The subject of the third-party zoom lens isn’t a new one to us, but it deserves a little more attention. Here exists an entire subset of dirt-cheap and capable lenses that have been cast aside by both the hardcore and casual modern photographer. Their names are mostly unknown, their specs assumed to be inferior, their histories virtually untold.
One third-party zoom that has always caught my eye is the once lauded and now relatively forgotten Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm f/3.5. About five or six years ago this lens was a constant sight at secondhand stores and film camera shows, often found with a compact SLR clinging for dear life at the end of its long barrel. But despite their outrageous shape and size, they never flew off the shelves. They just sat there, waiting for somebody, anybody to pay attention to them.
It wasn’t always this way. In the mid-1970s, Santa Monica based optical distributor Vivitar made a name for themselves by rebranding and marketing top tier Japanese-made lenses for the North American market. Vivitar contracted a number of Japanese lens manufacturers to do their bidding, most notably Kiron, Tokina, and Cosina (the last of these would eventually manufacture Voigtlander rangefinder lenses and cameras). The best lenses of these efforts would earn a spot in Vivitar’s Series 1 lens family, a range of lenses meant to compete with the best lenses in the world. And for the most part, these Series 1 lenses were highly regarded among photographers of the time. Prominent even among these better-than-most lenses were Vivitar’s telephoto zooms, including the 70-210mm f/3.5.
Zoom lens technology was still in its infancy at the time, but the advantages of such a lens were clear, especially to working photographers. Zoom lenses let shooters choose their focal lengths without requiring mounting of different prime lenses (lenses of a single focal length). This key feature was greatly appreciated by fast-moving, quick-thinking professional photographers. But there was a catch – the zoom lenses of the time often sacrificed lens speed and image quality for this versatility. These were compromises that most shooters simply didn’t want to make. The result was that all zoom lenses were quickly “known” to be inferior to prime lenses. The Vivitar Series 1 zooms, of which the 70-210mm f/3.5 was one, set out to change that. They were meant to combine prime-level optical performance and a quick maximum aperture with the versatility of a zoom lens.
The raw specs of the Series 1 70-210mm are encouraging; a zoom range spanning from short telephoto to medium-long telephoto, and a constant aperture of f/3.5, more than healthy for most telephoto lenses of the time. The constant aperture stat is significant; most zoom lenses are quick at the short end of the range and lose significant speed at the long end (e.g. f/2.8-5.6). This Vivitar stays quick from start to finish, which is a great feature for shooters, and impressive considering this lens was manufactured in 1975.
Dig a little deeper into the specs and we find some really impressive stuff. The lens sports a whopping 15 elements in 10 groups, which makes the constant maximum aperture of f/3.5 an even more remarkable achievement. The lens also sports the surprisingly stellar Vivitar multicoating meant to mitigate flare, increase contrast, and provide a more even, realistic rendering of color. And to top it all off, the lens features a dedicated, easily accessible 1:2.2 macro mode, making it uncommonly versatile.
It was a winning formula, and the Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 became one of Vivitar’s best sellers. The lens was manufactured for almost every major SLR bayonet mount of the time (Nikon F, Canon FD, Pentax K, Minolta SR, Konica AR), thus increasing its popularity. None of the major manufacturers ever quite achieved the balance of capability and ease-of-use of the Vivitar 70-210mm during its own time, and so the lens ruled the late ’70s and early ’80s.
A lens this popular and this great should have a better reputation than it does, but this isn’t the case. Outside of a few aficionados on the internet, most people just don’t care about a third party lens from forty years ago. And regardless of quality, third party lenses will nearly always come with a stigma. Like Bruce Hornsby said, that’s just the way it is.
But after using the Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm for a couple of photo walks, I can confidently say that this lens deserves the status of a classic. More than that, I happen to think that anybody who’s even halfway serious about getting into film photography should own this lens because of its versatility, image quality, and affordable price point. (And before anybody accuses me for the millionth time of trying to inflate the prices of this lens by reviewing it positively – I’m not. I’m not that smart, trust me.)
The telephoto range is one that, for most casual photographers, remains uncharted territory. Using a 105mm f/2.5 or a 200mm f/2.8 beyond the realm of portraiture is sadly uncommon, and examples of such work are few and far between. Thankfully, the Vivitar 70-210mm makes it easy to explore a very healthy range of telephoto focal lengths without compromising on image quality or lens speed.
