We celebrated my godson’s second birthday recently. He already has piles of toys and stacks of books, so I wanted to present something different as a gift, something more personal.
One of his favorite books is Disney Baby 100 First Words Lift-the-Flap, which introduces a variety of common household and everyday objects with Disney characters as illustrations. It’s a cool book, but he tends to be more interested in the Disney characters than with the objects themselves. It gave me the idea to make a similar book that’s customized for him, with photographs taken around his home and with his family.
After considering my options for producing the book, I decided on using Polaroid i-Type instant film. I shot a lot of Polaroid in college, including i-Type (called Color 600 Film back then) as well as Polaroid 669 and Polaroid 59 sheet films. The advantage of Polaroid for this particular project is that, unlike a professionally printed book, the contents of the book can evolve and grow over time by adding or swapping out photos in the album.
The product that convinced me to take this route was the Polaroid Lab, an instant printer lets you transform smartphone photos into Polaroid i-Type prints. It’s a clever bridge from modern technology to a vintage process, and a lot of fun to use, especially if you have an affinity for the character of Polaroid film.
That last point is an important one. If you haven’t shot with Polaroid instant film before, you need to know—and embrace—that there’s an element of surprise in the results of each print. The film is relatively high contrast and has far less dynamic range than what your smartphone can capture. Each sheet is something of an individual, and how you handle the print for the first several minutes after its made will have an impact on how it develops. So, if consistency and tonal fidelity are important for you, another printing solution is probably a better choice. But if you’re up for the adventure and willing to give luck a portion of your creative control, read on.
Polaroid Lab Basics
The basic concept of the Polaroid Lab is to translate photos from your smartphone into Polaroid i-Type prints. The device itself is pretty slick, with classic Polaroid elements like the big red exposure button and the prismatic logo, which here serves a purpose beyond design by providing visual feedback during the exposure process.
If you’ve used Polaroid instant cameras before, the film mechanism will be familiar. Open the hinged door at the front base of the Polaroid Lab and slide in the film packet. The top protective slide of the film—Polaroid calls this the “darkslide”—will eject, and you’re ready to start printing.
Each film packet provides 8 sheets of film. Unlike Color 600 Film, which had an integrated disposable battery to power the camera, modern i-Type film omits the battery. Instead, you charge the Polaroid Lab with an included USB cable. Other than this change, handling the film is basically the same process as it was with Color 600.
With the Polaroid Lab charged and film inserted, a click of the black button on the side of the printer extends the retractable exposure plate at the top of the device and turns on the power.
Using The Polaroid Smartphone App
The next several steps in the process require the Polaroid smartphone app, which is free and available for iPhone and Android. The app can be used to control Polaroid Lab and some Polaroid instant cameras, so the first step is to select Polaroid Lab from the app’s home screen.
Next, you’ll be prompted to select whether you want to make a single print, or multiple prints of segments of a single image—meaning you can choose an image and let the app break it into several smaller pieces to create a collage. You have five options if you want to do this—Double, Triple, Four, Six and Nine—and each of these choices offer different layout arrangements. I experimented with a four-up grid just to try it, and the result was fun, but for this particular project, I wanted to make single prints of images.
Making A Polaroid i-Type Print
Once you’ve selected the type of print you want to make, you just tap on the template to launch your camera roll and select the image. Once you do, it will be previewed in the template.
You don’t have a lot of control over exposure, but you can adjust the overall brightness in 1/3 EV stops up to +/- 1 EV. You can also increase or decrease color saturation. Getting the exposure to your liking will take some trial and error, and as mentioned before, there’s an element of surprise in the results. From my experience, since the film is high contrast and tends to be darker than you might expect, I recommend adjusting images in your camera’s photo app to make them a bit brighter than you might otherwise. I also adjusted the Polaroid app’s settings to +2/3 EV and 65 for color saturation. If you’re after perfection, you can tweak these settings and your image adjustments endlessly, but at roughly $1.87 per print, it can add up quickly. Again, this is a medium which you’ll enjoy if you can let go of perfection and embrace chance.
After you’ve selected the image, the next screen provides instructions for aligning your smartphone on the platform at the top of the device. You don’t have to worry too much about aligning the phone perfectly, you just have to get it close, as the Polaroid Lab and app work together to adjust the alignment automatically. If you’ve placed it properly enough, the Polaroid prismatic logo will illuminate and the device plays a confirmation chime.
When you hear the chime, depress the red exposure button on the device and in a few seconds, out comes the print.
Handling Polaroid i-Type Film
When the print leaves the Polaroid Lab, it’s covered by protective plastic shield that rolls back into the device. You’ll need to gently help it do so, but once you dislodge it from the end of the print, it will roll back on its own. This is a somewhat delicate action, as is handling the film once it ejects.
Immediately after exposure, turn the film face down in a relatively dim environment—definitely no direct light—for several minutes. Polaroid recommends 10-15 minutes while the image develops, but just to be on the safe side, I let them sit face down a bit longer. Resist the temptation to watch it develop or check on it repeatedly. Exposure to light during the development process can affect the final result.
Putting It All Together
With the renewed interest in Polaroid instant prints as a low-tech throwback to chemical photography, there’s a decent selection of products for presenting the prints. For my book project, I wanted something of a traditional photo album that would allow easy image swaps.
I started with the Polaroid Photo Album, as it looked like a perfect solution and the price was right at $20. However, I don’t recommend this product. Before I had even finished assembling the book—but just long enough that I had discarded the packaging for an easy return—the binding failed and the album separated from the cover. The binding was revealed to be a cheap adhesive tape. A disappointment—and one you can avoid. I included the link to the product here not as an endorsement but so that you could identify the culprit.
Ultimately, I settled on the MochiThings Polaroid Classic Book Album. I had considered it at the outset, but at $55, I went with the cheaper option. Lesson learned. This album, though not inexpensive, turned out to be a much higher quality product, is offered in variety of colors and has a pocket for a single Polaroid print on the cover, which is a nice touch. Each page holds 4 prints, and with 24 pages total, there’s room for 96 photos.
Before adding the photos to the album, I labelled each using a Brother P-Touch PTH110 label maker. No, he’s not reading yet at 2 years old, but I figure it can’t hurt for him to start visually associating printed words with objects.
Polaroid Lab: Not Inexpensive, But A Lot Of Fun
I could have created a similar album, with more control over the print quality, using a company like Bay Photo to produce a custom photo book. With the cost of the Polaroid Lab itself, plus the film and the album, I’m into this project for a few hundred dollars.
That said, the approach allows the album to be a “living” book that can be added to or changed over time. And when he’s old enough, he can make prints of his own photos to add to the collection. I’m looking forward to sharing the art of photography with him in an immediate, interactive way, and you can’t put a price on that.