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The Return of a Classic?

*****IMPORTANT UPDATE***** Alas, the reissued Vivitar 285HV is a Vivitar in name only. (They have also morphed into the "Cactus KF36". Same flash.) This article, originally written in 2007, has been updated to reflect that the reissued version has turned out to be famously unreliable. Such a shame. PLEASE read the appended sections below for more info.

To say that the Vivitar 283 and 285 flashes were regarded as workhorses would be rather like calling the VW bug just another popular small car in the 70's.

Consider this little factoid:

Vivitar introduced the 283 in 1972. By 1976, they had already produced their 3,000,000th unit. It's actually a ceremonial flash, made of gold, and it sits in the office of Jim Wellington, who is a Big Cheese at the company.

Jim has been with Vivitar since portable flash was a small pile of magnesium powder. Okay, maybe not quite that long, but Jim has been around the block a few times.

I spoke with Jim last week to get the skinny on the reintroduction of the 285HV. The 285HV is basically a pimped-out 283 that also offers a zoom head and full manual control - just the way we like it. 285HV's are also safe for your digicam, with a ~6v trigger voltage.

PLEASE NOTE that older 285's which are NOT designated as "HV" are NOT voltage safe and can fry your digital baby. Be warned.

The Vivitar 285HV, and its less-versatile sibling, the 283, have been a staple of off-camera lighting for more than a generation. But newer model flashes have gotten more computerized, with TTL functions and wireless IR capability. But they have also gotten price tags to match, heading north of $300 each.

Which is why last year when I started the site, I recommended scrounging for old Nikon SB's. They offer reliable, (and variable) manual flash with a PC jack without the $300 price tag. And at the time of my writing, you could snag them for less than $50.

Alas, the notion of off-camera manual flash gained a tad in popularity over the last year. Those same flashes now regularly go well north of USD $100 - if you can find them. As a side note, I recently picked up a couple of used SB-26's on eBay and you chowderheads bid me past the three-digit mark. Serves me right, I guess.

But now, Vivitar has also noticed the resurgence in off-camera manual flash and has reintroduced the classic workhorse Vivitar 285HV. Actually, some company you never heard of bought the rights to this name from Vivitar and started reproducing the flash. Badly.

BOTTOM LINE: Don't Buy This Flash

I hate to see this -- a company buying the name of a formerly great piece of gear, and then cranking out poor quality versions on the cheap. That's why you can now get a flash that looks just like a V285, but is also labeled a "Cactus" flash.

They are total crap. Don't let the reputation fool you. And sadly, when buying used it is hard to tell whether you are being offered the newer crap version, the mid-aged good version which has a safe sync voltage, or an older version which can kill our camera with very high sync voltages.

Fortunately, there are very good alternatives. Used Nikon flashes (SB-24, -25, -26 and -80 in particular) are great value models from which to choose. Unlike the new crap versions of the once-venerable 285's, they are well made.

But there are great new alternatives, too. Deserving special consideration is the LumoPro LP160 (much more info here) which has full manual control, a killer slaves and syncs four different ways. (Hot shoe, slave, standard PC and miniphone jacks.)

Plus, it has an unheard of two-year warranty. So unlike the new 285/KF36, there is little to no risk involved.

In short: Please, PLEASE do not be fooled by the great reputation of the Vivitar name. Many, many people made this mistake when the flash was first reintroduced in 2007. Don't get taken.

Sadly, until we found out the the new 285 was in fact a dysfunctional sheep in wolf's clothing, I was responsible for introducing many readers to this dressed-up dog. Which is why I have taken the extraordinary step of completely rewriting an archive post.


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