Sunday, February 5, 2017

Flash Archeologist: The Vivitar 283 and 285

Unpublished Raiders Of The Lost Ark by the other Tom Jung
I like to think of myself as a photographic Indiana Jones, relentlessly pursuing the Vivitar 283 and 285 flashes, and pondering how they might perform in our modern, digital equipment. Humor me. I know it's a stretch.

Vivitar: In a nutshell, Vivitar was the house brand of a company called Ponder and Best, importers of a wide variety of photographic equipment. They sold quality lenses, flashes, and enlargers to the American photographer at reasonable prices. The Vivitar 283 was introduced in 1970 and was an enormously successful flash. It was followed by an improved version, the 285. Both versions were versatile and rugged, and far ahead of the competition.

Times change, and what was state of the art in 1970 has become quaint by the current digital standard. Still, these flashes can be used as optically triggered remotes. This is called the SU-4 mode in Nikon-ese, which means the flash will respond to a burst of light generated by another flash or infra-red trigger. All you would need is a Wein Peanut Slave and you would be in business.

Myth And Fact: Are Any Vivitar 283-285 Flashes Safe? The answer is a qualified "yes". First off, some facts: Nikon DSLRs appear to have more robust internal circuitry than the Canon, which has a voltage ceiling of 6 volts. The manual for the D750 clearly states:

"...Use only Nikon flash units.Negative voltages or voltages over 250 V applied to the accessory shoe could not only prevent normal operation, but damage the sync circuitry of the camera or flash.Before using a Nikon flash unit not listed in this section, contact a Nikon-authorized service representative for more information..."

If you can find a Vivitar flash with a triggering voltage of less than 249 volts, it is theoretically safe to use, but who knows for how long. But triggering voltages vary, depending on the country of manufacture. Let's examine the three Vivitar models and their variants:


283: The original flash. 4-stop automation plus a single, full power manual output level. They were manufactured in three countries:
  • Japan: 280 plus volts in all samples tested. Late production Japanese units are said to have triggering voltages around 9 volts. One such 283 was offered for sale on eBay, accompanied by a photo showing it attached to a volt meter displaying a value of 9.04 volts. I considered buying it, but the bidding price was getting a bit out of hand. See above.
  • Korea: Below 9 volts in all samples tested.
  • China: Below 9 volts in all samples tested.
285: Added features include built-in zoom capability (light spread adjustable for wide, normal, and telephoto), 4-stop automation, and stepped manual output (Full, 1/2, 1/4, 1/16).
  • Japan: Slightly below 300 volts in all samples tested
  • Korea and China: No samples tested. I do not know if 285s made outside of Japan actually exist. I recently contacted 5 eBay sellers of 285s and asked the country of manufacture. All responded "Japan".
285 HV: Outwardly identical to the 285, the HV was added to the model name to indicate it was designed to work with an accessory high-voltage powerpack. I checked the voltages on several samples of older 285 HV flashes.
  • Japan: Below 9 volts in all samples tested.
  • Korea: Below 9 volts in all samples tested.
  • China: 8.2 volts in the sample tested.
DIY Testing: If you have a volt meter and want to check for yourself, click here.

So are they safe? If you're using a Nikon DSLR and you flash tested out at the 9 volt level, you should be fine, but you do so at your own risk. I personally use my "safe" Vivitars only on my second-line cameras, such as my Nikon D70s, which incidentally allow me to use this flash at almost any shutter speed. Click here to read David Hobby's post on using a D70 outdoors.

The Return of the 285HV: In 2007, the Vivitar 285 HV re-appeared, brand new, and for about $80.00. At first, everybody (including me) thought that we would be able to get a brand new, digital-safe reincarnation of this old workhorse. Unfortunately, it was all a dream, and Mr. Hobby, who initially announced its reintroduction, re-wrote his post to state that the new iteration was not worth owning.

Read Mr. Hobby's Posting by clicking here.
Since the article's amendment there has been some buzz about how to tell if one was about to buy one of the older, more reliable units, or a newly minted imposter, assuming you couldn't infer its age by its condition or provenance. I wasn't willing to buy a new, ersatz Vivitar at the $80 list price, but I did encounter a used one at a local camera store. I was pretty sure that's what I was holding, since it was priced at $10.00 and sold "for parts only". The battery tray, the sensor, the battery chamber door, the two tiny screws, and an intact foot would be worth the ten-spot if I needed the parts. The unit did and does work, but with all the bad press, I can't say for how long.

Old Or New? I measured the triggering voltage on my new purchase, and it measured 4.22 volts. This puts it comfortably below the 6 volt maximum ascribed to Canon cameras. After comparing it with my older Ponder and Best era 285 HVs, I believe you can separate the new, less reliable units from the older ones by looking for the following:
  • Country of Origin Cartouche: The earlier, more reliable units have the country of manufacture stamped just in front of the flash foot. Original Ponder and Best units will be stamped "Made In China". The new units do not have this cartouche, or any other origin markings.
  • Pleather Texture: The plastic artificial leather trim on the zoom head will look like individual prick marks. Original units appear to have the texture of course sandpaper.
  • Flash Head Hubcaps: The pivot points of the flash head are covered with a thin aluminum disk. Older models have a concentric circle pattern while the newer ones do not. Newer ones may still have a blue protective film covering these disks.
Avoid this flash! Click here to see the posting.
August 20, 2017 Update: I found this listing on E-Bay for a new production,  "one to be avoided" Vivitar 285 HV. I looked over the photos the seller provided, and confirmed the missing origin cartouche, but could not definitely confirm the blue membrane protectors or the texture of the pleather trim.

These units would have been worth the $80.00 price tag if the were reliable, but you have enough information to identify the sturdier Ponder and Best variations, should you wish to add a vintage flash to your gadget bag. Remember that the triggering voltages are NOT safe for the Canon bodies. It is not known if other digital bodies have the 6.0 volt limitations.

A Keeper! Click here to see the posting
 The Real Deal: To the right is the packaging you'll get if you find an original, Ponder and Best 285 HV. What's interesting is the little pamphlet listing the authorized Vivitar service stations throughout the world. Yes, Vivitar cared about their customers, offering service through a network of importers throughout the world.

Click here for original post
A Common Modification: As you might guess, there are lots of 283s and 285s available on the used market. Occasionally you'll find one with a metal "foot", a replacement for the plastic original that broke off. A company called Holly in Van Nuys California made a replacement foot machined from solid aluminum. If you find a 283/285 with a Holly foot, you'll need an AC-PC flash cable to trigger it. Also, you might lose your 285's open flash (test) capability, since the early Holly models had no provision for a test button. Later, a more expensive version with this added feature was offered, specifically for the 285. And like everything else, there are cheap imitations.


Many contend that the original plastic foot was designed to break before the accessory shoe on the camera could be damaged. It this was the case, adding this "built like a tank" foot defeats this fail-safe design. It does have a 1/4 x 20 thread at the bottom to facilitate mounting on a lightstand, but no locking foot for accessory or hot shoe mounting..


Click here to purchase
Wein Safe Sync. I would be remiss in duties if I didn't mention that your experiments using non-Nikon equipment are without liability on my part. Remember that all manufacturers are loath to condone the use of any product they didn't manufacture. Serious experimenter would be well advised to purchase a Wein Safe Sync to serve as an interface between potentially super-charged flashes and your relatively fragile digital camera. You can purchase one by clicking here.

The Vivitar 285 HV is a viable, manual flash that is safe to use with some cameras. They can be used as off-camera remotes by adding a photo sensitive trigger like the Wein Peanut. If you can find one at a good price, it would certainly worth owning.