In my little camera bag No. 2: Polaroid Land Camera 360

Polaroid 360 Automatic Land Camera
The Polaroid 360 Automatic Land Camera on the bench. Note the beautiful Zeiss rangefinder. (Daniel J. Schneider)
This week’s In My Little Bag, and yes it’s only the second iteration, will be something a tad out of the ordinary: A Polaroid 360 Land Camera which hasn’t exactly been in my bag.

How does that work? Well, the thing is, I still have the exact same things in my bag that I did last week when I posted the first installment of this series (The Yashica A and the Konica EE-Matic Deluxe). I’m still using the EE-Matic for my redscale experimentations (see the recently-posted second part of my series), and the Yashica is just too tempting after not having trusted my Yashica D for quite a while.

So instead, I’ve actually been working on this Polaroid pack camera for a couple days and it has been in a bag. A plastic grocery bag, but a bag nonetheless.

I spotted the Polaroid 360 at a thrift store over the weekend and a coworker responded that she’d like it. After a bit of discussion, I grabbed it and have been converting it to use modern batteries and film. So I thought I’d document the process a little bit.

Polaroid pack camera battery conversions

I’ve already done this conversion on my own Polaroid 350, but learned that it’s a little different on the 360 — and interestingly, the 360 is the only model on which it’s different in this way.

The conversion I did wasn’t total. The Polaroid pack cameras are a little unique in their battery situation. There are several different ways they’re wired up, too. But basically they all need something different for the shutter and the developing timer on the back (those that have a timer, that is). So for most of them it’s easiest to simply convert the camera to power the shutter and just ignore the timer.

The timer isn’t really all that important anymore, anyway. Back in the day — forty years ago when these cameras were new — Polaroid’s 3×4 peel-apart film was somewhat sensitive to developing time. You had to proactively peel it apart at the right time and let the last of the chemicals dry from the print so it would stop developing. Since Polaroid stopped making film (and everything else) in 2009, the only compatible film packs for these cameras are made by Fujifilm.

Fuji’s pack films are self-arresting, though. You can pull an image and slip it into your cold clip and leave it in your pocket for ten minutes while you hike back to your cabin. Peel it apart when you get home and it’ll be just fine, because the carefully measured chemistry has already expired and stopped development at just the right time. Just don’t peel too early — in chilly weather it could take upwards of 3 minutes for Fujifilm pack film to be ready to peel.

So back when you had to peel it at just the right time and watch the last of the highlights turn white as the chemical process stopped, that timer on the back was used to help you decide exactly when to peel the film apart. The manual even gave you a table of times to use for best results at different temperatures. Just like developing any other film, Polaroid film’s process is affected by temperature, though it’s quite a bit more forgiving than even black and white film. Just keep your cold clip in your armpit (no really, it’s in the manual) on cold days until you make an exposure and you’ll be fine.

So, forgetting the now-anachronistic timer, you’ve still got to power the shutter. Well, not the shutter exactly, but the “Electric Eye,” the hallmark of the Polaroid 100-400 series auto exposure systems. Without it, you’ve basically got a sort of fast-shuttered instant Holga, only a lot less good. Especially since Fujifilm stopped making the fast black and white instant pack film (FP3000B) a year or so ago.

School supplies

You will need the following items to assemble this model complete this project:

  • A low-wattage soldering iron (7-10W)
  • Low-wattage solder (No. 21 or 22, rosin/flux-core, 100% tin preferred)
  • A pair of diagonal cutters and/or a wire stripping tool
  • About 3″ of heat-shrink tubing (small — 18-20 gauge size)
  • A heatgun or cigarette lighter
  • A stout pair of pliers
  • Q-tips or lint-free swabs

Some will say you can simply twist the wires together and wrap with electrical tape, or that you can solder and then use electrical tape. Either way is simply not as mechanically sound, electrically safe or moisture resistant as doing things right, so I’m going to explain how to do it right. Use electrical tape for electrical things at your own risk (we all know its real name is Holga Tape, anyway, right?).

Converting for the shutter

Start by opening up the battery compartment. It’s the short half of the back — the bit that isn’t where the pack film goes. Except on the 360.

On this one model, and this one alone, the battery compartment is in the front, under the left hand grip. Under the bottom edge of the raised grip, in front, you’ll see a small hole about the right size for a ball-point pen, or one jaw of a pair of needle-nose pliers (or a No. 1 Phillips screwdriver). Press one of those things gently into the hole and push in the metal tab inside, and pop goes the weasel handle.

