Those Third Party 1980’s Budget Zooms

My office is a cluttered place and fundamentally unchanged for 15 years, so filing cabinets and desk drawers have slowly piled up with detritus over times steady passage. I was exploring one of the drawers this morning and behind several tins of plum tomatoes, mackerel and an old VHS video recorder, I unearthed a Sirius 28-200mm zoom lens. I cannot recall the last time this was fixed to the front of a camera, nor why its final resting place was the back of an old office drawer. But handling it again made me realise just how hefty these things were.

As I recall, this particular Sirius lens was not a good performer and it has to be shut down from its maximum F4 aperture at least one or two stops to make it useable. And even then, the contrast was not good. All in all it summed up for me what inexpensive 1980’s super zooms were capable of. I cannot really fault the build quality though; like many zooms of its day, much of its mass is made of metal and after all of these years, there is very little play in the one-touch zoom and focus collar. The aperture ring is also well damped. It is a shame the image quality let it down.

And this was the fate shared by many budget zooms of this era, and I found myself reflecting back to the time when they abounded, and my own budget was tight; another one of my regrettable purchases was a Hanimex 80-210mm zoom - probably the biggest mistake I ever made in terms of equipment purchase.  At the time, I felt I needed a zoom of this focal length as they had become very popular and it would complement my wide and standard lenses. I did very little research into telezooms, assuming wrongly that all models would be good. My intention was to go with Vivitar as I had read good things. The camera dealer I visited was one I had not used before who, when inquiring about a Vivitar lens, told me that they had gone out of business and the next best thing was a Hanimex model, which he hastily produced. The price was far less than I had anticipated for a brand new lens so I took it away with me.

I never, during the four years I owned it, produced a good result through this piece of glass. Images lacked contrast and sharpness at all apertures, even when tripod mounted. I persevered with different subjects such as wildlife, landscapes and portraits but the results were always unsatisfactory. Unlike the Sirius model stood on my desk, the build quality left a lot to be desired. About eighteen months after buying it, various parts of the barrel became loose, particularly the lens mount and aperture ring. The zoom collar also developed play.

By this time my interest had waned, and I only took the lens out occasionally when I really needed some sort of telephoto effect. The aperture blades became sticky at certain apertures making it very unreliable, causing me to put the lens in storage until finally disposing of it. The materials used and construction of the lens, in retrospect, were reflected in its low cost, which should have prompted me to look for an alternative. Two interesting points came out of this purchase; 1. Vivitar were still very much alive and kicking and 2. The dealer who sold me the lens had gone out of business around a year later. I guess the moral to this tale is to avoid deals that look too good to be true as they probably are.

But not all manufactures spewed garbage zooms from their factories. Tamron, Tokina and Vivitar produced good offerings, although Vivitar’s could sometimes be a bit hit and miss, as they were just the brand name fronting designs produced by other manufacturers. And this brings me on to the Vivitar Series One 28-105 mm f2.8-3.8 lens.

It was tangible proof that Vivitar still manufactured high quality products at this time. This unit replaced my 28mm and previous geriatric zooms, as I wanted an 'all in one' solution that offered wide angle and short telephoto effects. The 'Series One' badge indicated Vivitar's highest quality lenses and, backing this up was a five year warranty. Unlike previous purchases I did not rush into acquiring this, but read test reports prior to inspecting one. After trying it out and being suitably impressed, I handed over my cash and immediately went out taking pictures through it. Like others in its class, it was a heavy thing being constructed predominantly from metal with a large, excellent quality rubber zoom grip. It was built to last and withstand tough treatment. In my five years of ownership, it never became worn, loose or problematic.

Image quality was exceptionally good, apart from f2.8 at the 28mm end, which exhibited significant vignetting. This aside, the lens turned in consistently good results. The complimentary hard case protected it very well when not in use. I part exchanged it in more or less new condition for my first additional Zuiko lens, a 100mm f2.8. It had accompanied me on many trips abroad and been used consistently with no problems whatsoever.

Today, there are many, many examples of 80’s era zooms still around – a quick look on Ebay confirms this. And don’t get me wrong, many of them are superb and gave prime lenses of their day a run for their money. But some of those budget options were grim indeed and something I had forgotten about until I opened my filing cabinet drawer.