REVIEW: Polaroid SLR 680 SE + Impossible Generation 2.0 B&W film

Opening day at Six Flags was once like Christmas for a theme park nerd like myself. It meant usually-shitty weather and minimal marketing left the park dead all day.

Post-bankruptcy Six Flags has, however, wised-up; and opening day is now primarily for seeing and shooting the shit with friends than actually riding coasters… or rather waiting in now-obscene lines for them. This year’s was no exception; in fact – and it should be mentioned this was my ninth opening day in 10 years of holding a season pass – it was easily the most-crowded I’ve ever seen the park on not only any opening day but ANY day that wasn’t Fright Fest  (the park’s Halloween spectacle). The cause: a perfect storm of perfect 70-degreeish weather, and a $20-ish entry promotion for opening weekend, which the park started doing a few seasons ago and now markets to their fullest possible extent.

Polaroid SLR-680 SE

With lack of coaster riding in mind… enter one of my recent acquisitions, for which today would be its first serious field test: Polaroid’s SLR-680… the tech-packed bigger, younger sibling to the famed SX-70 folding single lens reflex instant camera, which was released at the advent of their faster 600 film in 1982 as Polaroid’s top of the line instant camera, and discontinued in 1987. Tired of farting around with ND filters and still settling for shooting faster film in slower SX-70 cameras: getting my mitts on one of these was many lost eBay auctions in the making, until scoring this gorgeous SE model from its original owner for a modest $141 and a free ride to its new home north of Chicago. By the way, “SE” really doesn’t mean anything beyond some long-expired film coupons and a decades-irrelevant extended warranty.

Built on SX-70 architecture: the SLR-680 adds a big chunk of plastic and gadgetry to the top of the shutter housing containing the mechanisms for sonar (yes, as in it emits and receives ultrasonic pulses to calculate distance and exposure settings) automatic focusing originally featured on 1978’s SX-70 Sonar OneStep, and an electronic flash strobe with a self-pivoting reflector designed to move in-sync with the focusing wheel – the idea being to prevent strong shadow by focusing the flash itself. A nice idea, though a moot feature considering the strobe’s off-center stance and distance from the lens. Although Polaroid suggests leaving both on for all shots, both features can be easily turned off with the flick of a switch (above the front lensboard, and near the top-right corner respectively) – allowing you to shoot a classic SX-70 optimized for the faster 600 film.

Unfortunately those two features add quite a bit of bulk to a camera that was originally designed to fit comfortably within a suit pocket or purse. Collapsed, the camera stretches a whopping 10-inches long plus neckstrap (which is actually quite battle-grade and a huge improvement over the leather and nylon straps previously-issued with the SX-70 Alpha and Sonar models); in a camera bag, the fact it collapses at all is its saving grace. You can, of course, still stick it in a coat or suit pocket if you don’t mind the upper section sticking out.

Digital Camo

Though at the time still manufactured in the USA: the SLR-680 was built with industrial cost-cutting in full swing, and compared to the SX-70 the craftsmanship here took a serious hit. Gone are the SX-70’s polished chrome-like plastic and cowhide leather skins – replaced with black ABS plastic that feels somewhat brittle to the touch, especially on the added upper section – and matching leatherette (or low quality leather, if real) that’s prone to drying out and cracking after 30 years. Cameras with cracked shutter housings are extremely common, yet do little to deter their value; aesthetically-damaged goods still range anywhere from $150-300 on the resale market.

There’s also fit and finish qualities of the 680 I’m not terribly happy with: particularly with opening the camera, which you do like a regular SX-70 by holding the body flat with your left hand and pulling straight-up on the viewfinder cap to open it in one swift motion. While the added bulk of the upper section is likely a factor, the 680 has a tendency to snap at you as you open it and you could lose your grip in the process. The SX-70 also closes more tight, flat and firm compared to the 680, which on one side I noticed a decent-size gap between the top panel and film door when closed that does not go away when pressed. These finish quirks, and even electrical gremlins (associated with an overhaul of the camera’s circuitry), reportedly also plague the Japanese-made late-90s successor to the SLR-680: the elusive Polaroid 690.

img267
SLR-680 (top) vs original-model SX-70; note the gap between the film door and top panel.

Though QC remains in question, in the field the SLR 680 can withstand normal abuse. In my attempt to remain unobtrusive, at Six Flags I wore the 680 around my neck so I could easily hide it within my jacket – though I took the extra precaution of slipping it into a wool sock until ready to shoot, to protect the leather from being scratched by the zipper. Although the park became so crowded that I was done riding coasters less than an hour after opening, the camera survived unscathed by the two I did get on: Demon and Viper – neither of which are necessarily butter-smooth (one by age and the other by design).

