For a very long time I wanted to buy an Olympus Stylus Infinity for use as a carry anywhere point and shoot camera. As a photographer who loves using precision equipment, there are days when I just want something I can throw in my pocket and take film images without giving them a whole lot of thought. Rugged, simple, easy to use, but with a nice quality prime lens and good performance. Unfortunately the Stylus Infinity has gained a bit of a cult following over the years and by the time I discovered it prices inflated the camera beyond what I was willing to spend.
Then one day I was shopping at a thrift store and saw the Pentax UC-1 sitting on a shelf for $5.00. I figured, hey why not give it a go? I mean for five bucks I had nothing to lose. To my surprise, I discovered a camera that gave me everything I wanted in the Stylus Infinity and in many ways surpassed it at an incredibly bargain price tag!
The Pentax UC-1 is a basic 35mm point and shoot made largely out of plastic. Feature-wise, it has focus assist beam, different exposure modes (basically I just leave it at auto, with red eye reduction activated), and the fill flash just works really nicely. And it also has a Panorama mode, you can slide a switch on top, and it crops a section on the top and bottom of the frame. Pretty basic stuff really. For the most part you could say this is an auto everything sort of camera. What makes this camera very nice to work with is the exceptionally sharp 32mm f/3.5 lens and the clamshell body design. Essentially what you get is a camera that can be used anywhere, thrown into just about any bag or coat pocket, and will deliver at least a decent, if not exceptionally exposed image on analogue film.
My copy of the UC-1 is beat to all hell. Seriously, it looks like it was taken on a trip across the globe by an Indiana Jones type adventurer who didn't care one bit about taking care of his equipment. It is scuffed, scratched, dented, and even has a couple of numbers on the back that look like someone took a pocket knife and etched them into the plastic. However the lens and the viewfinder are pristine and operationally the camera is flawless. I would argue this is all a testament to the clamshell design. This is a camera I have absolutely no fear about taking anywhere and everywhere.
What sets the Pentax UC-1 apart from its competitors is the viewfinder. I mean, this is a tiny point and shoot camera so I'm not going to make the claim that the viewfinder is amazing, but it does have one very nice feature that cameras like the Olympus Stylus Infinity do not. When you focus close to your subject the viewfinder on the Pentax gives you a frame guide for parallax correction. It is surprisingly accurate and has come in handy for me on multiple occasions.
I am also rather smitten with the 32mm focal length of the lens. It is just slightly wider than your standard 35mm focal length but not so wide that it looks gimmicky or distorted. It's kind of a sweet spot for me in a lot of ways and I really wish more cameras used it. At f/3.5 it is adequately fast and considering there aren't a lot of moving parts in this camera I've never had much of an issue with camera shake.
My one complaint with the UC-1 (and this is true of most point and shoot cameras of this area), when you turn the camera on by sliding the protective cover open, the flash defaults to auto as opposed to remembering how the photographer left it when the camera was last in use. This basically means every time I pull the camera out to use it, I have to hit the flash setting button twice to turn it off or once to set it to fill flash. After awhile this becomes an automatic reflex of sorts, so it is not a huge deal, but it still would have been nice if the camera didn't revert to its default settings every time you close the cover.
Unfortunately the Pentax UC-1 can be a bit tough to find. As I'm typing this I did a quick search on Ebay and didn't find a single copy for sale in the United States and only one listing from Japan (it's called the Epsio Mini over there). It's unfortunate this camera never gained in popularity in the age of digital like some other small cameras have like the Lomo LC-A, the Olympus XA models, and of course the one I previously wanted, the Stylus Infinity. This does mean however if you can find a Pentax UC-1 you'll probably get a nice bargain like I did.