VIVITAR 283 - 285 HV - Part One 


-  I called it the  "Cockroach," not especially a nice name but accurate.  This is a required read for the individual considering the VIVITAR 285HV or the 283 Classic model.  The 285HV Vivitar is like the winner on Survivor. I coined the phrase thirty years ago since they have been around for decades and you never can kill one.   Though old and not compatible in some cases ( no TTL) they can still perform admirably if they have been cared for, and have usefulness in background, table top, Wedding and especially Teddy bear photography (the realm of the Strobisto Revolution).  In the photo below of my portable crash case, I ganged five when shooting large objects like Lear Jets and Fire trucks at night.

-  All have HD metal shoes, upgraded direct Jacobs Modules, all are 283,s, Modules locked down and run on my Black boxes. Simple easy, non-conflicting.

-  I’m still endorsing them for the tough shots where you need something; That does what you want it to do in manual or basic auto; and is expendable.

-  In gangs for blast power;  the  “Roach”  is perfect for if there is a danger of fire, falling or failure of any kind, better than your 500 dollar strobe ripping off the dragster.   

-  In the old days, trials at the Gator Nationals, with these strobes taped to drag racers,  I lost three Vivitars in one day to the event.  The track officials were not happy, happy.  They cannot handle 5-7 G's.  Cool, the other guys lost cars and engines and I lost a few cheap strobes.  

Somewhere in Mickey Mouse land, one flew off the wing of a Stearman. Some Disney employee might find it. That was thirty-five or so years ago. I figure its safe to talk about it now.  But I Imagine someone is trying to figure what happened to the cameraman and the rest of the camera.

-  The advantage of the Vivitar is, if you like to simply maintain control of things, is to use it in manual mode. You still have Auto as long as you understand guide numbers and the theory of trash in trash out.  Then the Vivitar 285 is for you as long as you found it in the bottom of the closet where it has sat for ten years, you stole it on eBay, got it for $20.00 at a pawn shop or found it in Uncle Chester's will.

To me Automatic mode is great for event work and when you don't have time.  We take (M) manual mode for granted. I like to control the light.  Having spent a good portion of my life in the lab, I have seen the results of the “P” and “A” modes. Blown highlights and or underexposure. The amateur believing the machine is better than the mind and the eye. Not always, machines match, they don't think.

NOTE:  It has true Manual with four settings. 1/1, 1/2, /1/4, 1/16 and is missing 1/8 power.  Yes, they omitted 1/8 power and this set the Strobist World On Fire,  read on with pages of diagrams, documentaries from electronic kit builders, distraught "Viviphobistos" rendering all kinds of gut wrenching dissatisfaction and dismay, a few building elaborate variable modules with pages of conversation and woe and misery.  Get over it, move the strobe back two feet or closer and you changed the power setting by modifying the f-stop. With new digitals and infinite camera settings this was a long lesson in wheel design and they discovered round is till best.

-  At a seminar I was asked why they had omitted the 1/8 setting…. simple, if you think about it. The sensor control module is round, a lot of copper flat tabs and little room left,  and in their day they simply had room for four settings plus the  three Auto settings. 

-  Remember this was spawned in the Analogue era of electronics, not digital. And basically over forty five years nothing has changed from the Analogue thinking. The Chinese basically did nothing but crank them out, not really updated or improved.  It was selling like hotcakes, why change it?  The Strobists fueled the fire and now with sales obliterated basically burnt the forest down.

It also offers "squelch mode"  commonly called A mode in automatic only. The squelch is a simple (pre TTL)  lens sensor that does the job if aimed right.  It is an on-board sensor, the globe in front of the strobe, basically a light to subject and squelching circuitry made of simple analog componentry.  

This is light of a very simple, subject to distance nature, and in shutter speed mode you can control the amount of background illumination by simply altering the shutter speed. It doesn't bother the camera. It thinks for itself.  The Cactus is one of the rebadged Vivitars made for a specific seller like MidWest photo. Like a CACTUS it might have some prickly problems. Like Chinese quality inspection at Lotus Blossom Plant 4.

On some contemporary strobes today (Some Yong-Nuo) the manufacturer simply deleted this ( A-MODE) feature and they are totally proprietary and manual.. Use the A mode on the flash and aperture preferred on the camera. Slower the speed; the lighter the background. The flash will still be consistently squelched to the subject.  


