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Modifying & Shooting a Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim – Guest post by Charles Higham

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The Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim 35mm film camera (sometimes shortened to VUWS or UWS) was made in China and sold for not much money as a truly basic point and shoot with an unusually wide angle 22mm lens. I imagine they were often bought as novelty gifts and as a first camera for a child so is often referred to as a ‘toy’ camera.

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The Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim certainly feels insubstantial and is ridiculously lightweight – the film roll weighs nearly as much as the camera. It’s entirely plastic and quite fragile, so you get the impression that if you let it slip out of your hands onto a hard pavement it would shatter at your feet. It has a two element plastic lens set at f/11 and a fixed 1/125 shutter speed, and that’s assuming the shutter speed is accurate as I suspect some examples may be rather slower than this. The viewfinder is small but just about useable, although it doesn’t actually fully represent the whole field of view the lens covers. What has made this model a minor if obscure cult is its reputation for distinctive image quality produced by the exceptionally wide angle lens, the striking flare effects when shooting into the sun, the vignetting and surprising sharpness for what you might initially dismiss as just another trashcam.

Given the above, and as an occasional enthusiastic tester of film compacts, I eventually gave in to temptation and bought an unused one on ebay for £16.00. It came with instructions printed on a sheet of paper entitled ‘35mm Outdoor Camera’, which suggests the manufacturers wanted you to be aware that it’s not suitable for interiors and low light photography.

In theory, what the Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim should be good for is landscapes, cityscapes and street photography in good light. It’s tiny, virtually silent and the 1/125 shutter speed freezes most movement if that’s what you want, although of course you don’t have any other choice. You can also shoot from the hip pretty confident you are likely to capture your subject with that wide 22mm lens. However, most of the front is made from bright silver plastic with bold black print.

Modifying my Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim

So as a bit of fun I decided to stealth it up by painting some of it matt black and also cut out and stuck on pieces of dark green leatherette I had left over after rejuvenating another camera, and which would protect the parts that get handled and stop the paint rubbing off.

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For black and white films I glued on a 37-46mm step-up ring so I could use a 46mm yellow filter when needed. This addition does partly obscure the viewfinder but not so much that you can’t get a reasonable idea of what will be in frame.

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One thing that has been advised by other users is to use a 24 exposure film, not 36, because the winding mechanism is not robust and the stress that develops with a longer 36 roll has the potential to break the little plastic spindle inside. You could use a 36 exposure film and just stop at about 28 frames to be on the safe side.

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When you load the film and start winding the wheel at the bottom rear of the camera, you will eventually hear a click to indicate the frame is ready, but actually sometimes got two clicks so I’m not sure if I was doing it right. The shutter button requires a disconcertingly extensive push before you eventually hear the click of the exposure. When it comes to rewinding the exposed film I recommend doing so gently as the winding lever is quite delicate.

Apart from the above there isn’t a great deal to say about using the Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim. It’s so simple as you can’t adjust shutter speed or aperture. Your only control over exposure is your choice of film. In very sunny conditions you could possibly get away with a 100 ISO film such as Kodak Ektar and benefit from its famed colour and sharpness, but in duller or changeable lighting conditions 200 or 400 ISO is more sensible, and I would go for 400 myself. And there’s no flash of course. You could try a faster film such as Kodak Portra 800 but we’re getting into expensive territory there and I’m not sure the camera warrants it. But it’s up to you.

I mentioned the viewfinder not giving you a true picture of what the lens will capture as apparently you see a cropped version, so be aware that if the sun is behind you your shadow could appear in frame even if you don’t notice it in the viewfinder. Also, there must be thousands of photos out there with blurry things appearing on the edges and this is because the lens is so wide, and the camera so small, you can easily have your fingers poking into frame without realising it. If you adapt the camera with a step-up ring and filter as I did then this helps because the combination acts as a tangible barrier to stop your fingers inadvertently creeping into shot. However, more than once I did make the classic mistake of forgetting to remove the lens cap when shooting. I wasn’t sure if the step-up ring and filter would be large enough to avoid intruding into the lens field of view but the only way to find out was to shoot some film, so loaded up with Ilford HP5 I took my pimped VUWS out for a test run to see if its reputation was justified.

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Shooting my Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim

These shots were taken in Oxford and at Minster Lovell Hall near Witney. Processing by Peak Imaging and negatives scanned with an Epson V370.

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So there it is. The Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim – a cheap plastic camera that has possibilities. Would I go to the expense of putting another roll of film in it and pay for processing? Yes, in the right situation I would, because how many 35mm compacts have a super-wide 22mm lens? It’s nice to have it on standby and it has the capability to come up with some interesting photojournalistic street shots and people portraits in the right hands.

