Sunday, 11 March 2018

Vivitar 75-205mm f/3.8

As a kid I remember being very disappointed with fantasy fiction. The possibilities were endless, and yet the books were all the same. For a genre born of the imagination the works of Terry Brooks and the Dragonlance series etc seemed surprisingly unimaginative. They were essentially soap operas with elves and paladins, and in the latter case Mormonism.

If the Dragonlance books had made a point of contrasting the arbitrary nature of fantasy fiction with the supposedly God-created tenets of organised religion they might have been edgy, but in practice the Mormonism was just a worldbuilding shortcut. Dragonlance wasn't even part of a sinister plot to brainwash people into becoming Mormons, it was just a Dungeons and Dragons project published because, in the words of Wikipedia, "[TSR's] marketing department felt they had enough dungeons, but not enough dragons."

As I grew older I realised that the situation was more complicated than it seemed. The world had no shortage of imaginative fantasy fiction, it's just that the local libraries and bookshops didn't stock it in the Fantasy section, they stocked it in the Fiction section under M for Gabriel García Márquez and E for Umberto Eco and C for Angela Carter and [insert more examples here; just google "magical realist top authors nobel" or something - ed].

Upper-case-F Fantasy fiction was part of a genre, constrained by convention just as Detective fiction and Star Trek tie-in novels were constrained; in contrast genuinely imaginative, grown-up fantasy fiction was just fiction, because it was free. Aren't italics wonderful? When I use them, I sound like an intellectual, as if I was having a conversation with you in a relatively quiet coffee shop. Every time I use italics imagine that I am gesturing with my hands while smoking a cigarette, and you're wondering if I'm going to drop ash into my meal or knock something off the table. In which case did I knock it off the table because I'm expressive, or was it a ploy to attract attention? And yet you are magnetically attracted to me because I am special.

"A crab with a skill for making pizza turns to his pizza-making coworker Taylor, but drops a tray of oversized party pizza, shattering his brittle legs"

Genre fiction has always been subject to a form of ghettoisation whereby anything that attracts favourable reviews by mainstream critics is no longer genre fiction, even if it is; instead it becomes allegory or surrealism or a phrase that hasn't caught on yet. Thus for a very brief period in the 1990s Anne Rice was not a fantasy author, or even a horror author, she was instead a credible mainstream novelist and people took her seriously, boop the snoot pitter-patter negative triangulation going to have a look at the Vivitar 75-205mm f/3.8 because someone has to. A short look because it's an awkward lens.

The colours benefit from post-processing.

What is the Vivitar 75-205mm f/3.8? It's a constant-aperture manual focus telephoto zoom lens from the mid-late 1970s stroke early 1980s. As with all Vivitar lenses it's a rebranded import; the original was made in Japan by Kino Precision. Vivitar sold two versions of the lens, one with separate zoom and focus controls and a later model with a single pushy-pully twisty-turny zoom/focus ring. Mine is the second model.

Physically and optically the 75-205mm f/3.8 is very similar to the Tokina-made Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 Series 1. My theory is that they were built to the same optical specification, and the only real difference is that the numbers on the nameplate are rounded differently; perhaps the Kino lens was Vivitar's Plan B in case Tokina couldn't deliver.

Vignetting wide open at 205mm and then f/8.

My 75-205mm is an Olympus OM lens, although I used it on a Canon 5D MkII with an adapter. It's decently sharp in the middle wide open from 75-150mm, dropping off from 150-205mm; it has oddly "gritty" colours; there's a bit of barrel distortion at 75mm and noticeable pincushion at 205mm. Although I didn't do any rigorous tests my subjective impression is that the Vivitar 70-150mm f/3.8 I wrote about last year is optically slightly better, and of course much smaller. On an APS-C camera the 75-205mm would be a long 100-300mm, and I imagine it might be pretty good if you stopped down a tad but very hard to focus through an APS-C camera's viewfinder.

At least in the very middle sharpness at 205mm is decent, but marred by purple fringing which largely disappears at f/8. Not necessarily a problem given that this is essentially a fair weather outdoors lens.

The edges improve although are still far from razor-sharp, but then again I *am* shooting through a couple of miles of turbulent air, and this is a tiny crop. There's a bit of green-blue-purple CA.

The same crop as above, shot at f/8, but with CA correction and some sharpening in Photoshop. This was taken at ISO 400 with noise reduction turned right down. Let us not speak of the corners.

As was the fashion at the time the 75-205mm was sold as a quasi-macro lens. It doesn't have a special macro mode, it just focuses very closely, down to around 1:4 life-size. Just for fun here's my Mamiya C33 at the minimum focus distance, 205mm, f/11:

The 75-205mm is surprisingly sharp up close but suffers from purple fringing, and of course the depth of field is tiny, here shown at f/3.8 and then f/11:

I said awkward. It's a push-pull-twisty-turny telephoto zoom with a fairly loose focusing control. Autofocus was invented for telephoto lenses and basically killed off manual focus telephoto zooms; you can still buy manual focus prime lenses today, because they're classy, but no-one sells a manual focus telezoom any more.

For video use it's a non-starter for any number of reasons, not least because it's varifocal. Perhaps if you hanker for the desaturated, heavily vignetted, watery look of 1970s zoom lens cinematography it might work, but even then it's not zoomy enough to recreate the likes of Barry Lyndon or those lesbian vampire films with Brigitte Lahaie. Or those godawful films by Tinto Brass where he just zooms the lens in and out and cuts between shots at random. If you want to make a lesbian vampire film you'll need to get hold of a bunch of naked virgins and a castle, and that's difficult - in fact you'll have exactly the same problems that made life hard for real-life vampires.

Also fake blood. As a consequence the 75-205mm f/3.8 and its ilk are widely available cheaply on eBay and in second-hand shops across the land because no-one wants them. The 75-205mm f/3.8 was one of about half a dozen telephoto zooms sold by Vivitar with a similar specification; it appears to be less common than the others. Of course nowadays your digital SLR probably came with a decent-but-slow telephoto zoom lens and both Nikon and Canon will sell you reasonably-priced, very sharp, autofocus 70-200mm f/4 lenses with or without image stabilisation, the end. And also, yes, as a full-frame 35mm lens it will adapt for mirrorless cameras, but it would be incredibly unbalanced and I dread to think how you would hold it comfortably.