1937 the company was listed and at the same time was renamed to Polaroid, in reference to their products. So interestingly the name of the Polaroid company referred to something that had nothing to do with what it was finally famous for. Polaroid stands for applying a polariser.
In the early 1940s Polaroid was one of the companies which contributed to the United States government for the US involvement in the second world war. They developed a range of products which included anti-glare goggles, gunsights and viewfinders. Basically, anything that utilised a polariser.
1943 is when Land experienced his equivalent of Newton’s apple. While on a holiday in Santa Fe, his then 3-year-old daughter asked why she could not see the photo he had just taken of her. This set a chain of thoughts for Land, so much so, that he went for an hour long walk in which he effectively worked out what he envisioned as the start of instant photography. He was later quoted as saying, “Within an hour, the camera, the film, and the physical chemistry became so clear”. Land submitted the patent as soon as he could after that.
Until 1947 the new camera was kept a secret. During this time, Polaroid not only designed the camera, but also developed a new film, worked out the development cycle so it was within sixty seconds and ensured the film stock was stable until the moment the photographer exposes it. Considering that alone as a feat, imagine that within that 4 years they also were in a position to manufacture and sell cameras. In 1948 Polaroid released the Model 95, which sold out immediately similar to what the early Apple iPhone releases achieved in modern times.
The initial film would produce sepia tinted monochrome photographs and required to be peeled apart. It was not until 1950 that a true black and white instant film was produced. This required further complex chemical reactions involving the stabilisation, but Land was adamant that it still had to be completed within sixty seconds. By 1957 it was being reported that instant photography was close to equal with traditional darkroom prints, the innovation during this time was staggering.
During the 1950s and 1960s it was also recognised that Polaroid was at the forefront of equal opportunity in the workforce. Female and minority employees were not relegated to secretarial and menial jobs respectively, but given opportunities in the scientific areas. While that is more common place now, back then this was decades ahead of the rest of the organisations.
The 1960s brought colour to traditional photography. Polaroid was challenged to do the same otherwise they would be left behind. During an overall period of fifteen years starting the late 1940s Polaroid had to solve a magnitude of chemical problems to be ready for the colour revolution. They made breakthrough after breakthrough and in 1963 released their first colour film. Considering Land still put in the restriction that it must develop in sixty seconds, that accomplishment is nothing short of amazing.
The pinnacle of achievement for Polaroid came in 1972 when the truly iconic SX-70 was introduced. Up to that point the film was of the pack variety. Suddenly there it was as one integrated cartridge, where all the work was done by the camera and it then produced the final photograph, in colour, without all the wastage that was produced with pack film. The SX-70 was so successful that it attracted Kodak’s attention and they developed their own version of instant photography.
Polaroid sued Kodak in 1976 and the case continued for over 10 years. Polaroid claimed that Kodak was infringing on their patents and filed for US$12bn in damages. In 1990 the court ruled in Polaroid’s favour and Kodak was ordered to cease selling instant cameras and film. Damages awarded were just under US$1bn. Polaroid in the mean-time continued producing cameras and film, and during this period the other iconic cameras, the Polaroid Land 1000 or One Step (depending where you live) was introduced.
In 1977 Land introduced Polavision, the Polaroid Instant Home Movie camera. This was not successful and eventually led to a US$89m write-off and in 1982 Edwin Land being forced out of the company he founded.
In 1981, just before Land left the company, Polaroid introduced the Sun Light Management System. The Sun 660 Autofocus Land Camera is one of the cameras that used the 600 film system, alongside a multitude of models, all differing in some features. Models with zone focus, with and without flash, and many with different colours and branding for special limited models.
From that point Polaroid began its struggle to remain relevant, so it tried to focus on some more professional models, which led to the introduction to another format, the Spectre film models which moved away from the traditional square format. The decline set in during the 1990’s until 2001 when the initial filing for bankruptcy protection was submitted. Without dwelling on the ins and outs of multiple corporate changes, which are after the release of the camera reviewed here, in 2007 Polaroid finally shut its operations.
Luckily for photographers all around the world Impossible Project was born and started producing instant film for polaroid cameras from a factory in the Netherlands. Some of the examples in this article were shot using some of this film. Eventually in 2017 the Polaroid brand was bought by Impossible Project and the company was renamed to Polaroid Originals. This brought a new formula of film, and even a new One Step camera, making the future of Polaroid Instant photography look good again.
The Polaroid Sun 660 Autofocus Land Camera was introduced in 1981. Not to be confused with more rounded 600 series models reproduced much later, this model has very distinctive square features. As indicated by the model number, the film used is the 600 series, which has a faster ISO rating than SX-70 film.
