Sunday, 15 May 2016

Vivitar 28-85mm f/2.8-3.8: Waves of Fear

"I know where I must be", shouted Lou Reed, "I must be in hell". Back in 1982 critics hailed The Blue Mask as Lou Reed's comeback from a long period of aimless meandering, but nowadays it tends to be overshadowed by his other comeback record, 1989's New York. After Blue Mask Lou Reed released three anonymous, undistinguished albums that essentially squandered all the critical goodwill he had earned. None of them were a disaster on a par with Dirty Work or Press to Play, or Landing on Water or Never Let Me Down, instead they were just bland non-entities.

Wikipedia's entry on New Sensations is illustrative. "New Sensations is the thirteenth solo album by Lou Reed", it says, and that's all it says, because that's the entire article. Wikipedia isn't generally known for the quality of its writing, but I agree with its assessment of New Sensations. It didn't have to be that way. The 1980s was Lou Reed's for the taking. After years of obscurity The Velvet Underground were hip. But when I think of Lou Reed in the 1980s I think of this famous commercial for Honda scooters, which is a tremendous example of its art but did nothing for Lou Reed (or Honda):

"Waves of Fear" is the high point of The Blue Mask. Here's a written description of Robert Quine's fantastic guitar solo: eww-weee-eww-weee / aaa-aaa-yeee-eee! aaa-aaa-aa-aa-aa-AAAAAAaaaaaAAAAA wwweeeeee! etc it's skronk, baby. It sounds like animals in the forest fed through a guitar amplifier, today we're going to have a look at the Vivitar 28-85mm f/2.8-3.8 MC Auto Variable Focusing zoom lens. It dates from the early 1980s, perhaps the late 1970s. Manual focus, available for all the popular lens mounts of the day. Why did I buy it? It's unusually wide and fast for an old zoom lens, and I wanted to try it out on my Olympus OM-1 film camera.

It's a big lens. The purple multicoating was typical of Vivitar lenses. As was the fashion back then it has a complicated load of multi-coloured numbers and lines that indicate something or other.

Mine is for the Olympus OM system. Most of the pictures in this post were taken ages ago with an Olympus OM-1 but I've also used it on a Canon 5D MkII with an adapter. It's a big heavy metal lens with a one-touch mechanism. You push it forwards to zoom in, pull back to zoom out, twist to focus, and as you focus it zooms a little bit and the control ring moves quite a lot. It's awkward.

My example has zoom creep, so if I point it up or down it zooms of its own accord. It's loose, like an old person's sphincter. Imagine trying to have sex, but just as you're getting interested you start leaking faecal matter involuntarily. That's why old people are so angry and crotchety all the time, and also why they smell so bad. They no longer have control of their bodily functions. Who has control? As a baby you do not have control of your own body; as an adult, you gain a measure of control; as an old person you gradually lose control again, and then your body turns on you and kills you. Such is the course of human life. People fight to gain control - over the world, over their tribe, over their families, and over their bodies - but they are doomed to fail.

The 28-85mm wasn't actually built by Vivitar. The company imported Japanese OEM designs and sold them under the Vivitar name, although in the 1970s it took a more active role by issuing specifications for its posh Series 1 range. The 28-85mm was never sold as a Series 1 lens, although it feels Series 1-ish. It was originally built by Kiron and there is a Kiron-branded version with a slightly different body. The same soul in a different body. The theme of gaining and losing control runs through the work of David Cronenberg and Stanley Kubrick; Kubrick's films are full of powerful men who believe themselves to be in control of their destinies, but are in fact entirely at the mercy of fate, whereas Cronenberg's films concentrate on the visceral nitty-gritty of physical degradation and death. Photography itself is all about control. Control of exposure, of the development process, of the collective cultural heritage of humanity, of future generations' perception of our present. Control and the failure of control in a world where objective truth has been replaced with subjective narratives.

