Building a fully manual Polaroid studio camera
It turns out that shooting Polaroids in the studio isn’t impossible — it just takes a little bit of engineering and ingenuity. Here’s how I turned a $200 toy into a studio camera.
I’ve done a lot of portraiture in my time (ahem), and I’ve never shied away from building my own photography equipment. I’m also intrigued by the tactile nature of instant photography. There’s something about the ability to immediately destroy a negative that makes portraiture a lot more fun. And with Polaroids, you can give your models the photos before they’ve even developed. Nobody has to see the photo except them — and then they can share it from there… If they wish.
I know that consistent light sources (like video lights) would have been easier to use with a Polaroid camera, but I’m a competent studio photographer, damn it, and there’s something about the vast light output from a set of studio strobes that really appeals to me. So I experimented. I used gaffer’s tape to tape a slave sensor to a Polaroid camera, hooked that up to a radio trigger, and went to town. That… Sort of worked, but not being able to control the shutter speed or aperture meant that using studio strobes was hard. It became a lot of guesswork.
Picking a camera
There are plenty of large-format cameras that can shoot with Polaroid backs, but the old film typically used in these cameras is getting exceedingly rare and expensive. Not to mention that I don’t have any medium-format cameras at the moment, and I wasn’t particularly keen on spending several hundred dollars on acquiring one of those, too.
I wanted to use something cheaper.
Most of the current-generation Polaroid cameras are little more than toys, without much in the way of manual control. But there is an exception.
The Polaroid Originals OneStep+ is a strange and unassuming beast, with a Bluetooth connection. Which makes no sense, let’s face it. With one tiny exception: Some wonderful soul at Polaroid Originals decided to give you access to the aperture, shutter speed, and flash output settings.
Combine that with the fact that the ISO of the film is known (typically ISO 600), and you’re suddenly fully in control of the camera itself — not bad for a $140 toy camera.
That takes care of part of the problem. The next challenge: How do we get the camera to trigger the studio strobes?
Getting the flash to play nice
Plan A: Wire in a PC Sync socket or hot shoe. I took apart one of the cameras in order to see if I could wire a PC sync socket directly to the circuit board. In the process, I electrocuted myself something awful (it turns out that the capacitors that drive flashes are nothing to joke about), and there was no obvious way to wire in a sync socket. I also had to take the camera apart in a way that made me less than convinced that I’d be able to put it back together again and still have it work properly.
Plan B: Use a slave flash trigger. With my fingers still emitting wafts of smoke from the failed Plan A experiment, I decided that perhaps taking the whole camera apart was less than prudent, so I went back to my prototype: Using a cheap slave flash trigger. This is a device that looks for a blink of light, and when it sees it, it triggers the flash. My idea was to, instead of a flash, use a radio trigger in the hotshoe, and use that to trigger my studio strobes.
There were a couple of problems with this: The flash on these cameras is mounted oddly, and if you do find a way of mounting the optical slave trigger, it gets in the way of the shutter button.
Luckily, I have access to a machine shop…
Building a slave flash assembly
One of the perks of my work is that I have access to a lot of toys in the workshop, including a number of 3D printers. But why go the easy route of Cad + 3D printing when you have over-engineer the hell out of a solution with a mill and a lathe?
So, of course, I decided to build my own piece out of aluminum.
Step 1: Add a tripod mount
I found a 1/4–20 Allen bolt, which is the standard tripod thread. I drilled a hole in a piece of aluminum, counter-sunk it to the right depth, and affixed my slave strobe to the block of aluminum. Step 1: Complete.
Step 2: Add a button pass-through
Given that I was mounting the block of aluminum in front of the shutter button, I decided to just extend it through the block. I turned a length of aluminum on the lathe and counter-sunk that too. The idea was that once the block of aluminum is installed, the button extension wouldn’t be able to fall out. I was particularly pleased by how good the fit of the extension was: The shaft is 0.03mm smaller than the hole it runs through; a perfectly smooth action, with no wiggle. That sort of tolerance was completely unnecessary for this project, of course, but fun nonetheless.
Step 3: Mount it
I also realized that the little round thing underneath the + button is an IR light emitter. I have no idea what it does — presumably a distance meter of sorts that would help the camera determine flash output. Anyway, it was triggering the slave flash, so I taped that off, too.
And here’s the final flash cube mounted fully. Yes, I know that the slave flash is mounted ‘backward’, but the radio triggers don’t care which way they are oriented, and I’m going to be using this camera exclusively in the studio, so it doesn’t really matter that I can’t use other external strobes.
Does it work?
I set up my strobes and set my digital camera to the same settings as I’ve dialed in in the Polaroid app — 1/60 seconds at f/22, ISO 640. From there, I set the strobes to fully manual control, and I can get all the lights set up just so. Yes, using a $3,000 digital camera as a light meter and strobe preview is slightly overkill, but it made sense to use what I had at hand.
Once I had everything perfectly set up to my liking on my digital camera, I put the radio trigger onto the Polaroid camera instead and shot a couple of test shots.
In theory, the Polaroids should have look similar to the digital shots. In practice, I usually had to adjust the strobes a fair bit. At $2 per photo for polaroid film, I wanted to use my regular camera to get the lights dialed in properly, rather than having to do all the experimentation when every exposure costs money.
My finding was that the Polaroid camera isn’t as accurate on the aperture as it claims to be — I wasn’t able to determine whether it was this particular camera that was a bit flakey, but I suspect it’s just the nature of these cameras. I wasn’t going to let that bother me; they’re still polaroids, and a little bit of variation is all good.
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