Anyone who knows me personally has seen me devolve into a photo nut as of late. In the past year I’ve purchased sixteen different cameras – all but three film – and eight lenses. I can’t seem to stop. Film cameras are just gorgeous objects. They display well, they’re wife approved, and, now a days, they’re cheap. People are practically throwing them away. I’ve been shooting all kinds of film, from medium format to 35mm to half frame to stereoscopic. One of my favorites is instant which I use mostly for family portraits because it has a warm, antique feel to it. When I shoot instant film I shoot it on a Polaroid SX-70, and the only people who make film for that kind of camera anymore is a Dutch company called “The Impossible Project.
The Impossible Project swooped in and purchased all the film making machines Polaroid was throwing away when it abandoned instant film in 2008. They got the machines, but the original chemical make up was too difficult to reproduce for various reasons. So Impossible decided to start from scratch. Their attempts to recreate the famous film has been a mixed bag so far. While it has a beautiful lo-fi quality to it, with warm, dream-like colors and soft focus, it also has a number of problems. For one thing it’s very difficult to expose. Often times, even in perfect conditions exposure dials need to be fiddled with and neutral density filters need to be used. There’s also an ongoing problem of developer chemicals not spreading evenly when the picture is ejected from the camera leaving up to half of an image undeveloped and solid brown
Impossible freely admits their film is completely experimental and that their customers are all beta testers. Most fans are just happy to have their beloved instant film again, but just as many are annoyed by unaddressed problems, high costs, and poor distribution. I’m presenting this post as an open letter to Impossible on the problems I, and others I’ve spoken to, have with the company and it’s product along with ways to possibly correct or mitigate them. Impossible, we love you. That’s why it hurts so much to say:
Your Film Costs Too Much.
We all understand that you’re a small company serving a tiny demographic. That means high costs for you that you need to at least make back if you’re going to continue this labor of love. But $24 for eight pictures is a lot of money. I don’t have to break out a calculator for us to know that’s $3 a shot. This is all compounded by the fact that the film is difficult to use and constantly changing. One generation needs more exposure, the next needs less. Just when you think you’ve got it down, the rules change and you’re expending another entire pack just to get the hang of it. There’s not a lot of bang for the buck here and there’s a lot of hurt feelings when you’re stuck with a pile of rubbish.
How can you fix this? Lowering the price might be out of the question. The batteries, the film, the chemicals – it all adds up. But there may be a way to add more value. How about putting ten shots in a package? That’s the classic amount in integral film packs and it’s what every integral film camera counter reports. Two extra pictures isn’t going to kill you and sticking with eight just seems petty.
You might also consider more rewards for recycling empty film packs. You’ve told us the batteries are powerful enough to use over and over again. Recycling would cut down a lot on your costs and keep more crap out of landfills. Right now your program seems to be on hold and there was never any intensive for returning the battery packs. Why not set up a program with your dealers? Customers can turn in packs at authorized resellers or mail them back to you. Each returned pack gives you a point for use toward free Impossible merchandise – say 15 empty packs gets you a free full pack of film.
Your Other Products Also Cost Too Much
This is a different section because is has a different answer. You’re accessories are ridiculously expensive. $12 for a neutral density filter. $14 for a “film shade”. $21 for a “hot/cold clip”. This might sound reasonable if you don’t know that these items are all simple pieces of specially cut, thin, flimsy plastic. They probably cost pennies to make. To add insult to injury they’re items that are necessary to deal with the inherent faults of the film: wonky sensitivity, needing the film to be shielded for the first ninety seconds of development, and needing to keep the film warm for decent results. In other words, if the film was made properly we wouldn’t need these accessories.
Let’s also mention that you sell pack film camera batteries for more than twice as much as other stores. Considering these are not proprietary batteries this is a bit odd. You also sell “refurbished” cameras for over four or five times their market value. Ouch. Your new SX-70 LED flash device costs more than the cameras it’ll be fitted on and as much as thirty flashbars (300 flashes) on eBay.
Your Film Has Too Many Issues
Again, I know the film is experimental. We all know what we’re getting into when we sign up. But there are some problems that can’t be solved with a $14 shade or an extra click of a knob. The poor developer spread problem is terrifying. There’s nothing worse than getting all the requirements for a good shot down only to see half of a picture ruined by poorly spread developer. Polaroid camera rollers are made of metal and set in metal. Unless those little paper pictures are some how bending them they can’t be blamed. There is something wrong with the film itself. This is an issue that needs to be fixed now, and, judging from pictures of the new “Cool” release, it hasn’t been.
The first time I encountered this it started small with my first shots having tiny spots at the top of the image. It then grew larger on each successive picture and then receded as I got to the last pictures in the pack. I wrote to you about the problem and you were good enough to send me a free package of film. It, unfortunately, also had the issue as did other Color Shade packs I used. Oddly enough I’ve never had this problem with your Push film, only the Color Shade.