Under it you’ll find two A24PX alkaline batteries, side by side (in all the rest, you’ll find the two mounted in-line under the back panel). While you can still buy A24PX batteries (even from places like Amazon), expect to pay anywhere from $10-25 depending on quality. You could save a little by only replacing the shutter battery and leaving out that timer battery, but odds are, after 40 years, the batteries need more than replacement.

Corroded battery and bay
Corroded battery ends and contacts in the original battery holder. The more deeply you can unwind wires from the holder before cutting, the more wire you’ll have to work with when soldering. (Daniel J. Schneider)

In both cameras that I’ve converted myself and all the other ones I’ve seen or heard of being converted, 20 years or more in a garage or attic have left the long-expired batteries leaking, often corroding the contacts and anything else around them that will react with the oozing battery acid.

It’s possible to clean contacts if the leakage hasn’t been too bad or been left too long using a solution of baking soda and water. First dump anything that will fall out, or that you can gently brush off, out of the camera into something non-reactive, like a paper bag or empty butter tub, or something else destined for the trash. Wipe gently with the soda solution using a coarse rag or soft-bristled toothbrush. That fizzing is a good thing — that’s the sodium bicarbonate, a moderate alkaline, reacting with the remaining acids and neutralizing them.

If your camera is beyond cleaning (and it probably is), or your eyes are bugging out at the prospect of a $20 battery for a $10 camera (and they probably are), never fear. You can convert the 3V shutter circuit to run on just about any other 3V battery source. Some swear by CR123A 3V batteries, others prefer the CR2032 button cells. For my money, the 2xAAA option is the best for a few reasons.

2xAAA battery holders are cheap and plentiful — hell, I went to RadioShack (not even one of the liquidating stores!) and only paid $1.64 after tax. AAA batteries are also quite common and fairly cheap. Both will also fit into any of these cameras.

In the 360 a 2xAAA battery holder just perfectly wedges into the existing battery compartment at a slight angle and holds itself fine. In my 350, there’s even room for a 2xAA battery holder. By using a 2xAAA I had a little more placement leeway and was even able to drill two small holes in the holder and reuse the screws from the original battery holder to secure the new one.

So, you’ve got the battery compartment open and the old batteries out, and you’ve acquired a battery holder. Next you’ll want to cut the wires. Yeah, it’s a serious step. Be sure you’re ready before you get there. You might want to practice your soldering on some scrap wire first.

How to solder

Crash course! I should find a YouTube video to put here.

Basic premise: Cut two ends destined to mate; slip on a piece of heat-shrink tubing about 1.5″ long; strip wire ends about 3/8″; fan out wire strands on each end; mesh the two ends together and carefully twist them into a smoothish join (doesn’t have to be mechanically secure yet); heat from below with tip of soldering iron; touch solder TO THE WORK gently until the temperature is right and it wets into the joint; remove heat and wait a few minutes for it to cool; slide on the heat-shrink tubing so the joint is in the center; apply a little heat to shrink the tubing down.

Found a decent, quick YouTube video:

Some Polaroid pack cameras have solid core wires, particularly the older ones. Most of the 200-400 models should have stranded wire. Your battery holder should have stranded wire, but in most of them these days it has been tinned so it acts like solid. This is disappointing but not really a problem. Get your wire ends twisted together or even just lapped neatly side-by-side and solder them together.

You remembered to slip the heat-shrink tubing on one wire first, right?

What to solder

You made up your mind and cut those wires, right? Okay, so here’s the hard part, at least on the 360. There are two white wires (both positive), a black wire and a brown wire. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the two white wires are different gauges. The thicker of the two is one that goes to the shutter. The brown wire (which you’ll notice is a little thicker than the black wire) is the negative contact for the shutter.

So you can safely cut the thinner white wire and the thin black wire back as far as possible or tuck them up into the housing so they’re out of the way — you won’t need them any more.

The wires, soldered
The wires when they have been soldered by the heat-shrink tubing has not yet been shrunk. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Strip the ends of the brown wire and thicker white wire, and the ends of the wires on the battery holder. Slip your two bits of heat-shrink tubing onto the wires from the battery holder — I find it helpful to leave some wire on there anyway so you can maneuver the battery holder in and out or into its final position.

Twist the black and brown wires together and solder them. Twist the red and white wires together and solder them. Slide up your heat shrink tubing and heat it with the cigarette lighter. A match should work, too; you should only need a couple seconds’ worth of heat unless you chose ridiculously oversized heat-shrink tubing.

This, by the way, is where Bill Huegerich helped me out — of the hundreds of posts and questions on the Internet about battery converting a Polaroid 360, his was the only one that made clear that the brown wire was the shutter positive. I guessed on the thicker white wire, and turned out to be right.

