Vivitar V3800N 35mm SLR Camera

By George Belanus


A look through the current B&H photographic company's catalog contained an old artifact that this old newspaper reporter/photographer had seen a lot of at one time. It was a manually operated 35mm single lens reflex camera that used film, just the type that had been in use by practically all of the newspapers in the United States during the time I had been a reporter. More specifically, it was a Vivitar V3800N, advertised in the B&H catalog as coming with a 28 to 70 millimeter zoom lens in kit form.

I had been looking for that type of camera because things have gotten to the point that local camera stores no longer stock SLR film cameras. You can find plenty of those little pocket digital cameras that look like something Rube Goldberg cooked up, but don't resemble a real camera, at least to somebody who started taking pictures with a 35mm SLR. You can find plenty of digital SLR cameras today in local camera shops, which look like the old film SLR's but are actually something quite different.

Don't get me wrong. Those little pocket type digitals do get the job done, and are much quicker to get prints or images from than the old film cameras were and still are (if you can still find a film SLR). All you have to do with one of the pocket cameras is set it on automatic, which in effect makes it a digital point and shoot camera, go through the drill of framing the shot, pressing the shutter and then taking the camera back to your PC at home to load the images onto the computer. Nothing could be easier or quicker. At times, I have been hard pressed to see the difference between an eight-mega pixel digital print and a 35mm film camera print.

Chances are you can get just as good of images and prints out of a digital SLR, especially the ones with more than an eight mega pixel capability. However, the initial cost of those cameras is high, and the added personal expense of that proposition is that you have to relearn how to use an SLR camera, even to the point of the terminology being used in the camera's manual. I always thought the term RAW, for instance, referred to one possible condition that shrimp could exist in rather than something that referred to how a camera operated, for instance.

You get the message. I am one of those old dinosaurs who spent most of his photographic incarnation using those film SLR's. In the current day and age, it takes much less time from when you actually click the shutter (or what passes for it) to the time you send the image out to a customer on a computer via the Internet. This is due to just having to upload the images onto the computer and then telling the computer to send it to a specific email address. With a film camera, you have the added step of having to get the film developed, then having either a print or digitized images made depending on how you plan to get the images to the final customer, like a newspaper or magazine.

Back when I started using a camera in newspaper work, all we had to use were the old manual film SLR's. The working newsman who normally had to use the camera in a big hurry, at such occurrences as fires, gunfights, traffic accidents and the like. This meant that you could not re-stage each and every shot if you thought you got the focus slightly off, or the exposure was not quite kosher.

Nope, you normally had to come screeching up on the scene, grab the camera as you scooted out of the car, then start automatically sizing up the lighting, lay of the land and other variables as your feet hit the ground. Was it bright sunlight or was there cloud cover, which directly affected the available light and the camera settings? Was it one of those things that meant you had to hide behind your car as you popped your head and the camera up over the hood to get a quick shot or two due to possible gunfire erupting in the immediate vicinity? Maybe it was a traffic accident or a standard fire that did not have any threat of bodily harm as far as the photographer was concerned, as long as you stayed out of the way of traffic or of possible debris falling off a burning building.

At any rate, the world of news photography as I knew it consisted of using a 35mm SLR and knowing how to use it well enough to be able to set it up correctly without even thinking about it, well before the advent of things like autofocus. Like driving a car with a manual transmission, you had to know how to use the camera under varying conditions without having to spend any time thinking about it. You just did not get a second chance at getting a decent shot in news photography, so you just had to know what you were doing. When the perfect shot presented itself, you had to be ready for it and already have your camera set up for the conditions that prevailed.

One other thing that helped was that the papers I worked at had long since standardized on 400-speed black and white film, normally Tri-X, which meant you didn't have to fiddle around with changing the film dial setting, which further meant you had one less thing to slow you down or foul your operation up.

Now that digital cameras have come into common use by newspapers, you have auto-focus and a host of other advantages built into the cameras that you did not have with the old SLR's, but there is a downside to that.

Those new digital jobs rely heavily on the use of microchips to make the autofocus and other features operate. They also depend heavily on batteries to keep enough power coming to make all those features keep on working. I've managed to get to the point where I have used film and digital cameras that relied heavily on both microchips and batteries to keep them going, and have had them fail at just the precise times that I could ill afford them going out of service. Just when the right shot presented itself, or when a couple extra shots would have rounded out a series of shots that would have made a good photographic presentation or feature, the microchips or the batteries have gone out. When that happens, you are entirely up the creek without a paddle, batteries or microchips. All your effort, or at least a great part of it until the time the works was fouled up, has been wasted.

