Development of Zoom Lenses

Zoom Side-600

Which camera or lens manufacturer produced the first “modern” zoom lens? By “modern,” I mean, using advanced techniques such as computer aided designs and producing a lens that performed close to what one might get in a prime. Was it Nikon? Ziess? Pentax? Canon? Leica? (And yes, Leica did produce high quality zoom lenses for their “R” system.) No, it was none of these prestigious brands. It was not even a Japanese or German company. It was an American company based in Southern California. It was Vivitar, known, if they are known at all nowadays, for cheap, plastic optics and cheap flashes. But at one time Vivitar produced some of the finest lenses and flashes available for SLR cameras. Consider this excerpt from Popular Science magazine, January 1974:

How about an all purpose lens that zooms from 35mm to 85mm and focuses for close-ups too? Or a wide-angle zoom with an 18-46mm range? Or a 70-210 tele zoom with macro-focusing capability? Or fast wide-angle and telephoto lenses that perform well at all focus settings?

These are not just "dream lenses." Several are in the camera stores right now. Others wlil be on the market before this year is out.

Recent improvements in camera lenses are largely by-products of the U.S. space program. Advanced optical design techniques had to be developed to solve the complicated lens problems of space technology. These procedures involved the use of larger computers and more sophisticated programming than had ever before been used to design lenses.

Now these computer techniques have been adopted to the design of lenses for general photography. Notable is the Vivitar Series 1 program launched several years ago by Vivitar Corporation, Tokyo-based subsidiary of Ponder & Best, Inc. of Los Angeles.

For this project, American optical designers, with special know-how acquired in the space program, teamed up with innovative Japanese production engineers. Their goal: to develop a line of zoom and single-focal-length lenses capable of performance higher than that attained by contemporary optics, yet priced so that many photographers could afford them. A tall order!

How well the Vivitar team has suceeded is evidenced by the three Series 1 lenses now on the market. Not too many years ago, an optical expert woudl have told you that these lenses could not be made.

First macro zoom lens. Available since mid-1973, the 70-210mm f3.5, first macro-focusing automatic zoom lens for 35mm single-lens reflext cameras, delivers impressively high performance throughout its focal ranges, comparing favorably with top-drawer nonzoom telephoto and macro lenses....

The 135mm f2.3 and 200mm f3 telephotos, which recently joined the 70-210mm zoom on the market, are not nly among the fastest lenses of their focal lengths, but are superb performers in the image-quality department, too. Traditionally, tele lenses have been designed to function optimally at infinity. Degree of aberration (distortion) increases as the lens approaches close focusing (moves away from the film), and image quality deteriorates. It took Vivitar designers three years and a lot of time on one of the world's largest computer banks to solve this problem.

Their solution is incorporated in the new Series 1 135mm and 200mm lenses. A stationary rear compensating element automatically corrects aberrations at all points from the closest focusing distance (three and four feet, respectively) to infinity.

You look at the zoom lenses of Nikon and Pentax, the two largest SLR manufacturers of the sixties and early seventies, and you find nothing like that Series 1 Vivitar lens. Pentax didn’t produce their first zoom lens until 1964, and even in the mid seventies, they only had three models available. These old zooms were expensive and fraught with distortion issues. Pentax actually issued warnings about their zooms, informing their customers not to buy them if they needed distortion-free images. By using computers to design zoom lenses, Vivitar revolutionized photography. Nowadays, nearly everyone uses zoom lenses. When I go out to iconic landscape locations such as The Windows in Arches National Park or Maroon Bells in Colorado, I see almost entirely cameras with zooms.

Vivitar not only moved the ball forward on zooms, but they have had an even bigger impact on the development flash. Vivitar did not sell a huge amount of zoom lenses, at least not at first. The expensive zooms did not catch on; only the cheaper zooms, which lens companies began making in huge quantities in the eighties and nineties, made the zoom lens ubiquitous. But Vivitar dominated in flash. The Vivitar 283 flash (the original one, not the current one) was introduced in the early seventies and long became the staple of professionals. Merely compare it with competing flashes from Nikon and the other major camera companies and you can immediately see why the Vivitar flash was so successful. No one made an on camera flash quite so powerful and durable, or so practical and useful. Nikon and other camera companies would, of course, imitate Vivitar, and surpass them; but it was Vivitar who got the ball rolling and initially created the demand for more power flash units.

One other area where Vivitar innovated is in the introduction of macro lenses with 1:1 magnification, which quickly became the standard after Vivitar’s introduction of the Series 1 Vivitar 105mm macro, a lens that still, despite being manual focus, fetches prices north of $300.