If you are looking for an insanely cheap way to get into large format photography then you really can't go wrong with exploring the Polaroid Land Model 95 as an option. I personally own four of these cameras and I didn't pay more than $10 for each of them. Back in the heyday of instant film, Polaroid made over 1.5 MILLION model 95 cameras and since the instant film that originally went into these cameras has long since been out of production, they can be found at flea markets and rummage sales for next to nothing.
So if the instant film that originally went into the Model 95 is no longer in production, what can I use them for? Well, fortunately it is easy to load them with 4x5 sheet film with absolutely no modifications. All it takes is a dark room (notice I didn't say "darkroom") or a changing bag and a little bit of patience. When I want to use a model 95 and I feel like shooting large format with a hand holdable camera, I take one of these beauties into the dark, open it up, plop a sheet of 4x5 film inside, close it, and viola! I have a single 4x5 shot ready to go.
NOTE: I am aware there is a model 95, a model 95a, and a model 95b. I actually own all three. The differences between the three models is minor and what I write in this review applies to all of them.
Now right away you may be thinking that is a bit of a pain only being able to make one exposure before having to reload in the darkroom. However, that is why I own several copies. Four of them to be exact constituting a total investment of under fifty dollars. When folded the Land Model 95 is pretty compact and I have no problem fitting them into my camera bag. Yes true, it is not as efficient as loading up a bunch of 4x5 film backs, but it works.
The Model 95 is incredibly well made for a camera of its age. Most people associate Polaroid cameras with those cheap One Step models we used to see at Wal-Mart when we were kids, but there was a time when Polaroid made incredibly durable machines. As I said earlier, I own four of these cameras and all of them operate smoothly, have bellows that are more or less light tight, and lenses that are still clear and free of fungus. Some of the metal parts on one of mine is looking a bit rusted, but functionally it is still just fine.
The only aspect of the Polaroid Land Model 95 that can be a bit of a pain is the fact that Polaroid used their own exposure system based off a single exposure number. Setting exposure is done through a metal dial on the front plate of the camera which runs through a display just off to the side. I had to search on the internet for a table that would give me the equivalent exposure based on Polaroids number which I found HERE. At first I carried around a note book that had this chart written down but in a surprisingly short amount of time I had it memorized and not longer need it. Polaroid also made a special light meter that displayed their exposure numbers as opposed to standard f/stop and shutter speeds but I wouldn't recommend waisting your time trying to find that still has a sensitive selenium cell.
Focus with the Polaroid Land Model 95 is more or less a guessing game as it is scale focus only performed with a lever that moves the front plate back and forth. I was intimidated by this at first and didn't want to waist a bunch of sheet film on out of focus images but quickly learned this is a non-issue. So long as you have a reasonable ability to judge distance between you and your subject you will be just fine.
Given how inexpensive these cameras area, I honestly can't think of much of a reason why a person shouldn't give them a try. Even if you are a seasoned large format photographer, it can be kind of a fun to work with 4x5 in a more hand holdable camera. While it is true there are some outfits out there that modify old polaroid cameras to take better lenses, film backs, etc. I can honestly say that picking up a Land Model 95 is probably the better way to go. It's cheap, its fun, and the results are actually pretty darn good.
One exercise I like to do with these cameras is load up two of them, one for me and one for a friend. Then I'll give out a homework assignment, take one picture by the end of the week and return the camera, I will do the same. After we both take an image I will develop and print and then we can get together for a beer and compare notes. It's sort of a fun little way to bond with the people in your life.