Late to the (Polaroid) Party: The Colorpack II

I'm not necessarily known as being an "early adopter" among consumers.  I barely have 3 Blu-ray discs in my collection, don't fully know how to use my Play Station 3, and plunk away on computers made before Barack Obama took office.  I'm hardly one who is ahead of the technological curve any more.

And then there is my penchant for film cameras.  While I'm sure Kodak, Fuji, and Ilford are glad to have my film related business, I'd imagine the folks at Canon, Nikon, Sony, or Olympus might be disappointed that I'm not quite the gear head who must upgrade to the newest models of their hardware each year.

And yet, even within my odd niche, I can be well behind the curve as well.  In this case, it has led me to barely grab hold of the irons as the last train is leaving the station, and joining in the final passage of a journey that many in my hobby reflect upon with nostalgic sorrow, but for which I've been more or less blissfully unaware until just recently.

The story begins as I'm perusing some Craigslist ads only to stumble across one particularly interesting listing selling off a collection of various cameras and lenses.  The lot includes some new pickups from familiar makers like Nikon and Pentax, a few classic roll film models, and a pair of extras tossed in from a name familiar to nearly anyone who has even seen a physical photo taken in the last 50 years: Polaroid.

Ask the average non-camera collecting person about what Carl Zeiss, Voightlander, or Leica means to them and you are likely to be met with a blank stare, but chances are that same person should have a pretty decent idea about what a Polaroid entails, From its decades of innovation as a leader in the field of instant photography, the term "Polaroid" has largely come be synonymous with its genre.

At the same time, the term Polaroid has largely become synonymous with the term "Hipster," One need only review the lyrics to Demi Lovato's "Really Don't Care" to get the vibe of recent sentiment towards the caricature of those who partake in instant photography. Things certainly have changed in the decade plus where Outkast once popularized the phrase to "Shake it like a Polaroid."

So when this one camera fell into my lap with this single Craigslist transaction, I was excited, dismayed, and confused all at the same time.  You see, while I can not only find meaning to the names Carl Zeiss, Voightlander, and Leica, I also have a decent grasp of the history of these camera makers to have a basic idea of their product lines through the ages. Not so for Polaroid.

And to think that at one point, I was an enthusiastic user of one of their products: Polapan film, a really wonderful 35mm black and white slide film from the 80's and 90's that was "instantly" processed in a small crank-spun home processing unit to yield some lovely monochrome transparencies.  My enthusiasm for this product never once spilled over to me wanting to adopt any of Polaroid's "bread and butter" products in the field of instant print photography. Even getting back into the field of film photography beginning in 2014, I never once considered instant photography and what may have become of it.

The result was that the field of instant photography was one confusingly grey area for me Even if I'd stumble across an internet thread of news snippet on the field of instant photography, I never knew the breadth of what such news entailed.  One such snippet of news involved the discontinuance of Fuji Peel Apart Instant film FP-100C, and was met with significant dismay from the film photographic community.  As I'd never used such film, I had no idea of what the relevance of its discontinuance entailed.

Reading the articles about its discontinuance, and seeing its packaging as a Fuji "professional" product, my first thought was that it was used in medium and large format cameras with special "Polaroid" backs. or for older ID cameras, but not in any product that was in my typical sub-$20 price range.  Though I could feel empathy towards other film photographers losing a product, I'd never thought it would be a product that I'd have purchased.

But here I was picking up a Craigslist lot, consisting of a pair of Polaroid cameras: the "Big Swinger" and this camera: The Colorpack II.

Looking something like an oversized Instamatic, the Colorpack II is a sizable camera rife with the feel of the late 1960's and early 1970's.  The "kickstand" used for posing this camera is actually a diffuser for flash bulbs. 

While the rather awkwardly named "Big Swinger" did not use a currently available film, the Colorpack II uses the FP-100C that I'd presumed was simply a "professional" product.  Once I discovered this, I began to look forward to using the Polaroid more than the other cameras that were far more within my comfort zone.  And with this realization, my interest in cameras using this endangered film began to grow.  But more on that later.

For now though, I had come into the possession of this camera and was curious of what it was capable of.  In my overdue research, I came to discover that the Colorpack II was hardly on the short list of desirable cameras in the Polaroid line up.  In fact, it was a very mass marketed budget model when it debuted in 1969.  Given this, I expected little from this thrifty model in the Polaroid lineup, but decided I was going to push this camera to whatever limits it might have. 

The "Control Panel" on the Polaroid consists of a switch to adjust between film speeds of 75 and 3000, a focusing dial, and a knob to adjust exposure to lengthen or shorten exposure to lighten or darken the print.

Despite being a "budget" model, the Colorpack did offer a greater level of control than I'd initially expected, particularly with its rotating front lens element with a surprisingly "precisionate" focusing ring for a wide range of distances from 3 feet to infinity.  Otherwise, the Colorpack has a fixed aperture lens and an automatic exposure system, with a rather rudimentary dial to fine tune exposures. 

The Colorpack II is a particularly large camera, with a rigid body made entirely out of plastic with limited metal fittings.  It is a camera that doesn't tend to travel well with other photographic company, at least not for photo walks.  It fills up the vast majority of my few photo bags with room for little else.  My expectation is that this camera would see use for a single pack of film, and then be retired to the shelf. 

What intimidated me the most about the Polaroid was properly loading the film, but with a little help from videos, I quickly figured it out.  Note the batteries concealed within the film chamber.  The Colorpack II has the advantage over some of the more "desirable" Polaroid pack film models in taking common AA batteries.  

