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Vivitar V3800N

There are more and more people getting back into film.  Many others are picking it up for the first time. 

Update:  Back when this article was written, the Vivitar V3800n was still being made new.  Most of the links on here should still work today, but they'll take you to a used camera for sale.  It's still a decent 35mm camera, so read on....  

Is this Vivitar film camera any good?   Let's take a look.


Price & Features

The Vivitar 3800N sold for about $200 new (try this link for a used one).    The brand-new price point was not too bad, especially considering that a halfway decent digital compact costs about the same.  With the 3800N, that $200 buys you an SLR film camera, which means you can see and meter through the lens, you have full manual control, and it shoots film.   And you're getting a fast lens, which is kind of a big deal.  We'll talk about that more later.

In my opinion, cheap digital cameras absolutely cannot compare to film.   To me, a $200 digital camera or a $200 film camera is an easy choice:   I'd go for the film.   In fact, I'd pick a $200 film camera over most any digital camera, even if money were no object (read this to find out a big reason why).

The V3800N can be had with with either a 28-70mm zoom or a 50mm prime.  A 28-70 is handy, but I lean towards the 50mm.  This is a fast lens:  it can do f/1.7.  That means that if you use fast enough film, you can take hand-held shots indoors without a flash.  Fast film starts at ISO 800.  You can push many films all the way to 3200 with good results:  Superia 800,  Ilford HP-5 400, Ilford XP-2 400, Kodak Portra 400, Kodak Tri-X 400, and probably others. 

Anyway, back to the camera.  50mm is also the best all-around focal length for a 35mm camera lens.  50mm lets you do portraits, street photography, landscapes, and all-around shooting.  

I almost forgot to mention... the lens is a K-mount, meaning this camera accepts Pentax K-mount lenses.  That opens up a lot of possibilities.   The 50mm lens that comes with the V3800N accepts standard 52mm filters.   If you shoot a lot of color film you'll probably want to pick up a circular polarizer (Tiffen here;  Hoya here).  For B&W film you definitely need a yellow filter and maybe an orange one.  I like Tiffen filters as long as I know the sun isn't going to be glaring into them.  (If they're in your budget, get the multi-coated Hoya filters.)

Once again, this is an all-manual camera.   It does not have Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Program modes.  You have to adjust the shutter speed and f/stop according to the light meter for each shot.  That's not as difficult as it seems.  If you're in a place where the light doesn't change much, you'll be able to stay at one shutter speed and within 2 or 3 aperture settings.   When your settings are right, you'll see a green dot light up.  If there's not enough light, it's a red "-" sign, and if too much light, there's a red "+" sign.  Pretty much self-explanatory.

Focus, of course, is fully-manual.   But you knew that already.

Last, but not least, I've heard there is a way to achieve mirror lockup on this camera.  It isn't actually a listed feature, but I understand if you press the shutter release while the self-timer lever is running, the mirror will stay open.  That way when the shutter does go, there should be no mirror slap.   This allows you to get sharp photos even with a cheap tripod.  

Construction Quality

The 3800n is light, it's mostly plastic... how can it be any good, right?  Actually, the 3800N is not that light, and even though it uses some plastic, it's got a very solid heft to it.  You can tell there's metal underneath that exterior.  To me, this camera feels nothing like the Vivitar V4000, which has a cheaper casing.  When I first took the 3800 out of the box, I thought "Aw, man, I can't leave this camera in the glove compartment.  It's too nice!"  

The optics of the 50mm lens seem quite good.  That's because lens technology has advanced so far.  We're long past the era where cheap money meant mediocre lenses.  Now, computer aided design and manufacture mean that even a cellphone camera has good optics.  Yes, even a $100 prime lens for a cheap DSLR can be something to write home about. 

That Vivitar 50mm f/1.7 has some nice glass.  It takes 52mm filters, and it's a K-mount. 

The V3800N has four main weak points, but only one of them is potentially that big a deal.

First, the viewfinder is not the greatest, but then again it isn't all bad.   What I don't like about it is that it's a bit hazy.  It reminds me of the fogging that can happen when you go from air-conditioned indoors to humid outdoors.  Then again, mine might have actually been fogged the first couple times I used it.  When I took it outside on a dry day, the viewfinder was a bit more clear.  Maybe it just fogs easily.  Even on the best days, though, it can be difficult to tell whether your subject is perfectly in focus, unless you rely on the diagonal split region.  Spontaneous portraits can be a little tough for this reason.  If you have time to set up the shot and people don't get bored and walk away, then obviously you can get better focus.

What I do like about the viewfinder is the diagonal split-screen.  Horizontal and vertical split-screens always require you to tilt the camera sooner or later just to see the split focus line.  The diagonal was a great idea. 

The second weak point is the rather strong mirror slap.    For a brand-new SLR selling for $200 in 2012 or 2013, I guess this is not a huge surprise.   The mirror slap might affect the sharpness if you're using a cheap tripod at 1/8 of a second, but then again, with the short lens you probably won't notice it much.  I don't know what the long-term outcome will be of a mirror that slaps that hard, but my camera is probably at least two or three years old, and it still works fine.

