Thursday, December 10, 2009

Vivitar Series 1 - What's all the Hoopla About?

So what's the deal with me and Vivitar? Why are over half the lenses I have reviewed and poured over from the 1970's and 80's and made by a now obscure third party brand; a brand most likely associated with garage sales and giveaway 35mm cameras from Legends of the Hidden Temple (by people of my generation), if recognized at all? What's the deal with all the sensational terminology like "legendary" and "cult status"? If Vivitar lenses were so great, what happened, why doesn't anyone talk about their new series 1 lenses?

Perhaps this article would have been more useful if written earlier in the blog for those not yet familiar with the Vivitar culture, but now is as good of time as any seeing as how I too have been learning more about Vivitar all the while in my personal observations and testings of their lenses. After all, it doesn't make any sense for someone to develop brand loyalty with little to no experience with the product.

A Brief History

Vivitar was a photo sales company founded in 1938 by two men, Max Ponder and John Best. Based out of Oxnard, California, the company got its start by selling imported German photo gear and later expanded to distributing Japanese made equipment following the conclusion of WWII.

For the sake of this article I will relegate most of the information to the Series 1 line specifically, despite the fact that Vivitar produced a wide variety of successful photographic equipment including the famed Vivitar 283 and 285 model flashes.

It was in the 1970's when Ponder and Best introduced the Vivitar Series 1 line. Interestingly enough, Vivitar was not a camera or lens manufacturer. It was a sales company. Boasting computer designed optics, the lenses would be contracted out to various manufacturers providing a less expensive alternative to the big name-brand lenses without sacrificing a whole lot of quality. In fact, many of the Vivitar lenses rivaled those of the high end lenses of the day. Vivitar technicians were the dreamers, pushing boundaries and attempting things that were unheard of in that day, and passing on the technology and savings to the photographers.

Zooms are a given in today's photographic world but in those days, primes were standard practice. Companies like Tokina got put on the map for their innovation in zoom lense technology. Vivitar, likewise, became well known for their 70-210mm zoom with macro function (Gandy). Some of their primes still today outperform many lenses and remain high on the MTF test charts. Especially the Vivitar Series 1 90mm f/2.5, a.k.a. the Bokina.

So what happened to the company? Often times it only takes one or two people to really make a huge difference and likewise, without them, everything falls apart. With the passing of Ponder and Best, Vivitar (according to Wikipedia) "drifted" between different owners, losing it's innovative edge. Interestingly enough, in my search to find parts or someone to help with a lens modification I contacted a lens design company out in California and ended up learning a little more about the demise of Vivitar. Apparently, in 1994, an earthquake, later deemed the "Northridge Earthquake" struck southern California, leaving large areas devastated. Wouldn't you know it, the Vivitar headquarters was among the casualties. Already struggling by this point, it seems the earthquake provided a final blow.

Perhaps some exaggeration lies in just how severe the earthquake affected the Vivitar company, it can at least be agreed it didn't help. In 2006 the company was bought (Syntax-Brillian Corp.), then again in 2008 (Sakar International) after filing for bankruptcy. Even now, if you call the Vivitar company, they provide no support and retain no relation to the Vivitar corporation of old.

A Different Time

It's nothing new, a company going out of business. But it's sad to see a company, that did so much for the photographic industry just fade away. Even worse, the new Vivitar company has, at least as most recently as this past year, been producing lenses bearing the "Series 1" name (Like the 500mm catadioptric, 650-1300mm, 7mm fisheye, 19-35mm, and so forth). I would call them misnomers because despite having the rights to the brand name, these lenses are in no way near the optical quality of those designed by Ponder and Best in the 70's and 80's. In most cases, I don't know that Vivitar has anything to do with the design. You can find the exact same lenses for sale under various other names like Bower, Phoenix, Promaster, and more. So someone must be responsible for the original design and then it gets rebranded all over the place! But again, they lack that signature Series 1 innovation, as well as optical quality.

Are Series 1 Lenses All They Are Cracked Up To Be?

Absolutely... to me. I think this is a personal issue. I mean, things like's MTF tests indeed show lenses like the 90mm proving themselves on the scientific "mat" if you will. But some of their Series 1 lenses had optical shortcomings, like any other lense. They aren't infallible. As always, it comes down to what you want out of your glass, and what you think it is worth. I pay good money for these lenses when I find them in good condition, even if I could save some money by finding one in bargain condition, because even the cosmetics mean a lot to me. Call it what collector's have (I am by no means a real collector because I use all my lenses) but I love having one of these older lenses in like new condition. It's downright exciting! Sure some lenses show color fringing wide open, others have light fall-off, and so forth. But, they emulate an era. They have a nostalgic air about them. As I often note in my reviews, you pick one up and it seems as if it has been cast or carved from a single solid piece of raw material. It is all of these qualities that make shooting with these lenses such a joy! Truly, some do perform extremely well but realistically, if you have the money to spend, of course their are much better lenses out there (in MOST cases, I have a hard time feeling that way about the 90mm, it is simply stellar). Auto-focus, Vibration Reduction (VR), Nano coatings, and all sorts of cutting edge technology adorn the newest members of the photographic legacy. But to me, the Vivitar Series 1 glass still maintains an excellent balance between nostalgia and performance and thus defending their coveted slots in my bag.


The history written here was gathered from these two sources and as I said, the gentleman I spoke with at another company's lens design facility.

Stephen Gandy

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