Thursday, March 4, 2010

Vivitar Series 1 135mm f/2.3

Prime Lenses

1975 witnessed the introduction of the Vivitar Series 1 line. These new lenses boasted specs unheard of at that time from a "third-party" manufacturer. Not only did they perform admirably, but they looked good doing it. Looking back, over the lenses produced throughout that era, I personally find the Series 1 lenses to be of more interest than any other lenses. In fact, it was through the Vivitar 90mm (Komine-made) and Series 1 90mm confusion I first began this blog and have become increasingly obsessed ever since! They represent, for me, perhaps one of manufacturing's greatest examples of a perfect synthesis between "form and function".

I love prime lenses. With the convenience of zooms, primes are a thing of the past. Everything's a zoom now. Older photographers once upon a time, memorized the field of view that a particular focal length gave them. They anticipated more, shot many cameras at once, and the task of shooting the multiple focal lengths needed throughout the duration of an event was exhausting. Zooms have really changed all that. Zoom lenses, were inevitable.

While the zoom market has expanded exponentially due to increased technological capabilities in design and manufacturing, those are merely variables in a much larger equation. Money is the crux. Money always drives technology either directly or indirectly. In this case, money is flowing from the professionals and consumers. The pros want quicker/more efficient equipment for greater output and in turn larger profits. Consumers love convenience. A zoom is just that. Forget time consuming lens swaps and larger bags with x number of focal lengths in them. With the zoom, people could be shooting a telephoto image of the end of the pier one second, and with the flick of their wrist, be snapping a close-up of a flower, the next. Pros could be grabbing hundreds of shots without the hassle of swapping lenses or lots of cameras dangling from their necks, as well as easy in camera cropping (saving valuable time from the post editing process). In the beginning, zooms afforded convenience but still often suffered optical issues due to the complexity of attempting to do what primes often could not do perfectly, over a range of coal lengths. That too is changing. Yes, the zoom was an inevitable evolution of fixed focal length lenses.

To be clear, I don't hate zooms. They are not "evil". I don't think they are directly of any cause the deterioration of photography. No, it is more that as well as being an incredibly versatile tool, they can become a crutch. It's very much like auto-focus and metering to me. People would come into the store telling me a camera didn't take good pictures. After looking at their attempts, it really was just that the camera was not well equipped with a precise light meter. Or the conditions under which they wanted images was far more demanding than any digital sensor could handle. The point being, these people had no idea what was even happening in the photographic process.

A prime, to me, represents a definitive decision. I chose this lens, for this purpose, period. 135mm, portraits. 20mm, landscape. Same issue as shooting specific glass - zeiss, nikkor, L, etc. We consciously make these decisions defining our variables in our creative process; we choose specifics to articulate - to make images.

Primes also hold a nostalgic value to me. Like manual focus, and massive 4x5 cameras, and glass plates, they represent just a piece of that once laborious effort between mind and equipment that befell photographers attempting to create; trying to freeze a moment, or create something beautiful. They are from an era, where imagery was much more highly valued I believe.

Vivitar Series 1 135mm f/2.3

I cannot recall where I first saw the Vivitar Series 1 135mm lens, but I was immediately enamored. What first caught my eye, was the fast f/2.3 aperture for a 135mm lens. The second thing was obviously the similar look to the Series 1 90mm (my favorite lens of all!). I couldn't find a whole lot about it, nor many images over which I could salivate. I also found, based on the few images I did see, the conical shape and physical movement of the lens a bit of a mystery. Every other lens I had seen was cylindrical. When lenses zoom, a smaller cylinder protrudes further from the larger within which it is housed. This 135mm however, appeared conical, from which a smaller cone-shaped tube emerged. Strange! So here it is:


Focal length: 135mm
Filter thread: 72mm
Min. Aperture: f/2.3
Max. Aperture: f/22
Angular field of view (diagonal): 18ยบ
Elements/groups: 6/6
Min. focusing distance: 30.2" (76.7 cm)
Weight: 1.49 lbs. (675 g)
Maximum reproduction ratio: 1:4.5
Mounts: Nikon, Canon, Konica, Minolta, Olympus OM, Pentax, Vivitar, and other Universal thread-mounts
Lens hood: Built-in

*Komine actually manufactured this lens. I have seen 1 or 2 unconfirmed rumors of a possible Tokina-made Series 1 135mm f/2.3 but I have never personally run across the evidence of this.

