In 1963, the Polaroid Corporation introduced the Automatic 100 Land Camera (also known as the Model 100). Named after Polaroid co-founder and genius inventor Edwin Land, the Land Cameras would go on to be a successful line of cameras for the company, produced in one form or another until the early 2000’s.
The Automatic 100 was sold from 1963 to 1966 and retailed for an approximate price of $164.95 (around $1,367.00, adjusted for inflation). It was also the first of the Polaroid cameras to utilize a new form of instant film, known as packfilm. The Automatic 100 would go on to become the basis of other packfilm cameras produced by Polaroid: the 100, 200, and 300 series, which all have similar functionality.
The type of packfilm these cameras used would produce a 4 1/4 by 3 3/8 inch print, with an actual image size of 2 7/8 by 3 3/4 inches (9.5 by 7.3cm). Originally, each pack of film contained eight exposures but this was later increased to ten.
I don’t remember the exact year, but it was around 2005 that I purchased my first Automatic 100. I knew what packfilm cameras were but had zero experience with using one. I vaguely recall the woman I purchased it from saying it had been her father’s. In any case, it had the previous owner’s name engraved on the bottom. A year or two later I purchased another set from a seller on eBay. This one came complete with all the accessories, which is what I had actually been after and will be discussed later in this review.
Within the same decade of purchasing these cameras, the original incarnation of the Polaroid Corporation declared bankruptcy and reformed into a sort of holding company also going by the name Polaroid. By 2008 the new Polaroid had also gone out of business and sold off all its remaining assets (in 2017, the former Impossible Project acquired rights to the Polaroid name and has since rebranded themselves as Polaroid Originals). As a consequence, the film type required by this camera (Polaroid packfilm), ceased production. You can read more about the history of Polaroid in “A Brief History of… Polaroid, here on EMULSIVE.
Concurrently to the demise of Polaroid, Fujifilm in Japan had been manufacturing their own version of packfilm in a number of varieties and as luck would have it, it was fully compatible with cameras like the Automatic 100. It was not meant to last. In 2016, Fujifilm ceased production of its last remaining packfilm and at of the time of writing, no other companies are producing packfilm of the type and variety Polaroid and Fujifilm had been previously.
There is hope, a successfully funded Kickstarter project going by the name One Instant is currently taking preorders for their new type of packfilm designed to be compatible with these types of cameras.
This review of the Automatic 100 will not be a review of the different varieties of Polaroid and Fujifilm produced packfilm. There are a lot of artistic and creative effects you can achieve using this type of film but is better suited for a film review and not a camera review. For another user’s perspective on the discontinuation and use of packfilm, please check out EMULSIVE contributor Ludwig Hagelstein’s “Peeled Apart for Good” and Brian Saculles’ review of the Mamiya 600SE – the GOOSE.
Table of contents
- 1 The Polaroid Automatic 100 in pictures
- 2 Viewfinder
- 3 Using the Camera
- 4 Accessories
- 5 The Automatic 100 in practical use and other considerations
The Polaroid Automatic 100 in pictures
The Polaroid Automatic 100 Land Camera is a folding camera with a coupled rangefinder focusing mechanism. It is designed to accept a 10-exposure pack of instant peel-apart film (packfilm). When not in use, the camera folds into itself and has a plastic cover that utilizes a magnetic latch to stay closed. When the cover is swung down, it can remain on the camera by a hinge mechanism or detach completely. The lens/shutter assembly is pulled forward which extends the bellows and the rangefinder mechanism swings up for use.
The body of this camera is entirely metal with a standard threaded tripod socket on the base. When fully collapsed with the cover attached, the camera measures approximately 4 ½ inches tall by 7 ½ inches wide by 2 ½ inches in length (approximately 11.4 x 19 x 6.3cm). When the bellows are extended the total length of the camera will vary based on focus setting. The bellows are constructed of a vinyl outer later with a fabric inner layer. Two rings are set into the top of the body for the attachment of a carrying strap.
Shutter and lens
The Automatic 100 has a completely electronic shutter with a range of 10 seconds to 1/1200th of a second. Because of its electronic design, the shutter will not work properly without a battery. The lens is a 114mm f/8.8 glass design.
The camera operates in a kind of aperture priority mode and cannot be operated manually. A “scene selector” mechanism adjusts the aperture (two settings) and film speed is set via a wheel on the bottom of the shutter assembly (film speeds of 75, 150, 300, and 3000 ISO are selectable).
Bulb flash is synchronized with the shutter and the flash unit connects via a proprietary connector of the side of the shutter assembly. By using the “lighten/darken” exposure compensation control, the exposure can be adjusted from -1 to +2 stops.