-  The Strobists.  They are an international internet group who support a fantastic web site and nation of users whose lives are all about frugal lighting. Well, sometimes a  bit too frugal and I don’t need a twenty page report each week on something I’ve been with for longer than they have been on the earth and much of the data they accrued is wrong.   

-  The hottest item for them is the acquisition of a variable module, eliminating the gut-wrenching thought that the 1/8 power setting missing on the Vivitar 285HV will hold them back from the next Pulitzer prize in the Teddy Bear Category. 

Thus the photo on the left shows one we made ourselves a decade ago because the factory one is scarce.  Any one who thinks a variable module on a F8-F11 strobe is essential to achieve 1/8 power might just be a mini genius in tabletop electronics.  Its worthless information in the real professional world which is based on my fellow shooters making money shooting. 

-  I’m a hobbiest at heart but a realist in business.  On a 800-1600 watt studio unit yes, variable is critical.   On a F8 strobe a joke.  In reality it’s all about making money, those that sold the Vivitars made money, those that sold all the add-on diffusion crap made money, those that ran the “club” atmosphere made money, and it was win, win, win. And a lot of folks learned lighting is Photography, the real win.

-  The Vivitars open the doors to those who know nothing about lighting, to get some experience, and learn without going broke.  As a businessman though, there is a difference in time spent.  At the retail of 79.95 it is no longer a repairable unit, it is a throwaway.  I like those Strobists, they brought back an old friend.  They taught a lot of folks about lighting in a frugal way.   The STROBISTS kept the 283/285 legacy alive but it is waning…. OK dying. It's nice to see the civility, humility and innovation these guys and gals extend to each other.  Nice, today that is a lost art.  In this era of politics and partisanship camera guys sometimes share the same passion with untruths on occasion. The 285 market has quieted down and might be a good time for you to steal a few on eBay if you know what you are getting or move up on the next file.   Read on this is fact.  


-  The older 285HV's are strong, can take a fair amount of abuse if the capacitor is OK and hasn't leaked or shorted.  You should be aware of some of the older ones shortcomings. The Vivitar's were manufactured in four countries, Japan, Taiwan and marked CHINA embossed, Korea and now the current version (see notes) from the mainland of China so they do differ.

-  The key is on the bottom. On the frontal area near the hot shoe it is recessed molded with the country of origin. Though all the units are similar in shape, size, and function, they differ in sync voltage, the boards inside , size of the wiring and reliability.  New is not necessarily better.   Be especially wary of the oldest, the Japanese because of this high synch voltage and age.  But the Japanese model is great with a light trigger or optical slave, then and only then is it safe. Again the bottom should say in capitol letters JAPAN, KOREA, CHINA (Older CHINA ARE TAIWAN) or may say nothing.  

-  The newer CHINA MAINLAND simply filled in the name plate on the molds as the country of origin only need be a sticker on the box. Erased. You can see the fill-in job if you look close enough. Looks like a shadow.  It is China Mainland and might have a blue dial on one side and newer but not stronger. The blue peels off. So does the label on the box which is all the regulatory folks need for  "Country of Origin”.  These are not repairable, they are a throwaway. No one I know commercially will fool with them anymore.  I refuse to.

-  Guide numbers are truth. Everything else is guano.  All flashes even if the same make and model might differ.   Test:  Use a good flash, nothing you suspect is wrong with it, and an ambient light meter like the excellent Sekonic 358B. It’s the only way to tell what these flashes do accurately. 

1-  Establish your own working guide number at 10 feet in a white ceiling room.  
2-  Make sure no strong lights are on or windows open with light coming through to the meter. 
3-  Flash on camera and strobe meter at ten feet like we did.  
4-  Suddenly the guide of 120 at ISO 100 was slightly invalid.
5-  When the Sekonic reads ƒ8.5 to maybe ƒ9. Thats not ƒ12.
6-  Just as valid as anything you were told during the GOP candidate selection.  Corpo Guano! 
7-  Yes, you will get  guide of 120 if you hold the flash into a ten foot piece of new white 6 inch PVC pipe with the meter at the other end.

-  We read consistently under ƒ9-10 at ASA/ISO 100 at 10 feet on a new condition Japanese 285 HV. with the head set at 50mm.  That converts to ƒ10 or which digitals can be programmed for.  It is halfway between F/8 and F/11.  They (SAKAR, B&H) claimed a guide of 120 because the variable head focuses tighter and concentrates the beam for their guide number of  ƒ12 or 120.  But narrow beams don't cover wedding parties unless...

