Polaroid Film Type 55 Positive Negative by Alex Bond

Polaroid Film Type 55 Positive Negative by Alex Bond

Polaroid is such a wonderful film, I could never really bring myself to use it instantly.  To use it instantly would risk losing the negative.

Early Experiences with Polaroid Film Type 55

My first experience with Polaroid Film Type 55 was attending a photography unit at University, where the lecturer exposed a single sheet of this film to help explain the Zone System. I was fascinated with the peel apart process, revealing both a print and negative.

My curiosity only increased when out teacher explained to the group that you can make an enlarged print from this negative.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that I could finally afford to purchased a 4×5 Polaroid back and box of Polaroid Film.

Fernhook Falls Polaroid 4×5

Fernhook Falls on Deep River near Walpole from 4×5 inch Polaroid negative. You can see on the image edge where Polaroid’s paper envelope comes into contact with the film during exposure and development. One of my final Polaroid Type 55 exposures, I will miss it this wonderful film as it gives a lovely negative to print from.This negative prints really easily. The tones are smooth and the detail from the effective 32 ISO negative film is fine. The Polaroid print itself is a little blown out in the highlights, which is to be expected as the print speed is faster than the negative emulsion. This Polaroid negative of Fernhook Falls is destined for a 16×20 inch silver gelatin print on fibre-based paper.

Polaroid Back Film Holder

Polaroid 4×5 Type 55 Film came in boxes of 20 exposures. Each Polaroid film was sealed in a special light-tight black paper envelope. To make an exposure you needed a Polaroid Film Back of appropriate film size, to fit your camera.

The Polaroid Film envelope is inserted into the Polaroid Back. Through a series of steps similar to moving a dark slide, the envelope was pulled out of the back while the exposure was made onto the film. Afterward, the extended envelope was slid back securely around the film while in situ in the camera. Once this stage is completed you have two options, develop the Polaroid positive/negative or remove the exposed film from the Polaroid back and replace it with a fresh unexposed film.

If you chose to develop the film, you swung the silver lever on the Polaroid Back to “Process”. This engaged the rollers which would break open the developer gel pod inside the light-tight Polaroid Film envelope. As you pull the envelope out of the back, the gel is evenly dispersed between the negative and print layers.If you wanted to process your film later but continue using the back, you kept the lever in the “Load” position. With careful pushing from the “camera lens” side of the film back, you can remove the exposed film without breaking and activating the developer pods. Simply reinsert the exposed film, return the lever to “P” and pull the envelope tab to begin processing.

Lens side Polaroid Back
Rear of Polaroid Back
4×5 camera with Polaroid Back Inserted

Exposing Polaroid

Out of the box, Polaroid Type 55 is rated at 50 ISO. But I rate it at 32 ISO, giving it 1/3 stop more exposure to the negative and print. That affords me a bit more shadow detail in the film. However, the downside is that the print is 1/3 stop lighter, which can blow the print highlights.

Polaroid Print and Negative

This film is capable of recording superb detail and tonalities. With Polaroid Type 55 PN 4×5 film, each exposure yielded a positive 4×5 polaroid print and a 4×5 negative. This means you have a negative for enlarging and printing.

My approach to using this film has always been to treat it like a regular film. Compose the image and expose it carefully, then process the instant film when I get home.

Limitations of Polaroid Processing

But using Polaroid Film out in the field, as I was planning to do with landscapes, revealed to me some serious limitations compared to using regular film.

Processing Polaroid requires peeling apart the paper developing enclosure, separating negative from contact with the positive and thus halting development. Unfortunately, this had the potential to contaminate your fingers with caustic developing gel. You don’t want in your eyes.

Polaroids can be Messy

This wouldn’t be a problem if you have a tap to rinse your hands nearby! But this is not an option when you are hiking. Sure, you can use your drinking water but this is too valuable for washing.

Polaroid prints need wiping with a fixative coating as soon as they are processed, otherwise, the image will fade. No easy task keeping dirt and dust from off your now sticky print. Furthermore, your negative is being fogged by light when you peel apart the envelope, as you can see below.

Solarised Polaroid negative film exposed to ambient light during in-field processing.

If you are hiking, you will need a spare rubbish bag to take store the gel contaminated envelope papers, to be disposed of when you return home.

Therefore,  I always treat my Polaroid Type 55 as ‘regular’ film. I expose the Polaroid, then remove it from the holder for safekeeping.  I then process it later in the darkroom when I have returned from my trip.

In this way I could safely save the negative from which I would make an enlarged print.  The Polaroid positive prints, although beautiful, were always secondary.  Most my Polaroid prints tended to be too light as I had deliberately over exposed for the negative.

Home Develop Polaroids

My procedure for using Polaroid was to expose in the field and process back home, sometimes weeks later. Using the Polaroid back I would do this processing in my darkroom. I keep light away from the freshly processed Polaroid negative until fixed, then turn on room light.

