From the 1970s to 1990s, Vivitar was a very successful third party photographic equipment supplier. The company offered a broad range of lenses and accessories for all the popular camera brands. The photographic equipment company had been founded as Ponder & Best by German emigrants Max Ponder and John Best in Los Angeles in 1938 and after having used the Vivitar brand for some of its products was incorporated as Vivitar Corporation in 1964. After two decades of very successful expansion, the owners sold the company to Hanimex in 1985. Further ownership changes followed and eventually the firm slowly faded away. The trend towards autofocus cameras and lenses during the late 1980s and the later switch to digital photography presented Vivitar with challenges that it never fully lived up to. In August 2008, Sakar International acquired the Vivitar brand out of bankruptcy, and today markets digital imaging, optics, mobile accessories, and audio products under the Vivitar name.
Vivitar is best known for its catalog of manual focus lenses. The product offer was comprehensive, ranging from the ultra wide-angle prime to the super tele-photo zoom. The company sold its lenses at a price that was substantially below the sticker of original equipment manufacturers, such as Canon, Nikon, or Olympus. Vivitar representatives insisted that this price advantage did not reflect any lower standards in design or shortcuts in quality control, but the benefits from a larger production run and economies of scale, as Vivitar lenses were sold for many different camera mounts. Many independent reviews attest to the relatively high optical and mechanical quality of many Vivitar lenses.
During the period from 1970 to 1990, Vivitar used a serial number system that makes it possible to identify the manufacturer of the lens.
|Serial Number||Lens Manufacturer|
|09 or 9||Cosina|
The first two digits indicate the company that designed and produced the optic according to Vivitar's specifications. For example, a serial number starting with "28" suggests that the lens was manufactured by Komine, and "37" points to an optic from Tokina. After 1990, this numbering system was no longer applied.
Similar to Soligor – its East Coast competitor – Vivitar did not engage in the manufacturing of most of its products, but generally commissioned its lenses from Japan-based producers. The company collaborated with a number of different optics manufacturers, including Cosina, Komine, Kiron, and Tokina. Perhaps as a side-effect of this collaboration, some very similar lenses to the Vivitar designs were also sold under other branding.
In the early 1970s, Vivitar launched the first lenses of its acclaimed Series 1 line. These optics offered outstanding specifications and superior image quality. They were competing with the professional lens offers of the main camera brands at a price that – although not cheap – was accessible to amateurs. Indeed, the Series 1 lenses received favorable reviews, established Vivitar as a high quality third party vendor, and in some cases, such as the 70-210mm macro-focusing zoom or the 90mm f/2.5 "Bokina", even achieved cult status among enthusiast photographers. These professional grade lenses continue to perform well on modern digital cameras. They can be mounted directly on Nikon and Pentax DSLR, while adapters exist to use them on Canon and mirrorless cameras (Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, Sony).
The table below lists the specifications of most Vivitar lenses. Many optics were produced over the years in several different varieties. For example, Robin Parmar lists no fewer than 38 versions of the Vivitar 28mm wide-angle prime across different mounts, f-speed, filter size, and filter rim inscription. Some of these varieties are very rare and little is known about the lenses and their specifications. As a result, the adjacent compendium remains incomplete, but will get more comprehensive as additional information on some of the more exotic Vivitars becomes available.
Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Chris E. for transmitting information on several of the Vivitar lenses listed above.
Which Vivitar lenses are suitable for Canon EOS?
Canon radically changed its lens attachment system in the mid-1980s when switching from the FD to the EF/EOS mount. Manual focus Vivitar lenses will be available in FD mount, while autofocus lenses will use the EF mount. There are adapters to use FD mount lenses on EOS cameras, but since the flange-focal distance on the EF/EOS mount is longer than on the FD mount, the lenses will not focus to infinity, unless the adapter contains a lens element. The latter might slightly degrade image quality. However, there are adapters to use Nikon or Olympus lenses, which have a relatively long flange to focal distance, on EOS cameras. Hence, the Nikon or Olymus-version of a manual focus Vivitar lens could be adapted to an EOS camera and maintain infinity focus ability. In any case, there is no aperture control, so that the lens would need to be operated in stop-down mode.
Do Vivitar lenses fit Nikon digital cameras?
Nikon provides good backward compatibility, so that legacy Vivitar lenses in Nikon mount can often be used on modern cameras. However, some limitations apply. In particular, legacy F-mount lenses can be mounted on all cameras, but only the higher end Nikon bodies will meter with them (with other Nikon bodies, the lenses have to be used in stop-down mode). See the FAQ section of the Nikon lens compendium or this dpreview article for information on particular camera-lens combinations.
Where can I find good Vivitar lens reviews?
Are all versions of the Series 1 70-210mm zoom held in equal esteem?
The 70-210mm Series 1 zoom was produced in several versions over the years. The three early varieties of the lens, the fixed f/3.5 aperture zooms by Kiron and Tokina, as well as the 2.8-4/70-210mm by Komine provide the highest optical quality. The later f/2.8-4 version by Cosina do not reach the same standard.
Why is the Vivitar Series 1 90mm f/2.5 macro lens sometimes referred to as "Bokina"?
This Tokina-manufactured macro lens provides a particularly pleasing bokeh. The optic is very sharp, while the transition to out-of-focus elements is seamless, smooth and dreamlike, to the extent that the lens earned its own nickname from enthusiast photographers – Bokina.
Do all Series 1 lenses provide superior imaging performance?
The fast manual focus lenses within the Series 1 line tend to be very good optically and mechanically. The slower (f/4.5-5.6) lenses and the autofocus versions are less distinguished.
Steve Rainwater provides a very nice historical account of the genesis of the first Vivitar Series 1 lens, while Boggy has made a collection of instruction manuals for Vivitar lenses available on his website. Moreover, if you are looking for bargains among third party legacy lenses, you might also want to check out the compendiums of, respectively, Soligor and Tamron Adaptall lenses. If, however, you are willing to spend a little more, you might well be interested in the Leica R-lens catalog, which contains some truly exceptional optics that can be adapted to and used with a variety of camera mounts.