Well, this is fun

I came across something unusual in a bag of old camera equipment the other week. Well, it didn’t look unusual at first glance. It appeared to be a bog-standard 135mm f2.8 aftermarket lens in a Nikon Ai mount. If one were to gather up all the old 135mm lenses mouldering away in old camera bags in the world’s closets and garages and attics…. well, there’s tons of aluminum and glass sitting there.
The 135mm lens faded from popularity when the 80-200 and 70-210mm lenses became affordable and decently sharp – around the early 1980s. Before that, good zooms were very expensive, and affordable ones weren’t that sharp or contrasty. They tended to be long and bulky too in those days.

Looks ordinary

It’s just another 135mm 2.8, even if it looks a bit fatter than usual.

So the 135mm lens was the go-to choice for the young photographer short on cash, like me with my first 35mm SLR: a Minolta I’d bought shortly after my 16th birthday. It came with a normal lens, but when I’d saved up more money, I quickly bought a 135mm f3.5 genuine Minolta lens and my photography came alive. As a handy cropping tool that also brought subject matter up close and personal, it’s not hard to see why 135mm lenses were popular for so long. The fact they were affordable didn’t hurt either.
When I bought that Minolta 135mm, I spent a good bit more than if I’d settled for an off-brand budget model. The difference was maybe $30-40, but to me that was a lot of hours babysitting the neighbour kids. I’ll admit I’d looked over the budget 135mm’s and the fit and finish turned me off. I decided to save up the extra money and do it right. I have to acknowledge the Minolta 135mm was only an f3.5, whereas I could have got the 135mm “Makinon” in a f2.8 for much less. I can only presume that if I’d looked around, I might have been able to buy a good quality Vivitar or Tamron or something like that for more money, but less than the genuine Minolta, and maybe with a f2.8 aperture.
So back to the mystery lens I found in the camera bag the other day. Yes, it was a Vivitar f2.8 135mm lens, short and compact, but curiously fatter than most of the type. Instead of a 52mm or 55mm front cap size, this one was 62mm. Taking the cap off revealed “Auto Telephoto Close Focusing” markings.

Front nameplate

Behind the 62mm front cap, you find the trim ring promising “close focusing”

Uh oh, one of those, maybe. I recalled that back in those days, aftermarket manufacturers tried to add value to their budget lens offerings, especially the 135mms, with extra features of dubious quality or utility. I recall some 135mm’s having an adjustable ring on the front to dial in soft focus. Back in those days, soft focus filters were very much in vogue, and special purpose “soft” lenses were used by pros. Nobody seems to like that too much these days – unless you’re geeking out about the “bokeh” on your f1.4 lens wide open.
But other times the adjustable ring up front added a “macro” mode to a basic 135mm. You got closer all right, but sharpness went out the window. This Vivitar, however, had no such extra ring, but the regular focus ring was marked down to 0.75 meters. A regular 135mm Vivitar I compared it to only went down to 1.4 meters. Okay, so close focusing is possible, and I gave the ring a turn and found the lens extending out, out, and out, exactly like Vivitar’s well known Macro 50mm and 100mm lenses of the day. The ring actually makes one and a half turns, and reveals a second close up scale extending down below 0.6 meters. Another scale says that’s 1:2, or half life size.

On the body

That focus ring just turns and turns, and this is what you end up with.

So, is it a macro lens? Well, probably not really, as true macro lenses are specially designed and tuned for close up photography – and the word “macro” does not appear on this thing. “Close focusing” is the only claim.
Maybe it’s only a regular 135mm f2.8 stuffed into a macro style lens barrel, so you can get in close without having to add an extension tube onto your rig. I certainly remember using an extension tube on my old Minolta lens to get in close, and I never worried at the time that I wasn’t using a proper “macro” lens.
I had to take this lens apart to give the elements a good cleaning of probably two decades of haze from poor storage. The tiny holes you see in the front trim were drilled by me just so I could get the stuck ring unthreaded. It wouldn’t budge otherwise. The glass came clean, and everything else worked fine, so it all went back together.
What to do with it? If it’s just a junky old Vivitar with macro pretensions, someone might have fun with it on a modern Nikon body. But I did an internet search and discovered that over on the Pentax Forums, more than a few Pentax owners were raving about this close focusing 135mm Vivitar (in K mount, naturally) and posted some nice-looking pics to prove its worth.

Nice colour

This lens reminds you how pleasant that 135mm perspective can be

Really? Could this thing be any good? I counted only four glass air-spaced elements inside it, and sure enough, that’s the design. Contemporary macro lenses usually had five elements and were limited to f3.5 or f4.0. I’m still going back to the idea that this a fairly regular 135mm 2.8 design stuffed into a close focusing barrel.
But apparently a good one, according to the internet buzz. Since Vivitar never actually made any of the things that carried their brand, this particular lens was apparently made by the respected Japanese optical house of Komine, and badged up for Vivitar. How much of a hand the optical experts at Vivitar had in its design is uncertain.

Great detail

The perfect lens for a walk in the woods

What is certain is that it’s darn fun to use. While I have a Nikon 135mm f3.5 in my collection, it doesn’t get much use. Part of that is because if I’m carrying a 80-200 or 70-210 zoom, I’ve got that covered. For portraits I’ve preferred an 85mm for some time. And there’s the sad, but silly fact that the old 135mm and 105mm manual lenses I own are very compact and skinny and look a bit skimpy on a big full-frame DSLR. I know it shouldn’t matter, but it does. The lens has to look like it belongs, and this chubby little Vivitar looks and feels well-balanced on the big camera.
That’s really why many of the newest lens offerings these days have large plastic barrels with lots of airspace inside and oversized lens caps on the outside. Sure they could make that 35mm, 85mm or 50mm a lot smaller (and they have done in the past), but they’d look unbalanced on a plump, overstuffed modern body.
So I took the Vivitar with me on my recent visit up north to cottage country, and honestly wondered if I’d get around to trying it out. But once on the camera, it rarely came off, and I ended up revelling in that nice, tight short telephoto perspective I recalled from my youth, and loving the fact that it just kept focusing closer, and closer and closer…. And unlike my proper 55mm micro, it has lot more “working distance” between the object and lens front when you are getting right in tight.


Despite its simple specs, this darn lens performs

The 70-210mm just stayed in the bag, and the Vivitar took the most of my photos – at least when I wasn’t using an ultrawide or fisheye to photograph the night sky.
The images are sharp, with nice colour and lovely smooth backgrounds. I think I used it mostly at f4.0 to f5.6 with no complaints. Some close critical examination showed a bit of chromatic abberation around brightly lit objects – but then that’s true of most lenses these days anyway, regardless of price or design.
If you should come across one of these in a mount that’s useful to you, give it a second look.

~ by windsorphotooutfitters on September 30, 2017.

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