Lens Diagram

Physical Attributes/Aesthetics

As I stated before, this lens has a very unique shape looks a bit strange when cranked all the way out for the closest focusing. It is identical (but smaller) to the 200mm f/3.0. Which is next on my hit list. The 135mm is somewhat a short, rotund little fella. The sample I picked up has been AI modified from an older non-AI version so the finish and metal has been a little chewed up at the base. I have seen a few on eBay with the appropriate manufacturers AI mount. These "newer" versions also appear to have the blue "VMC" lettering on the front ring indicating Vivitar multicoating. The version I have does not have this and I am led to believe, it is not multicoated. Every forum I have read about the lens raves about, as with most of the early Series 1 lenses, the ultra-smooth focusing. It really is "like buttah".

The lens weighs a full pound and a half. It's a solid chunk of glass and metal. Again, same precision carved barrel with a small ovular window cut right out of the barrel to view the markings engraved into the inner barrel denoting aperture, as well as a rectangular window for the focusing scale. The built-in hood appears to provide a little protection against flare, but I haven't had it out long enough to experience the limitations. I am a bit hesitant to believe it provides the maximum protection for this longer focal length given how short it is.

One of my favorite attributes of this lens is the massive, spherical element bulging out of the lens barrel. This thing is awesome. The coating has an amber tint to it, while the lens doesn't appear to any discoloration (as is common with older series 1 lenses. they sometimes yellow a bit). It takes a just a little under a full rotation (maybe 9/10 of a turn) to go through the full focus of the lens.


After owning a couple of these 135mms, I have noticed it appears Vivitar released two versions of this lens. The first, being the lens first pictured here in this post. In the second version, Vivitar multi-coated the lens, giving it the "VMC" denotation and you can typically discern the VMC coating right off the bat. I haven't owned both versions simultaneously and thus have never done a side-by-side. Through my experience with the 90mm macro and the 90-180mm macro zoom, which are both VMC, I can say the contrast with these lenses is excellent.

Like all original Series 1 lenses, the 135mm f/2.3 is a sight to behold!


The girl and I went out to dinner this evening, but not before I snapped some shots of her coordinating with her friends from out-of-town. I tweaked the contrast/color for the web and sharpened only so the web-softened image was back to what the original file looked like. This shot was taken wide-open (f/2.3) at ISO 200, with the D700.

Below is a crop, I believe around 200% blown up a bit, to see the sharpness this lens can produce wide open even. I am actually pleasantly surprised! I will say, though less prominent in this shot, the series 1 135mm suffers some CA, at times to a rather severe degree (see example 2).

OK, I know, worst composition ever. Does this guy even know how to make a photo? I was relaxing in the comfy living room chair, this happened to be across from me! Fairly severe circumstances in terms of lighting, but gives you an idea of how much CA this lens can have. Give me a day or two and I will get some better images up. I did make a quick shot at infinity wide open of some trees and all the branches were blue...

Despite these flaws, I would say this lens definitely has a place in my bag, as well as my heart. I have a tough time separating design and performance. Sometimes, I have no trouble making excuses for an under performing optic if the design aesthetic is impressive enough. So long as I am honest about the optical performance right!? I need some more time and variation in subject matter to make an accurate judgement. At this point, I do believe the lens can produce some very nice images. I would say, on this one, there are definitely sharper, faster options out there with better controlled CA. Picking up this lens is more about the aesthetic of shooting with a 30 year old piece of glass and achieving a specific air about the images made. (in other words - not like the S1 90mm f/2.5 in the macro realm, which can still match and exceed some of the newest macros)

AI Modification

Upon request, here is an image of the AI modded sample I used. I also threw in one with a turquoise highlight if it helps to discern where the mount has been milled. I did not perform this modification, I picked up the lens like this. Though it looks like a fairly beat-up sample, everything seemed to work as it should. I have now owned three of these on different occasions. I can't stop picking them up when I find them, just still searching for that mint copy!

Hopefully one of the images helps you Theofanis!

Vintage Advertisements

Below is another advertisement scanned in by Nesster and posted on flickr.

The two ads below were posted on the forums at (link is below as well) and actually accompanied by the ad above independently scanned by someone else.


Talk of this lens as well as old ads posted here:

Some praise for this lens on the forums:


  1. it looks like a solid-built lens and i would love to have one, but based on your samples, the only advantage seems to be the close focusing distance. the 105mm f/2.5 nikkor is sharper, much sharper, wide open and does not have the CA issues you highlighted. the price of the viv 135 f/2.3 is as much or higher than the 105mm f/2.5 so it doesn't seem like a good buy. it's of interest to collectors perhaps. but for performance, the nikkor seems much better. as for close focusing ability, i would go with the bokina or the kiron 105mm macro lens.

    1. fully agree. This Vivitar only looks good. And most people dont give a damn about looks, but more of performance.

  2. Agreed. I believe the price is based on elements outside of pure performance because you are correct. Many alternatives to this lens exist, which provide sharper images with less CA. I actually rather like the results of this lens: relatively sharp but with a great element of softness for more ethereal portraits.