Lets be right up front. The truth is that head concentrates the beam center and you get edge falloff.  So the Bride and groom look good and the rest of the wedding party is in the dark. Use it at a mixed Wedding with White dresses and Black Tuxedos, mixed participants, and Solomon of Bible fame couldn't figure out the exposure so you won't have blown dresses and Al Jolson participants on the ends.  Thank God you can mask in photoshop or HDR your shots.

This is the reason I built the PERFECTION BRACKET…now available in Home Depot Cheap!.  Two Vivitars on a  wide scope give you both the F11 and the width you need for those wedding shots or formals.

-  The 283 is no different.  For more color saturation use a guide of ƒ8 and low ISO.  Also ƒ8 with the 283, since the smaller head without the telescoping head tends to underexpose.  Many flashes today are measured in narrow pure white test rooms with 85 to 105 lenses and that tends to produce higher guides as the beam is narrowed by the flash head motor.  Some (many) of these 283’s have very high voltage and can kill a new digital.

After testing ten 283's at ISO 100 at a measured ten feet the best round, norm was ƒ8.2.  One has to see if there was any new advantage to taking the thing apart to add F/8 to the manual settings on a 285.  Frankly I do not see it. With one touch of my finger I balanced my exposure by going from 3.45 to 4.2 on the digital camera or backed the flash two feet.

-  The 285 HV and its less featured brother the 283 is an interesting story. The newest model of the 285HV came back by DEMAND.  Strobists looking for a cheap solution and a couple entrepreneurs looking for sales of outdated goods costing wholesale about twenty three to thirty dollars and retailing for eighty - nine dollars.   Follow the money… But hot irons turn cold with no juice and after a while, I think the Vivitar is finally done based on the proliferation being dumped on eBay. 

NOTE: The original Vivitar Corporation is out of business. They were nothing in recent (20) years but importers of aftermarket goods from JAPAN, then they went to KOREA, TAIWAN and in the latter years MAINLAND CHINA also known as the Great Wall-Mart of China.   And you can just imagine what happened to the quality as time progressed. Like Polaroid they licensed their name. Polaroid makes more money from their name today than all the film they ever sold. 

I did a lot of business with Vivitar when I was a dealer, they were the only ones on the block but better stuff came out from other vendors.  We switched and they went belly up and I will attribute it to their attitude as they were the rudest, crudest and most arrogant frickin (I was going to say something else) people to do business with both in reality and at trade shows. The tradition carries on.

-  Vivitar went into bankruptcy, they put the name up for grabs and it was scoffed up by Syntax- Brillain, a television distributor for Olevia who picked the Vivitar name as an add-on, and imported it expecting to use the Vivitar name for other small items like digital cameras and frames. They had a short lived career but long term prison sentences from lawsuits involving securities fraud (SEC). 

-  And along came SAKAR INTERNATIONAL which was the third time the name changed hands; a firm by the name of Sakar in New Jersey bought the name but they had no vision soon after the acquisition.  They did however have the same arrogant attitude of the original Vivitar crew.  I won't even go into it, low end import dealers with an attitude.  My phone calls for info were ignored and trying to get answers for an article at the PMA were useless.  They took the place of the old Vivitar guys and sell the low priced distribution end of the business to box stores and other mass retail outlets who need blister packs and kiddy stuff.  They are big and have a huge inventory of low- end Chinese goods. In photography tools think of them as Wall-Mart, hmmm…K-mart

The New Chinese 285 CLONE, KNOCKOFF, COPY, 
-  I will tell you ahead of time there are some anomalies. Yes, I work on a ton of them and we are very careful but we have seen some out of the box with the following.  Be patient, at first the capacitor is slow starting. Some are fast blinkers, some stay solid.  Before you take that first shot that counts, flash the strobe five times at full manual to "reform" the capacitor.  It is shipped with a totally drained capacitor. You should do this in manual, full power, be patient full power in manual is logical. That shuts the squelch circuit off and forces full charge to the capacitor. Just do it. 

-  Avoid overheating or fast blasting heats these wires like a toaster. Everything can use a break in period.  But the more desirable older units might be showing age. It was rare to see an older Japanese unit 285 HV that failed period. But time, use, abuse, or not being used take their toll.   It's a crapshoot. I turned one on the other day that is twenty years in storage and it worked. To date two have failed that I received back to test out of hundreds. I suspect they might have been used pretty strongly in their day and marginally now. Yellow tubes and an acrid smell tell you that. 

