The Digital Polaroid SX-70

What do you do if you own an iconic and unusual camera from decades past? Do you love it and cherish it, buy small quantities of its expensive remanufactured film and take arty photographs? Or do you rip it apart and remake it as a modern-day digital camera in a retro enclosure? If you’re [Joshua Gross], you do the latter.

The Polaroid SX-70 is an iconic emblem of 1970s consumer technology chic. A true design classic, it’s a single-lens reflex design using a Polaroid instant film cartridge, and its party trick is that it’s a folding camera which collapses down to roughly the size of a pack of 1970s cigars. It was an expensive luxury camera when it was launched in 1972, and today it commands high prices as a collector’s item.

[Joshua]’s build is therefore likely to cause weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth among vintage camera enthusiasts, but what exactly has he done? In the first instance, he’s performed a teardown of the SX-70 which should be of interest to many readers in itself. He’s removed the mirror and lens, mounted a Raspberry Pi camera behind the lens mount, and a small LCD monitor where the mirror would be.

A new plastic lens in the original lens housing completes the optics, and the electronics come courtesy of a Pi Zero, battery, and USB hub in the space where the Polaroid film cartridge would otherwise be. Some new graphics and a fresh leather cover complete the  build, giving what we’d say is a very tidy electronic Polaroid. On the software side there is a filter to correct for fisheye distortion, and the final photos have a slightly Lomographic quality from the plastic lens.

We like what he’s created with his SX-70 even if we can’t help wincing that he did it to an SX-70 in the first place. Maybe it’s less controversial when someone gives the Pi treatment to a more mundane Polaroid camera.

15 thoughts on “The Digital Polaroid SX-70

  1. For those without the time to read the whole project page, here’s my choice quote:

    “It took a total of 8 months on-and-off in my spare time to complete this project. Was there a point to it? Absolutely not. Was it fun? Hell yeah.”

    Kudos to [Joshua Gross].

  2. The SX-70 was astounding. Pictures developed in the light. Aspheric mirror optics. The folding mechanism. The project cost something like $140M in 1970s dollars. And it wasn’t Edward Land’s first amazing work. He should be regarded like Edison or Tesla in our memories.

  3. What I’d like to see is a digital film module that would slide in place of the normal film packs. Equip it with an image sensor that pops up or a mirror+lens(es) that pop up to redirect the light to a sensor.

    With a lever on the front of the digital module to raise and lower the parts it could be compatible with most SX-70 and 600 cameras. While the same size and IIRC physically interchangeable, the SX-70 and 600 films aren’t cross compatible.

    The Spectra line would need a different unit due to its film being a different size from the prior models. Polaroid touted the improved features but Spectra was mainly an effort to get people to buy new cameras to replace the huge numbers of essentially indestructible SX-70 and 600 series.

    Another obsolete camera that needs a digital treatment is the Kodak Disc. This would be by far the easiest film camera to digitize due to its simple optics and minuscule film frame size. The Disc film modules are thick enough it should be possible to mount a large image sensor precisely on the original film plane. A digital module in a Disc camera ought to be able to produce images superior to the original film.

    These devices would need to be self contained, sensor, other electronics, storage memory, USB port, mechanical sensors to interface with camera control.

    1. I have the SX-70 in this article. The problem is they really weren’t great cameras in their day and don’t feel that good int he hand today. It’s just not worth the effort to convert it to something that will still take worse pictures than a 5 year old phone. And that goes double for the Spectras which were trash in their day too. I remember when costco had a 4 pack of spectra film with the camera for free and it still wasn’t worth it.

      For retro, I’d rather pick up a nice SLR that feels good in the hand for under $100 and put a few rolls for 35mm film through it. Either B&W to proces at home or C-41 is not hard to find a place to process.

  4. I have an excellent condition, original one of these, SX-70, my grandfather gave me that was his when he was little. It has two flash bars. It’s very cool and I’ve just saved it for a long time because I don’t want to just get rid of it because I know there’s got to be fans of this particular camera. I’m selling this. If anyone is interested, please contact me. I just want it to go to a good home. The link where I’m selling is listed below-it’s on Mercari.

  5. This is fascinating. I just purchased a MiNT 670S, and am trying to figure out the newer film chemistry (I got my first SX70 in 1977). I’ve wondered if it would be possible to–somehow–convert an SX70 to a digital camera. This is really cool. (I am wondering how you can give your photographic subjects an original image they can watch develop and come to life, though. That is part of the magic of ‘instant’ photography.)

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