Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What's in the Bag? Vivitar 285HV Flash

This is a continuation of the “What's in the Bag” series, and is the first post of several to come describing the contents of my portable studio kit. By time we've gotten through everything I think we all will be ready for a new subject, but for now, let's get on with it.

A Pair of Flashes
If you are going to make photographs, you must have light. These are the two that I pack for goodly power and reliability in a small package. The head swivels from 0 to 90 degrees, but does not rotate. It has a manual zoom from 35 mm to 105 mm, and can go down to 28 mm with the wide-angle lens (more on that later). They operate with thyristor controlled self-metering or in manual with power settings for full, 1/2, 1/4, & 1/16 (note that 1/8 is missing).

The 285 flashes have been around for many years and at one time were considered THE flash for any serious wedding photographer. The things are extremely robust and well made. They can suffer a lot of abuse, both physical and rapid fire use, and still continue working. In fact, their only physical weakness is with the plastic foot, which is known to break when overstressed. Their operating weakness is a slow recycle time. However, good Ni-MH batteries help a lot. I have not tried the NiZn batteries, which are 1.65V per cell, but they should make recycling faster yet.

One flash is a Vivitar 285HV and the other is its 285 (non-HV) older brethren. The key difference between these two models is that the HV has an input for connecting to a high voltage battery pack. Doing so will greatly speed up recycling times. The normal recycle from a full-power pop can be over 7 seconds. With the high voltage battery pack this gets reduced to under 2 seconds. The non-HV has an external power input in the same place, but as you can see from the photo, it is different, which prevents plugging a high voltage battery into the 6VDC input on the non-HV flash.

I picked both of these up used on eBay. They are still available and can be found at Amazon as well as other online retailers. Click Here to purchase the Vivitar 285HV from Amazon.

More Views of the 285HV
Following are some more photos so you can get a better look at the 285HV along with some commentary (probably a bit too much commentary).

Front view with the head swiveled 90 degrees from normal position. The round dial near the foot is a combination control and meter. The 285 is a non-dedicated flash and can operate either full manual or self-metering. When operated as self-metering, there is a thyristor built into the dial that senses light reflected from the subject. There are four color coded auto settings that correspond to preset metering.

On the side is a cleaver calculator dial used to determine which setting you need for a given aperture. You simply plug the ISO into the calculator, find an aperture that matches one of the colors, then set the camera to that aperture and flash to that color. In the photo above, the ISO is set to 100. Reading the scale we find that f/2 lines up with yellow, f/4 with red, f/8 with blue, and f/11 with purple. Note that the dial is set to yellow, so I must be using f/2. The scale also shows the min/max distance for the head zoom setting.

This system is simple and effective. Is it as effective as modern TTL metering? No, but not far behind either. TTL metering is not the silver bullet that some photographers seem to think. It is easily fooled by high contrast and unusual lighting conditions. Neither TTL or thyristor metering are appropriate for the studio, but both can be useful and appropriate for dynamic event photography, where there is a subject to chase and no time to change settings.

Back with head swiveled 90 degrees from normal position. Note the Velcro strip for mounting a remote sensor (more on that later).

Left Side with the head at 0 degrees (normal position)

Right side with battery door open. Notice the battery holders? This is how it is supposed to be done! Always stuff a spare holder with fresh cells before an event, then when you need to swap batteries, just open the door, yank out the old pack and shove in the new. This can be done in under 5-seconds! Canon, Sigma, and Nikon, you listening to this? Vivitar had it figured out decades ago. A professional photographer needs a flash that is powerful, robust, easy to adjust, and fast to swap out the batteries. Now go tell your engineers to design your next expensive flash so that it doesn't slow down or burn up when someone uses it professionally, and this time make a decent battery holder too, okay?
(thanks for letting me get that off my chest, it is one of my pet peeves. Don't even get me started ranting about Canon's lack of support for 2nd curtain flash in their cameras)

This view shows the head in the wide-angle (35mm) position.

Here is the same view of the head, but with the 28mm wide-angle lens installed. It fits into the built-in lens holder, which is a slot at the left side of the head. The tab on the left is used to install/remove the lens.

The Angle on Wide-Angle
Now, about that 28mm wide-angle lens. This is what you get at the widest 35mm setting. The umbrella pictured is 39” tip to tip (though Westcott claims 43”), and the flash can't quite fill it. Notice the rectangular pattern of light reflected from the umbrella.

Install the 28mm wide-angle lens and this is what you get. The umbrella is filled fully and more evenly. When buying a used 285HV, make sure it comes with the wide-angle lens or else plan on picking one up ex post de facto.

Accessorize and Get Flashy!
Here is a nifty accessory for the 285/285/HV. The SC-3 1.2 meter coiled Sensor extension Cord allows remoting the meter/control dial.

You simply pull the dial off of the flash body, plug it into the SC-3 and plug the other end of the SC-3 into the flash. The sensor can then be mounted to a hot shoe on the camera or a wireless trigger.

This is how I sometimes use it. Remember that Velcro on the back of the flash? A piece on the sensor and another on the flash allow mounting the sensor behind, piggy back style so the flash can point into an umbrella while the meter points at the subject. It actually works surprisingly well for normal lighting situations.

The 285HV has served me well for a number of years. It operates exactly as advertised and does so reliably. There are reasons to like this flash, but is it the only game in town? No, there are alternatives that should be considered. Since this post is about the equipment I own and use for my portable lighting kit, I won't spend much time on this, but would like to point out a couple of flashes that are at least worth consideration in lieu of the 285HV.

LumoPro LP120. This is a manual only flash (no self-metering), but it has power settings compared to the Vivitar. I cannot vouch for its durability and it cannot work with a high voltage battery, so its recycle times are whatever it gets with AA cells. However, it is quite popular and worth looking at. Here is a link: http://www.mpex.com/browse.cfm/4,12311.html

Sunpak 383 Super. This flash is no longer in production, but if you can find a used flash, then you are in luck. Reportedly it is similar to the Vivitar in reputation and power output, but sports additional power settings. It too has a power jack for an external high voltage power pack via the proper cable.

Coming Next
Keep an eye open for additional postings covering more stuff from the bag.

Until then...


Click Here for the next post in this series
"Lastolite EZ Balance Collapsible White Balance Disc"


  1. Wow Gene, I'm impressed with your knowledge about these things. Very nice article. Thank you.

  2. Your impressed!!!!!

    WTF?! I've owned an old version 285 for over 25 years! It still works great and it has lit up a lot a photos. I only learned this morning that I could remove the meter/control dial. Whaaa?

    I bought it used and I never had, nor felt I needed, an instruction manual. That calculator dial takes complexity and turns it to easy simplicity.

    It was a revelation to me when I discovered the little white plastic button on the back that lights up the calculator dial when pushed.

    With regards to power sources and recycling. I've heard of photographers hacking the battery holder with a electrical cord and decent amount of duct tape to accept a power-pack made of four "D" cells to get very fast recycles! I've never tried this, but it's quick and cheap and apparently works great. (hmmm...can one still get D cells now?)

    As you say, this flash was always considered (along with the earlier 283) THE flash unit for most photographers! I didn't know anyone who didn't own at least one. I'm sure I could point this simple feature to a number of old cranky photographer friends and they would be just as surprised!


Your comments are greatly appreciated, but please be kind. Kudos are always welcome! Please note that due to comment spamming, all comments are moderated, so it may take a little while before yours appears on the page.