Spectra
Instant Cameras

Polaroid Spectra / Frustrating Beauty – By Bill Thoo

December 18, 2020

If you are an instant photography veteran my revelations may not be for you, but I confess that I am a late comer to instant photography. I never photographed with Polaroid when instant photography was in its prime, even though I photographed on film through the 1980’s through to the early 2000’s. Even when I started shooting a Holga in 2010 I managed to miss the resurrection of Polaroid in the form of the Impossible Project. It was not, in fact, until the end of 2019 that I photographed my first instant photo on Instax.

And then I shot my first pack of Spectra.

I had decided in late 2019 that one of my 2020 projects would be to try instant photography. I ventured to purchase an Instax Mini 90 Neo Classic and happily made photos with double exposures and diptychs. At Xmas I was generously gifted a Mint Camera Instantkon RF70, perhaps the current King of the Instax, which I subjected to night time long exposures.

Finally I completed the Instax trifecta with the Lomography Diana Instant Square, with its advantage of having the ability to control the aperture and having a true B exposure mode, balanced against it’s limitations of heavy vignetting and toy camera build (top tip: it is particularly good in pinhole aperture). Despite the out of control freight train that was 2020, I was well on my way to building my experience with instant film.

Early in 2020 also saw me receive from one of my sisters a gift of her remaining film camera, a Polaroid Spectra. It was a little dusty, the rubberised bottom cushion was dry and crumbly, and the name sounded like a fictional worldwide criminal organisation. It came with four boxes of unopened Impossible Project branded film, two black and white packs and two colour, expired years ago. Of course, given this is 2020, this gift coincided with the announcement of the end of Polaroid Original’s manufacturing of Spectra Film…!

Spectra

Spectra Film is the same as Polaroid 600 integral film, though the dimensions are different (Spectra is larger). Like 600 and SX70 film, the film packs contain the battery that powers the camera.

My Spectra camera is essentially automatic in function, though there are a number of options via switches at the back, including opting for infinity focus rather than autofocus, choosing whether the flash is on or off, selecting an exposure compensation setting, and turning on and off the sounds. The camera is chunky, but similar to the SX70, it is collapsed until use, where it then opens to expose the lens.

The film door opens with a button on the side, which also allows the film to load from the front under the lens, again similar to other Polaroid cameras. The camera stock is ageing, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to fix or revive Spectra Cameras, unlike Polaroid 600 or SX70s. There is a statement from Polaroid originals on why it was discontinuing the manufacture of Spectra Film.

It seems that the new Spectra Film frequently doesn’t eject properly or jams (the Impossible Project/Polaroid Originals sheets are apparently thicker than the original Polaroid Spectra), and since it isn’t possible to re-engineer the cameras or film, this fault was an extinction level event.

Spectra woes

I had faintly hoped the Impossible Project film would work, but the Spectra Film packs I had received were just too old. Although the dark slides ejected properly, and about half the film sheets in each pack ejected without issue too, nothing of any substance developed. It appeared that in most of the film sheets the chemicals had dried out or expired too far. The only images I managed to create were abstract cream and brown mountain ranges.

Given that, I am not actually sure why I ventured to purchase a fresh pack of Spectra Film. As a friend commented to me, buying Spectra seemed liking flushing $50 notes down the toilet. Nonetheless I did purchase a new film pack and loaded my first pack of Polaroid Originals (no longer “Impossible Project”) Spectra Film.

Now, the dark slide ejected properly – good. I took a photo – satisfying. And then, not a single sheet ejected properly after that – bad!

Processing a sheet of Polaroid film, of course, requires the exposed sheet to be ejected from the film cartridge and squeezed between the camera’s rollers to be born into the world. The rollers spread the development chemicals across the film sheet. My film sheets were getting stuck before entering the rollers. I tried a number of different things to get the film to eject. What seemed to work best was removing the film cartridge and then re-inserting it, which seemed to then eject the sheet as if it were a dark slide. Many removals and re-insertions of the cartridge into the camera with Yoga manoeuvres within the dark bag were required as the film ejection did not necessarily occur with each reinsertion of the cartridge.

