The Polaroid Big Shot

I have in mind to create some portraits in the manner of Andy Warhol. And so I set out to get the camera-of-choice for most all of his portraits — the Polaroid Big Shot. Designed strictly as an indoor portrait camera, the bulky Big Shot was in production from 1971-1973.

Here are photos of my Polaroid Big Shot:

Over at there’s a great read on the Big Shot by Cheyenne Morrison. I think it’s particularly interesting to read the letter from one of the inventors (Bruce K. Johnson), describing the design philosophy for the camera

The main advantages of the long focal length and the flash arrangement in the Big Shot are:

1. Standing back produces less “distortion” of facial features than occurs when getting close. If you get too close to a subject, the nose looks too big compared to the ears. This is a simple matter of perspective or geometry. The Big Shot forces the camera to be at a substantial distance when compared to other Polaroid cameras for the same sized head image.
2. Standing close to a person to take a picture makes them uncomfortable. You are invading their space. The Big Shot was less intrusive than our other cameras.
3. The brightness/darkness ration of a picture due to flash is minimized when taking a picture from a distance rather than up close. This is known as the inverse square law of flash illumination. There is less brightness difference between the ears (further from the camera) and the nose (closer to the camera) or the background (even further from the camera.) when using a long focal length lens which allows the subject to be further away for the same head size.
4. The flash used in conjunction with the Fresnel lens allowed a small aperture, which gives good depth of field, because it concentrated the light onto the subject.
5. The flash is far enough away from the optical axis such that “Red Eye” was not commonly observed in the pictures.
6. The flash is vertically mounted over the lens, minimizing any visible shadows on the background.
7. The combination of very bright flash , small aperture, and relative short exposure time minimizes the effect of ambient light, which helps to get consistent exposure results. Using the Big Shot outdoors in bright sunlight would produce some overexposure, and is not recommended for optimum results. Normal indoor lighting has little effect on the exposure.

Bruce K. Johnson

For more info, here are PDFs of the Owner’s Manual and Polaroid’s Patent:

User Manual for Polaroid Big Shot (PDF, 8.4mb)
U.S. Patent for Polaroid Big Shot (PDF, 9.3mb)

I got the camera from the online auction site (they range from $20 to $200), but my shutter was not working, and the rangefinder has a mirror that’s come loose. So I set out to disassemble it.

The Breakdown (or, taking a wrong turn to Disassembly)

So, I decide to disassemble the Big Shot, and see if the shutter release can be fixed. I found a little bit of information on ( but it makes it sound like you have to break things to get it apart (spoiler alert).

I tried to gently, gently I say, pop out the acrylic Fresnel diffuser. I broke one side of the diffuser holder uprights, then broke off the other one, then broke off a chunk of plastic from below the lens, then cracked the diffuser. Then, voila, it was almost disassembled! With the acrylic diffuser removed, the paper label comes off, and you can see the two screw holes holding on the front nosecone. This nosecone holds the lens/aperture, and the aforementioned diffuser. It also interfaces with the flash cube mount.

Maybe a Better Way

Knowing where the two Philips screws are located would’ve made it a lot easier to disassemble. With the screws out, the nosecone assembly (lens, aperture, acrylic Fresnel diffuser) comes off easily, revealing the shutter mechanism and the mechanism that fires and rotates the flash cube. The screws are set deep into the nosecone, and I tried a couple of different jeweler’s screwdrivers to find one that had a shaft that was skinny and long enough to reach. The screw holes are about 1 1/4″ (33mm) deep.

I’ve modeled a drill template to help locate the holes, and make it easier to drill through the acrylic diffuser and paper label. 3D Printer files have been uploaded to Thingiverse.

I used a Dremel tool on the Dremel drill press stand, though you could probably easily do this with a handheld drill. I used moderate speed, and it never felt like the acrylic was going to crack. I used a small drill bit (around 1/16″ or 1- or 2-mm), then I finished with 1/8″ (3- or 4-mm).

You’re drilling through the clear acrylic Fresnel diffuser plate, and a printed paper label underneath. The holes really only need to be as big as your screwdriver, because you can just remove the drill jig/template, then unscrew the screws. Because I had glued the nosecone back together before drilling the holes, and forgot to install the screws first, I had to make a bigger hole in the template to allow the screw heads to fit back in.

The Big Shot Disassembled

Here’s a collection of photos of the internal components.

Andy Warhol and the Polaroid Big Shot

Most people recognize Andy Warhol’s portraits. Half-painted, half-screen printed. Square (40″x40″), bold colors, but with low-fi black line work.

Some interesting reading about his Polaroid portraits can be found in this article, and more about the Warhol and the screen printing process here at the Andy Warhol Museum website.

Warhol commissioned a lot of portraits, and for most, the process started with a Polaroid picture. He used several Polaroid models, but his favorite seems to be the odd Polaroid Big Shot. The plastic big nosed Big Shot was essentially a portrait-only camera. According to an article by Marco Livingstone in ANDY WARHOL, A RETROSPECTIVE, Warhol’s procedure was as follows:

Once he had finished taking the Polaroids, Warhol would listen to input from the sitter and whoever else was on hand before selecting the images he was going to work from. The Polaroids were then rephotographed in 35mm, printed as 8×10 inch acetates, and eventually enlarged to 40×40 inches as preparation for making a silkscreen. During each subsequent step, Warhol frequently instructed his assistants to alter the image. “Now I’m trying to put style back into them,” he said.

andy warhol taking a portrait photo
warhol paintings of debbie harry
Debbie Harry photograph, with a couple of Warhol screen-prints? Paintings? Screenpaintings?

Re-Creating Warhol’s Method

To recreate the Warhol process, I think you would need these items:

  • Polaroid Big Shot camera
  • Magicubes for flash
  • FujiFilm FP300C film
  • Film positives for creating the screen image
  • Screenprinting screen(s)
  • A scoop-coater to apply emulsion to the screen
  • Photoemulsion to coat the screen, and to create the image stencil
  • A light source (or the sun) for developing the image
  • Squeegee for spreading the ink
  • Ink (acrylic?)
  • Canvas, canvas board, or stretched canvas
  • A method for registering the screen with the freehand painting