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26 Comments

  • Reply
    Hamish Gill
    March 1, 2016 at 10:22 pm

    I love this! I’m really surprised how good the photos are – though not 100% sure about the flare! You’ve made it look really quite good too! The filter add on is brilliant!

    • Reply
      Andy Sedik
      March 1, 2016 at 11:42 pm

      Hamish, the lens flare is one of my favorite things about the UWS, though it is definitely an acquired taste. The UWS was the camera that got me back into film photography. I would scoop up lots of expired film on eBay and run them through the UWS and then take them to Target and have them developed and scanned for around $2.50/roll. I gave Murhaaya one of my UWS cameras years ago and he has done some amazing stuff with it.

      • Reply
        Hamish Gill
        March 2, 2016 at 9:25 am

        I’d be interested to see some of your photos, have you a link?

        • Reply
          Andy Sedik
          March 2, 2016 at 4:07 pm

          Sure thing! Here’s an album of Ultra Wide & Slim shots.
          https://www.flickr.com/photos/arachide/sets/72157603890127232/
          Not my taste or style these days, but a Vivitar pointed towards the sun with some expired slide film that has been cross-processed can be interesting.
          https://www.flickr.com/photos/arachide/2359440336

          • Hamish Gill
            March 2, 2016 at 6:46 pm

            It’s hard to believe how capable a lens it is isn’t it – I really would have thought it a complete waste of time – its actually quite sharp!I do remain a little unconvinced by the flare mind …

            Are you going to do me a post or two then? Benn is always mentioning you, seems fitting that you should 😉

    • Reply
      Ray
      March 2, 2016 at 1:48 am

      Hi Hamish,
      You beat me to it! I have one sitting on my shelf as a future modification project but it’s at the bottom of a long list of cameras to mod. It’s just been bumped up. I had doubts that the plastic lens would perform without distortion but am very surprised at how good your photos turned out. No doubt skill had a lot to do with it but it’s decent enough and probably the only ultra wide angle option for modding aside from the Konica Wai Wai, which is as rare as hens teeth.

      Thanks for the article!

      Ray

      • Reply
        Hamish Gill
        March 3, 2016 at 6:46 pm

        I’ve had an eye out for an old Wai Wai for ages – at that focal length, it’d be fun having a play almost regardless of lens quality.
        I must admit, this post got me thinking too! 🙂

    • Reply
      Charles
      March 2, 2016 at 6:24 pm

      Thanks Hamish, the flare is pretty wacky and a bit much sometimes, but I can imagine with rich colour film could look stylish. The filter idea isn’t mine as I saw it on flickr. I should add that to protect the paint job I decided to apply black shoe polish and shine it up. Sounds a bit odd but it works!

      • Reply
        Hamish Gill
        March 2, 2016 at 6:47 pm

        haha, nice! I’d never have thought of that!

  • Reply
    Ray
    March 2, 2016 at 7:53 am

    Sorry, just realised that it’s a guest post. In which case – Hi and Thanks Charles!

  • Reply
    Ray
    March 3, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    Terrific, thanks Charles. Thanks also to Hamish, I can’t think of another website where a report like this would get an airing. Good stuff.
    Oh, and just in case this gets confusing, I’m a different Ray!

  • Reply
    Salvador Moreno
    March 3, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    I’ve got this one and looks exactly the same.
    http://indulgy.com/post/zZKzZ1hp61/ultra-wide-super-fat-lens-camera-super-wide-angl

  • Reply
    Charles
    March 4, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    A piece of trivia, but my wife has just informed me that the photo of the 1970s brutalist building with the flight of steps is the one used as a stand-in for Oxford Police Station in the ITV drama ‘Lewis’. Also,I’ve just started shooting a roll of Fujifilm Superia 400 with the Vivitar UWS, as I too was quite surprised by the sharpness of the images, and many of Andy Sedik’s colour shots with the same camera (links above) are very appealing.

    • Reply
      Andy Sedik
      March 5, 2016 at 1:59 pm

      Charles, I think you will be pleasantly surprised with the UWS and Superia combo. I remember the Viv working well with most of the cheap Fuji films (Superia,Fujicolor 200) The lens is definitely sharper in the center than any plastic lens camera has a right to be, though it does drop off pretty badly in the corners.

      Hamish, I’d definitely be up for contributing a post or two to the site. I think 35mmc is a great resource for film shooters – I know I have referenced it more than a few times.