The resulting images showed uneven rolling of the chemicals across the sheet, and the top left corner and left side of the sheet was under or not developed in many sheets. There were curious swirls on the bottom of the frames, possibly a film or camera issue, or possibly due to me having to push the sheets back into the cartridge and reloading it into the camera multiple times. As a result of these shenanigans I found myself exclusively photographing with the Spectra camera at home, as I did not fancy carrying a dark bag with me around town.

But there were images.

Sharp yet vague. Well exposed and over exposed. Representational and dreamy. In colours I have never seen on an image I have ever created before, digital or film, instant or otherwise. Imperfect failures. Absolute triumphs. No regrets. Love at last sight.

I get it now. And I find myself wanting more…

What do you think?

You can find more of my work at:
instagram.com/billthoo
instagram.com/bill.thoo

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24 Comments

  • Reply
    Louis Sousa
    December 18, 2020 at 1:47 pm

    Hi, these are nice images. I too experienced the problem of film not ejecting. In the end, I discarded the camera – it was too costly to use especially since getting an image was a crap shoot. Others will probably comment, but I think this film ceased production recently. I have an Instax Square. It produces good images without the flaws of Polaroid. Film ejects 100% and the chemicals are always evenly distributed. The lens is generally sharper and exposure is uniform. I like the character of successful Polaroid images better though, flaws and all.

    • Reply
      Bill Thoo
      December 18, 2020 at 1:56 pm

      Hi Louis, agree on all points. I understand that if you remove the mylar from the cartridge when you are loading it the film ejects more consistently but that even this doesn’t always help it. I have a couple of packs of Spectra left and I’ll try to enjoy what I can of it.

      • Reply
        RMG
        December 19, 2020 at 12:37 am

        This methods works for me, no problems. I just pop the front of the case by giving it a little twist, then rip of the piece of plastic on the top. You have to do it in the dark so try it with an empty before doing it for real.

        • Reply
          Bill Thoo
          December 19, 2020 at 4:06 am

          I have heard this works too, but haven’t tried it yet. I heard it described as the “mylar trick”.

  • Reply
    DeeDee Yelverton
    December 18, 2020 at 3:26 pm

    So bittersweet!! Those are beautiful images! Kudos to you for persevering and coming away with these treasures!

  • Reply
    Thommy
    December 18, 2020 at 6:15 pm

    Hi,
    The spectra problem with the current film packs is related to power. The integrated batteries are too weak. I modified different Spectras by adding an additional power connector and added a 7.4V LiIon battery. All failed before and all are working now perfectly. 1200 series Spectra cameras are OK with the latest film packs as the motor requires less power.

    • Reply
      Bill Thoo
      December 18, 2020 at 8:40 pm

      Ahhh, that’s interesting and makes sense. That’s what the film eject failure feels like – a flat battery.

  • Reply
    Thang Nguyen
    December 19, 2020 at 12:03 am

    I loved my Spectra Pro/ Minolta Pro so much, it’s the best instant camera ever made, surpassing even the folding SLRs in my opinion. Also the Spectra film has better aspect ratio and color reproduction than the square film. Sadly the SLR Macro 5 and the Procam are also now out of commission. Since they discontinue Spectra film I have moved on to 35mm completely.

    • Reply
      Bill Thoo
      December 19, 2020 at 4:07 am

      Do you shoot any instant film at all now?

      • Reply
        Thang Nguyen
        December 19, 2020 at 9:00 pm

        Not really, but I still have the SLR 680 just in case I want to get back to instant film. I primarily shoot the Spectra film since the Impossible Project. Though I am eyeing the SQ-6, I gift it to my sister and took a test shot and I quite like the camera and the IQ from Instax.

  • Reply
    Neil MacLean
    December 19, 2020 at 4:36 am

    Had a similarly sad experience with spectra. Learned about it in fall 2019, got one on eBay for ~$30, got film, shot about 10-20 lovely shots with it (very sharp I thought, great color and contrast, and the size and proportions of spectra are perfect). All in all I shot two packs of color one of BW and in the middle of the bw pack it started to fail on me. I tried a couple more and got similar results to what you posted above. Very tragic!