Polaroid 55 Negative Clearing Formula

Polaroid recommends an 18% sulphite solution**to clear the film. It is recommended that you don’t use a regular film fixer on Polaroid negs. It does work – in that it clears the film, but according to Adams, it may not fix the negative in the long run.

**The following formula is from Ansel Adams’ Polaroid Land Photography, 1978, New York Graphic Society. In it he recommends:

Sodium Sulphite Clearing Solution18% for for Type 55
Water 30˚C750 mls
Sodium Sulphite anhydrous180 grams
Water to make1000 mls

I complete the processing just as regular film. After washing treat with a wetting agent and then dry. You now have a 4×5 contact Polaroid Print in one hand and a perfectly usable 4×5 negative in the other. What a bargain!

Dune Cabbage 8×10 inch gelatin silver print.

Dune Cabbage shows how amazing Polaroid Type 55 positive/negative film is, even in this age of digital cameras. Photographed near Cape Leeuwin, Augusta, Australia, this enlargement is from Polaroid PN 55 made on Forte graded paper.

Polaroid is a Great Teaching Tool

Polaroid is a great teaching tool during photography workshops. I would demonstrate its use with students. It gave immediate feedback about your choice of exposure, composition, and development was invaluable to students.

If you want to see in book form some wonderful images made from Type 55 film try and get hold of a copy of Ansel Adams, 1978, Polaroid land photography, 2edn, New York Graphic Society, Boston.

Jarrah blossom Polaroid Type 55.

Polaroid Technology

Photography has always been on the cutting edge of technology. I still marvel at the beautiful tonal range of polaroid type 55 film negatives and the sophisticated technology that underlies its apparent simplicity.

Technology is a topic that generally surfaces in one form or another at workshops, usually as comparisons between film and digital approaches. One common theme that seems to emerge, is that whilst there will always be new photographic products and technologies. Although they will enable faster outcomes and greater volumes, it is not always the speed at which you arrive at your destination, but the process or journey in getting there.

Since it is the undertaking of that journey and its experiences, that begins the learning process. Failure is a key part of learning to succeed. Don’t let technology rob you of learning because you are afraid to fail!

Fallen banksia Polaroid Pos Neg Film.

This image is of the fallen banksia on the south coast. The sun had set and the bush had become quiet and still, with the sea breeze dropping right off. In the gathering dusky gloom, this old trunk just seemed to take on its own quiet glow.

Using my spot meter my exposure was around 4.5 minutes at f16 with a 300mm Nikkor. Back in my darkroom, several days later, I gave the exposed Polaroid film 20 seconds of development at 20 degrees centigrade.

Now that Polaroid Film is no longer made in 4×5 inch PN Type 55, what to do with a 4×5 Polaroid film holder? Ironically,  it fits snugly into a Fuji Quickload film box for storage, another item that is also no longer produced!

Polaroid Collection

Some amazing images have been made with Polaroid over the years. Indeed, the Polaroid Collection contains many images by world-renowned photographers. The collection was auctioned off in 2010, an action that was precipitated by Polaroid’s bankruptcy. You can read more about this in John Sexton’s April 2010 newsletter.

Alex Bond

Since 1989, Alex Bond has published under his imprint Stormlight Publishing. His images explore the light, colour and texture of the West Australian landscape. Alex personally hand prints his silver-gelatin photographs in his darkroom. 

Alex Bond’s workshop schedule, articles and photographs can be seen on his website, his The Photograph Considered can be seen here.

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Alex Bond is a Perth based fine art photographer.

There are 9 comments for this article
  1. David Tatnall at 9:59 pm

    Alex, great article and fantastic Polaroid photographs. I used Polaroid 4×5 when I taught large format workshops, a fantastic teaching tool, I miss it.
    I was inspired to use Polaroid Type 55 after seeing Paul Caponigro’s he made from them at the Photographers’ Gallery & Workshop in 1977.

    • Alex Bond at 10:14 pm

      Thanks, David, Polaroid was magical stuff. A bit of a trip down memory lane, but you never know, maybe Polaroid Type 55 will be revived one day, and all those 4×5 Polaroid Backs find a use!

    • Alex Bond at 2:36 am

      Hi Ellie,
      Yes, the loss of Polaroid is rather sad. An instant print and negative that you can peel apart in 20 to 30 seconds and that you can physically view and hold is way more magical than naughts and ones, which you can’t see, on a flash card!

  2. David Tatnall at 2:20 am

    Some of Paul Caponigro’s most famous photographs were made using Polaroid film. The book ‘Seasons – Paul Caponigro’ published by New York Graphic Society are all made using Polaroid. Unfortunately like Polaroid film the book is no longer available to buy, but with luck may be found in a good library.

    • Alex Bond at 2:43 am

      Hi Mat,
      I think I would have been lucky to have used more than 40 sheets of Polaroid in the time it was around. The price and availability of 4×5 type 55 were issues for me. Although I used it infrequently compared to regular film, I do have some nice family portraits on Polaroid film.

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