Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I took a long walk yesterday in Embudito Canyon, carrying my old Pentax Spotmatic camera. On the way home I stopped at a thrift store on Menaul. I pawed through a jumbled bin of plastic cameras, and was delighted to turn up a Vivitar Ultra Wide & Slim camera bearing a 99-cent price tag. I had paid a fellow on ebay $10 for the same camera about a year ago. Since then, the little wide-angle shooter has become something of a cult object, and it is presently commanding prices on ebay and elsewhere in the neighborhood of forty dollars. One may reasonably ask, Why?

The first answer would probably involve an examination of the way that ideas are born and propagated today on the web. However, looking at that is more than I feel like taking on here. More relevant to a photography blog, perhaps, is a look at what modern day photographers can gain from using a camera that offers little in the way of features that could not be found in simple cameras marketed by Kodak and others a century in the past. Basically, the Vivitar Ultra Wide & Slim, often called the UWS, is a small 35mm box camera having one aperture of about f16 and one shutter speed of about 1/100 sec. There is a thumbwheel film advance and double-exposure prevention.

Beyond the fundamentals, though, there are some technological refinements that are important. The "Slim" portion of the name refers to the fact that the camera is extremely small compared to almost any other full-frame 35mm; and, being made almost entirely of thin, molded plastic it is also very light weight, probably under an ounce. Most important, however, is the "Ultra-Wide" part. The lens is a 22mm two-element molded plastic aspherical design that produces wide-angle images with great depth of field and no apparent distortion or aberration. So, the camera - though simple - is still a highly specialized photographic instrument, capable of delivering a style of imagery which would normally require a much more substantial investment.

To my mind, the UWS camera's limitations are as constructively important as its capabilities. Since there is no easy way to adjust the camera to prevailing conditions other than by film choice, the photographer is tasked with the job of seeking out those conditions of light and shadow which fit the camera's narrow, set range of possibilities for properly capturing an image. The result is that a lot of possibilities that might be considered with adjustable cameras are rejected immediately, and an uncommon degree of mental focus is achieved. The fact that the lens is a rather radical departure from what is considered photographically normal also imposes some discipline. One quickly learns to take into account that everything from about two feet to infinity will be equally in sharp focus. Perspective convergence will be become more prominant whereever parallel lines lead away from the camera, and tilting the camera from the vertical will cause buildings and phone poles to lean alamingly.

One doesn't need to minutely examine every aspect of a potential composition to shoot with the UWS camera, but it is helpful to keep a few rules of thumb in mind while using it. For instance, it is usually a good idea to get closer to the main subject than you might often first imagine. It is also helpful to try out points of view that are quite a bit lower or higher than one is used to taking. These ideas, it should be noted, apply equally well to other simple cameras, including the pinhole variety. I think the fact that the UWS is small, simple and cheap also helps to free up the photographer's style in approaching subjects and encourages excursions beyond the usual range of considered possibilities.

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