Urban Vienna Polaroid Walk with PolaWalk

This walk sounded a great idea; a tour of Urban Vienna and a chance to capture the sights with a Polaroid camera all wrapped into one – a travel photographers dream!

We met at the PolaWalk offices (about a 25 minute walk from Hotel Das Capri where we were staying and 10 minutes from the nearest underground station and the central ‘Ring’) at 10am on a pretty cold, wet December morning. The office entrance was decorated with Polaroids of tourists who had taken the tour before us…

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…and inside the main room there was a small shop and display cabinet…

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…and drinks and cake on the table.

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Three Americans were to join us on the tour. Pat, who now lives in Vienna and Tim and Beth who are from Austin, Texas. We’ve been on enough tours now to understand that your fellow tourists can make or break the tour experience; within a few minutes of meeting this trio though we understood that they were going to help make it an enjoyable tour for us (as hopefully we did for them!). They weren’t the type of Americans we had been mixing with so often very recently whilst in Florence – they never once talked about bacon or how quaint everything is over here in Europe and they didn’t sigh wistfully whenever we passed a fast food restaurant either – and they were all very accomplished and thoughtful people, a pleasure to be around.

Thomas was to be our guide for the day. He sat us down, offered the tea and cakes around and then spoke a little about how he got interested in Polaroid style photography. Then we each talked a little about our own photographic interests before Thomas handed out instant cameras and explained a little about how they worked.

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This short piece of training was essential for me as I’d only ever used instant cameras once before, in West Africa when I used to offer a Fuji Instax snap for every person who wanted to model for me. But that was over 15 years ago, and it was a Fuji camera I’d been using then, so I hadn’t a clue how to use these more modern Polaroid cameras.

Thomas explained how the Polaroid company had closed down a few years ago and that a few enthusiasts had brought up some of the old production machines and started to produce instant film again under the name ‘The Impossible Project’. The cameras are very easy to use and, we were to find out when we started making photos, quite easy to master. But only if you have somebody with you who can interpret what you’re doing and what might be the cause of any bad photos you make. If you don’t have a teacher/guide, well, then you could be wasting a pack of film or two just working out for yourself what’s going wrong using a trial and error method, and since the instant film isn’t cheap (it works out at around €2.50 a shot) that might just be enough to put you off starting this sort of photography in the first place…

So we were fortunate to be learning from Thomas, who’s been using instant cameras for several years.

“It might be a little cold today,” he explained, “it’s about 4 degrees and the film might not develop as fully as it does on warmer days. We’ll have to work it out as we walk, though. And since it’s overcast we’ll use black and white film rather than colour, as that’ll be more effective I think. Colour works better in the spring and summer as it needs the warmth even more than black and white film does, to reach it’s full potential.”

After a few minutes more of instruction, where we passed around examples of what we could hope to achieve…

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…we each loaded our films, made use of the bathroom (I wouldn’t mention it but they’ve got a memorable toilet roll holder in there)…

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…and set off, heading first for the towpath alongside the canal and then by tram into the city centre and the famous museum quarter.

“Now, if you’re too cold, you want to come back or go somewhere else, just let me know,” said Thomas, “nothing is fixed, ok?”

It was cold, sure, but I’m from England and Lamia’s from Canada so we’re used to it being a bit rainy with single figure temperatures.

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I was a little reluctant to use the instant camera at first, we had only 8 shots on each film so I didn’t want to waste any. But Beth started using hers and then I saw some nice reflections in a puddle…

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…so I flipped the viewfinder up, pressed the shutter button and hey presto, the first image came out.

“Remove it from the end of the camera now,” said Thomas, “and put it into an inside coat pocket, so that it can develop in more warmth.”

I did that but when I looked at it several minutes later the image was very washed out.

“Ok, perhaps it’s the camera, or maybe the cold, try again.”