Putting it together

Once the joints are cool and covered, pop your AAA batteries into the holder and you should be able to angle the battery holder in just barely, and tuck the wires around it. Replace the handle cover and test it. How? Two clicks.

Your Polaroid 360 (all the Electronic Eye cameras) won’t operate the auto-exposure closed — you’ll have to fully extend the bellow to disengage a cutout switch. The shutter’s maximum speed is 1/1200 sec., which goes by in a blink. If the batteries are failing, totally dead or gone, you’ll still get a fast shutter. What you won’t get is a slower shutter.

Tucking the battery holder in
Tuck the 2xAAA battery holder into the original battery bay. It’s tight, but it should fit just right. Leaving a little extra wire on it gives you some freedom to jockey it around and then tuck the wires in. Note that it needs to be angled slightly toward the side of the camera for the grip cover to fit back on. (Daniel J. Schneider)

To check that the Electric Eye and shutter speeds are working, cover the electric eye completely with your finger, prime the shutter (Number 3) and then fire it (Number 2). The shutter should click, and then click again. It could take a second or two or the second click. Take your finger off the electric eye after a second to hurry it along and listen for the second click. You need two clicks.

Not getting two clicks? Might need fresh batteries, or your wiring, shutter or Electric Eye might be hosed. Try adjusting the yellow lever below the shutter assembly if your model is equipped, while looking at the Electric Eye. You should be able to see something moving inside the Electric Eye. Doesn’t matter what it is or what it looks like; you’re just watching for movement. Beyond that, you’re out of my league. This thread from the Film Photography Project might help you get down the right path.

While you’re there

There’s two other things you’ll need to do to have a useable pack camera.

Some Polaroid models have a stiff metal spring inside the film compartment meant to hold older Polaroid film packs tightly against the film plane. Fujifilm film packs are a tiny bit thicker and will hold in just fine without that clamp. In fact, the clamp holds them so tightly that you might have real trouble pulling your first few photos.

Removing the film spring
Clockwise: The spring clamp that interferes with Fuji pack film; the result after breaking the ends off the clamp; grasping one end of the spring clamp with a pair of pliers — slowly pry up until the spring snaps.

Not having done thorough-enough research when I converted my Polaroid 350, I left the clamp in place at first without knowing. I ruined the first four shots in a $16 film pack and still had trouble with a few more after that. Just removing the dark sheets from the front of the pack was nearly impossible.

So you’ll want to remove the spring clamp. You can carefully drill out the two rivets holding it, but you can also just grasp each side of the brittle springs with a stout pair of pliers and pull it upward gently until it snaps off. Discard these anachronisms.

Lastly, you’ll need to work on your rollers. Occasionally (less often with modern Fujifilm than older Polaroid film packs) a little bit of what could best be described as “icky goo” will squeeze out the sides of an image as you’re pulling it from the camera. The steel rollers inside the film compartment have exceedingly tight tolerances so they correctly and evenly spread the chemistry across the surface of the film. It only takes a very tiny bit of dried goo to really gum up the operation of the rollers.

To clean the rollers, use a Q-tip or lint-free swab and some 93% isopropyl alcohol, and turn them gently with your fingers while rubbing away the dried goo. You can access the rollers by popping them out. There’s a red spring-steel clip at one end that holds the rollers locked in place. Pull it gently away from the rollers and they should spring free.

Dirty rollers
Dirty rollers — note the brown encrustations at the ends, particularly on the top roller. Remove the gunk with a lint free swab or cloth and some strong alcohol — 93% should be cheap at any drug store. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Once the rollers are clean, I use a syringe to apply a very tiny drop of light oil to each end of each roller. If the oil gets on the surfaces of the rollers it could damage your film or cause the chemistry to spread unevenly or incorrectly. So just a micro-drop on the outside ends of each roller. Spin them by hand and you should feel them start to free up. When everything’s working properly, you should be able to spin them quite freely.

That’s it! You should be ready to lock in a pack of Fujifilm FP100C and start shooting!

So anyway, that’s what’s been in my bag. The coworker who I spruced up the Polaroid 360 for is leaving at the end of the week for a new opportunity, so I’m hoping one pack of freezer-stored FP3000B and three days will help her remember her 8 years with us. I wish her good luck in her new endeavor.

Oil the rollers
Oil the rollers with very light non-drying oil such as NyOil or sewing machine oil. I use a syringe for fine oiling jobs on cameras, but in this case you could also just rub a drop of oil between two fingers and spread a tiny bit onto the roller ends. Don’t get oil on the rollers themselves. (Daniel J. Schneider)