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Vivitar: short and tortuous story about a brand

Brands are not what they used to be. Except for the handful of big names we all know about, throughout the years many brands that once were icons of photography have slowly lost everything that made them great in their time, and are now a shadow of their former selves, being to reduced to either just a bunch of stock trades or totally different companies.

If a brand can be described as one that changed completely on the inside, but still being identified as a photography brand on the outside, that brand is Vivitar. When you go to the store to get your new compact camera, manual focus lens or Vivitar flash, you may remember those old models that even featured a lens mount. Or maybe the mythical Series 1 or the first Thrystor flashes. But long gone is that old Vivitar from past years the veteran consumers may remember.

The company known as Vivitar originated back in the 1930s, when Max Ponder and John C. Best, two German immigrants, decided to start their own company in Santa Monica, California, to import and sale photography equipment and accessories. You must remember what was going on then: the Great Depression, and Hollywood a stone’s throw away. After World War II, Ponder and Best’s company imported and sold products made by Mamiya, Olympus, Rollei, Voigtländer, and Petri, but in 1964, after losing the rights of several of them, Ponder & Best decided to start selling their own brand: Vivitar.

Many photography brands
have been reduced to just a façade,
a shadow of their former selves,
behind a corporative conglomerate with little to no relation to photography.

During the sixties, Vivitar became greatly successful thanks to the boom of their reflex cameras with interchangeable lens, which were cheaper than most similar models available back then. When they first started, Ponder & Best sold cameras made by third party manufacturers with their logo on them, but years later, when their success grew, they started to make their own units. The result was one of the most renowned brands –with some natural mistakes, of course- in the history of photography during the twentieth century: Vivitar’s Series 1.

To accomplish this, Vivitar had help from Opcon, a company from Connecticut that used computerized technology to optimize the performance of their lenses, especially the first zooms. By reducing the air trapped between the lenses, they dramatically increased the quality of these accessories, making them an excellent choice for all the users who wanted something top-notch. One of the most famous was –and still is- the 70-210-millimeter telezoom, which had many versions throughout the years, all of them considered true classics.

One of Vivitar’s best kept secrets back then was the person behind their lenses, since the North American branch only manufactured the optical design. It was only a few years ago when a former employee of the brand leaked a detail that, finally, let us know who was behind many of Vivitar’s lenses.

Vivitar

According to this information, the serial number printed on the front indicates who made it. Kiron made the lenses with serial numbers starting with 22; Komine, with the 28; Tokina, 37; and Cosina, 9, for example. Up to twenty different combinations are known, each with its own characteristics and qualities, of course.

In other words, you’re not really talking about a Vivitar lens, but the Vivitar lens from Kiron, or from Konime, etcetera, each one with their own pros, cons and personalities. Some of these manufacturers –most of them Japanese- even plagiarized the very designs they were making for Vivitar. Tokina, specially.

In the opinion of many users, the best lenses Vivitar had to offer were made by Kiron (or Kino Precision), a company made by engineers who worked at Nikon. These models were capable of capturing pictures with great sharpness and contrast, all of it with a small size, excellent and quality construction and some other very valuable features. One of these was the macro mode, which in fact was "close focusing", a very small distance of minimum focus, but always below the 1:1 ratio of the true macro.

Now, it’s good to have in mind not all of them were parfocal, but had to be focused again by spinning the ring of the zoom. Also, with the time and use, several issues with the oils used to grease the helix have been found, like their tendency to leave the guidelines and stain the lenses or even the diaphragm.

Vivitar

Vivitar announcement in late sixties.

Besides the zooms, one of Vivitar’s specialties during that time were its fixed focal, very luminous and relatively cheap, especially their wide-angle lenses. Komine’s 35 mm f1.9, Tokina’s 28 mm f1.9, or Kiron’s el 24 mm f2 deserve a special mention. Other focals worth noting are the great 200 mm f3 from Komine, or the magnificent 55 mm f2.8 macros, also from Komine, and Tokina’s 90 mm f 2.5, known as Tokina Bokina thanks to its delicious "bokeh".

The success of the Vivitar lenses, as well as the policies of the company that changed manufactures with certain haste, all of it with the rapid growth of the photography market, increasingly mature and exigent, lead to a series of legal issues that led to the end of the golden days of this brand. During the early eighties, the models sold under the Vivitar brand were nothing like the old ones: their built was cheap and elemental, and its performance was nothing special.

But the end of the golden days of Vivitar came definitely in 1985, when it was bought by the Australian company Hanimex. Earlier that year, Vivitar had already lost five million dollars.

Even so, by the end of the eighties, Vivitar a curious model with an autofocus lens designed for manual reflex cameras. It featured a mechanism within the tube of the very lens that was activated via an independent battery. It had little to no success and was quickly forgotten. Then, the company was once again bought by another one, this time it was Gestetner PLC, from the Ricoh group.

Vivitar

Advertising Vivitar TX Series in late seventies.

A new chapter started for the company, with some very scandalous episodes (like the destruction of most of their stocks in 1994 thanks to the San Fernando earthquake) that set the company on a new track, like the development of flashes, various photography accessories and compact cameras. Long gone were the best years of Vivitar, and some of the best mid-level zooms in history, and even some high-end focals.

For the curious, the collectors, or even the advanced users who like manual focus (those little devices you need to mess with nonstop with to get the best results), in the second-hand market can be often found the so-called “classic age” Vivitar lenses, with prices that range between 50 and 250 Euros.

(In 2009 some manual focus lenses appeared under the Vivitar brand, designed for reflex digital cameras. However, they come from third party manufacturers and have been sold under other brands, like Samyang, Bower or Falcon.)

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