As per the original cartridge integrated film cameras, the camera itself does not have a battery. The battery is enclosed in the film cartridge, which is handy in testing camera operation by inserting an empty cartridge.
The camera top folds down more to protect the flash and lens than save space. It clicks in place and does not require a button or lever to open it. Construction is mainly plastic, but considering how many still survive, a very good quality plastic. The view finder protrudes at the back and has a square rubber cup around it for comfort. The viewfinder is quite small, but considering there is no controls required on the camera, quite appropriate. The camera came with a plain black neck strap.
When opened, the lens, flash, viewfinder, exposure meter, light management system and the autofocus sonar components are exposed. The lens is a plastic single element 166mm with fixed aperture of f/11. This is roughly 45mm in 35mm terms and the small aperture ensures that a lot will be in focus. Shutter speeds are automatically controlled by the camera through the exposure meter, but can be compensated using the slider in the centre, also called the light management system. The electronic shutter speeds range between 1/4 – 1/200 second.
No focus control is available, focus is fully controlled by the sonar which is behind a round grill. Sharpest distance is between 1.2 – 1.5m (4-5 feet).
Flash is automatic from the fold out integral unit in the top section next to the Polaroid rainbow logo. It determines flash strength in low light, but the shutter can be fired without the flash by pulling the lever under the orange shutter button on the right of the camera.
Film is loaded into the bay under the camera which swings out once the thumb lever on the side is pushed. It is a matter of inserting the 600 film cartridge and when closed it pushes out the film cover. This camera has a pre-installed “frog tongue” which protects the exposure for the first few milliseconds from overexposing. An exposure counter is on the back of the camera, but be aware that even though it starts at ten, there are only eight exposures in modern Polaroid cartridges. This means that the film is finished with the counter still at two.
The camera cannot be reviewed without some focus on the film as it is such an integrated eco system. The three films used in this article are the Impossible Project B&W 600 Film, Polaroid Originals B&W 600 Film and Polaroid Originals Color 600 Film.
All three are in the same cartridge type and carry the battery which powers the camera. The image area is 79x79mm (3.1×3.1”). ISO is rated 640. Development time for the Impossible Project version is 40 minutes and must be shielded initially by the frog tongue to avoid over exposure. The new Polaroid Originals formula fully develops in 10-15 minutes and is not as reliant on the frog tongue.
As mentioned earlier there are eight images per film cartridge, unlike originally the ten which the old Polaroid produced.
I found my Polaroid Sun 660 in a charity shop, with lots of dust on it and the lady serving telling me the no-one uses these cameras any more. Sufficient to say, I managed to get it for a few dollars and eager to get home and see if it was in working condition, considering what price refurbished units are selling at Impossible Project now called Polaroid Originals. After a bit of cleaning I was surprised on how well this unit was preserved. Next, I waited for the film order to arrive so that I can try it out.
It is worth mentioning that I am not generally a Polaroid or instant photo person. My exposure to this type of photography was my father with the 1000 Land Camera (green button), so was tainted with instant photography being family snapshots and sometimes formal photo album pictures. Even with that background, the memories of the whir sound had me quite excited.
Initially I used the Impossible Project B&W film, as this was before they bought out the Polaroid brand. The formula was the second generation. I was quite pleased with the results. Initially I found the camera overexposed by a little, but with a small adjustment on the lever on the front, I was quite happy. The chemical formula probably still needed some work as I found the edges a bit rough and some streaks through the shots.
Carrying the camera around was a little awkward, similar to carrying a medium format camera around. When I opened up the top I got a mixture of interactions with people, mostly nostalgic but also pure interest. Interestingly everyone knew what it was, such is the saturation of Polaroid in the past. Of-course everyone wants to shake the picture, as we know this is no longer the case.
I found the viewfinder, while small, was enough to frame with. Being square format, which is one of my favourite formats, I did not have to worry about rotating the camera. Even though it looks rather odd shaped, the camera fits in my hands very well. The shutter button is in a good spot and comfortable to use. It took a couple of shot to remember to half hold it before firing, to allow the flash to charge up.
When Polaroid Originals was released, which equates to the third generation of the 600 film by Impossible Project, I again ordered some and found I was getting hooked on shooting instant. This time I got black and white and colour. I suddenly could understand the passion that surrounds these cameras. They are not just iconic, but something that gives a lot of pleasure to use. The only drawback being that even with the recent price reduction, quite expensive to buy the film. The film still has some imperfections but this is expected as they have had to recreate it with different chemicals in a much shorter period than the original Polaroid had.
The more I used the camera the more I wanted to use it. That, by definition, is a great way to describe it. As the price of most of the Polaroid integrated film cameras are still quite low, with a few exceptions, find one that works and buy it. Based on my experience with the Polaroid Sun 660 Autofocus Land Camera, you will have a blast!