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Tuesday, January 06, 2015

keeping it simple


One advantage of using film cameras is that it facilitates an examination and understanding of photography's fundamentals which are largely hidden under layers of technology in the digital age.  The basics include some way to hold film, a light tight box with one hole to permit the entry of light and some way to control the amount of light reaching the film.  Once those elements are in place, you can then move on to adding some niceties to facilitate the capturing of images such as lenses, viewing systems, and frame spacing and counting.

The Vivitar Ultra Wide & Slim (vuws) offers no adjustable features such as variable focus, speeds or apertures, but it does have many enhancements over pinhole or box-camera basics incorporated into a design characterized by a high level of innovation.  While the feature list is based on a century of design precedents, it also includes materials and construction expertise which could only be dreamed about prior to the late Twentieth Century.


The extreme light weight and compactness of the vuws camera is primarily a product of sophisticated plastics molding technology.  I don't know if the lens is glass or plastic, but modern computer-aided design and manufacturing certainly played an important role in its realization.  At the same time, the actual lens formula likely goes back to the mid-Nineteenth Century.  There are two lens elements, located in front of and behind the shutter/aperture; this is basically the same symmetrical configuration found in the Steinheil Periscopic lens which was in production around the time of the U.S. Civil War.

Looking in at the open back of the camera, you can see that the film rails are gently curved, as are the ribs on the back.  That curved film plane is a feature often built into many simple box cameras, mainly for the purpose of compensating for the edge distortion inherent in simple meniscus lens designs.  While that objective may also have figured into the vuws design, it is also possible that its curved film plane was dictated by a desire to reduce apparent vignetting which is the result of a combination of a small aperture and a very short (22 mm) focal length, rather than any deficiency in the lens.

Some other important features of the vuws include coupled film advance, shutter cocking and frame spacing, all facilitated by the two plastic gears above and below the frame mask.  Just above the top gear is a slot matching a tab on the camera's back which automatically resets the frame counter when the back is opened for film loading.  In spite of the very light-weight materials used in the camera's body, it has great structural integrity which enables smooth operation and a light tight container which requires none of the foam seal material that was essential in most of the metal-bodied cameras of previous eras.

What this all adds up to for the vuws user is a camera that can be slipped in a pocket and that is instantly ready to record high-quality images with very little need to think about photography's technical details.  In combination with the wide exposure latitude of modern films, the fixed focus, shutter speed and aperture are transformed from weaknesses to strengths in support of the creative task of image making.
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I bought my first vuws camera for ten bucks new on ebay.  I later found a couple in thrift stores for which I paid 99 cents.  Then, the would be hipsters found the camera and prices shot up to over $40.  Demand has since nose-dived as film and processing possibilities have dried up.  Superheadz is still trying to peddle them for $36.99, but I've seen them listed but unsold on ebay for as little as eight bucks.

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