Friday, 15 April 2011

Vivitar 200mm f/3 Series 1: Counterclockwise to Infinity

Today we're going to have a look at an old lens from the past, the Vivitar 200mm f/3.0. And, yes, it's another one of those old Vivitar Series 1 lenses; I've previously peered at the 35-85mm f/2.8 and the 75-210mm f/3.5 and there were many more in the Series 1 line-up. The 200mm f/3.0 was launched in the early 1970s and has left very little trace on the internet since then, and when I spotted one on eBay I was curious to see what it was like. And so I saw; I saw the hell out of it.

They killed D H Lawrence, the bastards. Several of the soldiers buried at the cemetary actually died after the war, in the 1918 flu pandemic; they travelled from Australia to England in order to train for the war, which was over by the time they got here. Death got them another way. At this point I would normally insert a lovely full-page period advert courtesy of near-legendary God-Genius Flickr guru Nesster, but he doesn't have one. Which angers me. But no matter; Eldrad must live:

If I'm reading the serial number correctly, mine was made in the thirteenth week of 1976, which would be late March. Here's a short and intensely mysterious film that I created with this lens (except for the first two shots, which were filmed with a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8):

200mm is a slightly odd, slightly modern focal length, and it has always been a bit in-between. The telephoto world's equivalent of the humble 50mm. Back in the early 1970s everybody seemed to want 135mm lenses for portraits, something longer than 200mm for sports, and ultimately both focal lengths were overshadowed by the new 70-200mm zooms. Nowadays Canon and Nikon sell 200mm f/2 primes, which are very expensive and specialised professional tools. Canon also sells a 200mm f/2.8, although it is much less popular than the slightly slower 70-200mm f/4. In general 200mm is nowhere near long enough for wildlife or aeroplanes or footballers, but it's uncomfortably close for anything indoors, except for head-and-shoulders portraits. On an APS-C camera it becomes a 300mm f/3, which is also a bit in-between and pretty useless unless you're outdoors.

The lens was, as far as I can tell, part of the Series 1 launch line-up, and was released in late 1973, judging by the copyright date on the brochure and a look through some old magazines at Google Books. It was designed to Vivitar's specification, and manufactured by Komine, a surprisingly obscure and presumably long-defunct Japanese lens manufacturer. My copy has a Nikon F-mount, which I use throughout this post on a Canon 5D MkII with an adapter. It's a pre-AI model, which is unsafe to use on most modern Nikon digital SLRs, except for the consumer-level cameras (such as the D3100). On a Nikon camera the light meter won't work and you will have to use manual exposure. PROTIP: ISO 400, 1/400 in the shade on a sunny day, and take it from there.

Vivitar also made the lens for all the popular mounts of the day. The manual mentions the universal thread mount (M42), plus Canon FL/FD, Nikon F, Minolta, Konica AR, and there were probably later versions for Olympus OM and Pentax K.

The 200mm f/3.0 was sold alongside the 135mm f/2.3 Series 1, which was physically almost identical. There's a good article about that lens here, at Making-not-Taking. They both resemble something that the Daleks might have come up with; squat, conical, solid, heavy, nasty-looking. Mine has a dent in the built-in lens hood but is otherwise in surprisingly good condition, and the focus action is still very tight, almost stiff. It rotates counter-clockwise to infinity, which is the one true way. The combination of relatively wide aperture and nice precise focus ring and 200mm means that manually focusing through a digital SLR viewfinder is a piece of cake.

It was a warm day, honest, but there was a breeze.

Before we go on, I'm puzzled as to why Vivitar didn't lie a little bit and call the 200mm f/3.0 a 200mm f/2.9, which sounds a lot of more impressive than f/3. Similarly, why not call the 135mm f/2.3 an f/2.2, which is a nice even number? Or perhaps Vivitar were lying all along, and the f/3.0 is actually closer to f/3.1. I don't know. I just don't know.

An advert by Camera Hut in the August 1973 issue of Popular Mechanics gives a price for the 200mm f/3 of $150.84, about $20 more than the 135mm f/2.3, and a whopping $116 cheaper than the 70-210mm f/3.5 zoom. Irritatingly the advert doesn't list any other lenses, so I can't paint a picture of the camera economy circa 1973. It pops up in one of Nesster's Adorama adverts from 1979, which lists the price as $184.95. In comparison the highly-regarded Nikon 180mm f/2.8 was $509.95 at the time. The lens was presumably discontinued at some point in the early 1980s, as it doesn't appear in Adorama's 1984 price list (all but two of the Series 1 lenses had gone by that time, and the Vivitar range in general had slimmed right down). Vivitar also sold a 200mm f/3.5, about a third of a stop slower, which cost $99 in 1979, and was presumably much more popular than the f/3. It shows up on eBay a lot more, anyway.

The June 1973 edition of Popular Mechanics briefly mentions the lens, but only in passing. The 135mm f/2.3 and the 200mm f/3.0 use a rear-mounted correction element to achieve unusually short minimum focus distances, of three and four feet respectively. This gives them a mild quasi-macro capability, and seems to have been a big deal in 1973. According to the manual, which is hosted by a chap called Boggy, the depth of field at four feet, f/3.0, is one-eighth of an inch. I shall demonstrate with an uncropped photograph taken at about five feet or so:

The very lovely Hannah Ashlea there, with her wonderful freckles. It's a good face and she wears it well. I focused on her right eye pretty well, but because I was shooting at f/3 her left eye is out of focus. Bummer. Here's a 100% of that eye, no noise reduction, mild unsharp mask, handy if you ever need to pass through a security door that only Hannah's iris can open:

The purple fringing is the lens' major optical deficit. At f/3.0 and f/4.0, which is the next stop down, it's not a particularly sharp lens, but it's at least consistent across the frame. The impression I get is that competing telephoto lenses from Nikon and Canon - any of Nikon's 180mm f/2.8s, or Canon's 200mm f/2.8s, for example - were razor-sharp, and that although the Vivitar lens had a pseudo-professional specification it was not in the same league. Albeit that it was vastly cheaper. And my copy is almost forty years old, and I'm using it on a lens-punishing 5D MkII with an adapter.

Here's the same shot taken with an infrared camera - it has nothing to do with the subject of this post, I just liked it, and I'm guided by instinct:

In its favour, the lens has almost no vignetting at f/3.0; against it, unless the background is really out of focus, the bokeh is striking and distracting, viz:

Ouch. I surmise it might have something to do with the close range correction element, but I'm not a scientist. On the other hand, when the subject is fairly close to the camera and separated from the background the bokeh is decent:

It's still a bit hard-edged, but I like it. And that's about that. Objectively it's very 1970s; soft wide open, lots of purple fringing, odd bokeh except under certain conditions, and there are cheaper, smaller 200mm f/3.5 and f/4 lenses if you don't want the extra bit of a stop. On the other hand, it focuses very closely and it's compact, albeit heavy, and faster than most 70-200mm or 70-300mm zooms at the 200mm focal length.

It has a 72mm filter thread and a built-in sliding lens hood that doesn't prevent the use of filters. Typical gritty grey/green Vivitar-style mid-70s colour balance. Almost no vignetting even at f/3. Solid build. End, finish.

And all that beauty, all that wealth ever gave
Awaits alike the inevitable hour;
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.