In 1986, Kodak began production on a series of new point and shoot 35mm film cameras, the first Kodak-branded cameras in over 17 years. This model range was called VR35, and they were consumer-oriented, do-it-cheap machines marketed to families as a way of shooting snapshots and capturing memories. Kodak VR35s sold in droves, often to grandparents, and one such camera ended up in the hands of my grandmother. Eventually, she passed it on to me.
Now, I think it’s important to lay out a bit of background of the camera as well as my relationship with it. This article by The New York Times announcing the lineup is a fun read. When that article was published, however, I was not yet born.
My grandmother purchased her (and later, my) Kodak VR35 K12 with her own hard earned money, and she truly used this camera for a few decades. As she put it when she gave it to me, the VR35, “Makes beautiful pictures.” I was skeptical of that claim, owing to the reputation that Kodak had created and held for my entire lifetime, a reputation for rather weak cameras. But I was honored that she had passed it on to me.
I would go on to use the VR35 so much that it eventually began to malfunction. Both the on/off lifting of the flash worked only intermittently, and the shutter button was similarly hit or miss. Like I said, my grandma USED this camera. So though it wasn’t beaten up it did have plenty of mileage.
Intermittent usability aside, the camera consistently out-performed the other point and shoots that I owned. So, I made an effort to find a replacement, which I did for a very reasonable $8.
I then retired my grandma’s camera to my shelf, proudly on display next to the alarm clock given to me by my grandfather.
My grandma’s camera, the Kodak VR35 K12, is a simple point and shoot film camera. Beyond a self-timer and its automatic fill-flash, the camera offers almost no additional features.
It has a fixed, all-glass, 4-element 35mm f/2.8 lens, auto exposure, auto focus (a half press brings up picture indicators for varying focus scenes inside the viewfinder, blinking means subject is too close), and an automatic flash. Film advance and rewind are motor driven, and it reads DX code film canisters of 100, 200, 400, and 1000 ISO. There’s a built in lens cover which, when lifted or closed, turns the camera and flash on and off, and it runs on a single, common 9V battery.
Good working examples can be found today for $20 or less.
Background and My Experience
The mere fact that I sought out a replacement for this camera after my first one began to retire itself should indicate much about my experience with it. I love it. And not just because it’s an heirloom.
The lens is sharp, and the auto focus works surprisingly well and is more consistent than newer point and shoots that I’ve used. The automatic flash helps ensure my exposures work out, even if I am usually reluctant to use flash.
The ergonomics are wonderful. The camera’s substantial grip makes it comfortable in the hand and easy to hold. The quick flip of the flash to get ready to shoot, and the simplicity of the camera removes any friction around capturing moments in time. The viewfinder is large enough and clear, with legible focus indicator and nice frame lines. It uses a convenient, common, and inexpensive battery.
All of this combines to create a feeling that there is no downside to this wonderful 1980s sleeper of a camera.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. The simplicity of the camera is both its strength and weakness. Unable to manually adjust ISO to compensate and a general lack of creative control will ruin the VR35 for some shooters. The motor functions could be a concern for anyone that is worried about the longevity of the camera, and it’s imaginable that the loud noises that it makes when loading, advancing, and rewinding the film could be a concern. The noise and the inability to override flash may ward off the stealthy street photographer. Plus, it’s a chunky camera. Though it does fit in a bag or hang around the neck with a strap, it won’t fit in a pocket (the natural home of many point and shoot film cameras).
There is beauty (and nostalgia) in simplicity, and the Kodak VR35 K12 is a great example of that. It is a simple, charming, fantastic camera that can be purchased and powered affordably, as it flies under the radar of many other over-priced and over-hyped film cameras.
The design itself is a talking piece. Of the many film cameras I have, none of them attract conversation as naturally as this humble Kodak. And if there’s any single talking-point that I’d like to stress, it’s that I love the VR35s lens and the sharp images it produces.
If we step back and consider what a point and shoot really is, a camera to quickly and effortlessly capture fleeting moments forever, a camera that removes the friction of a more complex camera, a camera that should be accessible in price, and one geared to the average consumer, the Kodak VR35 is that camera. It’s a camera made to point and to shoot. What more do we need?
While Kodak had their name on some amazing cameras in the early 1900s (the VPK and the Brownies) and the mid-century period (the Retina series), it’s rare to find a Kodak model from the plastic-era spoken of in reverent tones. Heck, I had reservations when my own grandmother pulled her Kodak camera out of a drawer. I even tried other point and shoot cameras before committing to the VR35. I suppose I did so under the impression that more features, zoom lenses, and smaller, lighter bodies were going to create a better experience, a better image, and ultimately smoke this old 1980s automatic everything chunk of a camera.
But time and time again I come back to it. I should’ve known. Grandma knows best. And the Kodak VR35 does, as she said, “make beautiful images.”
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I owned a K12 for a little while recently. It performed very well! They’re very inexpensive to buy used.
I owned another camera in the VR35 series from new in 1986, the K40. It’s a fixed-focus camera but the lens is still very good. I was very happy to own it and documented my life with it. I used it until the mid 90s and then lost it somehow. I bought another one for $5 in a thrift store several years ago and reviewed it: