Vivitar 285HV Strobist Review

Vivitar Speedlite 285HV Flash on lightstandThe Vivitar 285HV is one of the real classics of flash photography, and it’s been the weapon of choice for thousands of strobists over the years.

With its manual mode, the PC connector, and even a manual zoom head you get everything you need to start strobing. Well, let’s say you get the absolute minimum for making good shots and absolutely nothing on top.

Build quality seems to be a mixed bag: some say it’s built like a tank, but you read a lot about quality problems with these units. It seems like the body of the flash is quite robust, but the innards don’t always keep up to that.

And with all the new competition out there, it seems like the workhorse is getting really old now.

Wireless Flash Minimum Requirements

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Verdict: A+


The Vivitar 285HV has a standard flash foot and can be / has been triggered with about any radio trigger out there. On top, it features a PC port which is the main reason why it is so beloved. This allows to connect any radio triggers or optical slaves (e.g. he Wein ‘peanut’ slaves) while keeping the flash foot free for a lightstand adapter e.g. The PC port is located in the flash foot and called ‘shutter cord socket’ in the instruction manual.

The unit has a triggering voltage of 6V or below, which means it’s theoretically safe to use on modern cameras (Nikon is less of a problem there than Canon, but this will be another article). But don’t get confused with 285HV and 285, only the former is safe with low voltage radio triggers like the Yongnuo RF-602, while the latter – the 285 without ‘HV’ – is dangerous.

Manual Mode

Vari-Power is a pretty fancy name for a manual mode which does not quite deserve the ‘fancy’ label: yes, the Vivitar 285HV has a manual mode, but all you can get is full power, 1/2 power, 1/4 power or 1/16. Yes, there is no 1/8. And yes, there is nothing like a 1/32 or a 1/64 setting either.

As this is something like the ‘cult’ flash for so many I should pay some respect, but for 90 USD new you can get more (yes I’m speaking of Yongnuo!). For your 1/8 or 1/32 setting or less, have fun with the neutral density gels and your velcro straps.


The flash has no standby mode, so we have no triggering problem – everyone happy.

Flash Head

The 285HV has a manual zoom ranging from 35 via 50 to 105 mm which is a pretty good tele length, allowing a nice focusing of the beam and making a snoot redundant in some cases. With the wide angle diffuser, it covers an angle of view comparable to 28mm (or something like 19mm in Nikon DX terms). So on the lower end it is less impressive, and it will create some vignetting with a 18-55DX even, not to speak of a 10/12 to 24.

The flash head tilts up to the usual 90 degrees and also down to a -9, which is nice as it allows the beam to hit the center of a shoot-thru umbrella for example. If used on a lightstand, the missing swivel is not a loss. But it is certainly a pretty big limitation in almost any other situation. All of the Yongnuo’s offer tilt and swivel for example, but then only the YN560 and YN468 have manual zoom heads (plus the YN467 in the Nikon version). If either swivel or manual zoom, I think I’d go with the zooming (point for Vivitar).

Output specifications

The 285-HV is specified to have a guide number of 120 feet at ISO 100, but this is the GN for 50mm. I use 35mm as the default focal length on this site, and so do many other companies (and people too, I believe) nowadays. For 35mm the guide number is 100 feet or 31m, which means it is as strong as a Nikon SB-600, but weaker than the professional line from Nikon or Canon which have a guide number of 36 at ISO 100, 35mm typically.

I don’t blame Vivitar for cheating here btw, it seems like 50 was the standard focal length in the old days for comparing flash units, as something like a 50mm 1.8 was the standard lens as well. Nowadays where everyone is shooting wider lenses (think of all the 18-55′s out there), I find 35mm to be a much more relevant value for benchmarking.

Power Supply

With alkaline batteries, recycle time is lame. But with NiMH batteries, it can be brought to a reasonable level. With one of the official upgraded power supply options, recycle time can be brought down to a very fast 1.25 seconds / 1.5 seconds (this is the specification for the old HVP-1 battery pack).

The flash does also work fine with NiMH batteries, and with 3rd party battery packs too. There is even an AC adapter (SB-4) which is a great accessory, it just does not help much with recycle time (users say it behaves as it always has s fresh set of alkalines, so expect something in the 6-10 seconds range).

The battery chamber has a clever design as it uses an insert called AP-1 which is available as an extra accessory. With some of these pre-filled with battery magazines, a battery change is very fast. This round goes to the Vivitar (Yongnuo: improve your battery chamber on the 46x line, please!).


No TTL, no E TTL, no i-TTL, nothing. If you want automatic, try using the ‘auto’ mode of the Vivitar 285-HV, or get yourself some 580EX’s or SB-900′s.

Full Tech Specs


Compared with …

Compare the Vivitar 285HV with other flash units, e.g.:

Vivitar 285HV vs Yongnuo old Nikon SB flash

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5 Responses to Vivitar 285HV Strobist Review

  1. frank says:

    Hi, thanks for the review. I enjoyed it. Having no 1/8 power setting is not much of a hassle for me as there can be easy remedies for it. Also, when using nimh batteries, in my experience, the recycle times can be pretty fast. I like it because there are guidelines at the side for the times when a meter is not at my disposal, and I got what I paid for. For something below $100, this flash is very handy, especially when you want to have full control on your flash/strobe. :) Also, iTTL and eTTL is not much of an issue as i feel that this flash is really designed to be used off camera. Thanks again! will be following this site from now on:)

  2. allen says:

    Why do you say that only the 285HV is safe. This unit was designed to be used with an external high voltage battery pack and that is the only difference.

    I have been using these units for over 20 years as a professional and have used them to expose over 6,ooo frames a month. I love these units and they have held up as long as my Norman strobes.

  3. Your specs say “First introduced – 2007″. You must mean the current poorly built units from the resurrected Vivitar. This flash first went into production in 1974 and is still in use today. I have had one for over 20 years and a more bulletproof unit you would be hard pressed to find. It has limitations for those techies who want their cameras to take their pictures for them, but for those of us who enjoy working out our own shots, a true blue trooper of a flash gun. Linked with a Quantum 1 or 1+ a hard combo to beat for manual lighting.

    • fransener says:

      Hello Donn – yes, I’m speaking about this “plastic thing” – that’s the new generation which was introduced in 2007. That’s the model I have and I’m not very impressed with it really. I don’t know the old ones I have to say and haven’t used it with a battery or power pack either. Thanks for pointing out the generation differences, I know the 285 has a lot of fans out there and that must be for a reason.

  4. carlos says:

    i buy and use one for 40 dollar 285hv and it work good for me i do some photography like wedding, birthday , sweet16 and more and it work real good.

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