Let me start with this fundamental truth: The Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm F3.5 lens should be one of the first purchases made by every frugal photographer. If you have $35 to spend, buy this lens! In fact, this vintage lens will do more for the quality of your photography than your choice of camera. It is that good. When Vivitar began the Series 1 line of lenses, it was intended to compete with the very best lenses produced by major camera manufacturers such as Nikon, Canon, and Minolta. In price, construction and optics the Vivitar Series 1 equalled the best lenses on the market. Although these lenses date back to 1975, they are still regarded as high-quality glass capable of meeting professional standards. However, of all the lenses produced in this series, the 70-210mm is considered the best bargain. In spite of its cult status, you can find pristine copies of this lens in Pentax, Canon, and Nikon mounts for under $50.00. However, there are some cautions to keep in mind when buying this lens:
You want to buy a Series 1 70-210mm lens only from the first five versions produced (many say that the first three versions were the best of the best). After those versions, the Vivitar Series 1 brand name was attached to a series of mediocre lenses unworthy of the name. How can you tell the difference? The first five versions of the Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm are all manual-focusing lenses. The auto-focusing lenses are all of later manufacture and much poorer quality (they usually have “Series 1” stamped in big letters on the rubber focusing ring). Secondly, the first five versions had a fast maximum aperture of either F:3.5 or F:2.8. The newer auto-focusing lenses had maximum apertures of F4.5 and slower. Although the first five versions were produced by respected third-party lens manufacturers and marketed under the Vivitar Series 1 name, they are closely matched in construction quality and optical quality. Be sure to read this Wikipedia article on the Series 1 70-210mm before buying.
I currently own a version 1 Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm F3:5 lens manufactured for Vivitar by Kiron, and a version 2 manufactured by Tokina. Both are stellar performers. I use them primarily for my flower photography. The macro feature of the 70-210mm is ideally suited for flower photography and offers a combination of pinpoint sharpness along with smooth background blur at the widest F:3.5 aperture. These lenses are also well suited for portrait and landscape photography.
The Series 1 70-210mm is a fully manual lens. You will need to focus manually and select your desired aperture on the lens. I found that the focus confirmation feature in my Pentax and Canon DSLR’s worked well for getting sharp focus with this lens.
The Series 1 70-210mm lens is sharp at all apertures with good color and contrast. Chromatic aberration only appears rarely, a testament to the excellent optical design of this lens. Be sure to use a lens hood to prevent flare when shooting on sunny days. I purchased a new black metal telephoto lens hood (67mm filter size) for less than $4.00 on eBay. Just be careful not to scratch the front lens element when screwing your hood on to the front filter thread.
The Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm has sturdy all-metal and glass construction and weighs just shy of 2 lbs. By modern standards, it is a bit heavy for consumers used to plastic bodied lenses. Most lightweight modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras will feel front heavy if you use them handheld with this lens. Its weight makes it a perfect match for larger DSLR camera bodies such as the Canon D and Nikon D series. Unless you’re shooting at high ISO’s or on a bright sunny day, you will probably want to use a tripod to extract the maximum sharpness from this lens. It’s worth the effort for the beautiful images this lens can produce.
The image below helps you to see just how sharp this lens is. This is a center crop from a 12-megapixel image (raw) shot with the Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm F:3.5 (version 1) with a tripod mounted Pentax K-x DSLR camera (shot at F:4 aperture). Notice how well it captured the butterfly hair in sharp detail! I was about five feet from the subject when I shot this image. What modern lens can you buy for $35 that can do this?
It is helpful to read the instruction manual for this lens to understand how to switch to and use macro mode. In the normal telephoto mode, you rotate the focusing ring to obtain sharp focus, in macro mode you push/pull the focusing ring to focus. Download the instruction manual for version 1 of the Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm lens here. This Popular Mechanics article also explains how to use the macro mode as well (it’s a bit easier to understand). It will be frustrating to work with the macro mode unless you review the instructions beforehand. I had this lens for more than a year before I figured out why the macro mode seemed so difficult to use. That problem was eliminated by taking five minutes to read the instructions. You can download manuals for all versions of the Series 1 lenses here.
Buying a used Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm for under $50 is like buying a late-model S-Class Mercedes for the price of an old Chevy. You will want to buy a Series 1 70-210mm in mint condition if possible as you will likely hold on to this lens for a lifetime. Frugal photographers never had it so good!
The photos on this page were shot with the Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm F:3.5 (version 1) at F3;5 aperture. -Don Peterson