We live in an era of film resurgence. With new models appearing it seems every month from Revo’s Plastic Shooters to Nons’s Instax SLRs. But guess what for a few years a major fashion retailer has been selling a new Autofocus 35mm compact for the measly sum of $28USD.
Except that’s not quite true. Someone is telling Porkies about the VF201.
I’d come across the camera by chance. It is sold by Urban Outfitters (UO)(although this models has sold out in the UK). I was peaked by the fact that when I bought it had literally a 1 star (out of 5) rating in early 2021. That peaked my interest (it’s now 2.5/5).
Could it be that bad ?
Turn out it’s not but it is no Autofocus camera despite being sold as one.
To give UO their credit, they have long been advocates for analogue gear. The company can trace its roots back to 1970’s Philadelphia. But the UO you know today is a global brand with stores in most Major Cities. aimed squarely at millennial. They must by a tad thinner than us Gen Xers as even if I was at my ideal weight I doubt I’d fit anything but a scarf.
They have sold analogue gear for many years and currently have a wide range Dubblefilm Show clones, Reto UWS to Instax and ‘roid. Here in the UK the company has a wide range of vintage gear (at a premium) with a tie in with Camera Hut online.
They’re one of the few companies that continue to support film and deserve at least a little thanks no matter how overpriced you might feel the gear is and the fact you’ll never fit in their jeans.
But who makes the VF-201 ?
The box is marked Laboratory 29. This NY based company has supplied many products to Urban Outfitters since being founded in 2017. With a 1.3 million USD turnover for just 4 employees. I’m guessing the company specialises in sourcing items for sale for China (bar various instax peripherals for urban outfitters, they seem to have sold pile of inflatables on Amazon). However their Social media hasn’t been updated in over a year. Nor does their website seem to be running.
And the VF 201 has been sold under other branding before notably under Ez Snap branding. Who Ez Snap were owned by I can’t be sure but the name Concord comes to mind.
What’s the spec ?
Yet another cheap plastic fixed focus umber in the Dubblefilm Show Class. It has a 2 element 31mm 1:11 lens. Shutter is fixed with for once the manual being honest about variability describing it as 10ms ±3ms (that’s around 1/100 in Plain photog English). Aperture appears fixed unlike the Dubblefilm Clones which open slightly when flash engaged.
Film plane is curved. Focus is described as 1m to ∞. The built in flash gives range of 1-3.5m but there is no detail of what film speed that is for. You need to bring your own AA battery as none is provided but the camera works without one. You do get a good enough wrist strap and a small instruction sheet.
This is not dissimilar to the spec of the Dubblefilm clones bar in flash mode.
But UO sell this as an Autofocus ?
Yeah. I flagged that with them but no response. I suppose you don’t need to focus this but claiming this is autofocus certainly pushes the the Trades Description Act.
The lens is fixed there is no AF mechanism here.
Build And Design
Be under no illusion this is cheap. almost entirely plastic it is a shiny silver brick (or metallic pink). But a small brick that is easy to hold thanks to the very slight grip bulge and thumb point on rear. Logically laid out. There’s a nice touch of the bumps below the flash unit to warn you your fingers are straying.
It is ruined a bit by moving the rewind depress button to the top plate. The overall styling is late 90’s looking like any cheap camera from that era.
It’s available in silver black and a 2 tone pink/silver (which looks the best).
It has an easy load drum take up system. Winding is by thumbwheel. The winding doesn’t cock the shutter (that’s done by the sprocket wheel above the film gate which also moves the small mechanical counter. When the roll ends you depress the button on the top and use the standard rewind spool (although plastic feels better than some cameras of late).
The viewfinder is a simple affair not the alabada type the manual suggest with no parallax lines. It’s Reverse Galliean type. The manual states 75% which I assume is coverage.
Results with the VF201
Look this was never gonna be write home stuff but it is by no means awful.
Image wise, it has pretty typical pattern. Sharpest centrally with fall off to the edge of the frame. It softens a bit on long shots. It’s not quite in the M35/Dubblefilm Show league but it isn’t far behind.
It depends on your views of these cameras. Clinically there is a lot of chromatic aberrations and noticeable pincushion distortion. It is quite contrasty so the lens does have a signature of it’s own which will appeal to some.
You do of course need to judge the film with this f/11 1/100. 400 is the safest all round carry but you will notice some over exposure in very bright condition
UO sold this for £28GBP online. It is now sold out in the UK but still on sale in the US for $28USD. For handy comparison they sell a shedload of other cameras in the class all like the Kodak M35 and Agfaphoto Analogue for £35 (as well as the Ilford Sprite 35-II for£40). These all share the same lens and rear construction of the Dubblefilm Show. The Agfaphoto and Ilford are nigh on identical although I think the cheaper former looks better logo wise.
Verdict on the VF201
If this was before the Dubblefilm and the M35 I’d have said that UO had done alright with this. For what it is it is better than a 1 star rating. But it does pale a bit compared to the new rivals. These are better looking and just that bit optically better.
It does have a signature image look and will appeal as an alternative to the Dubblefilm crowd to Lo-Fi Shooter. It is a more canny investment than a reloadable disposable being optically better than those currently in production bar the Harman Reusable. And that’s basically a a M35 with the worlds worst loading system.
So more 3 out of 5 stars in the plastic fantastic flash class.
Other Options to the VF201 ?
(1) Better Choices
Any of the Dubblefilm Clones will offer better but still quirky optics and a much more pleasing style (with the exception of the ugly Kodak M35 & M38). These are all basically the same camera and is now sold as the Ilford Sprite 35mm II, Agfaphoto Analogue, Vibe, Kodak Ultra F9 as well as a host of no brand name version. So go with style and the cheapest you like. No conversation of this class of camera should be complete without mentioning the pocket rocket that are the VUWS clones. You lose the flash but the lens is just peachy for plastic. The best option is the Reto UWS but the Jelly Lens version is slightly cheaper. For something less common the LensFayre Snap LF-35M is worth a look with its eco cred.
(2) Worse but don’t exclude
This optically beats most cameras in the reloadable disposable class. That’s except for the Harman Reloadable. The rare brilliant Lomography Lomolitos gives an near identical output to the VF201 but has that crappy loading system of the class. The rest of the current models including the class leading Lomography Simple don’t quite come up to quality. But they do have their own distinctive Lo-Fi signature (but with crappy loading)
Another flip choice is the Holga 135BC. The size shrunken Holga was around from 2005 long before any of the above. And it has returned from the discontinued grave. It offers the same features of it’s legendary big brother so you get a choice of aperture and a focusable lens (or maybe not). It’s disposable quality images do have their own signature but it is pricey (UO sell them for more than twice the VF201).