Not so with the old mechanical cameras, like the Pentax K- 1000 with which I really learned to take photos. All you had in the way of batteries with the Pentax K-1000 was a couple small wafer-like batteries that powered the through-the-lens light meter. If those batteries went dead, all that dropped out of operation was that light meter. With enough experience you could guesstimate the lighting conditions and camera settings so you could still get a decent photograph to run in the next edition. If you didn't have enough experience to guesstimate the settings against the available light, the little box the film came in had some printed settings-to-available-light tips on it.

The old Pentax K-1000's could hold up to a hellish amount of abuse. I have bounced them off the walls of a C-130 transport aircraft transport, used them in the middle of rainstorms, and dragged them through the dust of the roads in Honduras that was several inches thick, and they have never quit working.

When I finally got a film SLR of my own, it was a Minolta X-700 that was digitized to the extent you could use it manually or semi-automatically. However, since I needed a second camera or felt I did, I wound up getting a Vivitar manual SLR that was no doubt the immediate predecessor to the V3800N I just bought from that photography outfit in New York City. The price on that first Vivitar I ever bought was $100 for the body and since it had a K-mount the same as the Pentax K-1000's did, you could get plenty of different used lenses at local pawnshops for not much money at all.

Like the Pentax K-1000, that first Vivitar film camera was manual in operation. One drawback to it was that it seemed to be a bit more cheaply made. It had what seemed to be largely a plastic body to it, though it was a bit more ergonomically friendly than the K-1000's. That first Vivitar did not hold up as well as the Pentax and sometimes the only thing that worked for a money-strapped newsman was jury-rigging repairs on your own.

The nice thing about that first Vivitar I had was that it still managed to come up with decent photographs, with the proviso that the photographer held up his end of the canoe and you used decent film in the camera. The price was also right at the time, circa 1985 if my memory holds up.

Just off the top of my head, I can still recall several front page photos that accompanied stories I wrote that I took with that original Vivitar. One was a shot of a family residence in the boonies of Wetzel County, West Virginia, where several members of one family had been murdered during a robbery. The shot was taken during a jury view of the crime scene, which was visited by jurors on a hot summer's day as they were hearing evidence during a retrial of one of the defendants in the case. I had parked my car about a quarter mile from the residence due to poor road conditions and walked in, and got the shot from about an eighth of a mile from the house with a 50mm lens on the camera, and from an elevated vantage point on the road leading to the house. It was one of those hurried shots that every news photographer has to take, but it was certainly good enough to run on the front pages of the morning and evening newspapers in Wheeling, West Virginia.

The main point is that the old Pentax and Vivitar 35mm film SLR's were real sluggers for the photographer who had to, or still has to, go out in the real world and get photographs that are worth a damn under the worst conditions possible. Newspapers have largely gone to the use of cheap digital cameras at present due to the economics of photography. You buy a bunch of pocket digital cameras for your reporters, have those reporters set them on automatic, and you can get photos that will easily be good enough to run in the newspaper. Sometimes you can get lucky enough to have digital cameras that can produce photos as good as the old film 35mm cameras. You really could tell the difference between the images taken by a good photographer with a film camera and a digital when the first digitals were coming into use and did not have a high mega pixel count.

At present, the digitals have apparently caught up to the film caught up to the film 35mms in terms of picture quality. But if the batteries and the circuitry go out for any reason at all--rain, being dropped on concrete, battery exhaustion, or a host of other reasons--the digitals are toast and you're out of luck if you don't have a backup camera at hand. Normally newspapers are not in the habit of supplying two cameras for each reporter, so if you just carry one digital you better hope and pray that digital, along with its batteries and circuits, stays in good condition.

When this old news reporter saw that one brand-new Vivitar advertised in the B&H catalog and made a quick telephone call, he was mightily surprised to find out that the advertised film camera would only cost him $170 including shipping and handling from New York City to his town in Eastern Ohio. It also included that 28 to 70mm lens, which was decent. After all, this was several years after buying that original Vivitar body for $100 and using inexpensive Pentax lenses from pawn shops on it. This way you would have one camera and lens combination that you would not be afraid to take anywhere, just like in the old days.

It took exactly two weeks from the time the personal check for $170 went out to B&H for the camera to arrive on the front porch via UPS delivery. It was kind of like Christmas opening the brown box containing the camera and lens, and it was worth the effort.