    There is a lot of speculation/opinion in regards to these Vivitar Series 1 lenses. Words and terms like "legendary" and "cult-status" get buyers all riled up. The relative rarity of this lens also increases prices. The appeal to these lenses for me is, as stated, largely based on the beautiful build quality. They are a joy to shoot, and produce very unique, albeit imperfect, images.

  3. So, what does a baby like this cost? :)

  4. This very lens actually went on eBay and only sold for $135. Because of the cult following of older Series 1 lenses, I have seen them go for much more. On the converse side, probably due to lack of information I have heard of them going for extremely low rates (as little as $30) on places like craigslist.

  5. It took me over a year, but I eventually grabbed a B+/A- copy of this lens in M42 mount, which I use on a Pentax APS-C camera. Because Pentax does not have a modern equivalent, and because Pentaxians are renowned for their love and knowledge of old glass, $300-500 is the going price (depending on condition) for this lens on eBay.

    A question for you, David: On the D700, you get auto aperture control, right? So you can shoot this lens in Av, Tv and M and the camera will close down the aperture for you.

    Despite its shortcomings regarding CA and the more manual control it requires on a Pentax digital, I still find myself drawn to it. Like you say, it has a physical appeal that other lenses just don't.

  6. Yes, on the D700 I use aperture priority almost exlusively with my MF lenses. But I can use M. I cannot however use Shutter priority since the camera has no way of setting the aperture upon my choosing of a shutter speed. In Av and M though, yes the lens is always wide open for optimum focusing, and then when the shutter is pressed, the iris is stopped down for the exposure, and immediately release open again for the next photo.

    Wow, $300-500, that really is something! It seems these Vivitar Series 1's are in short supply in Pentax mounts. Congrats on the lens though! I actually may be headed out tomorrow to pick one up (in FD mount). It's got a great, low pricetag and I kind of miss the feel of it since I have since sold mine to fund another lens.

    Feel free to send me some shots, I would be happy to post some results, full image credit to you of course!

    1. Thank you for interesting article.
      I use some old M42 screw-mount on digital Pentax with the lens selected to M (Manual) which gives me control over the A-ring and the camera selects the shutter speed.
      Camera positions For this is Av and full auto.
      In short ; the camera reacts like I was using a mirror reflex lens without f-stops.
      With with out Auto focus , of course.
      Anyone with good ideas how to use the Pentax K mount (without contacts).
      As I can not control light without taking test photos i manual mode (M) I can not see how the K bajonet lenses could be used in practical photography.

      Anyway , I plan to buy the 135 mm 2.3 Vivitar Series 1 ,mostly because it is a quality product.

      Best regards
      Carl W. Leo
      Akershus , Norway

  7. I have some Interesting theories when I look at the pictures showing Chromatic abberation.
    Can i ask have you tried other lenses on the same subject and setup the same.
    For me i don't see chromatic problems but a digital sensor overload on the brightest picture content.
    I have tried many lenses including designed for digital lenses and have observed the same results.

  8. I have actually recently been reading similar information. I am also suspicious about spherical aberration in relation to digital sensors (spherical aberration can sometimes yield CA-like results on digital sensors). I have not yet done any tests but I will certainly look into this! Forgive my tardiness on this response and thanks for

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Coo - I have the 200mm f/3, and it does look pretty much the same, with an oddly futuristic Dalek-like design. Heavy, short, girthsome, nicely dampened focus ring. Mine's a pre-AI Nikon version that I use with a Canon 5D; it's generally not very sharp at f/3, with incredibly odd bokeh, and tonnes of purple fringing on highlights but (a) there's very little vignetting and (b) it's at least consistent across the frame. E.g. the corners don't seem much softer than the middle. Improves slowly when stopped down. Looks fantastic - big front element, built-in lens hood (with felt on the inside!).

    I've always wondered about Vivitar's apertures. Why didn't they call the f/3 an f/2.9, which sounds a lot more special?

  11. Ashley-

    Yes I have owned a 200mm f/3 as well as it performs quite similarly to the 135mm, though with my style, the 135mm tends to come in handy more.

    As far as the apertures go, that whole era of photography is quite interesting with smaller companies entering into the market to compete with the "big boys" so all sorts of marketing strategies came into play when they denoted their specs.

    Thanks for reading, your comments, and enjoy your lens!

  12. Nice article. I also have the S1 200mm F3, use it on an Olympus E-PL1 (400mm EFL). Love it, but the CA sure is there with bright backgrounds wide open. Considering grabbing an S1 28mm F1.9 that I have just found, NIB! It has the same shape, but no hood.

