Artist’s Notes: Experimenting With Polaroids

I have found out a lot, and very quickly I will add, about instant film over the past half-month. I mean, there is a lot of love and hate about instant film but I suppose just getting straight to my findings would be best. I’ll save the proper emotions for when I bring up those topics.

I think I’ll break this down between technical findings and then personal associations, starting with technical findings. A lot of them have come from research prior to trying it out myself, but I suppose going over the basics and my findings won’t hurt.

The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the lack of control in instant pictures. Think about the process for a moment. When I want to take an instant picture, a number of things are happening all at once that affect the ultimate result:

The Film

The film inside of the cartridge is a very unique set of circumstances. It’s got all of the necessary components inside of its packaging to develop an image, stop the development process, fix the image to its surface, and produce color if desired.

However, one must remember that instant pictures are merely chemistry. It’s always possible for such chemistry to combine improperly or not be compatible. And because it is film, no one ever dares expose it to light in order to check the status of the unseen chemical inside of it. That understanding that one never knows just how reliable or great the chemistry inside of instant film cartridges are is a slash to one’s control over their produced image.

The Camera

The camera that instant film goes in is designed with a market that lacks proper photographic knowledge in mind. Therefore, to fully appeal to that market, camera creators decided that instant film should go inside of a camera with limited capabilities so as to make photography more accessible (i.e. the less I have to think, the better.) Most instant cameras only allow you to focus on two things: framing your subject and then pressing the shutter release button.

But, to the seasoned photographer, such limited control can be…discouraging sometimes. Sometimes, you’d like to turn off your flash but you don’t always have that option. Sometimes, you’d like a slower/faster shutter speed. Sometimes, you’re thinking about aperture settings. But all of these are decided for you (although less so with the flash component.) Agreeing to press that button after looking through the viewfinder in order to get that instant picture, is an agreement to relinquish more photographic control.

Environmental Factors

There are a number of things happening here, and these might be the real reason you have less control. The environment in which the picture is produced has the most effect on the picture itself. We may not always think about it, but it remains true.
Take the following factors into account: temperature, humidity, light exposure,  camera maintenance, and the physical integrity of the film.

Temperature is maybe one of the most known environmental factors to consider in instant film usage. Since the entire development process happens outside of a controlled environment (e.g. a darkroom), one cannot regulate the temperature they find themselves in. The chemicals that produce color in color film are ridiculously sensitive to temperature. That’s why you can take a picture of the same thing in hot and cold weather and have two different pictures. Cold weather yields cooler color tones while hot weather yields warmer color tones.

Humidity must be taken into account because it can degrade the protective layers of the film and possibly mix with and contaminate the chemistry. Most physical photos don’t like water in any form. This is true for instant pictures as well.

Light exposure should remain fairly obvious as to why it affects the image. Though the instant film is now more protected from light after being ejected by the camera, it is still sensitive to light. That’s why storing instant pictures in a dark environment help to preserve the image overall. To add, while the photo develops before your eyes, it’s still just as sensitive as it was while inside the camera and leaving it out in the light can cause overexposure, which can aid in blowing out your image to the point of nothingness.

Camera maintenance remains a notable factor just because it is so easy to forget about. A clean camera means any screw-up in an image is due to something outside of the camera. In the case of instant cameras, the rollers which push the film out of the camera are of concern. Filthy rollers lead to a filthy image. It’s important to clean rollers regularly to avoid stains, discoloration, and skewed ejection of the film.

And lastly, the physical integrity of the film also plays a role. While one does not think about it, it makes all the difference in keeping a pristine image free of imperfections. An instant picture may come out perfect, but the decision to store it in your pants pocket may cause an imperfection unintentionally. This is why you may sometimes get undeveloped patches in your film/image, streaking, lines, etc. Keeping the instant picture flat, free of kinks and crinkles will help prevent imperfections.

All of these things attribute to a lack of control when using instant film to make pictures. Technically speaking, these are hugely important to always keep in mind.