The most immediately striking aspect of the images made by the Vivitar is its resolution and sharpness. Zoom lenses carry negative reputations in both of those metrics, but the Vivitar is stellar in both. A look at the full-resolution sample images reveals remarkable resolution (out-resolving the grain of Kodak Ultramax 400) and sharpness from corner to corner, especially closed down. Fine details and textures are rendered with surgical, accurate precision at its longest end, and full scenes at the 70mm setting are loaded with detail. But perhaps the best feature of the Vivitar is its consistency at every focal length. Usually zooms tend to falter at the most extreme ends of their range, but the Vivitar somehow avoids that pitfall and delivers fantastic images throughout its zoom range.
Images from the lens also possess a remarkable balance in the fields of contrast and color rendition. Contrast isn’t fantastically high and the color doesn’t particularly dazzle as a result, but the images avoid becoming boring and flat. Instead we get pleasantly balanced images across the range which still have a bit of character. The VMC multicoating is particularly good at rendering scenes accurately and without fuss. The Vivitar 70-210mm can rightly be considered a foreshadowing of modern zoom lenses, while thankfully lacking the sterile precision those later lenses so often exhibit.
The cherry on top of the Vivitar 70-210mm is its additional macro function. With a simple turn of a separate ring, the Vivitar 70-210mm can achieve 1:2.2 macro reproduction, which is impressive for a non-dedicated macro lens. This function is particularly useful for light macro work as well as close up portraiture, and significant considering most telephotos of the day had annoyingly long minimum focusing distances.
All this said, there are a couple of areas in which the Vivitar 70-210mm falls short. Zooms aren’t usually known for being sharp wide-open, and at its maximum aperture at f/3.5 the Vivitar softens up and exhibits some smearing, coma, and an alarming amount of chromatic aberration. There’s also some distortion at both ends, with some barrel distortion at the short end and some pincushion distortion at the long end. And perhaps the most depressing for bokeh-addicts, the Vivitar 70-210mm’s bokeh is pretty busy and smeary, and just doesn’t hold a candle to the best prime telephotos of the day.
And then there’s the size and weight. The first-gen Vivitar 70-210mm is what would be known on the internet as an Absolute Unit. At a hefty 879 grams (nearly two pounds) contained in an all-metal seven inch barrel, this lens is gargantuan compared to most every vintage lens, zoom or otherwise. Granted, the lens is incredibly well made and well designed, with a perfectly graded focusing throw, smooth and steady one-touch zoom action, and solid half stops between each f-stop on the aperture ring, but damn does it come at the cost of lightness. It’s a challenge to hold and shoot, and lacks a tripod socket for easier stationary use. Its size and weight also makes lighter, more compact SLRs tough to use since the weight easily overbalances these cameras. This lens benefits from being used on heftier, professional grade cameras like the Nikon F-series, Canon F-1, and the Minolta XK, or at the very least on a motor drive equipped compact SLR.
But for those who can handle it, the Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 is an overall fantastic all-purpose telephoto lens that can still do a stellar job for shooters looking to learn the tricks of the telephoto trade. Its versatility enables growth for novices and peace of mind for advanced shooters. The image quality is top notch throughout the zoom range and can stand toe-to-toe with most modern zoom lenses on offer today.
The best (and worst) part about these Vivitar Series 1 lenses is how cheap they are. A combination of a seemingly endless supply and little demand (owing to the mostly false notion that third party zooms stink) makes these lenses incredibly cheap and plentiful on the used market. Before purchasing one I’d do some research on the different versions – Vivitar outsourced the manufacturing of this lens to a variety of manufacturers over the lens’ lifetime, which resulted in slightly different configurations.
The version I tested was the first-gen Kiron (Kino Precision) version with the constant f/3.5 aperture, which are identifiable by the “22” found at the beginning of the serial number. The only other constant aperture version is the second-gen Tokina version (serial numbers beginning with 37); all other versions, including the third-gen Komine (serial number 28) and fourth-gen Cosina (serial number 9) feature an f/2.8-f/4 aperture range. There are small differences between the versions but besides the variable maximum aperture of the later versions, they all perform roughly the same. In practice, any version of this lens will give any skilled shooter great images.
Testing this lens makes me tempted to get on my soapbox and campaign to Make Third Party Zooms Great Again and bite my thumb at the snobs who say otherwise, but I think I’ll refrain from doing that. Instead, I’ll just put it out there on the internet that lenses like the Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm f/3.5 should be owned by anybody who wants to learn how to shoot telephoto lenses, or simply wants to experiment with the format. They’re cheap, plentiful, and stellar performers to boot. They are lenses that will reward handsomely those willing to give them a chance.