The Vivitar 283 electronic flash is one of history’s most iconic pieces of photography equipment. First introduced in 1972, it is still used today by many photographers, and up until about three years ago, I was still using them in my outdoor shoots. It was rugged, easy to use, cheap and versatile. It was a game-changer.
When flashbulbs ruled the world
Let’s put it in perspective. In 1972 flashbulbs were still being used in professional circles, and for amateurs, that was all they had. A flashbulb is like a small light bulb filled with a metal filament designed to burn and produce a bright light when an electric current is sent through. The camera and flash fire simultaneously. The flashbulb is suitable for one photo; that’s it, just one. You then would toss it in the trash, and a new one is set in place. It was a slow and expensive way to take a photo, but until the early 70s, that was just about the only way to take a picture when the light was low.
The market got creative with the flashbulb. First, the flashcube was used on small cameras like the Kodak Instamatic; it had four small flashbulbs enclosed in a square that would spin around when you took a photo. Then there was the flash bar used with polaroid cameras with ten flashes. You would take five photos, flip the bar around, then take five more. Amazon still lists them for a whopping $29.95. That’s $3.00 plus the film for every photo you take.
When I was a freshman in high school (1969-70), my basic photography class taught us how to figure exposure using a flashbulb. (ouch, do I feel old) The flashbulb put out a consistent amount of light every time. Based on how far away the subject was and what film you had in the camera, your calculated, mainly in your head, to figure out your exposure. No wonder wedding albums in the 50s and early 60s only had a dozen photos.
The appearance of electronic flash units
Electronic flash units began appearing in the mid to late 60s, but they were large and expensive. By the early to mid-70s, when the Viviar 283 appeared, the size and price started declining, but most were either large and costly or weak and cheap. Pros used large flash units, often on handles, that required a large battery pack, and by large, I’m talking about half a car battery. I remember wearing one on my waist at a wedding when I knocked into a pew at a St. Mary’s ceremony. The priest’s look let me know I should be more careful.
The battery packs would put out about 500 volts, and I remember a story from another photographer of him getting knocked on the ground once when one of his packs shorted out. They were expensive and so big that you didn’t use one unless you did this for a living.
The 283 changed everything.
When the Vivitar 283 was introduced, it changed the professional photography world forever. Powerful and compact, it had a system that conserved battery power, and accessories that expanded the boundaries of what the unit could do. It soon became “the” flash units for working pros, from photojournalists to wedding photographers. When you see old news events from the 70s, 80s, and 90s you see press photographers all using 283s.
I got my first 283 in 1979 when I became a dad—photographing my kids. I began using them for my wedding photography when I started my business in 1984 and continued using them when I switched all my work to digital in 2005. Using them as fill flashes for outdoor photography until 2019. They were built like a tank, you could buy one for under a hundred dollars, and I even built a DIY battery set up for them.
All good things come to an end.
Vivitar was a brand name only, just a design and marketing company that outsourced production. It did have several items on the market that were as good or better than anything you could buy. It had the 283, and a group of lenses called Series 1 that was top quality. But the camera market changed, the company name was sold, and the 283 became a shell of itself. The Vivitar name is still around, and you can find something called the Vivitar DF283 on Amazon, but it’s just a name. Nothing like the original.
You can still find the original unit used on eBay, but the world has moved on. Flash units now do so much more than the classic 283 for just over a hundred bucks. These units feature radio controls firing multiple flash units and triggering them at once. (see the Godox TT685)
Brand name flashes from Canon and Nikon have skyrocketed in price in the digital era. For example, one Canon Speedlight, the EL-1, retails for $900 (ouch). I have had two Canon 580EX units for years that cost me under $500 each. They have many more features than the 283 (most of which I don’t use) that make the photographer’s life easier. Better battery life, focus assistance, and automatic zoom to fit the angle of view of the lens I am using. But they don’t give me any higher percentage of good exposures than that old Vivitar 283 designed in 1972. I can’t think of another piece of photographic equipment that lasted as long then the Vivitar 283.