Sunday 23 January 2011

Vivitar 35-85mm f/2.8: Something Screaming 'cross Your Mind

Green slaaaaaahm! A while back I had a look at the Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 Series 1, an old lens from the 1970s that was part of Vivitar's posh range. The company made a bunch of Series 1 lenses, which were accompanied by full-page adverts in the camera press which bigged them up as if they were the best thing since sliced cornflakes. The 70-210mm isn't bad, and I was curious about the others.

Today I'm going to have a look at the 35-85mm f/2.8, a standard zoom from the mid 1970s that has an attractive set of figures, just like Caroline Munro, arf. Constant-aperture general-purpose f/2.8 zooms have always been a bit posh, are are still amongst the top tools in a professional's lens bag, and back in the 1970s a 35-85mm f/2.8 must have wowed them. Most zooms in those days were 80-200mm or so, or 28-35mm or so, and generally not f/2.8. Apart from the great weight, it must have seemed like the only lens you would ever need for most people, or a solid middle component of a three-zoom kit. The first mention I can find of it in the press is an article in the January 1974 edition of Popular Science, where it is said to be on sale "next summer", at a price between $400-500, which is roughly $2,000 or so in modern money. Damn you Google Books for not properly displaying in an iframe. Anyway, $2,000 will buy you a mighty fine lens nowadays. Here's a contemporary advert hosted by the ever-wonderful Flickr user Nesster:

Vivitar Series 1

You'll notice they call it an Auto Variable Focusing Lens rather than a Zoom lens. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the focal plane drifts when the lens is adjusted to a different focal length. Secondly, it sounds clever. Vivitar was a marketing organisation - the company didn't build or design lenses, they imported and rebranded them, or in the case of the Series 1 range they came up with a specification and got other companies to do the business - and they knew how to come up with plausible-sounding scientific nonsense. Reading through the Popular Science article I am struck by how similar it is to the advertising text above, almost as if the author had just rewritten the press release and submitted it to the magazine. You can't imagine that kind of thing happening today, eh?

Here's mine. In the distance you can see the lens cap, which is a screw-in type:

It's a chunky, heavy metal lens. The 22XXXXXX serial number means that it was made by Kiron, and on a mechanical level it feels complicated. The lens extends towards the middle of the zoom range, and the front element rotates freely when zooming, but not when focusing. Scattered around it in the photograph are screws and parts of the aperture mechanism, and therein lies a tale. I spotted it on eBay, without any indication of the mount other than a K/AR engraving on the side on the lens. I have a Pentax K adapter, so no problem, although it didn't seem to fit properly. Reason being that the lens was actually built for the Konica AR mount, not Pentax K.

The AR mount is one of those dead old lens mounts that can't easily be adapted for Canon EOS. The bayonet fits easily into a Nikon or Olympus OM-EOS adapter, so it's not hard to physically mount the lens, but the flange distance is radically different. In order to have a Konica lens focus to infinity on an EOS body you have to remove almost half a centimetre from the optical path.

Which I did. Vivitar made their lenses for a range of different lens mounts, and I assume they picked the longest flange distance commonly available and designed around that. The aperture ring for the Konica version of the 35-85mm seemed unusually long, so I unscrewed it, reversed the aperture fork, and JB Welded an OM-EOS adapter to the bottom of the lens. Now it focuses to infinity on my 5D, although I stress that you should take the following with a pinch of salt, because there's no guarantee that I mounted the OM adapter perfectly parallel to the film plane. I surmise that a conversion of this nature would be impossible with an actual Konica Hexanon lens, because there wouldn't be enough free space. The aperture is built very nicely, by the way, with a ring of ball bearings that still move smoothly after almost 35 years. A chap called Boggy hosts the service manual here, if you plan to strip the lens down all the way. Baby.

All the photographs on this page were shot with a full-frame 5D MkII, using the Vivitar 35-85mm (the one exception is the photograph of the lens itself, for which I used a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8). The advert mentions that close focus was part of the specification. At 35mm it focuses about this closely although it will go a bit closer:

At 85mm the minimum focus distance goes up to about this, which is a bit bass-akwards, although it seems to have been common with older zoom lenses:

My modern Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 focuses much closer at a long end, which in my opinion is a lot more practical. But, then again, I can't really fault the Vivitar lens; it's old, after all. They did things differently then. You'll notice in the first photograph, top-right, that there's some odd "moustache" distortion in the corners. And the bokeh is a bit busy. In fact it's horrible, at 35mm anyway (here at f/2.8):

Blurg. Here's the same scene, different day, also f/2.8, with my Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 at 35mm (according to the EXIF data, although clearly it's wider):

The Tamron's bokeh is much smoother. Also, next door's shed is clearly a huge face. Smoking a pipe. And it's staring at me. A huge face smoking a pipe and it's always there, even when I'm not looking at it.

