A Concise Guide to the Vivitar 285 and Vivitar 285 HV and Cactus KF36

I've been noticing some people finding my page on Google searching for more detailed information about the 383 Super. Now, since both of my 383's are presently dead and I've started to buy Vivitar 285 HV's instead, I might as well provide yet another guide.

Unlike the Sunpack 383, the 285HV has a reasonable manual. I can still do a better job, of course. :)

What Vivitar 285 do you have?

Vivitar was a big player in the market a long time ago. The Vivitar 283, 285, and 285HV have been trusty photographer's assistants for a long long long time, most especially in the days before flashes had all sorts of automated features.

Since it's heyday, Vivitar has gone out of business and been picked up more than once. But the 285HV design has largely stayed the same, with one notable exception. When they were re-issued after people started shooting Strobist style and old Nikon flashes became expensive, they cheaped out on a few design points here and there and there was excessive "infant mortality" in the flash. The newer ones are said to be a little better.

There's now the Cactus KF36 floating around, which seems to be an exact clone, potentially made in the same factory. I was under the impression that Sakar (who now owns Vivitar) was continuing to manufacture the 285HV, but I'm not totally sure on all of those points.

The main difference between the 285 and 285HV is that the 285HV has a plug on the side where you can plug in a high-voltage external battery or a wall-wart external power supply for faster recycle times.... and the 285 is likely to fry your modern electronic camera.

Got a modern electronic camera?

Locations to probe to check the voltage

There are some guidelines about which Vivitar 285HV's and 285's have a safe trigger voltage and which ones don't that are floating around, but you can't necessarily trust them. If you are using an older camera, you are probably fine. If you get the absolute latest version of the 285HV, you are probably fine. If you are shooting a relatively new camera and have a 285HV of uncertain vintage, you want to check.

Take a voltmeter and put one probe on each of the metal contacts on the shoe. If it reads something around 6volts, it's fine. Otherwise, you may have a problem, depending on your camera.

If it's too high, you can always use it off-camera or get a Safe-sync adapter.

Also, remember that there's no communications between your camera and the flash in the way that the dedicated modern flashes have. If you have a setup like that, the camera will work from the meter and your exposure settings and figure out the flash settings for you. On the other hand, if you want to have a proper set of four lights and be able to cart them around without breaking your back, you are going to spend a lot less money with four 285HV's than four flashes that will properly integrate with the system of your choice.

Got a remote trigger?

Vivitar did such a good job of lowering the voltage of some 285HV's that not all triggering units will work with them. The big example here is that some of the Wein units need 5v, and if you put four rechargeable batteries in a save 285HV, that won't be enough power for them. The same goes for some of the Gadget Infinity / Cactus PovertyWizard radio triggers.

I'm replacing my optical slaves with the FlashZebra Sonia-branded slaves.

A fairly nasty bug in the circuitry

At least for the one I've got, if you are using a battery that is just about out of power, it'll charge, but it won't trigger.

A brief tour of the flash

Front view

See the "Vari Power" knob on the front? See the hole in the knob? That's where the sensor lives. In automatic modes, the flash will use that to figure out when it's done putting out enough light. It goes without saying that if you are shooting and accidentally cover it with your fingers, Bad Things will happen.

If you watch as you turn the power knob, you will see that it moves filters in front of the sensor to adjust the power. Simple but effective. :)

Vivitar likes to design their flashes under the assumption that you will be adjusting them from the side. Now, you can see the calculator dial and the power knob. First, as you turn the power knob, you get several colors, plus some numbers. Yellow has the least power so you can shoot with the lens wide open, followed by red, then blue, then finally violet, which has the most power but the least range, so you end up shooting with the lens stopped down. "M" gives you full power, and then there's 1/2th, 1/4th, and 1/16th power.

Side View

Second, there's the dial. On top, there's a arrow that you can turn to select the ISO sped between 25 and 400 by moving the whole dial. There's some grips on the next ring inwards where you select the power setting -- all automatic settings are treated as "full". Inside, you can see little colored regions with distance numbers. The biggest part of the region is what aperture on the ring you want to use, the smaller regions show you what the possible range is.

So I tend to leave it in the yellow mode, for most power and wide-open aperture.

The test button will fire off a flash. This is good for blinding your friends at parties after they make a bad pun. If you are in an "auto" mode, the sufficient light indicator will glow green.

The ready light has a variety of settings, depending on how charged the flash is. It's black when the flash is off or fully discharged. It then glows red a half power, green at 3/4 power, and then blinks red and green when it's totally full.

Now, there's a slide-in diffuser panel that you may get with the flash and you can move the front of the flash head in and out to control zoom levels. With the diffuser, it covers about 28mm-e. The other settings are wide: 35mm-e, Normal: 50mm-e, and Tele: 105mm-e. (By mm-e, I mean that if you were using a 35mm film or 35mm full-frame digital, it would be a 50mm, but on a APS-C dSLR, it would be a 25-30mm lens)

On-camera usage

Generally, I start out by doing a meter reading to see what the scene is like.

