Shooting with a Polaroid: Learning from Failure

For the first time, I took my new Polaroid OneStep+ out in the wild to do some woodland photography and to begin to understand just how the process of shooting with instant film works. Let me just preface this by saying those couple hours were the most fun I've had with photography in a very long time. The images I got could be labeled as complete junk and that would be, in my mind, a fair assessment, and I'm happy with that. Let me tell you why.

Planning and Arriving

First, I'll paint a quick picture. I left my house around 9am on a chilly winter morning. A good amount of snow had accumulated from the non-stop snowfall the day before, so my intent was to get to Driggers Nature Preserve here in Charlevoix with hopes of seeing snow-covered trees as the wind was quite calm now. As I pulled up, I was less enthusiastic because it became apparent that not much snow had stuck to the trees I was most hoping would. Driggers has these fantastic old maples that are large and twisted that, I think, would have been great targets had their branches collected some snow and kept hold of it. So, right away my plan was out the window, but that never stops me from pushing forward.

I began walking the trail, and the first thing that became so obviously difficult was just finding something to stop and really consider to be worthy of trying to find a composition. The fact that each slide of film costs $2 and that they only come in packs of 8 kept me very cautious hesitant about what I should actually even work with. I walked the trail about 75% of the way through before I stopped for my first composition.

The First Composition

I had come upon this small leaf, likely from a birch, most of the way submerged under the top layer of snow on the trail. I almost stepped right on it until the golden/rust color caught my eye right beside my boot. Finally, as it's been about 30 minutes pushing my way through some deep fresh snow on this trail, I set my bag down, open it up, and begin to assemble my setup. I splayed my tripod out, pulled out the camera - film already loaded in - and I turn it on.

Something to note, this camera is fully controllable through Polaroid's app. I can adjust the shutter speed and the aperture to my liking, giving me quite a bit of technical control to do some creative things that most instant film cameras cannot. Anyway, I get the app open, connect it to the camera, and then I get to working my composition. The leaf and the way most of it was hidden behind a thin layer of snow seemed to call for a close shot. So, I switched to the "portrait" lens, which is the lens that allows for a shorter minimum focusing distance apparently so I could get nice and close. As directed, I got about what I could judge to be 1' from the leaf, so I was low to the ground almost on top of it, but not too close - or so I thought. I took one exposure. 1/15", f/64 and then took a second exposure with a slightly adjusted angle. 1/30", f/32.

Here's where I learned of my first fatal error; I held onto both film slides, out in the open, watching and waiting for them to develop. They were taking longer than I thought they would. After about 5 minutes, I set them down and googled some information about I type film, which is what I was using. Well, it was at this point I learned that I type film needs to be put away into a dark holding area immediately after exposing to allow it to properly develop, as it's still very sensitive to light right after being exposed in the camera - and I had them out for a few minutes just messing everything up.

So, I put the two exposures away, hoping to save any remnants of an image at all. Luckily, I did, though this is where I learned of my next error. After about 15 minutes had passed, I took the film out to study what had become of my exposures. They were both pretty badly out of focus. I'm not too sure why - perhaps I misjudged the distance between the lens and the leaf, but it seems I was a bit too close. That's a shame, but I intend to show each image I took because I learned a lot and maybe other people will too.

What you're looking at is a photo I took with my Nikon D850, getting as close as I can with my Sigma 50mm lens to best represent the film in my office. I then made virtual copies of these photos in Lightroom to do a bit of processing on them to see how I would edit these like if they were RAW files for me to play with - and this was pretty fun. I think I'll continue to do this - it's neat to see the side-by-side like flipping between a RAW file and an edited JPEG in digital.

Let's assess this real quick. Right off the bat, we can see the focus issue, but right away too, we see some major color problems. The first exposure on the top came out with a magenta hue, tinting the snow most notably. Similarly, the second exposure tinted way green. I was quite confused by this and initially thought that maybe this was just the nature of instant film, but no, here was another fatal error I had come to realize. I was shooting in temperatures far below what Polaroid considers to be the minimum recommended temp for optimal development. It was about 25f and Polaroid's online resources later would tell me that they recommend shooting in temperatures not much lower than 55f and not much higher than about 82f. They note, "photos tend to emerge over-exposed, lacking color contrast and with a green tint", which explains a big part of my failure today.

For reference, I took a shot of this leaf with my D850 as well to compare and be able to show what I was hoping to get with the Polaroid.