I saw a line of graffiti that looked good. I know Vienna isn’t known for that but there’s no point just taking photos of grand old buildings, not unless you want to hang that Orientalist label on yourself.  So I snapped the graffiti and once again pulled out the photo and let it develop in my inside coat pocket. And again, I got that washed out looked.

At this point, if I were on my own, I’d have been very confused. What was going wrong?

“Next time,” said Thomas, “take the photo out and put it straight under your arm, see if the increased warmth there helps the development process.”

Tim was standing down by the canal so I snapped him and put the image straight under my arm. Several minutes later and there it was, my first legible Polaroid photo!

Lamia had been having better luck with her images, perhaps her film had been kept warmer inside her coat, maybe her pockets were warmer than mine. Whatever the reason, she was getting good results.

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Here is Lamia’s second image of the day.

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Beth was also getting good results. Actually, Beth was getting fantastic results. She’d used these sort of cameras before and it really showed, we were all really impressed by her choice of subject matter and lighting.

We jumped on a tram and made the 5 minute journey up to the museum quarter. I took a photo of the group as we rode the tram.

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“Your photos seem a little overexposed now,” said Thomas to me, “just increase the exposure a little by moving that switch there.” He pointed to a switch at the front of my camera. “That should help.”

It did. We walked through a Christmas market set up between 2 palaces and began to work.

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Lamia took these great images in the street…

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Here’s an image I took of Lamia, and below that is one Lamia took of Thomas and I.

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I concentrated on the trams and roadways at first and as the images developed I began to really like the look of them.

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They were probably still underexposed but they reminded me of a 1930’s, underground Paris style I’d seen once, very dark, hardly any detail and plenty of blur, really emphasizing the limitations of the camera rather than hiding well within them. I asked Pat to pose next to a beautifully made sign…

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And then as we walked up the steps of the Museum of Modern Art…

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…I captured Lamia standing there.

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It had begun to rain steadily now so I took one more group shot that lots might hate and think just too blurry and anonymous (but then again, if I wanted pin sharp and no feeling I’d use a digital, right?) but I loved. Ok, it could have been lighter but it does talk of gloomy skies over a big city…

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And then we took shelter in the entrance to an underground station. It was the end of the tour and Beth, Tim and Pat were going to leave at this point so before they did we had a good look at Beth’s 8 images.

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All were really great, and a lovely souvenir of her visit to Vienna. I think any tourist would be happy to have such a collection of memories; I’m not saying they replace postcards or whatever you buy when you travel but they’re definitely more interesting and will always have a nice story behind them.

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Back at the PolaWalk office we warmed up with a drink and slice of cake and had a look at our own Polaroid’s.

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Lamia and I were both pleased with what we’d produced; it’d been a steep learning curve but we’d got better results than we’d expected considering we’d only picked up this new style of camera for the first time 3 hours before.

We were also happy that we’d learnt something of urban Vienna (the tour had introduced us to the museum quarter and also shown us how to ride the tram and subway) and also, perhaps, been reminded of the benefits of slowing down and taking 8 photos instead of the usual digital 300!

Thomas kindly scanned our Polaroids into his computer, packaged our originals up for us to take away (he sent the scans through by email within 24 hours) and after another slice of cake we were off to continue our day (it was only 1.30pm and the excellent Sigmund Freud museum is literally 3 minutes walk around the corner).

Is the PolaWalk for everybody? Probably, yes. It’ll give practiced photographers a challenge and some fun and as for everybody else, well, you don’t have to be a photographer to become good, very quickly, at taking Polaroids. You just have to have an interest in trying something new and getting creative for a few hours. Even those who know nothing about cameras will get memorable results, I’m certain; Thomas is a very attentive guide and whenever we raised our cameras he was there for us, offering advice, making sure that our next photo was going to be better than the last.

The tour is a great way to see Vienna and to create your very own, personalized souvenirs of the fun few hours out in the city. Check it out for yourself!

To discover more, please visit www.polawalk.com

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