Polaroid: the instant camera trend that has gone full circle

Over the last 73 years, Polaroid cameras have come in and out of fashion. Polaroid revolutionized instant film photography and then felt the backlash of the digital era. Business Insider recently explored the cultural phenomenon of Polaroid in a YouTube video entitled The Rise and Fall of Polaroid Cameras. But how exactly did Polaroid go from beloved to bankrupt?

The first Polaroid camera was introduced in 1948 at a department store in Boston. Invented by Edwin Land (who also invented polarizers and ND filters), the Polaroid Model 95 produced sepia-colored film that developed in just 60 seconds. Never before had a camera been able to offer the photographer a nearly instant image – and customers loved the results. 

Read more: Best instant cameras

By 1963, advances in technology meant that Polaroid was able to launch its first color film camera, known as the Model 100 Land camera. It was big and bulky, but it featured an automatic exposure setting that made it really easy to use. 

Over the next five years, Polaroid sold over 900,000 units, including the Big Swinger - a plastic black & white camera that was aimed at teens. According to Business Insider, Polaroid was worth more than $400 million in 2968. Meanwhile, by the 1970s, it controlled almost two thirds of the instant camera market. 

However, the release of the popular Polaroid SX 70 changed instant cameras forever. Land developed the Polaroid SX 70 to be small, lightweight and compact. It was promoted by the likes of Morgan Freeman and Andy Warhol was reportedly an avid user. 

Instax vs Polaroid

Polaroid was producing more than 5,000 units per day of the SX 70 and, despite spending half a billion on new factories, it still couldn’t keep up with the demand. By 1978 Polaroid sales hit a whopping $1.3 billion and had sold more than 9.4 million units worldwide. 

Hoping to do for video what he had done for film, Land started to focus on instant movies. Polavision was introduced in 1977 but equipment was expensive and a lot of light was needed to film anything. Just two years later, the line was discontinued having sold just 60,000 units and Polaroid had to write off $89 million.

This is where Polaroid's fortunes began to take a turn for the worse. Kodak had jumped on the instant film bandwagon with the Kodak Handle. Polaroid sued Kodak for patent infringement and although it won a settlement of $909 million, it wouldn’t be enough to restore Polaroid to its former glory. 

Over the next two decades Polaroid lost more than 10% of its market share, declared bankruptcy and changed owners multiple times. After 43 years, Edwin Land stepped down as president and chairman. Then, in 2008, Polaroid announced they would stop production of all film and cameras. 

Luckily for Polaroid lovers, this wasn’t the end of the road. Headed by Dutchman Florian Capps, The Impossible Project would take over manufacturing of film for the Polaroid SX 70 and 600 cameras. Then, in 2017, The Impossible Project bought what was left of Polaroid, rebranded the company as Polaroid Original and launched the One Step 2 -  a modern take on a vintage model. 

Polaroid Original still continues to produce analog cameras and instant film today. While rivaled by the likes of best-selling Fujifilm Instax Mini 11, for some shooters Polaroid will always be the OG instant camera brand.

Read more:

10 tips for shooting better instax photos
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Edwin Land: The name behind Polaroid
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Hannah Rooke
Staff Writer

Having studied Journalism and Public Relations at the University of the West of England Hannah developed a love for photography through a module on photojournalism. She specializes in Portrait, Fashion and lifestyle photography but has more recently branched out in the world of stylized product photography. For the last 3 years Hannah has worked at Wex Photo Video as a Senior Sales Assistant using her experience and knowledge of cameras to help people buy the equipment that is right for them. With 5 years experience working with studio lighting, Hannah has run many successful workshops teaching people how to use different lighting setups.