Before I move on, let's do a quick recap:

  1. Too close to subject and missed focus

  2. Left film out when it was supposed to be put in a dark space

  3. Shooting in temperatures 30 degrees below recommended min temp

So, I had very quickly crafted a recipe for disaster, but these are things I know now and will absolutely be aware of going forward - and I will be going forward.

The Second Composition

Near the end of the looping trail, I spotted this small tree. Both its exposed roots and its branches actually did have some snow accumulation, but what caught my eye right away was the trunk of this tree. It had rich warm tones and this winding, curved form to it. Again, I got the Polaroid camera out of the bag and set it up. This was another composition I had to really work to try and show off each of those key attributes to the best of my ability. I'm working with a square aspect ratio, so trying to balance those three elements with its immediate surroundings became a challenge.

I took my time, and as I did, I noticed that as the clouds passed by the sun, the light would change intensity, dramatically changing the look of the scene. When the sun poked out, which was up and behind my subject, it lit up the snow all around me, which bounced reflected light back onto the tree trunk, perfectly illuminating it and making those rich warm tones stand out nicely. This was a test of patience. I must have sat there for 15 or 20 minutes, not moving at all, just waiting for the light to come back to finally make an exposure. It did, and I got something half decent, I think.

Again, the cold really affected the colors. A heavy green tint washed over the scene, but as I now knew to quickly put away the film, it got to develop without extra light messing up the process. It ended up coming out okay with some decent contrast. I had the "landscape" lens selected for this exposure and I was surely at least 3' away which put it in safe focus territory and that does seem to be the case. Sharpness leaves something to be desired, but I'm calling it a win compared to my first two exposures. Again, I edited the photo of the film to better show what I envisioned for the image. I took the green away as best I could to attempt to properly display the warm tones along the tree trunk. I actually do like what I was able to do with it.

The Final Composition

Last but not least, two more exposures were made, ultimately costing me $10 for the trip in just the cost of film used, but I won't dwell on that. After shooting the tree above, I turned around to scan the area because the sun was still shining for a moment and I wanted to see if there was anything else in close proximity that looked worthy of me giving some time to, and I did spot another tree about 30 feet off the trail. I had to kick through some fairly deep snow to get in position to shoot it, but I think it was worth it. This time, I was acting fast. I knew I had only minutes before the clouds would swallow up the sunshine and completely kill the scene. I placed my tripod, lined up a shot, and took an exposure - *click - wurrrrr - click* nothing. Odd, I thought. I had some film left, and it tried to expose, but nothing ejected from the camera. I clicked again, and again some noises were made like it was trying. I popped open the film tray, wiggled the end of the film, closed the film tray, exposed one more time, and this time, it spits out just fine. It somehow just got stuck and that resulted in me exposing the same film slide three times - overexposing the scene and blurring everything quite a bit. Luckily, I figured this was going to be a burner, so I took another shot, it spat out just fine, put it away, and packed up to leave. I finally analyzed those last two slides when I got home and, as expected, the first was pretty crappy, but the second actually turned out to be my favorite of the morning.

Again, the edit of the photo of the polaroid film really grew on me. It's not that special of an image. I just happened to find a nicely isolated tree with some color on it. There were mounds of untouched snow collecting on the vegetation on the ground and another tree framing it in on the left, actually balancing the composition for me, I think. Something strange happened with the sky though. That wasn't quite that dark, so I'm not sure if I just underexposed or if this was another issue with the cold, but what it made the sky look like actually is quite interesting.


I learned some stuff. I learned some things to do and some things not to do.

I think in future winter sessions, I'll likely store exposed film in a pocket of my camera bag with a shaken hand warmer in the pocket to keep temperatures up while it develops. Not sure how much that would help, but it's worth experimenting, and that was my biggest takeaway today. All of this was experimentation. The limits of the camera having fixed focal lengths and fixed focus distances really made me think hard about how I worked a composition. The nature and cost of film had me very carefully deciding on what compositions to go ahead with, and all the things I did wrong ended up teaching me a whole lot in one day.

When I said this was the most fun I've had with photography in a long time, I sincerely mean that, and that's not for lack of trying. I go out to shoot a couple times a week if I can, usually, and I hadn't had as much genuine joy with the process since at least my last trip to shoot the fall colors in Marquette in October, or even at DeTour last June. In any case, expect many more shoots from me using the Polaroid camera. I actually cannot wait to get another chance to go and shoot with it again.

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David Sargent Photography © 2021

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