Separate viewfinder-rangefinder mechanisms are combined in the same housing on the top of the camera. The rangefinder (small window labelled “focus”) is used to focus the camera and the viewfinder window (larger window labelled “view”) is used to frame the shot.
The viewfinder window automatically compensates for parallax and the entire focusing assembly is coupled to the camera. Additionally, a small pictogram is present on the focusing lever if you prefer to use zone focusing. You’ll see a person, a couple and a landscape.
Using the Camera
Polaroid took extra care to make this camera easy to use for the novice photographer. Each “step” of taking a picture is numbered on the camera itself. There are 4 steps in total (which assume starting from a point where the film is loaded and the shutter is already cocked).
- First, focus the camera looking through the rangefinder window and using the labeled (1) focusing mechanism.
- Second, slowly press the shutter button (2).
- Third, after tripping the shutter, push down on the (3) button to reset the shutter (multiple exposures are possible by resetting the shutter and tripping it again).
- Finally, pull the small white tab from the right side of the camera (4) and then smoothly pull out the larger tab that follows.
As you pull the larger tab out of the camera the film is pulled through rollers inside of the camera. The rollers break the small pods full of developer and reagent attached to every negative. This chemical mixture coats the negative and paper, and after the appropriate amount of time is spent in development, the print is peeled apart from the negative for a fully developed photograph.
With some types of color and black and white packfilm the negative can be kept and after treatment, further prints can be made from it using a more traditional printmaking process (see below). Usually, the paper pull-tab and negative are just thrown away (Polaroid encouraged users not to be litterbugs).
Polaroid produced a number of accessories to work with the Automatic 100 and other cameras in the 100, 200, and 300 lines. The ones shown here are what came with the accessory set I purchased years ago. Accessory model numbers are also listed with each accessory. Other accessories are also available which are variations of the ones shown here or are specific to certain Land Camera models.
The #268 flash unit was the standard flash accessory for almost all of the folding Polaroid packfilm cameras. It clips on to the top left of the camera and connects to the shutter assembly using a proprietary connector that is based on the common Prontor-Compur (PC) connector.
The flash accepts M3 flashbulbs and is powered by a single AA-battery. The flash head swivels, allowing you to utilize bounce flash without having to disconnect the flash unit and point it by hand. The Automatic 100 is designed to use flashbulbs and an electronic flash cannot be used with the camera unless the camera is modified to work with one. This is because the camera shutter is designed to synchronize with flashbulbs, which ignite slightly ahead of the shutter opening. If an electronic flash were used, it would fire prior to the shutter opening and leave you with an underexposed photograph.
On the topic of flashbulbs (From my Mamiya Super 23/Universal Press review):
“For those unfamiliar with the difference between electronic flash and flashbulbs, an Internet search can easily provide you with a detailed explanation on both. In general, modern electronic flash units use a small tube filled with a gas. When a high voltage current is passed through the tube, the gas ionizes and produces a bright flash of light. The total light output is variable and the flash unit is reusable, meaning it can be flashed over and over again.
“Flashbulbs, by comparison, only have one output, full. They produce their light by burning foil or thin wire crammed inside of a glass bulb. They can be used only once before needing to be replaced by a new bulb. They burn quite brightly for their size and being on the receiving end of an ignited flashbulb up close is kind of like looking at the sun. You will be seeing a spot in your vision for a while afterwards.
“For tasks which many current-day photographers would use a camera with flash to accomplish, an electronic flash unit is more versatile and cost-effective than using one-time-use flashbulbs that can be difficult and expensive to source. However, if you want to dump a ton (scientific measurements here) of light at something, a flashbulb is the way to go.”
A blue-tinted flash shield is attached to the front of the reflector. It has the dual function of preventing pieces of an exploding flashbulb from flying out of the flash at your subject and also to correct the color of the light coming from the flashbulb when using color film. For this reason it is not recommended to use M3B flash bulbs which are blue coated, unless you are trying to achieve a specific creative/artistic result.
Two filters are available for the Automatic 100. Both are friction fit over the lens. The #585 UV filter accomplishes the same effect as a UV filter on other cameras. By reducing the amount of ultraviolet light on outdoor scenes it removes blue casts from shadows. It also does not require any exposure compensation. It has negligible effect when using it with black and white film.
The other filter is the #516 Cloud Filter. This is a twin orange filter that fits over the lens as well as the metering eye next to the lens so exposure compensation is not necessary. The effect is the same as an orange filter on other cameras when using black and white film in that it increases contrast, such as when photographing outdoors and you would like to make white clouds stand out against a blue sky or to make a blue sky appear darker. It can also be used for creative/artistic effect when using color film.
