The Vivitar 285HV is better than the old 283, right?

If you read my last post, you know I'm in the midst of a "Mission to banish AA's." Experimentation is ongoing, and results will be reported in a day or two. I've already gotten a result that surprised me with the AA Alkalines that is causing me to reconsider my testing method.

In the meantime, a question that might rightly enter the mind of a reader would be, "Why do you use the old Vivitar 283 and not the 285HV, which is readily available new?"

This is a question I have been asked more than once while on assignment. Simplest answer is that 283's are what I have. They last nearly forever, and when they die, more lie in wait on eBay and in used departments of your better camera shops, both brick-and-mortar and online. I think I've owned at least two of them ever since my sophomore year of college. At one point, I had seven of them in perfect working order. These days I have four that work flawlessly, one that works "well enough", and three on the autopsy table for spare parts.

The 285HV is a very good flash. Always has been. I've owned several over the years, but only have one right now. The venerable Strobist has recommended it highly, and I agree. It has the distinct advantage of being a currently (or at least very recently) in-production flash unit, so I assume there is a warranty on new units, and repair and replacement is easier without resorting to eBay.

Another very important advantage to the 285HV is that it has a much safer sync voltage right out of the box. Very important note here: Only the newer 285HV models have the lower sync voltage. Older 285 (non-HV) models you may find on the used market most likely have sync voltage in the 300V range and can and probably will send your 40D or D40 to an early grave, or at least in for an expensive repair.

Two other significant advantages to the 285HV are the zoom head and the variable manual power settings. I will discuss both and indicate why, for me, the 283 is still the better option.

Zoom head: A three position zoom head on the 285HV adjusts the beam angle to cover 35mm, 50mm, and 105mm lenses (based on full-frame SLR viewing angle). This is pretty handy. The 105mm (Tele) setting gives you extra reach for subjects viewed with long lenses at a distance, which is sometimes a necessity. The 50mm (Norm) setting is good for efficient bouncing from the ceiling or from an umbrella. The 35mm (Wide) setting is gives good coverage for general use and prevents vignetting. This setting closely mimics what you get with the 283 with no modifier.

To get the same functionality from a 283, you need the lens kit LK-1 and the Lens Filter Adapter, which holds the LK-1 lenses. Extra accessories are extra dollars, although both are readily found on eBay for about 10 dollars each, sometimes less. The advantage is that the Lens Kit has the ability to vary the angle of coverage to a far greater degree, from 20mm to 135mm. If I need wide coverage, I'm probably bouncing from the ceiling or from an umbrella, but I often use the 85mm or 135mm lenses to increase the reach of a unit placed on a stand in the back of a room or to concentrate the light and allow surrounding areas to go dark (useful for lighting up a speaker in a dark room while still allowing his/her PowerPoint slides to remain visible in the image).

The added flexibility overrides the disadvantage of having to buy and carry extra accessories, in my view.

Variable power: You know, it's nice that the 285HV, unlike the 283, has variable power built-in, but it has LAME variable power built-in. You get 1/2, 1/4 and 1/16. Dat's it. Hummingbird shooters or others interested in extremely short flash duration probably want to tune it down lower than 1/16. Maybe LOT'S lower. And how did 1/8 power get thrown under the bus, anyway?

Again, the 283 is proves to be more flexible, but also at the expense of another accessory. The Vari-power module VP-1 (find it cheap on eBay) allows continuous adjustment of power from Full to 1/64 power. The downside is that, frankly, this is a rather poorly designed accessory. While useful, it has no clickstops or other capability to "lock-in" a power setting. It's just a dial that rotates freely and can easily get pushed higher or lower if the flash is hand-held (not so much an issue for lightstand use). Also, in my tests with several different 283's, you don't actually get 1/2 power at the 1/2 power setting. You need to go down near to 1/4 power to reduce the power by half. So watch your image preview/histogram or use a flash meter to test power settings, and don't assume that adjusting from 1/4 power to 1/8 power is a one f/stop adjustment.

Brave 283 hackers can use various Radio Shack potentiometers or resistors to gain control over the power setting as well. That's fodder for another post.

On thing I dislike about the 285HV: I don't use the color coded auto modes very much, but sometimes they are the handiest way to easily and automatically fill in the foreground of a multiple light set-up. The 285HV gives you 4 modes to choose from. At ISO 400, the corresponding apertures for these modes are 4.0 (yellow), 8.0 (red), 16 (blue) and 22 (purple). Blue and Purple are pretty much useless if your working distance exceeds about 4 feet, so that leaves Red and Yellow. Yellow requires f/4.0, which is just a bit too wide for my taste. 5.6 gives me just a bit of extra depth of field and is more comfortable for me. My next option with the 285HV is red mode, which calls for f/8.0. That's not bad, but the red mode consistently overexposes with my unit, so it's more like f/11. That's a 3 f/stop jump and dumps a LOT more flash power, leading to longer recycle times and more dead batteries.

Behavior of my five 283's is consistent across the board, but I have no way to be sure if my sole 285HV is normal or "special."

The 283's bottom two modes are f/4.0 (yellow) and f/5.6 (red), and are both consistent with their respective apertures in exposure. This is my personal preference, but "red mode" on the 283 is a better fit for the way I work than any mode on the 285HV.

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