A Tour of the Polaroid 20×24 Camera

As instant film make a resurgence and companies like the Impossible Project announce new products, it’s only reasonable that we take a look at a relic: the fabled 20×24 Polaroid film camera. Jennifer Trausch at 20×24 Studios in TriBeCa, NY was kind enough to offer a tour of the camera. As a studio that specializes in shooting art and ad campaigns with this giant beast of a camera, they’re often very busy.

Open up the back of the camera and you’ll see this long pathway leading to the lens. This is the bellows for the camera which is controlled by various cranks and knobs along the body of the 20×24. When the cranks and knobs are manipulated, magnification and focusing can be controlled from the backside of the camera. Like some old medium format and large format bodies, the user looks into the viewfinder and sees an upside down image; more on that in a second. A technician runs the camera for anyone that rents it to handle the calculations of bellows factor, lighting, and to control the processing of the film. The studio works with student interns to help out on set as shoots go quicker with an assistant running the front of lens while the technician runs the back. This is a very critical piece of the camera and Jen stated that when out on location it needs to be well protected against the elements like rain.

Opposite of the bellows is this area that contains the film in the spool up top and the giant viewfinder in the middle. In the video below, Jen explains how this all works. All apologies for some of the shaky and out of focus camera work.

 

In order to use the ground glass, the back needs to be sealed shut and a small door opens up in order for the photographer to use it. When the users looks into the viewfinder and a subject is right in front of the camera, this is what they see. As stated earlier, the subject is upside down (not reversed). As the bellows move back and forth and the camera is moved, it goes in and out of focus. As it takes a while for new users to really master the intricacies of focusing, the camera’s technician handles most of the camera work to achieve brilliantly sharp shots.

Since the format is so large, the photos need to be shot at anywhere between F/11 to F/90. Exposures can vary and high powered flashes help to gain a greater depth of field. Once again, this camera shoots 20 inch x 24 inch exposures and creates a contact print (i.e no loss of information) within the Polaroid process. Though that size of exposure isn’t shown in the chart above, one can only imagine just how much larger it is vs 35mm film. Trust me, it’s gigantic.

Each 20×24 Polaroid camera that was made (6 produced between 1976-1978, five in use today) had their own unique customizations to them. In the above photo we see little Playboy bunnies on some of the groundglass screws that were quirky additions by the Polaroid technicians that built the cameras. Why bunnies? Why not?

Softboxes and lights usually stand at the front and sides of the camera to help to create and light the photo effectively. The camera is primarily used in studio so that the room can be blacked out to see the ground glass better.

Subjects are usually very close to the front of the camera for many reasons. First off, the fact that the format is just so large means that the depth of field is very shallow, so powerful lighting to add more depth of field is important. Manual lighting and intimate strobist knowledge is fundamental to the process. The person getting photographed also feels much different in front of a camera so large, compared to having a DSLR pointed at them. Jen told me that during her time in the southern United States shooting personal work that people often give a lot more time and a different kind of attention to the camera as it is so big and unusual.

Besides the lens, the front of the camera also has different cranks and knobs for focusing, and the cable release for finally shooting the subject.

The lens is sometimes covered with a piece of plexiglass for the subject to be able to look into and see themselves. It’s a great idea—the plexiglass doesn’t seem to degrade the image quality at all and it gives the person being photographed a greater sense of self. When I looked into it, I tried to put myself into the shoes of someone being photographed. The best I could think of was that when I look into the glass, I forget that I’m being photographed by this giant relic of a camera.

A Fujinon 600mm F/11 lens was currently on the camera during the tour. It’s much larger than any DSLR lens I’ve held before. It’s also very sharp when stopped down, as I saw some of the prints in the studio.

When the exposure has been shot, the technician processes the film out of the bottom of the camera and after a couple of minutes peels off the exposed piece of film to reveal an image that has been transferred onto the paper. The studio has loads and loads of film that must be refrigerated to preserve it. It is carefully monitored to ensure that nothing happens that will cause it to degrade.

When the final image has cleared up (maximum is about two and a half minutes) the results are richly colored and contain a wealth of detail that perhaps only large format digital scanner photography can capture. Once again, the depth of field is essentially a tiny sliver of focusing.

As previously stated, the studio gets very busy. They recently finished an ad campaign with AOL. As with any great home, the fruits of their great labor is displayed on their fridge.

What makes this camera even more special is just how rare it is, since they aren’t made anymore. Created in the 1970’s, when Polaroid first created the camera they originally shot artwork with it. Eventually, the company started inviting artists to use itthemselves . The 20×24 Polaroid isn’t the largest though—there is actually a 40×80 model that is no longer in use. The cameras aren’t exactly portable, but they can become much smaller and compact for travel. The one I saw was around 240lbs but there are heavier ones.

Images from the camera are quite expensive and renting it is also very costly. They are rightfully so as 20×24 LLC Holdings led by John Reuter, bought all the Polaroid film left for this camera before the company announced that they were going to shut down their factories. The amount of Sepia film is running low; but black and white and color are still healthily in stock. Buying prints created with this beast cost upwards of $3,500 a piece, while renting the unit for a day costs $1,750 and $200 for each shot. Back in June, an Andy Warhol photo shot with the camera sold for a quarter of a million bucks.

The studio works very closely with The Impossible Project as they are the company that will perhaps be able to ensure that life is breathed into these aging giants.

Below is another video of more of the camera in action.