Dear Impossible Project, We Need to Talk…

Posted by Mark 2000 | Reviews | Wednesday · 23 May · 2012 22:54 | 18,527 views

Impossible LogoAnyone 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.


Existential Angst

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.


Conclusion

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.

9 Comments »

  1. Comment by Michael Fortner — Thursday, 24 May, 2012 @ 21:15
  2. TIP has problems that Polaroid never did. First off, Polaroid did not originally start out as a photography company, their primary product was polarized lenses for sunglasses and goggles made for the US Government during WW2 and for civilians as well after the war. This was a profitable business for them, and allowed them to take on Land’s dream of instant photography. You can afford to be cheap on the film if you have another income stream to draw from.

    Second, they were the only manufacturers of cameras for instant film for most of their corporate production of instant photography. TIP doesn’t have that advantage. They are making film for cameras that are already out there and are pretty inexpensive now. So they can’t subsidize the cost of film by income from cameras.

    So what does that leave them? They have to produce a product that matches the original while at the same time not being able to use much of the chemicals that went into it. It has to have the same characteristics or it’s useless in the existing cameras. The fact that they are pretty close to the original film given these constraints is pretty amazing. They have had to make tradeoffs in order to make this price point because any more would probably kill the demand totally and any less and they would go out of business. And where would that leave your integral film cameras?

    As far as distribution, Walmart is the big killer here. They are known for only dealing in large quantities and paying the absolute minimum to suppliers. Snapper found out just how bad Walmart is for suppliers. (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/102/open_snapper.html) They demand price reductions yearly from their wholesalers, and different price levels of products they buy. And with over 8,500 stores in 15 countries TIP could not expect to manufacture the quantity of film needed to keep Walmart’s stores supplied. Polaroid had multiple factories world-wide, TIP has one.

    Intermediary warehouses and wholesalers are reluctant to stock what they see as small quantity, low cost goods. It just doesn’t make money for them. While $23/pack seems expensive to us now, if it went through intermediaries the price would go up because the wholesalers have to make a profit and we are back to being over the price point that makes or breaks a sale. So TIP has a hard time stocking their product outside of their own corporate stores. Just the nature of the beast as far as economics goes.

    And as far as the Pioneer Program goes, I got in in under $150 total spent. I waited until the Black Friday sale in 2010 and bought my film then. One purchase and I was able to make the Pioneer Level for far less than the $750 you stated. If somebody like me who is on a medical disability could do it, anybody could have. Like everything else in life, timing is everything.

    So in summary, I think you might want to give TIP some slack. They have done something damn near impossible (pun intended) in bringing back Polaroid integral pack photography from the brink of extinction. And if you think the cost of their film is bad, have you seen what expired Polaroid-made film is going for online?

  3. Comment by Mark 2000 — Thursday, 24 May, 2012 @ 21:24
  4. @Michael Fortner, I don’t think anyone is asking Impossible to sell at Walmart. I think the problem here is that IP makes deals with certain suppliers in certain cities and feeds them some of their newer batches. Other, smaller stores aren’t allowed to get the newer film. Amazon.com already sells Color Shade film (http://www.amazon.com/Impossible-Color-Shade-Polaroid-Cameras/dp/B00505HA94/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1337919579&sr=8-1) but only the previous formulations. They also seem to not get current stock.

    I did also agree that lowering the price of the film is not possible. But there are ways to warranty it and add more value to it to legitimize the high price point for a beta (or even alpha) product.

  5. Comment by MeRy - Artstudio23 — Wednesday, 6 June, 2012 @ 6:22
  6. I miss the original Polaroids, as those always could develop in daylight, I really hate the ‘put in box quickly’ stuff – Polaroids magic was looking at the developing picture…now it’s gone…got a few boxes exp. film left…
    (and yes, Impossible film is way too expensive)

  7. Comment by nico — Wednesday, 6 June, 2012 @ 8:19
  8. On the other hand when they did not started this project Polaroid would be history. It was better that polaroid gave the secets how to make this film to the makers of the impossible project. That they lift on the hype of this magical film is understandable. But i agree that it is way too expensive and that only a few can afford it. As for other analog film….