Let's start with the situation where you'll feel awfully funny grabbing a flash -- a nice sunny day. Let's say that our meter reading is 1/125th and f/16 with 100 speed film. Why do we have our flash out? Well, we'd like to fill in the shadows. Remember, just because your eyeball, the result of millennia of evolution, can peer into the dark shadows in front of you while the rest of the scene is bright and sunny with astonishing ease doesn't mean that your camera, the result of a little over a century of dedicated research, can do it quite as easily.

So, turn on the flash and set it to the blue mode, which indicates that f/8 is the aperture setting. This is actually want we want to happen. What happens is that the flash will make sure that the entire scene is exposed for f/8... so underexposed 2 stops. It's going to do this within the first 1/1000th of a second of the shutter being open. The rest of the 1/125th of a second, we're collecting the natural light in the scene. This will bring up the shadows so that you can see some detail in them that you wouldn't be able to see otherwise.

You want to point the flash forwards and set the zoom setting to match your lens. It's OK for it to be wider than the lens, but if it's narrower, you'll get uneven light coverage, which you may not want.

You probably want to experiment. You may like it better with more like 1 to 1.5 stops underexposed. This prevents you from having your friend silhouetted against the sky when the sun is behind them.

You can also usually get away setting the flash to 1/16th power and setting the aperture setting to whatever the camera says for you to shoot.

Now, let's say that we're indoors and the light is more like 1/30th, f/2.8. You might want to carry around a set of color gels for situations like these because the flash is going to make light that is colored like daylight and most light is either incandescent, which is going to be orangish, or the light is going to be fluorescent which is going to be greenish, unless it's very high-end fluroescent. You can buy theatrical gel books that have been cut nicely to slide right behind the lens, or you can mod up a gel from a sample book with gaffer's tape till it fits.

Remember that the light on-camera is kinda sucky, so you want to avoid using it as the primary light. At this case, we've still got some light to work with, however, so we'll set it to the yellow automatic mode. In this case, the flash is going to help make the lighting "snap" and make any camera shake less noticeable.

Now, let's say that the lights are out and we've got 1/2th, f/1.8 exposure readings. Time to get creative.

Usually I look for a white surface. Any white surface. A handy wall or ceiling. Point the flash at it. I tend to use the yellow automatic mode most of the time. You can experiment with different zoom levels. The wider the zoom, the bigger the lit up spot on the ceiling and the softer the light.

The various flash diffuser things can come in handy in this case. I usually just tape a piece of office paper to the flash. Remember, if you keep the flash about the same distance from the camera and still pointed at the same spot your camera is pointed at, you can use a cable to get some distance between you and the flash.

Be careful about reflective objects. The sensor just sees what sort of light is roughly in front of your camera. If you have a shiny object in front of you, it will be so reflective compared to the rest of the scene that it will cause the flash to shut off too early. In this case, you want to use one of the manual modes mode. Use the power dial to figure out what power setting you should set on the knob to match your focusing distance and aperture.

Off-camera usage

Now, all the flash diffusers and lighting toys in the world aren't going to hold a candle to taking the flash off-camera.

The flash market has really changed. There's a wide variety of flash slaves, both optical slaves that plug into the cable or slide into the bottom, and there's a bunch of cheap radio slaves.

I used to buy Wein slaves, but I've found that they don't hold up over time, so I'm switching to the FlashZebra slaves. You can use the eBay gadgetinfinity radio slaves or a PocketWizard, too. This way you won't trigger off of everybody else's flashes.

There is a cable available that lets you take the sensor off the front of the flash and move it to your camera so that, no matter what direction the flash is pointed, your exposure will be correct. Unless you use the cable, the colored automatic modes aren't going to work out so well. Using the manual modes, you can use the calculator on the side to figure out the desired aperture setting and measure the distance. Simply measure the distance to your subject and adjust the power slider so that it matches your desired exposure setting. Usually I just use my digital camera to check the exposure, this will work even if I've got a bunch of flashes and the flash is bouncing off an umbrella.

Most of the hotshoe slaves have a threaded connector on the bottom that will screw into either a tripod or a light stand. I usually get an Umbrella / Hotshoe adapter for all of my light stands that holds an umbrella as well as providing a tiltable mount for the flash.

The biggest umbrella you can make work is probably in the 40"-48" range.

If you want to use an umbrella, you want to set the zoom to the widest setting. If you are going for hard, directional light, you can sometimes use the zoom setting instead of grids or snoots.

I've also got one of the new LumoPro LP120 flashes on the slab for some photographic experimentation. More on that real soon now!

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