-  For forty years I have been bulletproofing the Vivitar for an inexpensive hard location flash unit that is expendable. A workhorse.  I'll cut to the chase, regardless of any work we do, we are not responsible for a failure in these units you stole off eBay.  If you get one, and you want the conversion, drop ship it to me, we'll test it, and if it survives, convert it, and we'll forward it to you, neat, saves time and freight but I DO NOT guarantee used gear from others.

-  Better that way. If it fails, better here than at a wedding. It will do so,  fairly rapidly. 80-90 % of the like new ones are OK as we eliminate several problems. You'll have a low cost fairly dependable light source. But we do not guarantee your strobe. Only our work.

-  Running this flash on AA batteries is a disaster for a pro. Too slow. Very slow. Incredibly slow. It is very slow on AA cells and wastes them pretty quick. Get the point!  The damn thing is slow.

-  The schematics and boards in the 283-285 were actually built with 70's theology and built for a different chemical standard, the slower Alkali standard, slower but more shots. 

I'm not an advocate of hyped-up over clocked strobes but 10-20 seconds between flashes is too much unless you are filming events like a Chess Match at an Outdoor Nudist Convention in Siberia or the giant Aldabra tortoise races on the Seychelles Islands where passing another Tortoise is really over the top. (see photo)  Meanwhile for those who shoot still-life teddy bears and flowers who don't make real money doing weddings, sports and events can do with AA cells. Teddy bears don't run 10.4.s.  The reasons we convert them are simple and important:

-  This flash needs a battery pack period. Explained above. Too slow for anything commercial.
-  This flash has a bad reputation of battery leakage doing a lot of harm some of it coming from the cheap holders for the batteries, the clips, they corrode. Thats all I get lately,  lots of corrosion since many got put away with leaky AA cells. Caution on used units.
-  Using a module cuts down on collective heat inside the flash cooling the unit better.
-  The module is locked in place, eliminating fallout an further corrosion.
-  1500 shots on power should cover most jobs.

- The first part is adapting the unit to a Black Box or Tuxedo. The 285HV in all models and the 283 uses a battery holder or "clip"  for four "AA" type batteries.  We will be modifying this part, totally ripping it apart, removing all corroded or corroding metal, and converting it into a module saving you about thirty dollars off the price of a MA2.  I have made thousands of these still in use all over the world and never had one fail. 

-  There is nothing to break or screws and locks falling out.  In addition we add, an 8-foot length of LOW VOLTAGE 18 gauge wire for use on light stands.This puts the pack lower to the floor for stand stability.  We then use our HD DINS which mate to the Black Box or Tuxedo.  We seal the compartment with a very small black screw but enough to prevent modules accidentally falling out. We bulletproof it!

-  This is a solid change over, yet it can be converted back to batteries if needed with a spare unmodified clip. As long as you don't try to cook it or burn it up with umbrellas and a ton of other devices that dull the sensor forcing full pops you'll do OK.   In forty five years of building packs for this strobe, NO ONE ever asked me to turn it back.

-  Thus, when you increase the power supply for running the strobe with a black box, it is more powerful and consistent but we still have the communication with the camera or transmitter to beef up and on the 283/285 that is done through the foot.  The foot is the communication center for this beast. And it's got two major headaches. The ingrown type and tripping over itself. 

The first weak part, the foot;  It breaks before it rips the top of your camera off, that is good. The problem is the slightest jar breaks it. It is too good and thats paramount to being bad. I have changed 100s of the plastic ones only to get one back a couple month later. So we go to metal. The new Chinese foot is real soft plastic and not strong at all.

The second weak part of the Vivitar is the proprietary synch cable which absolutely sucks period. It is responsible for the reputation of the strobes total inefficiency and misfires a good part of the time. The idiots made the spring internally of a metal conducive to corrosion and that creates failures. Ever try to solder with a dirty tip?  Similar exercise in frustration. If you are going to use this on a stand, get rid of this mess by conversions I can do for you.   Here are my suggestions to bullet proof the Vivitar. We do about ten a week.

-  The standard single pin hot-shoe. This is a normal hotshoe, as shown to the right.  It also means that on any strobe you now have, you can add a "hot connector". Like the Cowboy collection AKA "Ghetto Tranmitters”.  Or use the PC port (far better than the Vivitar port)  to Mini-plug for Pocket Wizards.   Most of the ghetto transmitters add about an 3/4 inch to the height of the rig, the PW adds none.

