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Vivitar Auto Macro 55mm f/2.8 Lens Review

Is there still life in older lenses? Absolutely, John Riley reviews this 55mm 1:1 magnification macro lens branded Vivitar which was made by Komine, a manufacturer that's gathering a new cult following.

Posted: 01/02/2024 - 10:03

Handling and Features

We have covered quite a few vintage lenses for Pentax User, with more to follow depending upon availability, and these have mostly been original Pentax manufacture. However, there are and always have been some very fine Pentax-fit lenses from alternative manufacturers, and some of them even have an almost legendary status of their own. One such lens is the Vivitar Auto Macro 55mm f/2.8 1:1 macro lens, made by Komine, and reputed to be one of the best manual focus macro lenses of its day.

From the serial number of 28711929 the lens falls into the years where the numbers can be deciphered. This gives us the maker (28 is Komine), the year of manufacture (7 is 1977), the month of manufacture (11 is November) and the serial number within that month (929). So far so good, let's see how it works out in practice, coupling it up with the 36MP full frame Pentax K-1 DSLR.

Vivitar Auto Macro 55mm f/2.8 Handling and Features

A multicoated manual focus macro lens with continuous focusing down to life size, or a magnification of 1x or 1:1, is an attractive proposition. AF is of course absent, but then again many macro subjects favour manual focusing even with an AF lens. So that may not be too much of a disadvantage.

There are no electronic contacts, so the K-1 immediately asks what the focal length is, the information being fed to the SR (Shake Reduction) system that is built into the camera. 50mm is the closest setting available. After that, on the K-1 manual exposure mode is set. To obtain the correct exposure, press the green button on the back of the camera. This briefly stops down the lens to whatever aperture is set, takes a meter reading and sets the shutter speed accordingly. Then take the shot and the lens will stop down correctly. There were a very wide variety of mounts made for this lens, so with an appropriate adapter it could well be possible to use it on whatever camera system may be desired. In the case of Pentax Users, then the K mount or the M42 screw mount versions will be fine.

Removing the metal push-on lens cap, we can see the front element is very deeply recessed. This really makes a lenshood redundant, which is good as the working distance can be quite close with macro subjects and a hood might get in the way. There is a standard 62mm filter thread, but placing another piece of glass in a position exposed to potential reflections perhaps should be avoided unless necessary. It would negate the advantages of the recessed front element.

The focusing ring turns fairly smoothly, not silky like some, but good enough. And it turn and turns...all the way down to that ultra-close 1:1 magnification. It is unfortunate that it turns in the reverse direction to Pentax's own lenses. The aperture ring does turn in the Pentax direction. There is a depth of field scale, superceded at closer distances by magnification ratios, all being clearly marked.

Finally, the aperture ring has half stop détentes (click stops) and operates perfectly well, again not super-smooth, but effective. Optically, we have 5 elements in four groups, a 6 bladed diaphragm and all in a metal package that weighs in at a still fairly modest 337g. This is a relatively simple, traditional optical design, but one capable of excellent results.

Using older manual focus lenses is actually quite straightforward, given the time to focus accurately. Of course, manual focusing will not suit everyone, but with a macro lens that might be best used on a tripod for ultra close work this may not be so much of an issue. There are few macro lenses that really work well with AF at macro distances and photographers often resort to manual focus anyway. If that is the case, then the Vivitar is not at any particular disadvantage.

Vivitar was a product line of Ponder and Best in the USA and they commissioned lens designs and manufacture rather than making anything themselves, so a variety of lens manufacturers were involved. Komine is one of the better known and most respected examples, but there are others and some very high quality designs were produced. This macro lens was also sold under other names, including the Elicar V-HQ Macro 55mm f/2.8 and the Panagor PMC Macro 55mm f/2.8.

Vivitar Auto Macro 55mm f/2.8 Performance

Looking first at sharpness, at f/2.8 and f/4 the standard is very good centrally. It is excellent at f/5.6 and f/8 and again very good at f/11 and f/16. The edges are softer but still good at f/2.8, very good at f/4, excellent at f/5.6 and f/8 and very good at f/11 and f/16. It can be seen that we have excellent and totally even sharpness at f/5.6 and f/8, where the lens peaks at a very high standard.