Polaroid SLR-680 SE (collapsed)For 10 x 4 x 1.5″ collapsed: the SLR-680 packs alot of firepower for an instant camera that unlike most Polaroid cameras doesn’t feel like lugging a small lunchbox around your neck. In fact, my D3100 with my usual 18-70mm lens is actually two ounces heavier than a loaded 680. Speaking of loaded, let’s talk about today’s ammo for this weapon of mass creation: Impossible’s “Generation 2.0” black and white film for 600 cameras (black frames edition)…

img268Five years ago “The Impossible Project” – as it was then-known – released its first sepia instant film after acquiring the last factory producing Polaroid integral film only a couple years prior, and set out on a mission to save millions-upon-millions of instant cameras from becoming instant paperweights. Few realize that it was not at all like walking in and simply turning the machines back on, though; as with Polaroid’s industrial exodus came the end – for environmental reasons or otherwise – of the chemistry and materials needed to produce their film. Basically, Impossible was given the equipment, building, and task of reverse-engineering a film format that took Dr. Edwin Land nearly two decades to bring to market in a year’s time. With that in mind: the initial product Impossible released in 2010 was experimental (or crap, depending on who you ask) to say the least: overly sensitive to light and temperature, and often times unstable – undeniably earning the company a reputation for leaving those accustomed to Polaroid stock frustrated, and newcomers hesitant with the near-$24 price tag.

Five years and several different recipes for their monochrome film (each with improved or varying stability) have passed, however, and I can safely say in 2015 Impossible has their R&D shit together with this year’s release  of “Generation 2.0” film; available for SX-70, 600, and soon Spectra cameras! Gone are the days of frantically trying to shield your image upon ejection by either stuffing it into a box or sticking a frog tongue or piece of cardboard to your camera. In broad daylight on a gorgeous sunny day: I not-once had to turn my camera upside down or do any other kind of ridiculous protection ritual – in place is what Impossible accurately calls their first truly instant integral film for classic Polaroid cameras!

Each shot was like working with Polaroid’s old stock again; push button, take picture, pluck it from the camera. In seconds you know if you have the shot in frame. In a minute you have a deceptively-low contrast image whose highlights will eventually turn a bright, milky white and blacks that when scanned and zoomed-in you can easily lose yourself as to where the emulsion ends and the black frame begins. The contrast of this black and white film is reminiscent, even dare I say a satisfactory replacement to the recently-departed Fuji FP-3000B packfilm.

Posessed Cow
Viper
Screw
Goliath
So the Other Day I Totem...

You’ll be happy to hear Impossible finally got the message to fill the middle pod with more development paste; not one image came out with an undeveloped “upside-down Christmas tree”-shaped spot top and center… a trait that has always plagued their films. The SLR-680 is also – aesthetic setbacks aside – a stellar performer that produces razor sharp images with sonar autofocusing. Exposure for this batch was a little brighter than preferred with the L/D wheel on neutral (in the middle), however Impossible is aware of this trait and suggests adjusting the L/D wheel 1/3 to the left or right, depending on the situation. I found leaving it 1/4 toward darken gave me satisfactory exposures.

Scooby Doo Taught Me Humans Are Monsters
Bogz

Toward the end of the first of two packs, however, I started noticing anomalies in chemical spread that were akin to dirty spreader rollers – strangely without seeing any kind of goo buildup on the rollers themselves. I cleaned them anyway and the effects seemed to subside, however – returning to my complaint about the 680’s quality over the SX-70 – I noticed a lot of play in the rollers compared to the SX-70. The SLR-680 also has plain steel rollers opposed to one of the SX’s rollers being coated in a rubber-like material; that extra thickness may make the difference, and it’s apparently not uncommon for black SX-70 film doors to be swapped onto these cameras due to their higher quality construction. I didn’t have further problems after cleaning the rollers, but eventually I may swap the film door assembly off the 680 with that from a Model 3 to prevent any reoccurrence.

Columbia

On the final shot (number six of pack two) I got a totally different anomaly that I can only compare to an incident where an ND filter on 600 film in an SX-70 got loose and ejected with the next image, rendering a part of that image overexposed. I’m not quite sure what to make of it – there was an additional thin horizontal line near the top of the subject’s spire which I fixed in Photoshop, but what caused the darker area of the background remains unknown.

One thing that needs to be mentioned somewhere in this review is that the 680 suffers from the same battery draining issues as the Sonar SX-70, and that while film is loaded it must be kept in a closed/collapsed state until needed. It seems that while the camera is left in an open state for a few days, the electric eye will keep taking light readings until it runs out of juice. Without a solid 6v (more like 6.3v or greater) power source, the camera will not function at all – or sometimes stop mid-cycle, resulting in a lost image while you reset the film pack (and film counter). If you don’t plan to burn an entire pack, keep this in mind between shooting.

The last shot:
Despite its quality flaws over the predecessor, hiccups that may be limited to my unit, and if you can find one in good condition: the SLR-680 still has all the power of Mint’s brilliant SLR-670α and more for a fraction of its MSRP. It’s a fun all-around instant camera that can give you the best-quality images on the classic Polaroid-size integral format, short of investing in a hardcore 600/600SE system + CB-70 back. My 680 is my current everyday carry camera, especially now with car show season in full-swing.

Meanwhile at $23.49 for a pack of eight shots ($67 for a triple pack/24 shots): the good news is that not only did Impossible not jack the price up for this awesome new film, but they have been frequently running sales through their email newsletter – which usually saves you shipping charges. It’s been a LONG time since I’ve been able to say I actually had fun shooting Impossible stock, and I’m bummed that I still have expired Polaroid 600, and old-chemistry Impossible stuff to burn off because I can’t wait to load my next pack.

BUY SO THE PRICE WILL DROP:
600 2.0 White Frame
600 2.0 Black Frame
SX-70 2.0 White Frame

Updated: February 12, 2017

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