  -  Unfortunately I do not wish to repair those 283's, 285’s anymore that are non-functioning.  I’m done, fifty years is enough and it gets tougher every day.  I’m getting ones that sat in a garage for thirty years, many in really sad shape,  blown up and not repairable,  some half taken apart, and they want me to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.   

No one else is repairing them and parts are not available from SAKAR or China.  Like Bounty paper towels and toilet tissue they are disposable.  The 285 was made in four countries in five series and not exactly interchangeable.  Any work requires robbing Peter to Pay Paul, which doubles the effort and the work still may not be productive. I will continue to support the Vivitar with custom modules, new hotshots  ports, direct wiring, but limit the work to the following:  

  -  Make and Install the Jacobs Module for the Black Box and Tuxedo. No problemo! Any length up to ten feet.  Straight cords only as shown and extremely reliable, Includes door cutting and locking it in place.

   -  Metal Shoe - I will continue to install the metal shoes as long as they are available, the one that has the hotshoe. The threaded model is history.   The screw bottom 1/4x20 is nowhere to be found period.  Some parts dry up or not in vogue, whatever there aren’t any around. I even checked the manufacturer in India.  He offered me a good recipe for Chicken Curry in Rice as a consolation.

  -  Connectivity - I will not be installing direct internal cables anymore as these newer units are using different wiring in gauge and we have some connectivity problems with the port on the Pocket Wizard with available cabling.   Simply put, we have had  a nightmare with the old Vivitar ports when using a Pocket Wizard when mixing old with new.  The PC port on the metal foot works great!

-  I have had no failures using a little tool from B&H  made by Westcott and costs under eight dollars. There is another from Paramount but not worth the price.  Much better than the plastic foot, the metal shoe will correct the weird Vivitar small cable that goes into the foot,  fails, frankly sucks on the plastic foot and this tool will keep it new.

-  You do not need me to order this part for you.  It is available from a friend of mine at  
FLASH ZEBRA  #0120  This cord has a male PC connector on one end and a mono miniphone plug (1/8" – 3.5mm) on the other.  The cable is straight and approximately 15 inches (35cm) in total length.  This cord can be used to connect a flash or other device that has a female PC connector to a Pocket Wizard, CyberSync or Elinchrom Skyport.  It is a functional replacement for the similar cord that comes packed with a Pocket Wizard or CyberSync. There is also a direct coiled version available.  
The Price of the #0120:     $9.00 + shipping.

Item #0040 Coiled Male PC to Pocket Wizard, CyberSync or Elinchrom Skyport


-  This adapter can be used to directly connect flash units that require a Male PC connector to a Pocket Wizard, Elinchrom Skyport receiver, or CyberSync receiver.  

-  This works perfectly with the Nikon SB-24, SB-25, SB-26, SB-27, SB-28, SB-800, SB-900, the Canon 580EX II, and many other flash units and Vivitar metal shoes that require this Male PC connector.  This cable provides direct and reliable function by eliminating multiple cord adapters that often result in misfiring.  The cable is approximately 10 inches relaxed, and over 30 inches extended.

The Price od the #0040:    $13.00 + shipping.

 -  Broken 283’s and 285’s…. If it doesn’t work after a reasonable effort on your behalf and you do send it to me, we have to make an adult choice, I can send it back to you and you throw it out after wasting money on return postage, or I throw it out and you save you money.  If it is not something obvious, I will throw it out for you, as the return shipping and me doing the packaging the post office is more than a minimum of  11.80 priority.  

-  I do not ship parcel post and stand on line, priority mail gets me a free pickup. I do not charge for throwing it out since my condo on the top floor has a drop chute twenty feet from my door.  No Vivitars were harmed during the making of this web page but being dropped 65 feet into a steel dumpster and the crashing sounds were priceless.


-  You just got some of the advantages and pitfalls of the Vivitars. Am I being negative, no, just informative and realistic. I'm too old and experienced to get excited over something I've stared at for more than 3/4 of my life. I have no ties to anyone so I can tell it like it is.  If you think I’m harsh, do not read the Political, Religious Fakes, or Food Websites I have.  I am a hunter, and I hunt these people who take advantage of decent folks.

-  Today the 285HV strobe is just another mass -produced product out of China but i think production is not in the future.  The 285HV is as great an evolutionary item as the first Pentax Spotmatic or Nikon F.  Once you get past the advertising, myths, sales hype, eBay promises and embellishers off their game, and use it to its potential; it can be a workhorse and a good one at that when used in a dual bracket like the Perfection which allows the flexibility and double the power from a single black box. I may have one or two Perfections left which you will see on the next page.