What can you do, Impossible? Fix the issue. If it really doesn’t exist in Push film then you’re doing something wrong now that you weren’t before. If you can’t fix it then make more official and obvious amends. Perhaps 10 pictures that are over 10% undeveloped can be turned in at a reseller or mailed to you for a free pack of film.
You’re Not Even Trying to Make Camera Specific Film Anymore
This is another big one. Color Shade on an SX-70 needed to be used with the dial set to dark because it was more sensitive than what the camera was intended to be used with. I’ve read on your own site that the new “Cool” release is even more sensitive, nearly requiring a neutral density filter (sold separately!) to get tolerable results. The word on the street is that you’re not making SX-70 specific film anymore in order to cut down on research costs. You’re just packaging your PX600 film in PX70 boxes and advising the use of a filter. If this is true it really sucks. Even if it isn’t, the film is still too sensitive and is a step in the wrong direction. The goal of the next version is to improve, right?
I shouldn’t need to use an ND filter in proper lighting. Most serious integral film photographers use the SX-70 because it’s a real live SLR with a high quality lens and spot on focusing. It’s really bizarre to shaft them like this.
Stop Trying to Be the Cool Kid
I have a feeling that high costs and unaddressed issues have to do with the aura of cool that you’re trying to create around the company. Lomography tries to do something similar by making cheap, poorly made toy cameras into a premium product. Lomo’s really not a good role model. It’s creating cameras and film for people more interested in a trend than an art form. They’ll pass out of existence like the latest top 40 artists.
It may also seem like having a hard to use product gives users a sense of exclusivity. Having to go through a ritual of messing with settings, attaching accessories, shielding pictures, and waiting to see what you’ve got is almost like a secret handshake. But it wears thin after awhile. Taking pictures is hard enough, what with focusing, light metering, and so forth. It’s like painting. You have to have an eye for composition, light, and color plus you have to have experience with the paint itself. All of that is hard enough. Imagine if the paint didn’t act the way you expect when you applied it – running when it’s dry and flaking off right after application? It would just be frustrating.
And paint is exactly what film should be like – an art material. I’ve never seen paint advertised as a status symbol and yet it sells and will continue to sell no matter how sophisticated Wacom Tablets and Corel software becomes. Winsor and Newton Paints, for instance, are as stodgy as their name suggests. That doesn’t stop generation after generation of art students from buying them. And not only do they sell to the hip art scene, but to the Bob Ross accolades as well. My father used to shoot with an SX-70. I can’t imagine him looking at your site today and saying “I want to try that”.
“But wait!” you may cry. “What about fashion? Places like American Apparel and Urban Outfitters are always capitalizing on cool! They’re successful!” Unfortunately, these places don’t rely on a single trend. Their stock changes with the seasons. You’re selling one product and you’ll be selling that product forever. You need to play the long con, Impossible. You’re investing too much in this thing to not.
Your Retail Distribution is Confusing
It’s really hard to get your film from anyone but you. On top of that your shipping prices are insane: $10 for a single pack of film. This basically makes each package $34 which raises the price of a photo to $4.25 each. Wow. You do have local resellers, but not many, and they often don’t get the latest formulations.
Smaller resellers fare even worse. The little store I buy all my film from says you have actually refused to send them the newer film. Amazon seems to not have it any better. You can’t currently get Color Shade Cool from them, and, therefore, take advantage of Prime free shipping. This really needs to change. Local retailers can offer sales, don’t require shipping costs, establish important and long lasting relationships, and get your film more easily into the hands of people who want it.
Your Pioneer Program is, Well, Impossible
Needing to spend $750 (30 packs) just to get your foot in the door of a program that only gives you a 5% discount is some wacky tobaccy. It costs $1200 (50 packs) to get a 10% discount and early access to new film formulations that only come out every eighteen months or so – also completely oofty-mcgoofty. Frankly, everyone who has the fortitude and dedication to buy 10 packs ($230) of your film should be admitted to the program. You should throw in some free shipping deals too. You have a huge community of people who are in love with you. You’re not giving them enough love back.
This, I think, might be your biggest problem. There seems to be no end to the number of things you claim to not be – a direct replacement for Polaroid film, for instance – but you have no manifesto on what this film will be when you’re done with it. What color properties will it have? How sharp will it be? How will it react to the light? How will it function with various cameras? How archival will it be?
Considering this is a beta product and we are investors, shouldn’t we know what we are investing in? It’s difficult to ask people to keep dumping money into something that has no obvious direction.
So there’s my list. I hope you take it into careful consideration. I know you’re small. I know you have a niche product. I know you’re doing us all a enormous service by even considering such a challenging endeavor. But we, your customers, are spending and sacrificing too in the name of keeping instant photography alive. One Flickr poster said it best: the price for beta testing is getting the product for free. Beta testers never pay to test. We need to be loyal to and considerate of each other if we’re going to keep this art form going.