    Here’s a couple of photos: https://www.instagram.com/p/B4VBxtqgVWF/?igshid=dxgwxhgmw4d
    https://www.instagram.com/p/B4-XScwgX_6/?igshid=11164wg2vvm77

    • Reply
      Bill Thoo
      December 19, 2020 at 7:48 am

      I agree it’s sad that this film isn’t workable in current cameras. Even the “failed” results are so pretty.

  • Reply
    Jerry Milton
    December 19, 2020 at 2:19 pm

    The “remove mylar” trick works 100 percent of the time. I made a YouTube video about it YEARS ago. Polaroid or more specifically OSKAR and his billionaire dad cancelled SPECTRA just to drive their stupid iFilm.

    • Reply
      Bill Thoo
      December 19, 2020 at 9:15 pm

      I heard the mylar trick doesn’t always work but I’m glad it does for you.

  • Reply
    Nik Stanbridge
    December 20, 2020 at 1:52 pm

    Lovely photos. But then nearly all Polaroid photos are lovely… those colors!

    I have a Spectra camera and have taken some good shots with it, but that was when the Impossible film was very sensitive to light when it popped out of the camera. I have a. Pack of B&W film in the fridge that I must have a go with.

  • Reply
    Kyle
    December 21, 2020 at 8:48 am

    It’s definitely a battery power issue that Polaroid wants to blame on aging cameras which is sad that they can’t admit their own fault. Don’t toss those cameras out just yet though! Like most of you have said the multi coated glass lens of these cameras produces exceptionally good contrast and resolution. It’s possible to adapt your spectra to receive a 3 ¼x4 ¼ sheet film holder and shoot high res larger than MF not quite LF sheet film with autofocus and autoexposure! Just follow this how to- https://www.instructables.com/Modify-Your-Polaroid-Spectra-Camera-to-use-Non-Pol/

    • Reply
      Bill Thoo
      December 21, 2020 at 10:23 am

      Thank you for the hack!

    • Reply
      Thommy
      December 21, 2020 at 6:11 pm

      There is a much simpler mod to get every “old” spectra camera working perfectly with the current film packs (yes these film packs are not produced any more but there are still left enough in the market).
      You just need to drill 2 holes on the bottom of the camera (where the internal power connectors are located) then solder a power connector to them and simply connect a 6-7 V battery pack. This gives the extra power which lets the spectras run like a charm again. If anyone is interested I can send/post some pictures and a list of required parts.
      This mod is also suitable for the 600 series cameras in order to use the cheaper non-battery itype films.
      My whole lineup (Spectra Pro, ProCam, 1200si, several 600ers) is now running on external power, no problems any more…

      • Reply
        Bill Thoo
        December 21, 2020 at 8:40 pm

        Thank you! If you have a link to instructions for this please feel free to add that to the comments.

      • Reply
        Whatsername
        January 29, 2021 at 9:08 pm

        I sadly didn’t know the film was expired until after I bought my minolta pro and I was so excited to use it. I haven’t ever taken any pictures with it sadly so for now it sits looking nice on my shelf.

  • Reply
    Ben Garcia
    December 22, 2020 at 1:05 am

    Great images, Bill! I’ve never messed with instant film, but it reminds me of struggling with Holga products. I’ve gotten some wonderful-magical- dreamy images from them, but also lost whole rolls ($$) and had to deal with unwanted double exposures due to winding issues, or hiked/traveled to a a great scene I wanted to picture, yet had none of the frames turn out well because of poor exposure on weird film or a stuck shutter or… yeah, you get it.

    • Reply
      Bill Thoo
      December 24, 2020 at 2:01 am

      My “favourite” Holga problem is the back falling off with no warning for no reason. Instant film and photography in general is pretty reliable. Instax is absolutely reliable, almost bullet proof, except it just has a very narrow latitude and 95% of the cameras give you no control. Other Polaroid Original formats work really well. It’s just Spectra that caused me these headaches. But the results still make me want to shoot it.

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