The invention of Polaroid cameras

Discover the instant camera that inspired generations of photographers

(Image source: Eniko Kis/ Unsplash)

The invention of Polaroid cameras marked the beginning of a new era for photography. Today, we may take for granted the ability to instantly analyse our photos – zooming in on details on a digital screen before declaring the result unsuitable and taking another.

But prior to the 1950s, photographers had to wait between 30 minutes and two hours for their photos to be developed. If an image turned out badly, your subject could be gone, along with your opportunity for the perfect shot. This was until one man sought to change all that.

Instant photography was brought about by Edwin Land, although his three-year-old daughter also gets some of the credit. When spending a day at the beach, she didn’t understand why she couldn’t see the picture her father had taken of her. This made Land ask himself the same question, sparking the ideas that circulated in his mind. The outcome meant his daughter would grow up never needing to wait for a photograph again. 

The first instant camera appeared in 1947. Named after its inventor, it was called the Land Camera. Consisting of a roll of positive paper and developing chemicals, the camera worked by bringing the exposed negative and the positive paper together through rollers. In the click of a button, the camera’s shutter opened, allowing light to enter. This hit the extremely photosensitive film, and the light recreated the scene before the camera. Light energy ionised the film’s silver halide coatings, converting them to metallic silver atoms. The number of silver atoms on each part of the film was proportional to the light exposed on the image. After around 60 seconds, the negative paper was peeled from the positive image to reveal the finished photograph.

Polaroid’s Land Camera gained instant popularity, selling out on the first day. The product made $5 million in its first year, and at Polaroid’s peak 1 billion shots were being snapped a year.

(Image source: Ellie Adams/ Unsplash)

Instant colourisation

In 1963 Polaroid launched its instant colour film after the invention of dye-developer molecules. Whereas black and white instant cameras use one film covered in silver halides, coloured Polaroids have three, with each coating representing a different part of the light spectrum: blue, green and red.

Colour photography wasn’t new, but there was something striking about holding a picture identical to what stood before you just seconds before. As well as amateurs using it to create lasting memories, renowned photographers also praised this new addition. Andy Warhol used these cameras to create early selfies, and his photographs of himself and others acted as a sketchbook, inspiring his colourful work.

Warhol took his Polaroid camera everywhere with him, continuously shooting and documenting his surroundings. When he died he left over 60,000 Polaroids and snapshots behind.


This article was originally published in How It Works issue 130, written by Ailsa Harvey


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