  • Reply
    Charles
    March 5, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    Thanks for the encouragement regarding the UWS/Superia combo, Andy. Yes, the lens is quite a surprise and the 22mm wide angle really useful. Hamish, I’ve succumbed to a fit of dysfunctional modification compulsion and completed a Nikon AF210 compact/ Industar lens adaptation within the last few minutes. As yet untested, I tried to match the rear lens to film plane measurement (very roughly) and what it will produce is anyone’s guess, I’ve no idea myself. It’s a cheap plastic bottom of the range compact I picked up for nothing so worth the sacrifice. I removed the lens so there’s just the camera’s own shutter/aperture blades. Seeing your quite longstanding promotion of camera modifications we should blame you for this sort of thing. A new acronym is in order: GCMS – Gill Camera Modification Syndrome.

    https://fractionsoflight.wordpress.com/2016/03/05/modified-nikon-af210-industar-lens-as-yet-untested/

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      March 5, 2016 at 9:57 pm

      That is quite possibly one of the maddest things I’ve even seen! I really hope it works! You have to do me a blog post about this if it does!

  • Reply
    Charles
    March 6, 2016 at 7:14 am

    I don’t know what possessed me. Apparently this Nikon compact has only two shutter speeds: 1/50 and 1/125 which the camera will decide based on lighting conditions and an f/4.5 lens that isn’t there anymore. Of course the AF system is now redundant and focusing will be hit and miss. My intention is to put a fast film in it and set the Industar at f/8 or f/11, so increasing depth of field in the hope that at least something might be in focus. If this combination actually produces some photos worth looking at I shall be quite surprised and will be happy to do a blog post!

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      March 6, 2016 at 8:29 am

      I’d guess it would underexpose if you set it to f11 – you need to set it to the aperture of the lens which I would guess is variable. Probably best to set it to the widest aperture of the original lens and then use the overexposure latitude. Or set it to f8 or f11 and push 400iso film 2 or 3 stops respectively and then again make use of overexposure latitude.
      Incidentally, I fully approve of the concept of GCMS 😉

  • Reply
    Charles
    March 6, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Seems to be good advice Hamish, thanks. I’m slightly paranoid about focus because although I’ve tried to reproduce the distance between the lens rear element and film plane as it would be in an M42 SLR, I might be a millimeter or two out. Whether this turns out to be of any significance I don’t know. What I’m trying to avoid is a blurred image hitting the film and as I’m using a viewfinder with no connection to the actual image this a bit tricky. So I’m assuming setting the lens at f/8 or f/11 will increase depth of field and give me room to play with. But to complicate things further the camera will read the film DX code but only either 100 or 400 ISO. I was thinking of using an 800 ISO colour film which won’t be read by the DX system and will probably. default to 100 ISO, so not underexposing, if anything overexposing, and the film will benefit from that – I think, or maybe not. I need to lie down.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      March 6, 2016 at 8:47 pm

      That sounds like pretty good logic to me!

      How long will the shutter stay open for? If you could get it to stay open you could check the focus by placing a focusing screen out of an slr over the film gate with the back of the camera open… I suspect you might have trouble keeping the shutter open, but if you can, that would be a good way to check focus

      • Reply
        Charles
        March 6, 2016 at 9:14 pm

        I was thinking about exactly that last night. I was going to place some greaseproof paper against the film rails to act as a screen, but the shutter will only shoot at 1/50 or 1/125 and won’t stay open unless I try poking something into it. I don’t want to risk that as it might break the shutter which is very delicate looking. I’d rather take a gamble and shoot a film as it is and hope for the best. All part of the fun,

        • Reply
          Hamish Gill
          March 7, 2016 at 3:26 pm

          Indeed! good luck!!

  • Reply
    Charles
    March 19, 2016 at 11:09 am

    Just got back the roll of Fujifilm Superia 400 I shot with the VUWS above after trying Ilford HP5, and have uploaded a few exposures on my photoblog if anyone’s interested:

    https://fractionsoflight.wordpress.com/

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      March 19, 2016 at 12:23 pm

      That lens is bonkers, there really is no other word!

      • Reply
        Charles
        March 19, 2016 at 1:33 pm

        Yes, it is pretty bonkers. Predictably it goes soft at the edges but the main central area is amazingly sharp for a little plastic lens. I’ll give the camera a rest now as I’ve started using the weird Nikon AF210 compact/Industar lens hybrid I created, and I ‘m hoping for some sunnier weather to benefit the Portra 800 I’ve loaded.

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