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Tech Lab

Even modernized, an idea past its time

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / May 20, 2010

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Touching the shutter button on the new Polaroid 300 camera is like replaying a soundtrack of the 1970s. There’s the mechanical clack of the shutter, then the whiny sound of an electric motor. Then, the miracle: a gleaming white rectangle that slowly turns into a color photograph.

Over 60 years since Massachusetts inventor Edwin Land came up with self-developing film, it still has the power to impress, especially since it seemed we’d never see instant photographs again. But two years after it halted production of instant film, Polaroid is back — after a fashion.

Actually, what we’ve got are a couple of new cameras that bear little resemblance to Polaroid classics from decades past, like the leather-bound SX-70. One is an oddly shaped Japanese import that shoots cramped, wallet-size images. The other is a run-of-the-mill digital camera mated to a built-in photo printer. It’s hardly a return to greatness for Polaroid; more, it’s a lackluster reminder of what we’ve lost.

During its heyday in the 1960s, Polaroid was as iconic a brand as Apple is today. But when the company gave up on instant photography in 2008, most people greeted the news with a shrug. Digital cameras need no film. They take excellent pictures that can be shared with anybody via the Internet.

But there was no consoling a small, but avid, group of Polaroid loyalists. Portrait photographers delighted in the rich, deep color of Polaroid prints; cops and coroners valued their tamper-proof reliability. And a few consumers continued to insist on instant photos that they could easily paste in scrapbooks or post on refrigerator doors.

In all, not much of a market, but enough for PLR IP Holdings, LLC, the Minnesota company that now owns the Polaroid brand name — especially since PLR could re-enter the instant photo business on the cheap. The Japanese photo company Fujifilm Global had never stopped making its own Instax line of instant photo cameras and film. Last month, PLR began reselling the Fuji products in the United States, but under the Polaroid name.

The Polaroid 300, priced at $90, is a re-labeled Fujifilm Instax camera, beset with a clumsy, al though eye-catching, design. Nearly as simple as an old Kodak Brownie, you switch it on by tugging on its fixed-focus lens. There are multiple settings, for shooting on sunny and cloudy days, and indoors. Line up your subject in the viewfinder and shoot.

Prints crawl out of the camera top. They sport the same warm, lush colors of classic Polaroid images, but they’re short on contrast and detail. Besides, the 300’s pictures are tiny; smaller than a standard business card, and half the size of the old Polaroid prints. They’re good for slipping into a wallet, but not much else. And the film costs money; in this case, $10 for a 10-pack, or $1 a print. That’s a big price for such small images.

The 300’s tiny prints aren’t nearly good enough for the artists and professional photographers. They’re counting on a company in the Netherlands called the Impossible Project, which has resumed making black-and-white film that fits old Polaroid Spectra cameras. It costs $21 for eight prints; the color version, due this summer, is bound to cost considerably more.

We’ve been spoiled by digital photography, which costs next to nothing once you’ve paid for the gear. But sometimes it’s good to pass around instant prints to friends and family, instead of the whole camera. At Zink Imaging Inc. in Bedford, a band of former Polaroid scientists devised a solution. They embedded micro-capsules of color ink inside glossy white paper. The colors emerge when the paper passes through a thermal printer.

Zink first came to market as a stand-alone printer, a little bigger than a cigarette pack. But last year, Polaroid created PoGo, a $200 digital camera with a little Zink printer built into the back.

PoGo sports a five-megapixel image sensor and a basic lens of fixed focal length, meaning there’s no optical zoom. Yes, you get a digital zoom feature, but it leads to a big decline in image quality. So the PoGo, like the 300, is limited to close-in, snapshot work. Its pictures lack the analog warmth that standard film delivers, but they’re reasonably clear and crisp.

Not so much for the printouts, which emerge from the camera in about a minute. The printer’s barely audible; I missed that familiar motorized whine of the classic Polaroid. The prints are only slightly larger than those of the Polaroid 300. Image quality is acceptable for casual viewing, but the pictures are a little grainy and sometimes beset by streaks. Zink images certainly don’t measure up to the standard of a good inkjet printer. But they’re adequate for passing around to friends and family, and at about $9 for 30 Zink papers, each print costs just 30 cents.

Or we could just view the images on our cellphones or iPods. With each new digital gadget, the paper photograph seems less valuable and less relevant. But for now, Polaroid is still working its old, analog magic.

Hiawatha Bray is the Globe’s technology critic. He can be reached at bray@globe.com.