The official Series 1 general-purpose zoom was a 28-90mm f/3.8 model made by Komine. It was sold alongside the 28-85mm for a time. An advert in the Feb 1983 issue of Popular Photography gives a price of $109 for the 28-85mm, vs $139 for the 28-90mm. I learn from the New York Times that $109 in 1983 would have bought four and a half smoked rainbow trout from Murray's Sturgeon Shop, giving the 28-85mm a trout index of 4.5. In comparison, a Nikon F3 body had a trout index of 14.3, and the average new car in the United States in 1983 had a trout index of 416.

Making a comparison with modern prices is hard because Murray's now lists smoked trout per fish (at $17.95) rather than per pound, and the shop sells ordinary trout rather than rainbow trout, but assuming that two prepared ordinary trout equals 1lb of fish meat and given that the average cost of a new car in the United States was roughly $33,000 last year, I conclude that the trout index for a new car in the United States is now 926. That's better, isn't it? It means that trout is much more affordable. So the economy is actually doing very well. Zerohedge is full of rubbish. Thank God they re-elected Reagan. All those agit-prop lefties from the 1980s were liars.

The 28-85mm focuses closely at 28mm and backs off as it zooms in, with a noticeable jump in the minimum focus distance in the last 10mm or so. Optically it's better than I expected, with the caveat that it's larger and heavier than a couple of prime lenses, especially compact OM primes. It's sharp in the middle at all apertures at 28mm, decent in the corners once stopped down; at 85mm it has a soft glow wide open but sharpens across the frame stopped down; wide open at 28mm it has a tonne of vignetting. It benefits from a contrast and saturation boost. For all of the images in this post I was either contra-sun or standing in shade, so I can't judge the flare. I've tried shining a light into the lens from the corner of the image, and although there were flare spots it didn't seem particularly flare-prone which is odd given the large front element. Perhaps the multi-coating is unusually effective.

The spec is advanced for the period. Most first-party general-purpose zoom lenses started at 35mm and f/3.5 or so. I have the impression that third-party manufacturers were more interested in zoom lenses than first-party manufacturers, perhaps because it was an unexploited niche and zoom lenses felt a bit cheap and dirty. Even today, in 2016, zoom lenses still have a slightly seedy air. The stereotype is that gentlemen use prime lenses, the common man has a zoom.

Still, let's see how it performs on a Canon 5D MkII full-frame digital SLR. Here's the vignetting at 28mm. There's a lot:

At 28mm it's basically sharp in the middle wide open, slightly sharper at f/8, but in general there's nothing wrong with the performance in the centre. NB for all of these images I have applied Photoshop's auto contrast, but I haven't added sharpening:

On an APS-C camera it would be a 44-135mm, an odd range that borders on usefulness. In the APS-C corner it has noticeable but correctable CA, and decent sharpness (again at f/2.8 then f/8).

Alas there was nothing interesting in the full-frame corner except some brickwork. As before there is a lot of vignetting wide open and the performance stopped down is okay:

The lens peaks at the middle of the range. At 50mm-ish it's basically sharp in the middle at all apertures, sharp all over at f/8 (again, wide-open and f/8).

At 85mm there's a soft glow wide open, although there is detail underneath the glow. Stopped down to f/8 it's actually very good.

At f/8 the corners improve substantially, although the lens would be outclassed by a decent 80mm portrait lens. The CA is mostly replaced with light purple fringing on high-contrast edges, not visible in this sample:

And that's that. Does the lens make sense nowadays? Not really. The kit lens you got with your digital SLR is probably just as sharp, and although it might not be faster it has image stabilisation. The problem is that unlike old prime lenses, old zoom lenses tend to be very large and heavy, and for video work the 28-85mm's zoom creep is awkward. It would be completely unbalanced on a mirrorless camera, for example.

On the other hand I would have been thrilled with it in the early 1980s. As a general-purpose zoom for 35mm cameras it makes a lot more sense. But then again a 28mm prime and some footwork would have been almost as useful. The lens is however surprisingly good for a nigh-on forty-year-old third-party zoom.