First off, the lens had to be put onto the camera body and screwed on with a nice, solid, and satisfying "click.'' Apparently this lens was on to stay and there was no wiggle to it after the "click'' came and went.In contrast to that first Vivitar, this one felt heavier, as if it has more metal construction than plastic to it. It just seems heavier and solider.

Apparently, since Vivitar has a liberal policy toward what constitutes a kit camera, there were a few things that I considered extra packed into the brown UPS box along with the camera and the lens. There was a nice-looking camera strap, mostly blue with a white stripe. There were also a couple of wafer-type batteries included to run the through-the-lens light meter with, which you normally had to pay extra for when you bought a camera body at a retail camera store back in the heyday of the 35mm film cameras. Moreover, lo and behold, there was a lens shroud, which is one of those things I had never seen or used before. The mystery of the strange appliance was solved by searching the term "lens shroud'' on the Internet and soon enough the shroud wound up being screwed onto the end of the 28-70 zoom lens.

The first evening was spent reading the manual and inspecting the camera to become reacquainted with the controls of a film SLR. It has been a few years since I used one, and in the meantime have passed on to using a Pentax ZX-M film camera and a Fujifilm digital at 8.5 mega pixels. I was surprised that the intervening years had caused my memories of the controls of a fully mechanical camera to fade, and I had to have a bit of a refresher course to reacquaint myself with how everything worked.

One interesting thing was the specifications page at the rear of the small instruction manual. Lo and behold, this camera is truly all mechanical. Even the shutter release is mechanical, meaning that I got exactly what I wanted. With this camera, you do not have to rely on the batteries to make anything work except for the light meter. Some 35mm film cameras are billed as mechanical cameras but have an electronic shutter release instead of a mechanical one. This means the shutter as well as the light meter works off batteries, instead of a mechanical setup. It also means that the shutter locks up when the batteries die or go low on power for some other reason, such as extremely cold weather. It is another electronic component to be fried by extremely high temperatures or any other reason.

The next morning found the camera loaded with a roll of 400- speed color film. It seemed that the first few frames of the first couple rolls were kind of hard to roll onto the take-up spindle inside the camera, but that apparently was my fault in having forgotten that one needs to make sure the sprocket holes on the edge of the film mate up with the sprocket wheels inside the camera before advancing the film. Once that was done the take-up smoothed right out.

The test drive of the Vivitar came during a beautiful Fall day just before the winter weather started in the Ohio Valley in the middle of November. A trip to the Pike Island locks and dam on the Ohio River was arranged, and that trip's outcome told me that the Vivitar is perfectly capable of getting decent photos as it came from B&H.

The photos of the dam were all shot at varying telephoto settings, which necessitated changes in focus to a small extent due to lens focal length, and the shots all came out fine, crisp and clear. A couple shots of the car also came out fine despite a brightly sunlit day, with the car shots being taken at a 28mm wide angle lens setting just off the car's nose. I was satisfied with the photographic results that the Vivitar produced.

There were a couple drawbacks. First, the first couple of rolls of film being cranked onto the take-up spool have been a bit rough for the first few cranks of the take-up handle, but that was my fault. Also, the little rubber eyepiece that fits onto the aft part of the viewfinder was on the loose side. In fact, it actually dropped right off the camera when I turned the camera upside down. I decided I didn't really need that loose of a fitting on the aft end of the viewfinder and tossed it into the camera bag, where it will probably stay indefinitely. I can certainly see through the viewfinder fine without it attached, and no doubt will be able to get photos without it.

Thirdly, a K-type bayonet lens that works perfectly and fits tightly on the ZX-M feels a bit loose in the Vivitar's mount. The reason for that could be one of a number of things, like differing manufacturing tolerances from one lens maker to another. The Vivitar, incidentally, came with a Vivitar lens while you normally have to buy the lens extra when you get only the camera body. That Vivitar lens fit that new Vivitar camera perfectly, nice and tight. Apparently, Vivitar takes manufacturing tolerances between their cameras and lenses into account, since the Vivitar lens fit the new Viv camera very well.

In looking up the Vivitar V3800N SLR on the Internet, I have found conflicting reports on it from other persons who have owned them. Some swear by them while others swear at them. However, it seemed from a quick perusal of a limited amount of reports available that most persons were happy with the results they got for the money they put out. In short, they generally felt they got good pictures from a very reasonably priced camera. Moreover, I was satisfied with the way the Vivitar handles, operates and takes photographs.