Polaroid released the #192 Self-Timer, a 5-to-15 second delay mechanical timer that friction fits over the shutter button on the camera. Operation is simple: you wind it and press the button on the top. When the timer runs out, it presses the shutter button. It is not a good choice for long exposures in dim light because of the automatic metering feature of the camera. The shutter button has to be held down until the meter determines an appropriate amount of light has reached the film. Releasing the shutter button early will cause the shutter to close prematurely.
For long exposures, the #191 Cable Release is a more suitable choice. Similar to the self-timer, it friction fits over the shutter button. It isn’t very long so it is not a good choice for remote shooting. It also has a lock mechanism that keeps the button depressed so it isn’t necessary to hold the release for the entire duration of the exposure.
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Timer and cold clip
The quality of a packfilm photograph is highly dependent on the length of time it is allowed to remain in development (before peeling the print away from the negative). The temperature at which the film develops also affects the quality of the final print.
If the ambient temperature is cold, more time needs to be spent in development. Warmer temperatures require less time. The #193 Cold-Clip acts like a kind of development time shortcut when photographing in cold weather. The cold-clip is two curved pieces of metal held together with fabric tape. When the film is pulled from the camera it is inserted between the metal plates and then the entire clip is held against the body, like in a pocket or under the arm. Because the film is kept warm a shorter development time is required.
The #128 Development Timer is a small mechanical countdown timer that can be set for a maximum of 120 seconds. Except for a few varieties of Polaroid and Fujifilm produced packfilm, if the development time is cut short or left too long the print can either come out undeveloped/underdeveloped or completely overdeveloped. Once the film is pulled from the camera the timer is started (preset to the development time required for the ambient temperature). At the end of the timer, the print is peeled apart from the negative. The case of this timer allows for attachment to the factory camera strap that came with the Automatic 100.
Portrait kit and close-up lens kit
The #581 Portrait and #583 Close-Up Kits are fantastic accessories for the Automatic 100. They look a bit awkward when attaching and removing them from the camera but don’t let that dissuade you from using them.
The normal focusing range of the Automatic 100 is about 43 inches (1.1m) to infinity. With the Portrait Kit attached, the focusing distance changes to 19-42 inches (0.5-1m). Close headshots can be taken with this, which I think packfilm is particularly suited for. The kit is comprised of three components: a friction-fit magnifying lens, an opaque clip-on flash diffuser, and set of “goggles” that fit over the viewfinder assembly which compensates for distance and parallax when using the portrait lens.
Similarly, the Close-Up kit features the same three components although the magnification is greater. This allows for a focusing distance between 9-15 inches (0.2-.4m). The clip-on flash diffuser is more opaque than the one in the Portrait Kit for greater flash diffusion.
In practical use, the Close-Up kit is trickier to use because at such close focusing distances parallax is no longer compensated for. After focusing with the rangefinder it is necessary to tilt the camera up a bit so the lens is actually pointed at your subject. However, once this is done there is the possibility of the camera no longer being on the same plane as the subject you would like in focus.
For best results when using this kit, use a tripod and the cable release and be extra sure you haven’t moved the camera out of the proper focus when reframing the shot to adjust for the parallax.
The Automatic 100 in practical use and other considerations
Why would you want to buy and use an Automatic 100?
Above all, I consider this camera and ones like it incredibly fun to use. Obviously, there are easier ways to take photographs and obtain prints but it was an amazing convenience in its day to not only take a picture but to have the print at the same time. If multiple prints were desired, at one point Polaroid offered a duplicating service and could make wallet size, same size, 5×7, and 8×10 enlargements. In the present day, it is easy enough to scan the print and make your own enlargements.
The camera has a definite novelty value. Even though there are other instant film cameras on the market today, cameras that use packfilm are unique in the process and method by which an image is produced. Most notably, it is a hands-on process. Nothing is automatically ejected and the print does not peel itself off of the negative. If you are using it around someone who has never seen this type of instant photography performed it can be an excellent conversation starter.
Finally, this camera is easy to use. It was designed for someone who was a novice photographer, whose priority was not only remembering to carry film but also finding a place to develop it. An instant print could be immediately shared or given to friends and family without having to coordinate a time and place to drop it off or send it by mail. The end product was immediately in their hands.
Drawbacks of the Automatic 100 and why you might not want one
There are a number of issues that arise from using a camera first designed and manufactured over 50 years ago. That is true of any vintage camera and especially for the Automatic 100 or any of the Land Cameras. The company that designed and built this camera no longer exists, at least the way it used to.
