I acquired this Vivitar 285hv brand new for Father’s day. I’ve been playing with it a bit since then and it is a lot of fun. It is much simplier then the speedlites, etc that Canon and Nikon users have. That being said simplicy has its advantages, such as a $90 price tag brand new. The flash is an autothyristor flash, which means it has a power saving feature where the full power of the capcitors is not discharged on partial power settings. The flash has 4 auto exposure settings (f/2, 4, 8 and 11) using the small flash sensor near the bottom of the flash. Each auto exposure setting corresponds to an F-stop. There are also manual flash settings of full power, 1/2, 1/4 and 1/16 power. On the side of the flash there is a manual flash calculator dial which allows you to dial in the film ISO and the manual power setting and it then shows you the F-stop you should choose for different distances.
The flash head can swivel from direct flash to 45, 60, 75 and 90 degrees. This provides easy bounce flash capability. The flash head also has a zoom feature allowing flash settings of wide angle (35mm coverage), standard (50/55mm coverage) and telephoto (105mm coverage). I’ll post the flash chart from the manual for the different ISO, f-stop and zoom head settings, but to summarize the zoom head does help with reach if you are using a longer lens. If I remember correctly (I’ll update when I have the chart sitting in front of me for accuracy) with iso400 film and f/4 the flash has a reach of about 45ft using the wideangle setting, 60ft using the standard setting and 70ft using the telephoto setting at full power. Now if you wanted the maximum possible reach, say you are attempting to get that shot across a basketball court of someone dunking, or nearly across a football field, using iso1600 film and a zuiko 100mm f/2 lens wide open you would have a reach of 280ft! I came to this number because the flash range doubles with a 4x increase in power (or 2 stops of iso/f-stop).
The flash also came with a 28mm diffusor, but the one that came with mine has a hard time fitting and pretty much jams on the flash when I insert it. I may try to modify it so that it fits better, but otherwise I will just give up on it. I do plan to try out a Stofen Omnibounce, which would more then take care of my wide angle coverage.
The flash uses 4 AA batteries loaded in to the battery pack that comes with the flash. The flash has a total recycle time of about 10s at full power and around 1s at 1/16 power. The 1/16 power refresh time seems about right, but with full power alkalines I seem to be getting a slightly faster full power recycle time of around 8s, though I haven’t timed it. The rear of the flash has a ‘flash sufficient’ light to let you know if the exposure was probably okay and it also has a pair of lights to indicate the capacitor charge. A red light shows 50% charge, a green light shows 75% charge and alternating red and green means that it is at full charge and is using power saving mode (to keep from draining the batteries while holding full charge). The flash is relatively light weighing in at about 1lb with batteries. It also solidly clamps to the flash hot shoe, though a number of people have complained of the plastic hot shoe mount on the flash. There are aftermarket metal hot shoe replacement mounts for the vivitar 283, 285 and 285hv in case your’s breaks or you decide to replace it. It feels pretty sturdy to me, though I could see how if you banged the flash pretty hard that it might break the shoe. Better the shoe on the flash then the shoe on the camera I say.
Bounce flash (the 2nd one deffinitely needed a bounce card)
Update: I’ve been using the flash for a little while now (okay, 3 rolls of film). I am still mostly relying on the auto settings, but I have also been mostly using the flash in bounce mode, and I am a little nervous using manual settings and bounce, though I did that often enough with my Sunpak DC3 before I got the 285hv. The Vivitar does a pretty good job with accurate exposure in automatic mode with both direct and bounce flash. I have not tried the flash in daylight fill flash mode (I’ll give that a try soon). I also have decided that I need to get an Omni bounce for my flash one of these days. I had decided against it originally, but after using the flash for awhile I can see how useful it would be. With bounce flash often enough there are harsh shadows under some people’s eyes depending on how they have their head oriented and throwing a little bit of light forward would help reduce this. For now I am using an index card rubber banded to the flash. It actually works extremely well, but it isn’t quite as useful as an omni bounce probably would be, and it is easy enough to crumple the index card. Basically the index/flash card is attached to the backside of the flash with a portion of it sticking up. When the flash fires it not only directs light upward to bounce off of a ceiling to light the scene, but some of the light strikes the index/flash card and projects some light forward creating two light sources and reducing shadows.
Here is a comparison between using direct flash and bounce with a flash card.
You can see the shadows where the light is blocked from the flash.
Here I used an index/bounce card. As you can see it filled in the shadows nicely between the two. You can still see just a hint of shadow, but it is much less and the exposure as a whole is much more balanced. Though if I had been adjusting the automatic exposure or exposing manually I probably could have reduced the harshness of the first exposure a little, though the shadows would still have been a problem. I’ll attempt to do a comparison between regular bounce and bounce with an index/flash card soon.