I actually watched Youtube videos on loading and using Polaroid pack film cameras, as I didn't want to mess this up.  This wasn't as hard as I had made it out to be.  I was now ready to fire away and see just what this camera was capable of.  And I was greatly looking forward to it. 

Using a Polaroid pack film camera is an experience pretty distinct from other film cameras. Yes, there is the typical expectations that you'll focus and compose, letting the camera determine exposure based upon the fixed aperture, but then there are the aspects that make this experience unique.  Pulling the film from the camera and waiting a few minutes to let it make the transfer to the paper adds a thrilling element that seems missing from traditional film photography.

Still, nothing quite prepared me for what I experienced after unveiling my very first instant photography print, complete with a perfect white framed border, taken while out with a few friends at work on a lunch time ramble...

I focused this image at about 6 feet and fired away.  My expectations from this "cheap" plastic camera using "Polaroid" film was to get a lo-fi type result that showed some vague resemblance of the scene that I had just snapped, but instead I was treated to a well rendered print that had a surprising amount of sharpness, perfect focus, and very vivid color.  It may sound cliche to say that "I was hooked," but it is more or less how I felt about this thrilling photographic diversion.

Obviously, revealing one's first photo and being enthused only leads one to want to snap more photos to see the results.  It didn't take long before I was finding interesting places to stop, and electing to fulfill my interest in trying to see the full range of what this camera was capable of.  I focused the following shot at minimum focusing distance.  While it seems I didn't quite nail the focusing spot, I was still quite pleased with the rendering, the color, and the nice blur to the background to make the foreground stand out.  I quickly realized that I was travelling down a slippery slope.

My next result would provide one of the nicest of instant prints I've yet to accomplish, though there is some magenta creeping into the sky at upper right.  Apparently, a pivotal part of the image result stems from how it was pulled from the camera, and having even coverage of the chemistry across the film.  Still, I love how well defined the foreground elements are, the nice muting of the backdrop, and the fantastic look of the water between.  

On my arrival home, I wasn't quite ready to put the new toy away, so I tried posing my eldest in a window and seeing what sort of natural light portrait I could do.  The ambient light was not quite enough to expose the image properly, while the shutter speed that resulted was still too long to really give a sharp hand held shot.  That said, this shot was an important step to realize the contrast that could result in some scenes, as well as provide a learning experience from which I could instantly adjust my tactics if needed, something not really possible with conventional film photography.

As successive days passed, I began to realize some of the allure of instant photography in that it would allow me to satiate my "need" to take some photographs and see some results, but in nicely measured doses.  I could head out to the store to grab some milk, grab the Polaroid on the way out, snap a photo on the way, complete my errand, and head home with a photo ready to be peeled.  Meanwhile, I could gradually learn the strengths and weaknesses of both the camera and film and adjust to these PRIOR to completing my first "roll" of film.  For example, this shot below (taken on the very errand detailed above) showed me that the Colorpack II was a bit soft on landscapes taken around infinity focus, as well as showed the contrast that can result in some settings.  

Still, I tried a few more shots at moderate focusing distance while passing through Dickeyville a couple of days later, but didn't quite get the same good composition that led me to liking the wetlands shot taken a bit earlier.  My focal point was to be the wooden post about 2/3 of the way over to the right, but it is not a strong enough focal element to carry a scene.  

In this way, I began to learn that shooting instant shots, while quite quick in nature, should not be a forced thing, but one that is best accomplished when taking one's time.  Given that the cost per shot is about $2.50, it is a lesson that is pretty readily reinforced each time you pull a sub-par shot from the depths of your Polaroid.  That all said, I hadn't quite learned this lesson as I reached my next photo stop in historic Franklintown.  I was so eager to see a result that improved upon my previous take that I hastily snapped a scene that really didn't flow well.  I could fault this on having my two kids in the car, and this being the only scene which offered a safe place to pull off and remain by the car as I snapped it, but I really didn't get anything new or interesting from this photo.  

I strove that I was going to do better with my final shot in the pack, electing to stop at a favorite setting of mine, focusing to a nearer distance, snapping the shot when the variable clouds had lightly concealed the sun to diminish excessive contrast, and trying to use the elements in the scene effectively to create a nice composition.  My last shot seems to do this well, though I have a bit of an issue with how well I pulled out the image from the camera, as can be seen at upper right.  

My experiences with the Colorpack II were quite a breath of fresh air for me photographically.  It was a great thing to be able to see each shot shortly after it was taken, and to make adjustments from there for future shots.  Each "peel" of a print image from its original film "negative" never ceased to amaze me.  I still have much to learn regarding the field of instant photography, as well as a few creative exercises that I want to try using the medium, so it goes without saying that my "one 'roll' of experiments" is certainly not my last. I look forward to doing more with the medium as long as it is feasible given the recent loss of the FP-100C film.

I you are looking for something to refresh your photographic enthusiasm, a deviation into the world of Polaroid pack film photography may be just the thing.  Cameras like the Colorpack II and its more desirable siblings can routinely be snapped up for less than the cost of a pack of film, so investment is minimal.  If you feel daunted, this site helps to decode a lot of the tangle that is the world of Polaroid photography over the past decade, and helps discern the features of the many variations that exist within the 100-400 series Polaroid models that use this pack film.

I'd also suggest that if you are contemplating this avenue, that time is of the essence. Supplies of pack film are finite and diminishing.  The train is leaving the station.  Grab hold of the genre while you still can!