The second biggest thing technical thing I’ve noticed is how one introduces an annotation system to the image itself. It’s common to see personal notes and scribbles on Polaroids and instant film. Everyone has their own unique way of “tagging” their images.

Such an invitation is rejected in other forms of picture-making. In most other forms, the image is all that matters. But with instant film, notes and words become a part of the image, and such additions are welcomed when making these pictures.

What I have noticed is that these annotation systems are complex and evolved based on what’s important to the annotator (who may or may not be the photographer.) When the photographer is the annotator, the notes tend to be more detailed and meaning. When someone who didn’t take the image writes on it, I find it has less information, or at least the information is succinct.

And the last technical thing I’ve noticed has something to do with findings from expired film. To be short, expired film is unpredictable, although it seems to have some commonalities if you look closely. These same findings are also true of improperly assembled film cartridges. Let me say though that color film, and black & white film have differences so I will compare apples to apples (and then apples to oranges.)

Color Film

So color film is a beast on its own but it’s a fun beast. Speaking strictly on the expired stuff, color film tends to do the following after it has expired:

  • A tendency for cooler tones overall
    • I noticed this right away with some side by side comparison. On expired film, the color range shifts towards cooler tones (I tend to get a lot of purples, greens, and indigoes) as opposed to being more color balanced or having warmer tones.
      This seems to be true regardless of the temperature the photo is developing in. I say this because on the same day, I shot in both very cool and very warm environments (all other factors were accounted for in the same way) and all my pictures came out with cooler tones.
  • Less saturation overall
    • Normally, color film has a wide range of colors and they are rich. When the film expires, the saturation just plummets to pastel versions of the same colors. Deep reds become pinkish, deep blues from the sky become more like baby-blues, and even lush greens start to look greyish.

Black & White Film

Now black & white film is much more traditional if you think about it since it has been around for far longer than color film. However, when talking about instant film, it’s somewhat of a strange beast since most instant film is color film. Still, it has it quirks too when expired:

  • Higher likelihood of sepia-toned color cast
    • Even though it’s not all that noticeable on its own, when put next to a pristine grayscale image, the sepia just pops off the page. They are most noticable in midtones, but not as much in blacks/shadows or whites/highlights. Truth be told, it probably turns sepia because of the chemicals getting old.

Expired Instant Film In General

Now, comparing apples to oranges, there are some things that just happen in general with expired instant film that I’ve noticed:

  • A drop in contrast, meaning less contrast overall
    • The variety in highlights, midtones, shadows just get weak. I mean, the images start to look washed-out/muddy but if you’re lucky it won’t drop too much in contrast.
  • Haziness when looking at image sharpness
    • This one kinda sucks but it’s the nature of film. When the chemicals and celluloid weaken, the clarity in the focal point of the image is so much lower. Even shot at the perfect distance for one’s own camera, it still just makes things look more out-of-focus than they really are.
  • Patches of undeveloped or underdeveloped film
    • This also sucks but you can’t do anything about it. When the film is rolled through the rollers in your camera, sometimes the chemicals don’t spread to certain areas or they don’t develop those areas as well as the rest of the image.
  • Imperfect image borders
    • Sometimes, the film comes out with this chemical-spill-looking streak at the top of the image. I’m guess this is because the chemicals adequately cover the image at the bottom (where the chemicals start the developing process) but as they reach the top of the image, they either don’t set well or don’t mix well.
      I actually know why my images have this and it has all to do with how I store my images. Currently, I’ve refashioned one of my film boxes the cartridges come in to hold the pictures and protect it from the environment (like a mobile darkbag) while still giving me easy access to them.
      However, once inserted in the slot, my Polaroid warps a little and creates a shallow bend. The physical integrity is not affected but the image production is. The chemicals set at the top but then slide back towards the middle of the image and so the very top of the image is imperfect.
  • Lower light sensitivity
    • This (I believe) is true of all film at some point. If film expires, it just needs more light than originally required to do the same job. So if I could shoot the same thing with pristine film and then with expired film, you’d see that the expired film looks darker overall. It still has a range in values but the image is just darker overall.
  • “The Bar Effect” & Dotted Lines
    • This is just a stroke of bad luck in some cases (as I’ve seen this happen in pristine film.) “The Bar Effect” happens with the pods containing the chemicals in instant film break and spread across the film. The catch is that one or more pods contain chemicals that have aged at faster rates and so vertical, dark bars in your image develop.
      Dotted lines appear in weird places and I don’t know why this happens. They look almost like someone took a ruler, a white pen, and just dotted across your image. Perhaps it’s a production thing or maybe it’s user error. I have yet to figure this out.


