How to Use a Polaroid Camera at Night

By Scott Shpak

A guide to techniques and practices to shoot photos successfully at night using a Polaroid camera and Impossible Project film.

One of the guiding principles for Polaroid consumer cameras has always been ease-of-use, which culminated in the company's SX-70, 600 series and Spectra camera lines. What Polaroid cameras don't offer is creative versatility through the use of camera settings. At the most complex, a Polaroid camera may have a light/dark adjustment and a close-up switch. Shooting at night may take some trial-and-error to understand your camera's capabilities, as manuals offer little guidance. Successful night photographs also depend largely on fresh film, which gets less sensitive to light over time.

Instant Film

Any successful analog photography requires fresh film. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, so no matter how well Polaroid-brand film is stored, it will no longer produce predictable results. As well, power for many Polaroid cameras is supplied by a battery in the film pack, and the chances of Polaroid films having dead batteries are high.

A company called the Impossible Project purchased equipment from closed Polaroid plants and is, at the time of publication, the only supplier of analog film compatible with vintage Polaroid cameras. Even with Polaroid's manufacturing equipment, the Impossible Project has had to re-invent many of the film formulations, so, while consistency has improved since the company started marketing film, this film doesn't handle or process in the same way as original Polaroid film did. For example, an update from August 2015 states:

Impossible’s current generation of films tend to be "fast" (sensitive to light). We recommend that you adjust the exposure wheel or slide on your Polaroid camera one-third to the dark setting when shooting in bright light conditions.

Best Practices for Night Photography

Stabilize Your Camera

Use a tripod if your Polaroid camera has a tripod mount socket on the bottom of the camera. Not all models do, so you may need to improvise. Low light conditions such as night photography may cause your camera to use a slow shutter speed, making it susceptible to any movement while the exposure is taking place. Choose a solid, flat surface and also support the camera from the side, if possible. Avoid moving the camera when you press the shutter release.

Choose Stationary Subjects

Picking a non-moving subject improves your chances of successful photos, particularly as you learn about your Polaroid model's capability. Cityscapes, still life and architectural studies make good choices. Note that moving objects such as cars may blur in a pleasing way across a night scene, giving a sense of motion.

Adjust the Exposure Control

Many Polaroid models have a wheel or slider for making prints lighter or darker. As mentioned above, current Impossible Project film is more sensitive to light than your camera expects. This is to your advantage with night photography. Moving the wheel or slider in the direction of the light setting allows more light to reach the film, giving you a better exposure in night scenes. Experiment with the exposure control to get a feel for how it affects your prints.

General Film Conditions

The operating temperature for Impossible Project film is between 55 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit. If you store your film in the fridge, let it warm to room temperature before attempting to use it.

Original Polaroid film had a temporary masking layer that protected the print image as it developed. Impossible Project films do not yet have a similar layer, so the print must be protected from additional exposure to light once it is ejected from the camera. Keep the print face down or otherwise in darkness for the full length of development, 10 minutes for black-and-white films or up to 40 minutes for color films.

Cameras With Flash

Flash emulates daylight over a short distance, so using flash tends to remove the ambiance of a night scene by adding harsh directional light. Some Polaroid models permit you to shut off the flash, while the SX-70 series use removable flash bars. Many models in the 600-series trigger the on-camera flash when exposure sensors determine low light conditions. Since the effective range of the on-camera flash is typically between three and nine feet, composing your night shot with no subject matter closer than about 12 to 15 feet ensures the flash will not affect your photo.

Tip

Effective night portraits can be made with your subject in your camera's flash range, but with a night scene out of flash range in the background.