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The Print Lab Around Your Neck

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Maybe it's a little over the top, but Polaroid includes a neckstrap for its remarkable P-500 portable printer for digital photographs.

After all, who is going to want to wear what basically is a bulky plastic box around one's neck when out and about, especially if one is also carrying one's digital camera?

No, I suspect those happy-go-lucky (not to mention brilliant) photo geeks up in Cambridge, Mass., simply wanted to drive home the point that this wonderful little toy not only is portable, but is free from the multiple tyrannies of the power cord and the PC, not to mention never-there-when-you-need-them batteries.

At a list price of only $249.99, this nifty little gadget may even get you to actually print out many of those happy snaps that have been taking up space on your CompactFlash cards or SmartMedia memory cards.

"Polaroid's heritage lies in technology that makes very complex science seem simple and easy to use," notes Polaroid CEO Gary DiCamillo. Of course, that heritage goes all the way back to founder Edwin H. Land puzzling over his young daughter's question why she could not see her photographs as soon as she took them and answering her with, "why not?"

Polaroid always has been cutting edge, in technology, in science, and especially in incorporating that science into remarkably user-friendly equipment.

But digital has changed things big time.

The emergence of digital photography has thrown much traditional "silver-based" photography into turmoil, not to say jeopardy. And Polaroid is clearly in the cross hairs.

Among professionals, for example, removable digital camera backs – of the type Hasselblad has recently unveiled – may eliminate altogether the need for people like me to make Polaroid after Polaroid to check lighting setups and ratios. Set your lights, snap a picture, and see the digital image instantly – not after enduring what I call the longest 30 seconds in photography, waiting for a Polaroid to develop. (And that's just in black and white; color takes at least a full minute.)

And among amateurs, though Polaroid has been very successful in marketing its I-Zone happy snap camera to kids and young adults, the trend clearly seems to be toward digital among a young, smart and increasingly computer-literate generation.

Even leaving aside this admittedly negative scenario – which I do not totally buy, incidentally – one can appreciate Polaroid's deft end-run to create a niche for itself with the P-500.

It's cheap, it's portable and for what it does it's damn good.

Though Polaroid itself has entered the market with some of its own digital camera equipment (at the low end and not very impressive), creating a printer like the P-500 gives the company a chance to sell this product (and, of course, a ton of Polaroid film) to anyone who has a digital camera and has longed for an easier way to make hard copies of digital pictures.

Until now, virtually the only way one could print images from a digital camera was to hook up to a computer, or directly to a stationary printer, and wait for the machine to churn out photos. Feel like making instant digital camera prints in the middle of a keg party or at a softball game with no PC or printer in sight? Fuggedabahdit.

The very fact that the P-500 prints are small is an advantage. They are, in effect, instant wallets – actually appx. 2" x 3½" images made on the same Polaroid 500 film that went into its old Captiva camera. Is there a place for such quaint little pix? You bet. Nowadays, at weddings, we often will make a few digital snaps if the client wants something instantly to transmit to friends and relatives who couldn't make the festivities. Fine, but what about grandma, who was too old to travel – and whose idea of high-tech stopped with the ballpoint pen? She's not about to go online, but she will be thrilled to get a bunch of full-color P-500 prints in the mail. (You remember the U.S. mail, don't you?)

Then there is the issue of portability – frankly, the thing that really sold me on this gizmo.

I wasn't surprised that the P-500 produced good pictures – I've been happily using Polaroid film for years. To me, though, the real beauty of this machine is the fact that it never needs to be plugged in – and never needs batteries. It achieves this bit of magic with its film. Each package of Polaroid 500 has its own wafer-thin power supply built right in to the film pack. This is so cool – and also the reason why the popular Polaroid snapshot cameras don't need batteries either. This remarkable design element borders on genius and helps define what has made Polaroid such a formidable market innovator.

I'm not about to tell you that the P-500 gives you drop-dead accurate color. A lot of my images have been too warm, too purple – too whatever. But they all have been usable. I'm not about to tell you that it's easy to figure what to print from a CF card that is, say, 50 images full. One reason the P-500 is so comparatively cheap is that, for all its electronic wizardry, it does not have the equivalent of digital preview. (If it did, it probably would be triple the price and require an external power source.)

What I am going to tell you is that this "toy" actually turns out to be a handy tool – one that you probably can find a number of uses for yourself.

I also am going to say that it's good to see Polaroid, not only staying in the game against some pretty stiff – and mostly foreign – competition, but also bringing a few new moves to the playing field, forcing the other guys to eat a little dust, at least for now.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Look ma, no cords, no batteries, no computer. Polaroid's sleek little P-500 portable digital photo printer, makes digital-to-analog pictures in seconds.

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Frank Van Riper Archive:

Wedding War Stories

The Eyes of History

Digital Master of a Barren Beauty

Slick Trix for Kid Pix

Punchy Plug-Free Location Portraits

Colorful Black and White