Now, I’d like to move on to some personal associations I have made while working with instant pictures.

After having become a part of the instant picture community, there are many things I attach to Polaroids. One of them is surprise. Why surprise? Well, every picture is one! Like with any picture really, you never know exactly how it will look once made (but you might have a pretty good idea.) And I think a few joys come with the element of surprise—anticipating the image, watching it develop like magic before your eyes, and ultimately accepting what you’ve been given.

But outside of surprise, I really like relinquishing some artistic control. Normally, I like having the majority of the control. Working in this way has given me the exact opposite (although not to an extreme.) While I am anal about my pictures, I do love being carried by the winds of chance too.

And what has me really excited is my emerging annotation system. As I aforementioned, instant film invites notes, words, and scribbles onto the image (or artifact really) itself. My own unique methods are starting to become apparent.

Specifically for me, I have this thing with documentation, historic preservation, and memory. So, it only makes sense that I would build an annotation system the hinges upon some of these things.

I write three things on the back of the image: I write the specific location where the picture was taken (including city/town and state/province), and the date. (I have thought about including timestamps but that has become far too complicated I realize.) An example of this would be:

This is the specific location where photo was taken  →→  “Home/Backyard”
This is the city and state where photo was taken  →→     San Antonio, TX
This is the date the photo was taken  →→                     8/27/17

On the front of the image, a number of different things can take place but I’ve narrowed it down to the following: quotes, personal thoughts, associations, symbols, names, descriptions, questions, conversations, and titles. Of course, I’ve had a mixture of these at times so it all depends on the situation. Let me go a bit more in-depth.

  • Quotes = These can be from myself, from those present in the image, or from those present at the time the image was made (E.g. “Let’s shotgun a beer!”~ Jason)
  • Personal Thoughts = These are phrases and sentences written as a direct reaction to the image, quite like in the manner of me talking to myself
  • Associations = These are phrases  that have to do with what I would like to think about when looking at the picture (E.g. “Black Princess” ; “My Tunnel Romance”)
  • Symbols = These tend to be drawings/scribbles/illustrations (E.g. hearts, emoticons)
  • Names = The names of people in the picture get written
  • Descriptions = These tend to be short, impersonal texts describing what’s going on in the picture, giving it more context (E.g. A view from the hilltop of the park)
  • Questions = I’ll write a question about the image, or I’ll write a question I asked myself when making the image or reflecting on it
  • Conversations = Basically quotes written in order that make a snippet of conversation had a the time the image was made
  • Titles = Every now and again I will title the image

What’s interesting too is that I only have one chance to caption my images. And once I write on them, I can never take them off (at least I don’t want to.) So, truly, when I’m annotating my pictures, a lot of thought goes into it. Who knows if another habit will emerge? Every now and again I’ll leave it blank too, but that’s rare. Sometimes, a silent image is better than a noisy one.

What I’d like to find out though is why “tagging” my pictures is so important to me. Why is that? Well, perhaps I’m after chronology or memories; perhaps, it’s something else. I really don’t know. But, I feel like Polaroids tend to be naked without some writing on it somewhere.

But those are all the notes I have on instant film and Polaroids. Perhaps, I’ll upload some examples when I have more to talk about when it comes to Polaroids. I also think I’ll save really diving into its culture for another time when I want to talk history and specifics.

Until then, cheers!


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