The art of Polaroid transferral has essentially been born from the irresponsibility of Polaroid research employees.

These were the 60s and Polaroid cameras were apparently still using peel-apart film. One sunny afternoon, a researcher motivated by needs stronger than continued employment left the negative side of an exposed sheet of film lying face-down on a countertop. When the negative was peeled away, the researchers found that the positive image had been transferred onto the table.

Many years of research and development later, Polaroid transferral is a refined system of alternative printmaking. The appeal of transfer images is hard to define without getting excessively mystical and subjective; suffice to say that even the most badly-done transfers bring out aspects of photographs normal prints do not deliver. Typically, a Polaroid transfer looks halfway between a photograph and a watercolor painting, but the best transfers transcend either definition.

The only real limit to transfer-making is the film: it is necessary to use peel-apart Polaroid film. The general process involves slapping the negative side of an exposed -- yet undeveloped -- peel-apart film sheet onto a piece of moist watercolor paper and blasting the pairing with heat prior to seperation.

It can be difficult to start working in this medium. Peel-apart film is not commonly used in consumer Polaroid cameras these days; do not be surprised at the inevitable long searches, dismaying price tags and struggles on eBay which are part of the process. Exposing the film is another problem for beginners; suitable cameras or slide printers can also be difficult to find, as the single-sheet Polaroid cameras immortalized in Memento are unsuitable for transfer work.

None of the obstacles are so great that you should lose interest in the art, however; I started with no experience and only vague ideas on how the process worked and survived to lead you through the process.

First, the basic necessities...


As far as film goes, there is less choice than you may imagine: there is only Polaroid-made film, and there are only two real types of that. Although many companies manufacture peel-apart film, no other companies have yet made a film capable of transferring images (hence, "Polaroid transfer").

For all intents and purposes, the only film useful for transfers is the Polacolor ER "9" series. Of all the varieties of this film, there are two essential categories: sheet and pack film.

Sheet film comes in single-exposure packets and is sold by the twentysome. Apart from the Type 809 series, with its unusually large 8"x10" sheet size, all sheet film is 4"x5" and must be exposed using a Polaroid Model 545 film holder (exposure methods will be addressed later).

Although field use of sheet film can be difficult, it has its advantages; it is cheaper than pack film, and the sheet's self-contained structure allows you to expose single shots without having to immediately develop the image. Also, sheet film is packaged in a way that ensures perfect alignment of the positive and negative sheets, making it more reliable than pack film.

Despite all the good things I've heard about sheet film, I have never been able to find any source of sheet film or a suitable film holder; its inexpensiveness is apparently offset by its clever hiding place.

Pack film can be bought in 3.25"x4.25" packs (ten to a pack, two packs to a box) or 4"x5" packs (eight to a pack, one pack to a box). It is simpler to use pack film in cameras and printers... which is a bummer, as it is more expensive and less reliable. It is, however, easier to come by, and a pack of Polacolor 669 film (a 3.25"x4.25") is the usual starting place for aspiring transfer artists, as it is the standard film used by all entry-level equipment.

Pack film is the film used in old-fashioned consumer cameras. First you expose the film, then yank the small white tab to join the negative and positive sides, and finally you pull the film sandwich through the rollers to release the development chemicals and ready the next shot for exposure.

The process of sullenly waiting for a big slat of chemicals to finish its work is less ritualistically satisfying than waving around and blowing on modern Polaroid sheets, but the forceful yanking is entertaining as hell for uninitiated onlookers.

Do not be afraid of expired film; by and large it produces results no less interesting than fresh film and it is much less expensive. eBay is a good place to look for pack film; I saved something like $140 on a bulk load of Polacolor 669 boxes, a load I still have not used up. Sheet film is apparently taboo on eBay, as I have never seen it being sold.


Having the film is well and good, but without some way to expose the film the purchase may feel a bit empty. Again, there are two paths: slide printers and Polaroid cameras.

I regret having started with a camera, as there is very little I can say with any authority on the matter of slide printers, and there is very little to be said at all about cameras. Technically, any camera fitted with a suitable film holder is capable of exposing the film, but the cheapest and easiest route is the Polaroid ProPack System.

True to its name, the ProPack System exposes pack film -- 3.25"x4.25" pack film, specifically -- and comes with features such as a flash and a timer. It is the only camera available from Polaroid that uses peel-apart film and is aimed at real estate workers and police. There are usually one or two being sold on eBay -- a wise place to look, as fresh cameras are wretchedly expensive.

An interesting side note is that there is a company manufacturing simple pinhole cameras fitted with film holders; if you really want to directly expose pictures onto sheet film and are in no hurry to take the picture, this may be just what you've been looking for.

