News & Reviews

Film Friday: Shooting portraits on 35mm film…in a Polaroid SX-70

Taping 35mm film to a Polaroid dark sheet yielded these unique portraits.

Photo: Clem Hertling

Driven by a desire to shoot larger format film, photographer Clem Hertling (they/them) got creative.

They had 35mm film, not the right film for a medium format camera, but what if they were to adapt that film by stacking multiple strips to create a larger canvas to expose upon? And then, what if instead of a medium format camera they ran their adapted 35mm film plane through the large-ish body of an instant Polaroid camera?

That’s exactly what Clem did. Using a Polaroid SX-70 Sonar and their own ingenuity, they turned a stack of three 35mm strips into an close approximation to medium format. And needless to say, the results are unique and give the two portraits they created the vibe of a psychedelic contact sheet.

We caught up with Clem to ask them about the process, and what other experimental photographers can learn from it.

Where did the idea to shoot 35mm in an SX-70 originate for you? Could you tell us about the moment you thought about it, and what your initial reactions were?

Originally I was thinking about 4×5, but I don’t have a 4×5 camera; still, it got me thinking about how impractical it would be to develop since I don’t have the right reels or tank or anything like that. And recently I had shot a roll of 35mm color film (Superia 400) in my [Mamiya] RB67, which I’ve done a couple times in the past, and so combining these two thoughts made me realize I could just shoot smaller size film that I can develop, and cover the entire image area with it.

And from there, since i don’t have a large format camera, I went to the largest image area camera I have on hand, my SX-70 Sonar (which is 79mm x 79mm compared to the 56mm x 68mm of the RB67) and immediately tried it.

Why specifically an SX-70 instead of a 600 body or another Polaroid camera?

Simply because that’s what I have! I started doing photography by shooting with a Spectra, and when Polaroid stopped making the film for it I got into digital and then film and when I came back to Polaroid I wanted a camera that would not be a big square block, and when I first saw an SX-70 unfold I was hooked.

I got one off of Craigslist shortly afterwards, and now I have three of them, two Sonar and one first model, all converted to take 600 film. The fact that it’s the only polaroid SLR, and that Sonar is the first consumer SLR with autofocus, plus the incredible folding structure… that camera is a wonder!

Striking results are possible, but Hertling says they may not be worth the hassle.

Photo: Clem Hertling

You’ve said that doing this is ‘not really practical,’ it sounds like it’s hard to do, potentially expensive, and results are mixed. Will you try it again? What’s the ‘secret sauce’ that makes it worth doing?

When I say it’s not really practical I mean more that it takes a lot of time to set up, for unpredictable results (the color picture I got out of it, for instance, has the barcode strip over the face of the subject, which kinda diminishes the picture’s impact). It is kind of expensive as well, in that you use the equivalent of seven 35mm shots for one frame, but that’s not too much of a problem (in this case I used bits from my bulk roll of Delta 400 and the very beginning of a Superia 400 roll that I get cheap).

Mostly, though, the problem is that most of my photography is done outside, and this really can’t be done outside, since you can only take one picture at a time before having to develop it. There’s no way to get the Polaroid cartridge to get a good light seal once you’ve shoved a dark slide with 35mm film taped on it in there, so you have to remove it in a dark bag or something, and if I’m being honest I’m not going out with a camera when I can only take one picture.

Even with large format, you can have multiple holders. But I like the results. I think with the color picture, the results aren’t as good mostly because my c41 chems were kind of old and so the film was underdeveloped. I’ll definitely do it again because it’s fun and looks very interesting (maybe I’ll try it with some 120 film?), but not regularly.

How exactly are you inserting and removing the film, and how do you get it to not get stuck in the SX-70’s rollers?

So, I tape the film to a dark slide from a used film pack, and I put it in by pushing it through the film gate in the pack, and remove it the same way. A regular picture would be ejected, but I do it by hand instead of letting the camera do it. The dark slide with the film on it is slightly thicker and wider than a regular Polaroid picture, so it’s not really easy to push it in and out, especially in the dark, but it can be done with some trial and error.

All of that has to be done in a dark bag, of course. The reason the film doesn’t get stuck in the rollers is that it never gets ejected by the camera: I cut a little bit of the dark slide at the top so that it doesn’t engage with the ejection hook inside the camera that pushes the film towards the rollers. So once the picture is taken, the camera tries to eject it but can’t get a hold of it, and it stays in for me to remove manually later.

Polaroid introduced the SX-70 Sonar in the 1970s as an AF/MF instant camera.

Photo: Polaroid

How did you feel when you saw the developed film come out with an image? Were you expecting to see results?

Honestly, I felt pretty disappointed. When I put the strips of film on the reel I thought I should probably do something so they stay on that reel, since short strips of film can slip off so easily, and so I had taped them together at the edge so they formed one longer strip. Even doing that didn’t really prevent them from moving, and one of them was just loose in the tank, but more importantly they all had very dark spots on the edges from the developer getting trapped under the tape, so my immediate reaction was that the image must be ruined, developed wrong, or have lots of scratches, etc.

Once I hung them up I saw that the image actually looked pretty good, dense enough, and that the spots were thankfully entirely out of the image area, but yeah I wasn’t surprised by the fact that there were results from the camera, I was surprised that my development hadn’t ruined them.

What’s your advice for others wanting to play around with this process?

I guess the first thing is don’t tape the film strips to each other, only tape them to the dark slide, because removing tape from the base side of film is not a great experience when you can’t see it.

Apart from that, remember that overexposing is always better than underexposing for negatives, and so it’s easier to push 400 ISO film one stop than trying to get it exactly to 640. Oh and, I haven’t found a way to keep the film totally flat yet, so you’ll get exposure through the sprocket holes on one strip that doesn’t exactly match the sprocket holes on the other, that’s normal. And also, if you can, try to shoot in bright light so the camera selects a small aperture and you get more of your subject in focus.

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