Some gripes in that one magazine article had to do with the lack of what one would call optional features and amenities in the photographic world, such as autofocus, auto wind and the like. Other persons, a very small minority, had bad things to say about something going wrong with the Vivitar they bought and customer service from the manufacturer not being up to what they considered a decent standard. I never have had any gripe with the lack of those optional features on a straight mechanical film camera, since they are things that tend to go wrong at the worst time. The Vivitar also feels sturdy enough to last forever, or at least still be going strong after I give out.

Most of the persons reviewing the camera said they had bought it for a basic photography instruction course, and that it filled that role very well. Others said that they were satisfied with the camera and its performance well enough that they were considering it as first-line photography equipment.

What do I think? I think this one is a big advance on the earlier Vivitar 35mm SLR I once owned. It seems sturdier, it feels better in the hand and it takes equally good photos. The 28-70mm lens seems a bit "slower'' than what I've been used to for some reason, to the point where you really need more light than other makes of zooms to get the thing to work in low light conditions. However, when you are working with ASA 400 film in broad daylight when the sun is out, all the way from 28 to 70mm settings on the lens, you get good pictures out of the camera.

When you boil it all down, the old mechanical 35mm film cameras filled the photographic niche that cried out for a relatively fast-operating camera that you could take literally anywhere and not have it fail you. I never used any of the older Speed Graphic cameras, but since the manual 35mm cameras had superseded the Speed Graphics by the time I started being a news reporter in 1968, chances are the 35mm cameras did the job faster and in other ways better than the old Speed Graphics did.

The pocket Fujifilm digital camera I began using just last summer and the Pentax ZX-M 35mm film camera I still use have certain advantages over the old manuals. The Pentax, for instance, is just short of being completely automated with its built- in film advance and rewind motor, and its ability to operate in any of three different operating modes. All you have to do when it is set to Program mode is set the appropriate zoom setting on the lens and make sure it is focused okay. The digital is even more advanced, since it also features autofocus and has a handy little gadget surrounding the firing button that zooms the lens and you don't have the initial cost of film purchase or the cost of developing and printing film. All you have to do with the digital is upload the images onto your computer and email them off to whoever wants to use them. In short, cameras have become a lot easier for the average person to operate since 1968 when I first became exposed to photography.

As noted, the old mechanical 35mm cameras had their niche and they still do. We have to remember that all it takes to bring a largely battery-run camera to the point of being dead in its tracks is a completely discharged set of batteries, or to be operating in a place where the temperatures are so low that the batteries simply don't put out enough current to make all the different gewgaws on the camera work.

Picture this, if you will excuse the choice of words, you are out on a shooting expedition with a digital camera some fifty miles from nowhere and have just started firing away when your camera flashes the warning signal at you that indicates you have just a couple more images to go before the batteries are completely dead. You check in the camera bag or your pocket and discover that the spare batteries at back at the house approximately 75 miles away. In the meantime, you know in your heart that the award-winning shot you have been shooting at is fading fast with the available light as sunset is coming on rapidly. Surely, that shot is not going to be there in the morning when you come back with a set of new batteries in the digital camera.

Now, if you had a mechanical 35mm film camera in a situation like that, you wouldn't have to sweat the situation. When the batteries on the old mechanicals go dead, all that stops working is the light meter. Anybody with any experience at all with a straight mechanical camera can use that experience to tell them what settings will put the camera into the ball park of getting a decent shot out of the available light even with a dead light meter. Alternatively, you can have a handheld light meter in your camera bag. If you do not have that, the little box your film came in normally has instructions inside on what settings to use in different lighting conditions. Read those instructions and set the dials accordingly.

When utter reliability is the goal, a straight mechanical film camera is the thing to reach for when you absolutely, positively have to come back with some photos in hand. It appears that this new rendition of an older type of camera is going to be a constant companion when this old writer and photographer goes out the door for practically anything, especially when getting some photos is the objective of the trip. It feels sturdy enough to hold up like a Pentax K-1000, which is no longer in production, and always comes up with a decent photograph.

If you have a digital camera, and depend on it to provide you with the pleasure of photography as a hobby or to keep you in an income as a professional photographer, you might consider getting one of those old mechanical film cameras as a backup. After all, you never know when something could go wrong with the digital and when it does, it is usually at the worst time.

I guess I fit into the category of person who plans to make a mechanical film camera his or her standard for photography, especially under adverse conditions. The Pentax and the Fujifilm can do the picture taking under easy conditions, but when things get bad, I'll reach for the Vivitar.




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Copyright 2009 by George Belanus. All rights reserved.



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