[Author’s note: Many thanks to Nick Marshall for lending this camera to us for review. Check out his instant/toy camera photography here]
The internet’s a strange place. Name it, and you can bet there’s an online community out there obsessing over it. These tight-knit communities have a real knack for reviving interest in things that might otherwise be forgotten, and in some cases we find these communities elevating products that never got a chance to begin with. The camera community is no different – think names like Holga, Diana, the Leica M5. But of these resurrected gems(?) there’s one camera that stands out because of its downright fervent community of shooters, and because it looks like a piece of you-know-what. It’s the Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim, and I had to try it.
The Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim is the perfect example an internet-spurred resurrection because it is, frankly, so forgettable. Just look at it. It looks like something you’d throw in the garbage after unearthing it from beneath your collection of Duran Duran cassettes and your now-adult sister’s boy band posters. It’s the quintessential ‘90s throwaway camera, something you’d expect to find at the bottom of the bargain bin in a thrift shop that’s going out of business. But in today’s internet age, this glorified disposable camera has emerged from the depths to become one of the great cult classics of film photography.
So where did this dinky machine come from? Chinese manufacturer Sunpet made the camera somewhere in Asia during the mid- to late-90s. It was rebranded internationally by Vivitar as the Ultra Wide and Slim. That’s the who, when, and where, but what about the why? Why would anybody want to make a camera as cheap as this? And who would ever pay to put their name on it?
Part of the allure of the Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim is that nobody really knows why it exists or what it was made for. Some say it was just another attempt at an ultra-cheap point and shoot camera. Some say it was meant to be a party favor. Some say it was the product of an insidious, North Korean world-domination scheme gone horribly awry. If I can weigh in, it seems to me to be just another in a long line of millions of mass-made, low quality products churned out by over-zealous ‘90s toy corporations. But, who knows.
Today, most look upon cameras like the UW&S with indifference, and rightly so; their makers didn’t care enough to build them well, nobody really knows why they exist, and there are much better options out there – so why should we care? Considering this, the Ultra Wide and Slim’s newfound popularity becomes even more extraordinary. Somehow, some crazy photo geeks decided to take a chance on this crappy piece of plastic and made the Ultra Wide and Slim into a veritable cult hero. In 2017, no less!
So what makes people swoon over the Ultra Wide and Slim? Certainly not its design. It exhibits all the worst characteristics of products from the 1990s – purposeless curves, cheesy faux-chrome accents, noncommittal angles. The only halfway decent aspect of its design is the large, indented “finger grip” on the front face, which only barely functions as a grippable surface.
In operation, things are similarly uninspired, especially when loading and winding. When popping open the back of the Ultra Wide and Slim, you have to simultaneously pull out as you pull the switch down just to get the thing to open (no great spring action here). Loading also is a pain, in that it’s a backward process, from right to left instead of the usual left to right, forcing the film advance to be located on the lower left hand side of the camera (note – this enables the camera to be shot without ever removing your eye from the viewfinder. A stroke of genius or pure dumb luck?). And if all that wasn’t clumsy enough, the camera can only safely accept 24 exposure rolls; the winding mechanism can break under the tension exerted by a 36 exposure roll.
Features and tech wizardry are virtually nonexistent with this camera as well. Hotshoe? Nope. Self-timer? No sir. Variable aperture? Negative. Variable shutter speed? Not in your wildest dreams. You only get one shutter speed (1/125th of a second) and one aperture (f/11). Ask for anything more from the Ultra Wide and Slim and you’ll just end up disappointed.
Pretty unappealing, right? But as it so often happens with well-regarded toy cameras, the secret to their popularity isn’t found in their ergonomics, technical ability, or feature set; what people love about toy cameras is most often to be found in their optics, and the UW&S’s optics pack a secret weapon. Printed in small black numbers and letters around a tiny little lens are the words Ultra-Wide lens f = 22mm. It is this little insignia that helps the Ultra Wide and Slim start to pull away from the pack.
The real appeal of the Ultra Wide and Slim lens is twofold. First, not many point-and-shoots, be they toy, amateur, or professional, come standard with a super-wide 22mm lens. Super-wide lenses like these often cost more than the cameras to which they mount and are rare in any photographer’s arsenal, casual or professional. Second, 22mm is so far removed from the 50mm standard that a whole new set of possibilities spring forth when shooting this camera. Through this lens, landscapes appear truly endless, people seem surrounded by infinite amounts of space, and close-up portraits look more intimate than typical. The lens offers an enticement that becomes addictive from the first roll.
But that isn’t to say this camera is an instant Nikon killer. This is still a toy camera, and that comes with a whole host of caveats. First, the viewfinder doesn’t actually show you the entire 22mm focal length. It doesn’t even come close. I’d estimate maybe only 70% of the actual picture can be seen through the viewfinder, making it hard to achieve precise framing. Second, this super-wide lens is prone to extreme flare. Shooters must be careful not to shoot into the sun, or to even point it toward the sun’s general vicinity, unless the desired result is photos that look like they were lifted from a bootleg J.J. Abrams film. And finally, the lens is extremely slow. With no bulb setting or flash capability, and a maximum aperture of F/11, the Vivitar is a daylight only camera.
Limited though the Ultra Wide and Slim is, when it delivers, it really delivers. Yes, the lens lacks sharpness, vignettes like crazy, and covers more of the scene than you’d want, but all this becomes forgivable, even lovable, because the images it makes are pure fun. Sure, you might not get the framing exactly right, but the super wide lens ensures that your subject will at least appear in the shot. That’s something, anyway. And the extra space surrounding subjects can give a new perspective on your usual compositions. And because of the unpredictable nature of the camera, every trip back to the photo lab is like Christmas Day. You never know what you’re going to get, but you know you’ll get something decent.
All else aside, the Ultra Wide and Slim’s greatest asset is surely its low price and widespread availability. It’s easily the cheapest way to get into super-wide-angle photography. The original Ultra Wide and Slim can be found in many a thrift store, garage sale, and flea market, often for the price of a cheeseburger, and shoppers who detest the hunt can easily find the camera for around thirty dollars on eBay. And for those who just don’t like the idea of buying used, the Ultra Wide and Slim is also one of the few remaining 35mm film cameras currently in production thanks to Japanese company SuperHeadz who, in response to its enthusiastic user base, reissued the camera as the SuperHeadz Wide and Slim. Weird.
After using the Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim, it’s obvious to me why many photo geeks fell and continue to fall in love with this camera. Its photos come imbued with a carefree, fun quality that’s hard to find in even in the quirkiest toy cameras. Combine that with its underdog reputation and unexpected image quality, and it becomes a wonderful camera to have in your arsenal. I have to admit, the internet’s right with this one. So if you’re looking for an unusually wide point and shoot, give this camera a chance. It might surprise you.