Thursday, 21 March 2019

Vivitar 200mm f/3 Series 1: Fake Faces

It's Christmas once again, so let's have a look at the Vivitar 200mm f/3 Series 1, a fast-ish telephoto lens from the 1970s. I've written about this very lens before, but I recently picked up a cheap copy for the ancient Canon FD mount so I decided to try it out on a film camera, with film, in the year 2019, which is this year, which is 2019.

I've used a lot of film cameras over the last decade or so, but there are a couple of systems that I've avoided. Specifically Canon FD and Minolta MD, because there isn't an easy way to use the lenses with modern digital SLRs.

Olympus OM lenses can be adapted with a simple ring, ditto M42, Pentax K, Contax, and T-mount. Nikon F lenses still work with Nikon F cameras, mostly. The problem with Canon FD is that the camera bodies were very thin, which means that the lenses won't focus properly on modern digital SLR bodies. The focusing range is reduced so that they won't reach infinity any more. You can only use the lenses as close-range macro lenses.

FD lenses can be adapted to work perfectly well with mirrorless cameras, but in my experience using a manual focus telephoto lens with a mirrorless camera is awkward. Nonetheless I don't like having an itch I can't scratch, so I picked up a cheap Canon T70 to go with the lens.

The Vivitar 200mm f/3 is fat, short, heavy, extremely well-made. It has a lovely black finish. The body is metal. Judging by the serial number mine was built by Komine, an obscure Japanese OEM from the 1970s. I can't tell how old it is, but I'm guessing it was made in the mid-late 1970s. My lens is probably more than forty years old. That's very old. Can you imagine being forty years old? If you drink a lot, I mean a lot, you won't have to be forty years old ever.

The focusing action is still smooth and the paint has held up. Series 1 lenses were sold at a price premium, and although by modern standards they're not particularly special optically, they were built to a high standard.

That's probably why Vivitar eventually gave up up on Series 1. They must have been expensive to make. The 200mm f/3 was part of a set that included a 135mm f/2.3 and 28mm f/1.9, all of which used the same basic design language. They had shiny black paint, a bulging conical design, a solid metal build, and the aperture readout was visible through a cut-out in the mount end of the lens.

The 200mm f/3 has a built-in sliding lens hood. The length and weight is such that it's easier to carry the camera by the lens, rather than the body. There's no tripod foot. It's on the verge of needing one. On a mirrorless rangefinder the combination would be very unbalanced.

I've always wondered why Vivitar didn't just lie, and call it f/2.8. Why f/3? The T-70 in the picture identified the widest aperture as f/2.8 but that's probably because the LED didn't have a mark for f/3.

I digress. As with the 135mm f/2.3 the 200mm focuses very closely, down to 1.2m, just under four feet. That's better than a lot of modern 70-200mm zooms.

What was Series 1? It was Vivitar's top-end lens range. Some of the lenses were designed at Vivitar's behest and manufactured to order by Japanese OEMs, but a lot of them were simply rebranded imports from OEMs such as Komine, Kino, Cosina and so forth.

By far the most famous was the 70-210mm f/3.5, then in rough order the 90mm macro, the 90-180mm macro zoom, and a series of mirror lenses, and the aforementioned 28mm f/1.9, which is unusually fast for a 28mm prime even today. I've used some of them! But not all of them.

200mm is an odd focal length, about the longest that can be made cheaply to a decent quality. It's too long for indoors or low light, nowhere near long enough for wildlife or airshows, awkward for sports. On the other hand if you ever find yourself in the car park on the hill in Florence - it's called Piazzale Michelangelo, but it's a car park - 200mm is absolutely perfect for the river and the main cathedral. I know this from personal experience. 200mm is also excellent for head-and-shoulders portrait shots and distant hilly landscapes.

200mm primes nowadays play second fiddle to 70-200mm or 70-300mm zoom lenses, and for sports and wildlife photographers a 300mm f/2.8 or 400mm f/2.8 is more useful, but there are a few superstar 200mm lenses. Notably the Canon 200mm f/1.8, which was sold as both an EOS and FD lens, and also Olympus' semi-legendary 250mm f/2 - legendary because no-one on the internet appears to have one - and the Nikon 200mm f/2 of the late 1970s. There's also an overlap with a variety of classic 180mm f/2.8 lenses.

What's the 200mm f/3 like? I can't test it out formally. I have a Canon FD-EOS adapter, which lets me mount the lens on my 5D, but it won't focus to infinity because the FD mount was like that. It still focuses out to about eight feet or so. The frustrating thing is that if the adapter was slightly shorter, or the mount was shaved down a bit, the lens would focus far enough to be usable as a short portrait lens.

But I don't want to damage it - on a physical level it's in great condition - and even though it won't focus to infinity it's still usable as a short macro lens. The following image of a Canon T70 was shot with this very lens on a Canon 5D MkII using an FD-EOS adapter at f/11:

Canon's FD series had a undercurrent of perversity to it. The company wanted to differentiate their cameras from the competition, so although everybody else settled on aperture-priority exposure, Canon decided that people really wanted shutter speed priority instead.

The FD mount has a breech lock. With every other lens you push the lens into the camera mount and then rotate it until it locks. Easy! With FD lenses you have to push the lens into the mount and then hold it still while you twist the locking ring, which is difficult, especially if your hands are frozen or bloodied.

The T70 has shutter speed priority plus some program modes but it doesn't have aperture priority. I mostly put it in program-tele and forgot about it. Wide open the 200mm f/3 has a glowing softness that can be helped with Photoshop, and it also has noticeable purple fringing on highlight edges. Stopped down just slightly - the next stop after f/3 is f/4 - the softness goes away and the purple fringing diminishes although even stopped right down it's still there.

In its favour there's very little geometric distortion - perhaps a tiny bit of pincushion, but that might be a film scanning issue - and even wide open there's no vignetting, even with the hood extended. The huge front element probably has something to do with that. The purple fringing is an issue if you're shooting tree branches against an overcast sky, otherwise not really, but on the other hand it's one of those aberrations that's awkward to correct. The focusing action is smooth, dampened - there's absolutely not the slightest chance of it creeping - and it takes about three twists to go from lock to lock.

Is it any good? Do you need a 200mm lens? Vivitar also sold a bunch of 200mm f/3.5 lenses that were smaller and lighter, and of course you probably already have a 70-200-300mm zoom lens. The 200mm f/3 is compact and at f/4 it's probably better than a cheap 70-300mm lens, although it's a niche case. It doesn't have image stabilisation but I found that the weight helped to keep the camera steady (the shot of the dinner table above was at 1/125th, off the top of my head).

Oh yes, the colours. I'm not sure if it's a Vivitar thing, or a 1970s thing, or a coating thing, but in common with every Vivitar lens I have used the colour balance is relatively muted, slightly purple, slightly "gritty", although a bit of slider-dragging with Photoshop can fix that. I used Fuji Superia, the weather in Milan was 21c but the locals were all dressed in winter gear, and I had a Pastel de Nata which - get this - isn't even Italian.

Vivitar still exists, or at least the name still exists. It's one of those ghost brands, like Polaroid and Kodak, that appears in pound shops but doesn't have a headquarters building or staff because it's just a name. Like Atari or Jensen.

Somewhere out there is a man, or woman, who has a complete mental grasp of the corporate history of Atari and Infogrames. There were two Ataris, the arcade Atari and the computer Atari, and one of them was bought by Hasbro and then sold to Infogrames, who changed their name to Atari Inc, who owned Atari Interactive, and they also bought Atari Europe, and now they're called just Atari, or something, I don't know. Does a company still exist if it doesn't exist? I don't know.