Still, there isn't much about the Vivitar 35-85mm on the internet - the typical mixture of people asking what it's like, and old men who used it in the 1970s and loved it because they were young, and people who uncritically accept sized-down shots of soft flowers and cats etc as proof of the pudding. No-one wants to hear bad things about old lenses, because the lenses are underdogs. Most people feel pity for them and allow their judgement to be clouded by their emotions. I however am not like most people; I do not feel pity. Or compassion. Or mercy. The first chap on this page also does not feel pity, and it's interesting to compare his conclusions with mine (that the lens is horrible wide open at 35mm; better stopped down; generally better at 85mm).

Here's the vignetting at 35mm, wide open and then stopped down to around f/8 or so, at which point it doesn't quite go away but is only really noticeable if you shoot overcast skies:

Ordinarily I would try and shoot something more interesting, but it's England, January, freezing, overcast, damp, and I have a cold.

The 35-85mm f/2.8's specification is a classic one. The very first 35mm zoom lens, the Voigtländer-Zoomar of 1959, was a 36-82mm f/2.8, and Nikon sold a 35-70mm f/2.8 until as late as 2006, by which time the 35mm wide end was very old-fashioned. Most modern standard lenses start at 24mm or 28mm, and for this reason the Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8 has a bit of a cult, because it sells relatively cheaply on eBay despite being a one-time top professional lens. Vivitar's 35-85mm was introduced at a time when such lenses were accompanied by dedicated wide angle zooms that tended to go from 25mm, 28mm to 40mm, 50mm or so. Vivitar's wide angle zoom was a 24-48mm f/3.5 Series 1. But I digress. The impression I get from looking at samples on the internet and using some of these old lenses is that some telephoto zoom lenses from the 1970s were pretty good, and some from the 1980s were very good indeed, but general-purpose zoom lenses had a long way to go before they could match good primes. People tolerated them because they were handy, because there was nothing else.

Here's the centre at 35mm, f/2.8 and then f/11, with the same unsharp mask settings of 0, 0.5, 150, but no correction for CA or distortion:

It's not very good at f/2.8, but that serves you right for taking a landscape photo at f/2.8. It sharpens up nicely at f/11. Why did I pick f/11? It's my new favourite aperture, that's why. Here's the edge of the APS-C frame, with the levels boosted so that you can see detail (excuse the grain):

That was shot with a 5D MkII at ISO 200 using Highlight Tone Priority - it's an overcast day - and boosted a bit, and I had noise reduction turned off during the raw development process. Nonetheless, it's still rubbish at f/2.8 but pretty good at f/11. On an APS-C camera it becomes a kind of 55-136mm and would be pretty useful as a walkabout normal-to-mild-telephoto if it was any good at f/2.8, which it is not. Here's the extreme bottom-right full-frame corner:

The colours are washed out but again the sharpness isn't bad when stopped down. Not great, but not embarrassing, and better than I was expecting. For comparison here's the same scene, shot a couple of minutes later with a Contax 35-70mm f/3.4, which is an absolute mother of a lens and pretty much the benchmark for this kind of thing:

f/3.4 at the top, f/8 at the bottom, so it's not an exact comparison, with the same unsharp mask settings. Contax and Zeiss always emphasised contrast, it was their thing (and still is). The Contax lens has better multicoating, and it's sharper, and smaller, but the Vivitar lens isn't a dead loss. It's also much cheaper, and at the very least its 72mm front element looks impressive.

Here's the same thing again, at 85mm, in the centre:

Then the APS-C edge:

Then the top-right corner:

It's rubbish at f/2.8, much better stopped down. It's a shame Vivitar didn't market it as a 35-85mm f/4, but then again I suspect that it would have been lost among a sea of other 35-85mm f/4 lenses.

Ultimately, is it any good? Erm. On an APS-C camera it's sharp when stopped down, but I suspect your kit lens is sharper, and smaller, and it probably has image stabilisation, and a much more useful range. At f/2.8 it's characterful. On a full-frame camera it's the cheapest standard f/2.8 constant aperture lens around - the aforementioned Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8 (on the used market) and the (brand-new) Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 are the next cheapest options - but the bokeh is gnarly, and it's larger and heavier than a pair of prime lenses. As a talking point or object d'art it's at least visually interesting. Be careful about dismounting it in public; it looks like an improvised hand grenade.

Vivitar made it for Nikon F and AI, Olympus OM, "Universal Thread Mount" (actually M42), Pentax K, Canon FD, Minolta, and Konica AR mounts, of which the first four fetch the highest prices because they're easiest to use on modern digital SLRs. The Nikon and Pentax versions can still be used on modern Nikon and Pentax cameras; along with the OM and M42 versions they can be used on a Canon EOS camera with an adapter ring.

Next, the Vivitar 200mm f/3.0 Series 1. Or a lengthy, detailed article about Matthew Smith's classic early-80s platform games Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy. Which will it be?

EDIT: The answer was a lengthy, detailed article about Matthew Smith's classic early-80s platform games Manic Miner and Jet Set Etc. I eventually got round to the Vivitar 200mm f/3.0 Series 1 in April, viz. It's surprisingly similar to the 35-85mm - chunky, heavy, soft wide open (but not as soft), gnarly bokeh - but the focal length and aperture are much more useful.