    Wonder what the comment from the impossible project is on this review.

  9. Comment by Jason Pramas — Thursday, 21 June, 2012 @ 13:47
  10. Nice piece …

  11. Comment by Brady Nay — Wednesday, 5 September, 2012 @ 8:37
  12. One big question I have, is that Fuji is also producing instant film at a much lower cost ($1 per photo / instax wide) and it doesn’t have any of the IP film problems (light shielding, incosistent developer, etc.). If Fujifilm can provide a quality value based film for the modern consumer, then IP should be able to as well or it needs to give rights to Fuji to produce polaroid film for the Polaroid brand cameras.

  13. Comment by Veronica — Friday, 16 November, 2012 @ 17:21
  14. While I don’t agree with all of your points, I do appreciate your courage in expressing discontent with IP. I say courage because I’ve noticed and have a huge problem with the favoritism that IP displays towards those they think are cool enough to associate with their product. For those who express a opinion other than praise of IP they are bullied by IP and their followers. I started purchasing their products from the start and are a pioneer (and are close to hitting the next level). I’ve had lots of bad and quickly replaced by IP packs. Despite how much I’ve purchase I see via instagram/twitter/facebook that many newcomers to the medium are getting free film because they constantly talk about IP like they are gods of photography. One newcomer even bragged about getting to the 2nd level after only buying 5 packs. IP supposedly did it as a reward for that person talking about their love for IP on twitter. I think its unethical to give that to someone for practically free when I and others have spent $200+ dollars, have supported IP from the beginning and regularly share our appreciation for the company to the community. Finally I got tired of being ripped off and I don’t like a company that only requires some of their customers to pay for film. So I stopped buying thier product and will not do so again.

  15. Comment by ando — Thursday, 22 November, 2012 @ 8:03
  16. I had also been thinking of writing a letter to Impossible Project when i recently purchased their new line of SX70 film that doesn’t need to be immediately shielded from the light and supposedly has “never before seen color saturation”. I have been extremely disappointed in the color of the first pack. They all have a greenish tint and flat contrast. Last Spring I also bought a ten-pack of old generation film at a (slight) discount because they were known to have some flaws. I thought this flawed discounted pack might fun to experiment with at a cheaper cost so I was prepared that some of the film might not be great quality, however I was very disappointed that I never got a single recognizable photographic image to develop on any of those packs. I remember wishing that they would stop coming out with new film that had a gold border or an ape head (PX70 BAPE) superimposed on your polaroid picture and just make better quality film for taking great pictures.
    You can see my latest pictures using the new PX70 Color Protection film and how they look on my blog: andrewhouston.blogspot.com

  17. Comment by JK — Friday, 23 November, 2012 @ 8:04
  18. Honestly I’m disgusted by the behavior of Impossible Project and their brainwashed followers towards you and others who are honest like you. I find it ridiculous that IP staff and their blind-praising crude pseudo-photographers have been so incredibly rude and tactless in the Flickr groups. Photography should bring people together not cause one person to be bullied for expressing opinions. I’m even more bothered by the instances that Veronica mentions above. I’ve seen the favoritism that results in ripped off IP customers. IP gives away products to the same people over and again while taking absurd amounts of money from people who want to participate. The worst part is when they give those “free products” to people who take awful images, sending the message that we should all strive to make ugly work with their film so maybe we can be apart of their cool club of bullying jerks.

    Its very hard to keep supporting a business with such immature marketing schemes, business practices and customer service. I feel guilty for not being more vocal about it. But me and bunch of others that tired of these games have sworn to stop spending with their company and we will soon be making our concerns heard. It’s time everyone stop being so stupid and defensive about this company run by a bunch of aging hipsters that could never make it as professional photographers.

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