These cameras were designed to be completely automatic. The metering cell and shutter are both electronic, which requires a power source to work. Without a battery this camera will not work. This camera was designed to take a 4.5-volt battery (Eveready #531 brand and similar). This battery was difficult and expensive to acquire when I first obtained the camera in 2005 and now it is much more difficult.
When you can find one, they are more expensive. For me, this meant the camera must be modified or retrofitted to accept a different power source. Cory Verellen, of the now defunct Rare Medium/LandCameras.com refurbished one of mine. For a while, he refurbished old Land Cameras from parts he had on hand and modified them with things like rechargeable batteries and converted the cameras to use electronic flash. Of course, it’s not necessary to use a rechargeable battery; anything that can supply a 4.5-volt power source can be used. An online search can show you the many different ways people have overcome this obstacle.
Replacement parts are no longer available for these cameras and unless you have the ability or resources to make your own replacement parts, this means cannibalizing other cameras for spare parts. After a while, viable parts will be gone and then these cameras will no longer work.
I have had to go through this process on a couple of my Automatic 100’s. On one the bellows began to sag, leaving a large black spot on the final image where the light never made it to the film. On another, the electronics stopped working. I removed the bellows from the good camera and moved it on to the other with the sagging bellows but still working electronics. I also had to take the rechargeable battery out of the first and wire it into the second. The plus side about these cameras is they are so ubiquitous that they can be easily and cheaply acquired.
Lack of manual controls
The camera is what it says it is, automatic. There is no way to manually select the aperture (other than the 2-position scene selector switch) or shutter speed. There are ways to trick the light meter into making a longer exposure (by covering the metering cell during an exposure while keeping the shutter button depressed) but it is an awkward process.
The lens is reliably sharp but don’t plan on making enlargements of your print beyond the 8×10 size. If you want to have the Land Camera experience but want fully manual controls, buy a Polaroid model 180, 190, or 195. Be prepared to pay much higher prices for one of these models than an Automatic 100.
If large cameras put you off then the Automatic 100 is not for you. While it folds up into a compact package, once the camera is fully deployed it is bulky. It is also very conspicuous when using it in public. Don’t plan on using this camera for street photography and expect to blend in with the crowd. However, for being a large camera it is relatively light. You’ll never forget that you’re carrying it but you won’t confuse its weight for say a Mamiya 645 Pro.
Perhaps the greatest drawback to using this camera or any packfilm camera is the lack of availability of film.
Polaroid of today, Polaroid Originals, because of availability of resources, talent, and profit, focuses entirely on integral instant film and their new cameras that use it. They do not have machinery that can manufacture packfilm and Fujifilm will not return their machines to operation (assuming they haven’t been dismantled and scrapped already).
When I started using the Automatic 100, I could buy fresh Polaroid film for a little more than $20 a box (each box had two 10-exposure packs). At the same time, Fujifilm was selling their version of packfilm for about $10 for a 10-exposure pack. When Polaroid ceased production and Fujifilm gradually stopped production of their different packfilm lines the prices at first gradually and then dramatically increased.
For fresh film that once sold for $10 a pack, prices more like $60-90 a pack are much more common. Additionally, since none of this film is in production anymore, what is out there is approaching its expiration (if it hasn’t passed it already). While measures can be taken to preserve the unexposed film through refrigeration, eventually it will become unusable as the developing chemical pods dry out and the film loses its sensitivity. Because of its nature, packfilm is much more susceptible to the passage of time and inadequate storage than traditional film types.
I have a small supply of packfilm stored away that I acquired before the prices became what I consider to be unreasonably high. When my supply runs out I have a feeling I’ll be done with using my packfilm cameras.
The same company that produced the Automatic 100 was the same as the one that made the film. Both products were designed to take advantage of each other and as a result worked wonderfully. They are completely complementary products.
The drawback to this was if the parent company ceased production of one, the other would suffer. Packfilm would go on to have a life of its own in other professional and amateur applications until large-scale production ceased. The One Instant film I mentioned aboce could be a suitable replacement but at this time it appears to be more of an artisanal, “boutique” product that would never be as affordable as packfilm was in its heyday.
Because of the lack of film availability, the usefulness of the Automatic 100 and other similar cameras is becoming more and more limited. The increased price of extant film stock tends to make packfilm instant photography out of the grasp of an increasing number of photographers.
Despite this, the Automatic 100 is incredibly fun to use. I think at the end of the day this is what matters when using any of the Land Cameras. When the film is gone, the film is gone and hopefully, we will have photographs that are meaningful to us. Film photographers get emotionally wound up over the demise of different kinds and types of film, and to an extent, rightfully so. However, we then miss out on having fun using what we’ve got.
Let’s have fun using the things we love to shoot while we still can.
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