A slide printer is a device used to project a slide onto a sheet of Polaroid film. The model usually used by beginners is the Vivitar Instant Slide Printer, which projects onto Polacolor 669 film. If you want to be able to take pictures without immediately having to turn them into transfers, this system is ideal; you get pictures developed into slides, stick in a pack of 669 film, and push the blue button once for each slide you want to print.

A more advanced printer is the Daylab II, an advantage to which is its modular base system; a new base can be purchased for each size of film you wish to print on, even up to 8"x10" 809 film sheets. Starting with this would be a bad idea, however, as it and the film it is useful for are expensive as hell, and the first few attempts will likely be frustrating failures.

Other Materials

Once you've covered the film and exposure system, the rest is pretty simple.

You will need:

The Process

Now, the moment of truth... pulling it all together. Many variations on the process exist, but I have come to trust my own ("The Amarcord Method" has a nice ring to it), which is what I will be leading you through here.

  • First, prepare your watercolor paper a half hour in advance. Cut the sheet into pieces slightly larger than the film itself; 4"x5" is a good size for 669 film. The piece you intend to transfer onto should then be let to soak in hot water for ten minutes. At the end of this ten minutes, let the paper dry for a few minutes, place the damp piece of paper onto the cutting board and squeegee it flat. Make sure its surface moisture is even.
  • Assuming your exposure system is already loaded, expose your film. Draw the film through the rollers in a single, steady motion. You must wait roughly 10 seconds before peeling apart the film; in this time you should take the scissors and cut off the trap of the film. In 669 film, this is the area next to the flap you used to pull the film through the rollers.
  • Peel the film apart in another steady motion using the remaining ends of the trap. Holding the negative by the paper on the other end of the sheet, place one side of the sheet on the paper, draw the film taut and lay it flat over the paper. Draw your hand over the back of the film once or twice to ensure good adherence.
  • Fill the kettle with about 4 cups of water and leave it to boil. When the water begins to boil, stop heating the kettle.
  • Flip over the film and paper so that the underside of the paper is exposed. Leaving the paper and film laying on the board, place it at an angle in the sink and slowly pour the near-boiling water over the paper. Make sure the entire area behind the film has been exposed to the water.
  • Turn the sheet of paper back over. For good luck, you may want to peel away the remains of the trap, which should no longer adhere to the film if enough heat was applied. Lift the negative by a corner and peel it back from the paper.
  • Congratulate yourself; you've just mastered the basics of one of the most visually stunning methods of photographic printing.

In the course of the manhunt for The Blank*, Dick Tracy uses a method much similar to that of the polaroid transfer described above. Although the reader only ever sees Tracy use this process( which he cleverly dubbed The Wet Film Process) once, he obviously has had years of experience. Tracy uses The Wet Film Process to lift The Blank’s hand print from a wall. He claims The Process is so sensitive he could ‘lift the print of a shoe off linoleum.’

Materials: -- In his Kit of Photographic Supplies
  • Two cups water
  • Development chemicals and equipment
  • Miniature Rolling Pin
  • Flashlight with a red lens
  • Two sheets of blotter paper
  • Pack of unexposed film
  • and a Feather duster – That’s right, real men do use feather dusters.

At this point it must be noted that, if you try The Wet Film Process at home, you need someone to hang over your shoulder, exclaiming ‘Gosh’ and ‘That’s Wonderful!’ at every step.

Step One: ‘First, we dust any excess dirt off the print’ The illustration shows Tracy daintily using the feather duster on the area believed to posses the print.

Step Two: ‘Turn the garage lifts off,’ he says to his helper, ‘while I take a piece of unexposed film from this pack and moisten it.’ The illustration shows Tracy at a sink, however, one only needs enough water to moisten a piece of film. So the sink is unnecessary. However, the film must be moistened in the dark.

‘Then you must blot the film between two blotter papers to remove the excess moisture.’ Presumably excess is underlined because to don’t want to blot all the moisture out, so leave the film wet, but not dripping.

Step Three: ‘I use a flashlight with a red glass in it to see where to place the film. By pressing the moist film gently,’ he says, while leaning with all his upperbody strength on this poor hand print, ‘every minute part of the fingerprint adheres to the emulsion.’ This is where the rolling pin comes in; repeatedly roll over the film, causing it to adhere to the emulsion.

Step Four: Develop the picture. Although Tracy doesn’t tell us how to do this, it can’t be too hard. In one frame he’s saying ‘Now we must develop the film.’ And in the next it’s developed and enlarged.

While Tracy never specifies what type of film he is using (and therefore this writeup doesn't techinically belong under the title of polaroid transfer) the similarities between the above method and The Wet Film Process are too great to be ignored.

*The Blank was the second episode of Dick Tracy and was published (and copyrighted) in 1937-1938 by Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate.

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