  13. Tom-

    Yes the CA is always evident in these Series 1 lenses. But what a cool opportunity to have a NIB Series 1 from that era!! If you have photos of the packaging of your NIB Vivitar 28mm, I would love to post them (with all due credit to you of course). Feel free to send them via the e-mail listed on the contact page. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  14. When you speak About CA, are you talking about lateral color or longitudinal color?

    I have all several Series 1s and find the 90mm the best for sharpness. The 135 seems soft, probably due to spherical aberration. The 200mm that I have has extremely noticeable CA, both lateral and longitudinal and soft to boot when compared to my 70-210mm Tamron. The 105mm macro is unbelievable from f4 and up, but is noticeably softer at f2.5 with small amount of spherical and longitudinal color. But wait, the king of sharpness of the series ones is the 90mm f2.5.....Hands down the best performer Vivitar ever designed and built!

  15. I have the 90/2.5, 135/2.3, and 200/3. I won't be able to use the 90mm for anything other than macro until I purchase a NEX, but the other two are M42 mounts and easily adaptable to my Sony A200 DSLR. While I agree with much of what has been said, especially about the CA, I will go further when it comes to resolution and say that the 135mm and 200mm are both the sharpest lenses among my collection in each focal lengths. I do not make comparisons to modern prime lenses as I only use much older manual focus lenses. Both telephotos need to be used for their strengths and avoided where they're weak. Focusing takes skill and images can be misinterpreted as soft when actually were not perfectly focused.

    1. I agree that focus is an issue with these lens. But I have used 3 methods to focus, adapters that have the feedback chip, a 3x eyepiece, and liveview (Olympus) which allows 7x and 10x magnifications while focusing manually. The truth is, the CA is bad enough that possibly the focus sensor can get confused depending on the scene. It is bad enough that you can see it at 7x as well as 10x in liveview. With the 3x eyepiece, it is barely noticeable but present.

      I have tested the MTF of these lenses and the Red channel will usually test the best with green a close second (but out of focus) and blue being fairly noticeably out of focus. This is just longitudinal color with a smattering of spherochromatism (color dependence of spherical aberration).

      On the other hand, if you don't blow up the images, you probably can get away with alot with these lens, at least for the price.

      That said, the 90mm F/2.5 exhibits none of the above and IS one of the sharpest lenses ever made.

      I'm not saying the 135 is bad, it's just not as good as paying for a new pro prime lens (e.g., Olympus 150mm F/2.0).

      Also, I might add, the history of the individual lenses add a bit of uncertainty to the puzzle. They could have been slammed around, disassembled and poorly reassembled, repaired, etc. For instance, I have two 90mm f2.5 and one tests better than the other even after numerous repeated tests. But they are both really good and out perform the kit lens (40-150mm) that came with the camera.

  16. It is such such a pleasure to find this site and the info review about this lens here, David.

    I just bought this lens yesterday, no VMC and it is Konica AR mount. Going together with this is the 28 f1.9, also Konica AR mount.

    I wasn't intended to buy this lens, just only the 28mm (been looking for one for more than 2 years), but after seeing the built quality. I have to take them both.

    And just like you said. The build quality is top notch. Built like a tank. Very very solid lens with real glasses.

    Very sad thing is that, I am using Nikon D700 and can not focus at infinity with any of them :( and I am very desperate about it.

    Here are the photos of the lenses.



  17. I picked up one of these last year (blue vmc) in a local charity shop for £8 - approx $12. It's in the KAR mount - I don't actually own any Konica cameras at present - but bought an adapter for my NX10 which cost 3x the price of the lense.

    I really love this lense. Yes, the CA is pretty bad (purple/blue branches!) but I can forgive it because it's such a nice lense to use. That and the front of the lense extends from the left edge to the hand grip of the Camera.

    It's a pity that I can't use it on any of my other cameras (currently 11 35mm SLRs - all get used on occasion.) Just going to have to find a decent Auto-Reflex.

  18. I remember reading your article a few years back when I started looking for my Series 1 lenses. Now after having extensive experience with all three; 90/2.5, 135/2.3, and 200/3, I'm back with a few comments. First, I'm surprised to see you say in regard to the 135mm " there are definitely sharper, faster options out there with better controlled CA". I have not yet found a sharper 135mm. Mine is like a razor even at f/2.3. CA was an issue until I started using a NEX, then it all but disappeared. I can say all the same about the 200/3, and the 90/2.5, well, you've already said it all.

    Mike L.

    1. Looking for a sharper 135mm? Try the Nikkor-QC 135mm. The QC is noticeably sharper wide open than non-C versions.

      In certain lighting situations, the Viv 135mm does a fine job and I toughly enjoy my copy.

      I might also suggest the 135mm f/4 Voigtlander Color-Dynarex but when you are as slow as f/4 I would and vintage Voigtlander, sharpness and great colors is par for the course.