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|Well, some things you just can't wait for...|
|The quick and dirty on Polaroid rangefinders|
This is a very high-level overview that was mostly supplanted on July 27, 2012 by [Pola]roid rage.
Above: scan from a neg shot on 665 using a converted 110B with the Ysarex, wide-open at 2m. Clipping in the blacks is from using a flatbed scanner to scan a neg. Ouch.
You knew it was only a matter of time before something appeared here about Polaroid rangefinder cameras. You just didn't know it would be today. The following is a summary of the Polaroid cameras that are actually worth buying.
The Rollfilm Remnant
110A ("Pathfinder") - The 110A is a folding metal camera with coupled rangefinder (dual windows). It commonly features a 127mm f/4.5 Rodenstock Ysarex (Rodenstock recomputer Tessar, complete with Lanthanum glass) in a B and 1-1/300 Prontor mechanical shutter. Many of these lenses (which cover 4x5) have found their way onto Century Graphics and Speed Graphics. The Ysarex is a pretty sharp little lens (and I do mean little). While you might grouse that it only goes to 1/300 sec, realize that your "1/500" on a leaf shutter is really only 1/350.
You can't use a 110A as-is, because Polaroid stopped making film in the early 1990s. People routinely convert this camera modern pack film, 4x5 readyloads and regular holders, and even 120. The conversion is easily double the cost of the camera, is usually invasive (as in cutting off the left side of the camera) and is labor intensive. But when it is finished -- it's incredible. It's more solid than any Polaroid camera which followed.
The fun with the 110A is using it to make giant 3.25x4.25 inch instant negs on 665 print/negative film. The negatives clear in cold water (you should stil fix them) and make perfect Polaroid-size contact prints, can be scanned, or can be projection printed. Film speed is 100 for the print; 50 for the negative. You get one or the other.
The 110A has some quirks that don't always come across on Ebay. First, the shutter release is a bar on the front of the camera that is accessible when you are using the second quirk, which is the front-door mounted focusing knob. The third quirk is the fact that you need a tropod adapter to tripod the camera in the vertical position (the socket is on the door, right next to the focusing knob).
Note that a 110A cannot be used with a standard Metz 45-series flash due to the bottom tripod socket positioning. The camera has a flash shoe that can handle flashes with the ring-lock type of locking (just slide the flash in backward). You then have to connect to the shutter terminal on the lens. The Prontor shutter has both M synch and X synch.
110B ("Pathfinder") - the 1960 model 110B has two changes from the 110A. The first is that the rangefinder and viewfinder are combined, with field-corrected framelines that shrink as you get closer. RF image is a yellow trapezoid (clever) on a bluish field. This is a lot faster in operation than the 110A's dual windows. The 110B also features a pinhole lens cap which provides you with an f/90 setting to use with 3000-speed film. My personal suspicion is that the finder was made under license from Konica, which had just invented this type of finder with the Konica IIIA and the Pearl IV.
Pack film cameras: There are tons of pack film Polaroids from about 1967 on. Most are garbage. Some traps you will run into buying these cameras at thrift shops, on Ebay, and at garage sales:
In general, the higher-end Polaroid pack cameras are well-designed and tough. The bellows are nearly indestructible, and the body is very solid. The plastic clamshell front cover swings up, the viewfinder/rangefinder swings down, and everything is protected.
Skip any camera that does not have one of the two numbers below. These things are so dirt cheap (and the film is so expensive by comparison), you might as well go straight for the gusto. Maybe look at a 250 if you are on a budget (no electronic print timer). Shutters go to 1/1200 sec.
Model 360 Electronic Flash - This is the only 60-70s Polaroid pack camera with normal X-synch (other than the really expensive 180/185/195s described below). Repeat, the only pack camera with X-synch. Glad we got that out of the way. The 360 is really the top-of-the line pack camera, with aluminum body, Zeiss-Ikon combined viewfinder/rangefinder, tripod socket, electronic print timer, and most importantly, automatic flash. Lens is a 114mm f/8.8 coated triplet.
The flash on the Model 360 is a dedicated unit that slides into a hot shoe(!) on the upper left side of the body (looking from the front). This unit almost never works, because the batteries are cashed. But there is a way out. The flash uses AA Nicads with tabs, that must be soldered in place. You can buy these batteries for about $10 apiece and just solder them in. Coolest of all, the flash has louvers which move to and from to compensate for focused distance - so it's flashmatic! The flash circuitry occupies the place where the batteries normally go, so the battery compartment is on the front.
The combined Zeiss-Ikon combined viewfinder is definitely better than the plastic one that preceded it. It is big, has a nice RF spot and features shrinking projected framelines. That said, don't work yourself up into a caniption about the fact that it is Zeiss-Ikon, because by the time they made this camera, ZI was on its way out of business. So you're buying a name, not an exponent of the Zeiss empire.
Model 450 Automatic - this was also technically top-of-the-line, but it does not have electronic flash; it has its own baby flashbulb unit, the "Focused flash" (with louvers that adjust power depending on distance, like the electronic one on the 360). The flash was included with the 450; it was optional with the 350. Otherwise, they are the same.
"But wait", you protest, "it has an X-synch socket that my Vivitar 283 [automatic] flash plugs into."
Don't go down that path. Polaroid designed these cameras around bulb flash, with a type of plug that has two parts - an electrical connection and a small t-shaped connection that tells the camera's exposure sensor to shorten the ambient (i.e., non-flash) exposure. Modern PC cords lack the second part - so you risk blurry backgrounds if you plug a normal PC-type flash in.
I have observed that there is also something off about the flash synch itself when you plug an electronic flash into the socket on the camera - you get underpowered flash, unless you shoot on full power or two auto settings more powerful than you should need (such as setting the flash to f/4 auto mode when the lens is at f/8.8). This tells me that the flash is firing when the shutter is not all the way open - leading to the conclusion that these cameras are M-synch - meaning that absent some heroics, you are going to lose a lot of flash power.
For your reference, the actual lens f/stops are (for the 360 and 350/450):
Of course, since these film speeds by and large don't exist anymore (except for 3000 black and white), you need to use the Light/Darken dial to compensate. One small notch is 1/2 stop (so you should be able to go from 75 to 100; 75 to 50; or 300 to 400).
Model 180 / 185 / 195 - These cameras are like the regular pack cameras, except that they have various lenses (like Tominons) in mechanical shutters. This means no AE (though the 185 has a match-needle meter - but you'll never own one of these, so don't worry about it). These cameras were aimed at professionals who wanted a proofing tool but could not get a proofing back for their main cameras. These cameras are very expensive (but still less expensive than a converted 110B), and not as solid as a converted rollfilm camera. These are good, but they are really the product of grafting a professional-grade lens onto an amateur architecture. The 180 and 185 have the combined Zeiss viewfinders (the 185 has a coupled light meter as well); the 195 has separate windows for viewfinder and rangefinder.