How to read our MTF charts

The blue column represents readings from the centre of the picture frame at the various apertures and the green is from the edges.

The scale on the left side is an indication of actual image resolution and sharpness as LW/PH and is described in detail above. The taller the column, the better the lens performance.

For this review, the lens was tested on a Pentax K-1 using Imatest.

CA is very well corrected centre and edge, not always expected in a film era lens. It is not intrusive in any way and it is very unlikely that any further software correction will be needed.

How to read our CA charts

Chromatic aberration (CA) is the lens' inability to focus on the sensor or film all colours of visible light at the same point. Severe chromatic aberration gives a noticeable fringing or a halo effect around sharp edges within the picture. It can be cured in software.

Apochromatic lenses have special lens elements (aspheric, extra-low dispersion etc) to minimize the problem, hence they usually cost more.

For this review, the lens was tested on a Pentax K-1 using Imatest.

Distortion measures -0.22% barrel, excellent and especially necessary for a macro lens. Copying of documents, for example, should retain straight edges.

Bokeh is not in the first league, being a little busy, but it is very acceptable and unlikely to be an issue with the sort of subjects sought for a macro lens. With just 6 diaphragm blades this is inevitable.

No doubt the very deeply recessed front element, effectively making its own lenshood, helps to banish flare and indeed flare was not a problem throughout the shooting of the sample images.

Vignetting is well under control and there is very little in the way of corner darkening.

Aperture Vignetting
f/2.8 -1.1
f/4 -0.5
f/5.6 -0.5
f/8 -0.5
f/11 -0.5
f/16 -0.5

Overall, really a very pleasing performance, with a lens design that, compared to current designs, is relatively simple. That simplicity in itself will reduce the likelihood of flare.

Value for Money

In a way it is unfortunate that these lenses do have a reputation, as it tends to put up the price. The reputation is largely justified and the lens holds its head up high. It can perform as an excellent macro lens on current digital cameras. Asking prices on eBay today ranged from £60 to £150, in a variety of mounts, but the price does seem to be edging up and the supply of mint lenses quite thin on the ground. Many are from overseas sellers, so watch the shipping costs, but there are lenses that come up from time to time and at £100 or less this looks pretty good value.

Vivitar Auto Macro 55mm f/2.8 Verdict

The main advantage is being able to focus right down to 1:1, whereas most macro lenses of its era only went down to half life size, or 1:2. The Vivitar is a totally viable macro option and should give excellent service. A vintage lens with its reputation vindicated. Some may consider manual focus to be a disadvantage, and indeed for general photography that may well be true. For macro shooting, where we often switch off AF anyway, that disadvantage disappears.

Likewise, the need for stop down metering also slows down the process, but practice is everything and soon this becomes much less of a burden that might be initially thought.

Overall, a very well thought out optical design that delivers great results, offers a full 1:1 magnification ratio and, at the right price, is Recommended.

Vivitar Auto Macro 55mm f/2.8 Pros

  • Excellent, even sharpness
  • 1:1 magnification
  • Recessed front element makes its own lenshood
  • Virtually no distortion
  • Very well corrected for CA
  • No flare

Vivitar Auto Macro 55mm f/2.8 Cons

  • Manual focus slows things down
  • Stop down metering also slows things down
  • No electronic contacts

Features: 3.5/5
Handling: 4/5
Performance: 4.5/5
Value: 4.5/5
Overall Verdict: 4/5

Vivitar Auto Macro 55mm f/2.8 Specifications

Manufacturer Vivitar
Lens Mounts Pentax M42
Pentax K
Focal Length 55mm
Angle of View No Data
Max Aperture f/2.8
Min Aperture f/16
Filter Size 62mm
Stabilised No
35mm equivalent 55mm
Internal focusing No
Maximum magnification 1x
Min Focus 5cm
Blades 6
Elements 5
Groups 4
Box Contents
Box Contents No Data
Weight 312g
Height 80mm

Members photos with related tags: 55mm

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