Prices of Polaroid 100 series pack film keep rising as existing expired stock becomes rare. At some point in one’s own economy, it becomes too expensive to shoot. I reached that point when my pack film stash ran out and the going price was around $80/pack (a couple of years ago, now). I thought it was a little pricey 35 years ago when it was going for $8/pack! Rather than feel sorry for myself because I couldn’t afford pack film, I went exploring for alternatives.

I had already converted 2 of my pack film cameras to use Polaroid i-Type and Fujifilm Instax wide instant film. These were crazy projects of desperation that required lots of modifications and compromises resulting in photos using integral film (check out my “SX-450” and Pola-Instax 455 build logs here on EMULSIVE).

Although it’s fun to see my old Polaroids take instant photos, integral film just isn’t the same as pack film. Instax wide film has a narrow dynamic range and the format is smaller than a Polaroid pack film photo; Polaroid i-type film is square formatted and since it’s exposed from the front, produces horizontally reversed photos. Both film types produce a photo inside a thick-ish plastic envelope with a transparent glossy window that doesn’t seem to be as clear as a good ‘ol Polaroid pack film photo. It’s still fun to shoot snapshots with these cameras, but my discontentment led me to look for other film possibilities.

Meet the paper negative

I first stumbled upon using photographic paper as a negative when I built my first 5×7 large format camera out of a shoe box, using a modified 50mm lens which produced a larger image circle. I was amazed that this could be done and was impressed with the results. During this process, I found out that grade 2 photographic paper has only around 4 stops of dynamic range, which makes it a challenge to capture a scene with 7 or 8 stops of range. In addition to this, photographic paper isn’t sensitive to red light, and is quite sensitive to blue and UV, so metering for photo paper has to account for things like the colour temperature of the light. Midday, you could be shooting with ISO 12 or higher, while at dawn/dusk or indoors, ISO 3 might be best.

I found the easiest way to control exposure and contrast was to use a multigrade 00 filter over the lens while taking the photo. This basically reduces the paper’s sensitivity to blue light, extending its dynamic range and allowing me to meter more consistently at ISO 3, even at midday. And although this will in effect force me to use a tripod and low shutter speeds with a Polaroid camera, I was willing to try it as a really cheap alternative to current instant film. It ends up costing around 20 cents/negative, double that to get a print, which I can live with!

Of course, darkroom supplies and chemicals are needed, but this can be done on the cheap. I just use my bathroom with a towel at the bottom of the door for the darkroom and a safe light I picked up cheap. I understand a red LED light works, although any safe light should have a 5 minute exposure test done on the paper with a quarter/coin/something on top.

Additionally, paper developer and fixer are around $30 for a 6-month supply, and anything can be used for trays. Vinegar can be used for stop bath or even just water. So, for less than the price of one expired film pack, I had the chemicals and enough paper to produce around 150 blck and white photos. Not bad!

Preparing to shoot paper negatives

The mechanics of shooting paper negatives was surprisingly easy. I measured out a standard Polaroid print (4 1/4” x 3 3/8”) and placed masking tape on a paper cutter to match its dimensions. Then, under the safelight I cut a bunch of paper negatives, butting the paper up against the taped guides for each dimension and stored them in a dark box I made out of black foam board. Then, I simply disassembled an old pack film cartridge and loaded it with one negative. I made another dark box to store the loaded film cartridges. I wasn’t sure how well this process would work, so before investing in a camera changing bag, I made a larger changing box out of black foam board to load/unload these cartridges on the field. It’s a little bulky, but it sealed out the light.

Because of the low shutter speeds used, the only Polaroid cameras that will work well are the metal-bodied cameras. Plastic-bodied pack film cameras don’t have a tripod socket so would be difficult to use with a cable release and long exposures. And talking about cable releases, these pack film cameras use a custom one that fits over the shutter button. I had a couple in my collection but lost one, so used a 3D printer to make an adapter that can be used with a normal cable release. The last thing I had to do was to make a multigrade 00 filter for the camera. I took an old Polaroid UV filter and uncrimped the glass filter and replaced it with a circular cutout of an Ilford multigrade 00 gel filter.

The first tests

My first attempt at shooting paper negatives with my pack film camera was more complicated than it had to be, and produced unpredictable results. I basically made an ND4 filter out of an acetate sheet and black marker and put it over the camera’s “electric eye” light meter, forcing it to use an ISO of around 3 when set to ASA 75.

The problem is I couldn’t trust what the electric eye was telling the camera, as longer exposures didn’t seem to be very accurate. And, if I wanted to use any other aperture other than f/8.8 and f/17.5, I would have to make ND5 and ND6 filters, which gets kind of complicated. Combine that with the problem that the camera would calculate too short of a shutter speed when using the smaller aperture and I was ready to abandon the ND filter idea.

