Vivitar Updates a Classic for 2007.
Solid. Sturdy. Hefty. Old school. Mention "Vivitar 285" to photographers who've been around a while and those are the words that come to mind. The 285 (and its cousin, the 283), were long considered "workhorse" strobe units by working pros and have been around in various incarnations since 1972. In those 35 years, they've probably found their way into more camera bags than any other portable flash units.
So what does this new-to-2007 285HV model have to offer? A lot. For very little money. Let's get right into the details.
The 285HV isn't intended to match the TTL, computerized, multi-function, dedicated-flash units offered by camera manufacturers -- or even most off-brands, such as Metz, which has virtually full dedication. This is light to go, with plenty of power and very few bells and whistles. Oh, it has automatic mode, all right -- using the time-tested thyristor cut-off method that Vivitar has been using for nearly 30 years. But it won't talk to your camera other than to sync with it, and there's no LCD control panel. Simple is the name of the game with the 285HV.
The biggest change to the latest incarnation -- and the reason for reintroducing it -- is the sync voltage: Many modern DSLRs and advanced compact digitals sync up with external flash units using six volts or less in the sync circuit. Unknowing 35mm film converts, upon switching to digital, have hooked their old reliable flashes up to their new cameras only to find the sync circuits fried quickly. The older Vivitar 285 and 283 both had sync voltages between 200 and 260 volts, high enough to give modern six-volt circuits a heart attack. The new 285HV model syncs at under six volts, perfectly safe for today's digital cameras.
The build of this new model is all plastic on the outside, including the hot-shoe mount. It's got a very nice, rugged feel to it though -- and it doesn't feel cheap or flimsy at all. I would have no problem tossing this into my bag and hauling it around the great outdoors (and, in fact, I already have). The plastic shoe eliminates worrying about inadvertent contact with the extra two to five terminals in modern camera hot-shoes -- these are for communicating with dedicated flash units and aren't used or needed with the 285HV. The flash's shoe has only the center sync contact.
The flash uses four "AA" batteries, which go into a plastic holder that slips into the battery compartment. Vivitar sells extra holders and I find it very convenient to have the batteries already arranged in the holder when having to change quickly in the middle of a shoot. With alkaline batteries you can expect around 100 to 150 full-power pops (my test with new batteries gave 128 full-power firings), though refresh times will go from under 10 seconds with new batteries to almost 20 near the end. Using 2500 mAh NiMh rechargeable batteries, I got 212 full-power pops, with faster recycle times as well (about seven seconds to start, lagging to 12 near the end of their charge). With close subjects in auto mode, or on 1/16 manual power, recycle times were as short as one second. The flash has a guide number of 140 (ISO 100, "tele" 105mm zoom position -- i.e. with the head/sleeve pulled all the way out -- in feet), which puts it at the low end of similar-sized units like the Sigma EF-500DG Super (GN 165), Canon 580EX (GN 191), and Nikon SB800 (GN 184). The Vivitar is, however, by far the lowest-priced unit of that bunch, with a street price of $89 (the Sigma is $199, the Canon is $399 and the Nikon is $325).
The 285HV Zoom and Bounce Head
The flash head has manual zoom settings for "wide" (35mm focal length on a 35mm camera), "normal" (50mm) and "tele" (105mm), as well as a slide-in diffuser lens for "super wide" (28mm). Yes, I said manual -- no zoom head motor to break or suck battery juice -- just grab the head and slide it back and forth using the click-stop detents at the three settings. There's a little wobble as it slides, but the movement is smooth enough and the stops firm. I'm a little disappointed that the super-wide diffuser isn't attached to the unit in any way; it's easy to imagine losing it at some point. But the slot at the front of the flash it slides into holds it well and can also be used to insert cut-gel filters easily and safely.
The flash head can be tilted up and down for bounce flash, from straight ahead to straight up, with click stops at 90, 75, 60 and 45 degrees. It doesn't allow a little extra tilt down for close-up shots and it doesn't swivel, though -- two features common on many other flash units with bounce heads.
The 285HV Calculator Dial
There are four "ranges" for automatic flash exposure -- which one you use depends on the ISO setting of your camera and your desired aperture. The automatic modes are color-coded and setting them is straightforward: You set your ISO on the calculator dial on the side of the unit (which lights up with a button), then choose the aperture to use that gives the auto range you're interested in (an explanation of how to do this is below). Larger apertures give larger automatic ranges, as you'd expect. For example, at ISO 100 you can choose f/2.8 and have an automatic range of 65 feet to 5 feet (yellow range); choose f/4 and you get 30 feet to 4 feet (red range); f/8 gets you 15 feet to 1 foot (blue range), and f/11 works automatically from 10 feet to 1 foot (purple range).
You set the color of the range you've chosen on the "Vari-Power" module/dial at the front of the flash, set your camera to Manual mode with the shutter speed set to the camera's sync speed (or slower) and the aperture set to the one chosen for your auto range on the flash, and start shooting. The Vari-Power module has an optical sensor that measures the light reflecting from your subject and "quenches" the flash when it decides it has received enough light for a good exposure. Although not as sophisticated as TTL (through-the-lens) flash metering, this simple system works quite well. I found it gave very good exposures in most situations and wasn't easily fooled by light or dark subjects. It did tend to underexpose when faced with an all-white background, though -- something to watch out for. Unlike dedicated "smart" flash units, your camera's flash exposure compensation function will have no effect on the exposure in such cases, but "manual" compensation is easy enough. When shooting something against a white background, just open the aperture up 1/2 to 1 stop and you'll get good results.
It's also easy and quick to use the auto modes for fill flash in daytime by closing the aperture down a bit (i.e. smaller than what is indicated for the range) to reduce how much of the light comes from the flash, then using shutter speed (as long as it's at your camera's sync speed or slower) to set exposure for the ambient light. Since, unlike TTL-dedicated flash units, the 285HV doesn't "know" you changed the aperture, it gives the same exposure every time and lets you use the aperture to control the light more precisely. A "sufficient light indicator" LED on the flash backside glows after a shot if there was enough light to make the proper automatic exposure -- handy for firing off a test pop and verifying your setup will work by reviewing on your DSLR's LCD screen. And, finally, with the addition of an inexpensive cord, the Vari-Power module can be removed from the flash unit, attached with a cord, and kept with the camera no matter where the flash is.