Projects and ponderings for film photographers

Archive for December, 2008

Polaroid: The Last Call

As I’ve mentioned for many months, the end is near for Polaroid instant films. The company announced in February that all production was stopping; and the Enschede, Netherlands factory ceased operations on June 6th, 2008. (Although ironically, CNN only just discovered this story last week.)

All the factory equipment was subsequently auctioned off and scattered to the four winds—seemingly spelling doom for Polaroid integral films (meaning the most popular, squarish 600 format; and the rectangular Spectra/Image type).

Polaroid 600 Integral Film

Why is the Polaroid lady twisting her own head off her body?

Fujifilm continues to produce “peel-apart” instant films which are compatible with some Polaroid cameras and backs. Ironically this means certain 1960s Polaroid cameras will remain usable longer than the ubiquitous recent Polaroid OneStep and One600 models. (The 1960s cameras do require a weird-sized battery, however.)

Fuji also makes its own line of integral instant films called “Instax.” However Instax technology is completely different from Polaroid’s, and none of those films are compatible with any Polaroid camera.

To re-create Polaroid’s 600 film from scratch would be a complex and costly process (remember that each pack also contains a special flat battery). It’s doubtful Fujifilm would have a motive to take on that challenge, when they already makes a competing product. There are not many other players in the market with the technical expertise to revive integral film; so unless some mystery savior appears, we should assume 600 and Spectra are disappearing for good.

Earlier this year, the best deal I could find on 600 film was from OfficeDepot’s online store. However for many weeks there has been no more stock available to my Zip code; and anecdotally that seems to be true for other regions of the US too.

So this week I stopped off at a local Target store—in my area, this is the last bricks-and-mortar retailer with decent quantities of 600 remaining. I got two serious shocks: First, the price had been raised to US $17 a pack (yes, that’s $1.70 per photo); and second, the expiration date on the packs was “09/09.”

Polaroid Expiration Date Code

09/09 is the mark of the End Times

Why is that date significant? A group of Dutch Flickr members toured the Enschede factory in May, two weeks before it shut down; and the date code they saw on finished packs was 09/09. Note that this is actually later than the “Aug 09″ final expiration date listed in Polaroid’s own phase-out announcement.

Apparently there may have been one final week’s production stamped with the expiration date “10/09.” Packs with that date are now available at the European “PolaPremium” website.

This new operation has made a splash selling small batches of various unusual Polaroid films, produced in the factory’s final days. (Some have questioned whether these special products were simply a way to use up old or substandard chemistry. I have no firsthand experience with these films; and considering the shipping charges to the USA, I don’t plan to try them.)

In any case, the message to Polaroid fans is clear. If you see packs with the date code 09/09, assume it’s your last chance to buy them. Ever.

(Well okay. I’m sure gouging profiteers on eBay will have packs to sell for the next few years—but at grossly inflated prices.)

So look deep within your soul (and your bank balance), and decide what it’s worth to you, to save a few final packs for special occasions.

Remember that the life of Polaroid films can be extended a few years past their expiration date by keeping them in the fridge. (Don’t put them in the freezer, because you can wreck the vital developer goo pods which form the image.)

Expired Polaroid film can lend interesting quirks to an image, due to color shifts and fading; or the image can be streaked or incompletely developed. But once film packs are many years out of date, they begin to fail entirely. Batteries die, or the developer pods dry out.

So don’t go hoarding more film than you would shoot in the next 2-3 years. You would just be taking precious shots away from another Polaroid-lover, who might be able to use it.


Update 19 Dec. 2008: Just as I posted this, the Polaroid corporation announced it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The reasons have little to do with instant photography; but the company’s troubles make the future of the Polaroid brand even murkier.


Update February 2009: Yes, I have heard the excited talk about The Impossible Project to restart integral film production. It turns out some of the essential factory equipment was saved after all. I will be curious to see how it pans out. Here’s a good podcast radio interview with the technical head of the project.

Remember, they have numerous engineering hurdles to overcome before any film reaches shelves; once it does, it’s likely to be “quirky” emulsions at high prices.