Understanding a pack film camera

I ended up simply covering the electric eye with black hockey tape, effectively setting the shutter speed to “bulb”. This restricted my shutter speed choices to one second or more since it’s pretty hard to time anything less than that accurately with just a cable release and your hand. It did, however, open up a wide variety of choices as far as apertures.

Metal-bodied Polaroid pack film cameras have the choice of 6 apertures: f/8.8, f/12.5, f/17.5, f/25, f/35, and either f/45 or f/60, depending on the model. Why they chose to use apertures 1/3 of a stop over the standard is anyone’s guess, but I’ll take them.

Choosing the aperture on a 300 or 400-series camera is straightforward: with ASA 75, the “dull day or flash” setting is f/8.8 and the “bright sun only” setting is f/17.5. ASA 150 uses f/12.5 and f/25. ASA 300 uses f/17.5 and f/35. ASA 3000 uses f/8.8 for “indoors without flash” and f/60 for “outdoors or flash.”

100 and 200 series cameras are a bit different: ASA 75 settings are the same, but ASA 150 and 300 use f/8.8 and f/12.5 with the “dull day or flash” setting. ASA 3000 uses f/45 for the “indoors without flash” setting. The aperture chart goes with me when I shoot paper negatives.

In the field

My first paper negative photo expedition went well. Setting the camera up and composing, choosing the aperture, metering, and exposing the picture was a satisfying process. I brought 2 cameras loaded with negatives so I could take 2 pictures without having to return to the vehicle to change the negative in the dark box. I was happy with how the negatives turned out and decided a changing bag was next on my shopping list which I would be able to carry with me.

Making the prints was fairly straightforward. Because I took the photos with a multigrade 00 filter, the paper negative has a fairly normal dynamic range, so I used grade 2 paper to print with. I just used a piece of black craft foam as the base, and a piece of glass on top to sandwich the paper negative on top of the photo paper to create the print. I have an enlarger, so I could time the exposure and control the light, but this could theoretically be done with a simple low wattage lamp and a switch.

The missing borders

I didn’t realize how important a white border was on a Polaroid print until I made some Polaroid prints without them. They just didn’t look right. At first, I made a border out of thin black material and put it between the negative and paper while contact printing, but the small space it put between them made the edges of the print out of focus. So I made a border template with a recessed area to place both the print and the negative on top, and a flap which folds over and makes the border. Because the border is sitting on top of the negative, it prints a little fuzzy, but it looks OK for now. I tried using a black marker to draw borders on the negative, but it was quite time consuming, though it did produce sharp borders.

Even though using paper negatives isn’t very instant, they have potential. Polaroid-sized film holders (patterned after 4×5 holders) could be made so that you can take more than one photo without a changing bag (stay tuned!).

Regular sheet film cut to size could be used instead of paper negatives and shot at handheld speeds. And, though developing the negatives is normally done in a darkroom, it can be done on the field, right after you take the picture. It would only produce a negative, but it would show you the result and whether it worked or not, giving you the opportunity to re-shoot it if necessary.

Plus, negative reversal chemistry could possibly be used on the field to give you truly instant photos. The camera itself could use manual shutter speeds in the lower range (1/30 and slower), but that’s the subject of another article! The fun part is now I can shoot photos with my Polaroid pack film camera with abandon, not worrying about the cost. And that makes me happy!

~ Jim

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About the author

Avatar - Jim Skelton

Jim Skelton

I stumbled upon my first Polaroid pack camera in a thrift store the year after we got married. Peeling apart the first photo got me hooked, and I ended up collecting a bunch of these cameras. After pack film effectively ran out, my despair turned to hope as...

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  1. Jim,
    Thanks. This is really useful. I have been experimenting with a much older Polaroid 800 roll film camera and expired Agfa single grade paper in grades 1 and 2. The images are excessively contrasty. I have tried pre-flashing the paper with a small amount of light, to reduce contrast but haven’t yet made this work well. Question: When you used a 00 multigrade filter, was that with multigrade or single grade paper?

    1. I used MGIV RC paper with the grade 00 filter. I found preflashing did raise the ISO and reduced contrast a bit, but added an extra step which wasn’t easy to do on the field.

    1. I think direct positive paper would cost around 6 times as much as RC and doesn’t respond to MG filters to reduce contrast. Having said that. I just got a small box of it to try out…

  2. Jim,
    what you write about the use of enlarging paper to make negatives corresponds exactly to my current best practise. I use MG paper and a standard yellow filter and espose at ISO 3 – well, actually ISO 1,6 because the yellow filter accounts for approx. 1 EV. That way I get negatives/prints with pretty good tonality at a fraction of the cost of regular LF negative film. Thanks for sharing your ideas.