Instant cameras and printers are making a comeback!

The invention of commercially viable, easy-to-use instant cameras is generally credited to Edwin Land. Land was an American scientist and inventor, but left the University of Harvard for the big lights of New York City after freshman year to pursue his own research on the science of light polarization. In 1932, Land invented the first low-cost filters capable of polarizing light when he realized that instead of attempting to grow a large single crystal of a polarizing substance, he could manufacture a film with millions of micro-sized polarizing crystals that were all aligned with each other. Also in 1932, Land established the Land-Wheelwright Laboratories together with his Harvard physics instructor, George Wheelwright, to commercialize his polarizing technology. After a few early successes developing polarizing filters for sunglasses and photographic filters, Land eventually obtained enough funding and the company was renamed the Polaroid Corporation in 1937.

The idea of an instant camera was born whilst on holiday with his family in 1943 when Land's 3-year-old daughter asked "Why can't I see them now?", as her father took pictures of her. Land was inspired to create an instant camera and began working on developing his invention for the next four years. In early 1947, Land presented the first demonstration of the instant camera and wowed the audience at the Optical Society of America meeting. Just one year later, he unveiled the first commercial instant camera, the model 95 Land Camera, which became the prototype for all Polaroid Land cameras produced during the next 15 years.

The instant camera develops pictures by combining colours in the same basic way as slide film. It has the same layers of light-sensitive grains as traditional film, all arranged on a plastic sheet, but in multiple layers. Underneath each colour layer, there is a developer layer containing dye couplers. All these layers sit on top of a black base layer, and underneath the image layer, timing layer and acid layer.

The component crucial to the developing process is the reagent, which is a mix of opacifiers, alkali, white pigment and other elements. The reagent sits in a layer just above the light-sensitive layers and just below the image layer. After taking a picture, the photographer flips a switch and pulls a tab in the back of the camera to tug the negative film over the positive film. The film then passes through rollers to spread the reagent. After the picture develops inside the camera, the photographer pulls another tab to print the positive/negative "sandwich". To prevent fading, the black and white positive had to be coated with a fixing agent (a rather messy procedure which eventually led to coaterless film). If the temperature was below 15.5°C, the positive/negative "sandwich" was secured between two aluminium plates and placed either in the user's pocket or under their arm to keep it warm while developing. After the required development time (max 2 minutes), the positive was peeled apart from the negative. And there you have it, an instant Polaroid picture!

In an era where selfies and smartphones have taken away some of the magic of photography, I believe using instant cameras is rather refreshing. These days you can also buy a small pocket printer which you can connect to your smartphone and instantly print pictures. Although the printers don’t have the same novelty as the original Polaroid cameras, they give you that feeling of old-school photography fun and make you appreciate just how far cameras have developed over the years.

Get snapping! J

Written by Camille Burchell, Associate Medical Writer