Instant Film: Knowledge from Richard P Lambert

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 All images by Richard P Lambert. Used with permission. This post is a collaboration with the Sub-Reddit r/Analog.

“If art is risk made visible, then I think Polaroids are a gamble worth taking,” says Richard P Lambert, a photographer who reached out to us from Reddit. Richard isn’t just any photographer though, he’s a lover of everything analog. If that isn’t enough for you, it’s worth it to tap into his knowledge about instant film and just how fascinating it can be for people who aren’t in the know.

Phoblographer: What film and cameras do you use and why do you choose those?

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Richard: My first was the Polaroid SX-70 from the mid-1970s, which in terms of design aesthetics is the platonic ideal of instant cameras. It comes as an elegant silver brick with tan leather patches and transforms into a self-contained SLR and laboratory.

In terms of control, you get a red button to trip the shutter and a wheel each for vaguely setting the exposure and focus. You can get as close as 10 inches through the split-image prism and create beautifully shallow depth of field in your shots. You end up with a 3×3” square image with the classic tabbed frame.

The film is called ‘integral’ because a pack contains its own power supply and the shot is ejected manually. All you need to do is wait and your unique little artifact will appear before your very eyes. Polaroid ceased production of the film 10 years ago, but it was brought back from the dead by The Impossible Project.

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Impossible bought the old machinery but apparently not the formula for making the films, so to begin with the results were hit and miss. The idea of spontaneity and embracing failures is appealing to me but getting a completely blank print can be heart-breaking. Luckily, over the last year their film has become way more consistent and refined, if not cheaper.

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My other instant camera is the Polaroid 240 which dates from the 1960s. It is made out of large, grey plastic with extendable bellows and a rangefinder window on top. I picked up for next to nothing because they don’t make the mercury battery that it needs anymore. However, I found a guide showing me how to modify the power to use AA batteries, so after a minor operation it works fine.

It isn’t the most elegant camera but it does have its charms. Pulling out the lens seems to get people excited for what is going to happen next and I’ve had people stop me in the street to take selfies with it, which for me is a nightmare but I imagine someone might like that. The rangefinder system is pretty weird – trying to line up the overlapping images is hard but once you dial it in, the focus is quite fine.

The Polaroid 240 takes Fuji FP film (100 ISO for color, 3000 ISO for black and white) which comes in a cartridge you load in the back. Once the shot is taken, you pull the film out through rollers which break and spread the development chemicals. Depending on the temperature, you leave it for a minute or so, and then peel apart the film to reveal the 4.25″ x 3.25″ rectangular image. As this process is so manual, it allows you a bit of creative control with the ability to make multiple exposures (which I love).

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Phoblographer: Do you generally like working more with expired film or brand new film? Why?

Richard: Instant film isn’t cheap, so I usually buy expired film. It is a pretty idiosyncratic photographic process anyway, so I’m happy to embrace the unpredictability that comes with using old cameras and old film. They have their own unique qualities which makes each photograph exciting. If I wanted something that closer represented reality, I could probably just use my phone.

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Phoblographer: Besides the more instant gratification, what advantages do you feel instant film has over negative?

Richard: Despite the instantaneous fun and nostalgia associated with these cameras, it would be difficult to argue that the image quality or reproducibility is as good as regular film. Polaroids, however (especially Impossible Project stock) have a colour pallet, tonal range and depth that is impossible to reproduce. They can also lead you to think about and approach the photographic process differently which I think is important.

Instant film works very well in conjunction with other media. If you are taking a portrait, producing something tactile and corporeal can inspire conversation and discussion, as well as providing a ready-made souvenir.

One thing to consider is that the Fuji FP film actually does come with a negative. When you peel apart the film, it is the half that isn’t the print. With the color film, it is a bit of a convoluted process but you can reclaim a rather large negative for scanning.

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Phoblographer: How do you feel instant photography helps you express yourself better?

Richard: Some cameras can provoke option paralysis. With so many choices to make, it is hard to decide on one. My Polaroid cameras are limited, stripping away a lot of control so I can really concentrate on the one thing that matters – the subject – and capturing it in a unique way.

If art is risk made visible, then I think Polaroids are a gamble worth taking. I cherish each of them as a physical, real one-off object, accepting and enjoying the unpredictability. Instant photography fun, exciting and I couldn’t get the same results without it.

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