The third weak point is that the strap lugs are held in by die-cast metal.  If you drop this camera, there's a good chance you'll break out one of the lugs.   That's not a huge problem, since the camera will continue to work just fine without it.  Just make sure no pieces get into the film advance mechanism.

So far, none of these drawbacks is that big a deal.   What about the fourth weak point?

(Update: This is now a moot point, since they don't make this camera new anymore.  For historical purposes I leave this here:)

That was, at least in the past, the warranty service and support.   I know you were probably hoping for a "final word" kind of review, but this area is something I'm going to have to update when I find out more.  Vivitar is now owned by a new company since 2008.  On their main website, there is a nice big picture of the V3800N.  If these guys are smart, they will (1.) work out any remaining bugs in this camera, and (2.) work out any bugs in their customer service, if they haven't already.  I, and many other people, want to see a good film SLR being offered at an affordable price.

So, in the meantime, you are probably wondering:   What if the shutter breaks?   What if the light meter goes bad?  This is where the drawback of buying a $200 camera could show up.  However, most of the bad reviews I've seen for this camera go back to 2008-2009.   I'm thinking it's possible they've ironed out the bugs, though I don't know for sure.  What I do know is that my Vivitar 3800N has seen considerable use and is still working just fine. 

(As of 2012 the Vivitar website had the V3800 warranty mentioned in a prominent place.)

Aside from these issues, the next most important question for any camera is: 

Does it take good pictures?

It sure does.  (Well, the camera doesn't take the pictures;  you do.)   The 50mm lens doesn't have macro, but you can get pretty close to your subject.

Click on this one to see a bigger image.   The area of sharp focus is
not in the center of the photo, because I focused on the closest part of the tire

Fuji Superia 100

This f/1.7 lens yields somewhat wiry bokeh, but that depends a lot on subject choice.   You can easily get that paper-thin depth of field effect, though.   The conoisseurs of bokeh will probably want smoother background blurring, but they can always fit some other K-mount lens to this camera.  I like this one just fine.

Fuji Superia 100

Multiple exposures are easy to do with the V3800N.  The "multi" button is right near the film advance lever.  Just press it while actuating the lever, and the shutter can be triggered again on the same frame.  Very convenient. 

The capability is there, for sure.  Get a few four-packs of 200 or 400 film and play around with this feature.  The possibilities are limitless.   (Don't forget to set the correct ISO number on the camera... it's not automatic.)

Fuji Superia 100

The focus throw is not as smooth or easy as you'd get with a more expensive lens.   It's not bad;  it's just not that fast.  Because of this, it wouldn't be my top choice for weddings, parades, or other events where people are doing a lot of moving.  It's good for shots where you have more time:  portraits, still life, and landscapes.  Focus throw might fit more under the "construction quality" heading, but a slow focus throw does affect the pictures you take.  If you can't get the focus set fast enough, you're going to blur the shot or miss it.  

I was taking some pictures at a town event when someone knocked over a couple of those big orange cones.  Missed that one, because I was messing around with that focus ring.  I didn't want to take an out-of-focus picture, so I completely passed up the shot.  With a quicker focus throw (such as on the old 50mm Nikon), I'd have had that one.   (Actually, those kinds of shots are best done with AF lenses anyway).

The ring is not slow as molasses, but it could be a little faster.  Then again, if I had really been trying to capture fast action and the shots were critical, I would have chosen a camera with AF and auto mode.   

That doesn't mean you can't get an occasional fast action shot...

Fuji Superia 100

Really, if you use this camera and practice with it all the time, you could get good enough where it won't be an issue.  Auto-focus can be kind of dumb sometimes anyway, focusing on the wrong thing when you least want it to. 

What I do like about the manual focus ring is the grip.  It's easy to find when you're not looking at it.

The aperture ring goes in half-stop increments, which is nice.   That's very nice, in fact, when you're using slide film, since it has a narrower latitude than print film.   I think this camera would be really good for slides, and it's just a matter of time until I run a roll of E-6 through it.

Should You Buy This Camera?
The V3800 is inexpensive, it's fun, it's pretty solid, and it allows you to take nice pictures.   I use mine all the time.  If you get "develop only" at one-hour photo and scan your own negatives, you can have tons of inexpensive pictures. 

I really see a lot of potential in this camera.   (Vivitar, pay attention:  fix your customer service.  Work out the bugs- the shutter breakage, whatever.  The world still wants film cameras, and they're looking to you to provide them.  Be a leader;  this is your moment. )

The cheapest DSLR's are what, $400?   I'll just say that if post-processing is not your forté, I recommend getting a film camera instead.  Even if you are good at "post", why not use film and have the real thing?   If you're going to spend $400 you could buy two Vivitar 3800N's in case one breaks.  To me, that's better than buying one $400 DSLR and having it break.    You could get one 3800N with the 50mm lens and one with the 28-70.   

Superia 100

Odds are that if you don't roughneck around with this camera, it will last a long time.   I've noticed that the worst reviews for the V3800N are from a couple of photography teachers.  You might find that discouraging, but I don't.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Here's why.  Photo students are going to be especially rough on a camera, because it's not their camera.  Not only that, but also many of them are not even photography types.   They're taking a photo course to fill an elective requirement.  I'm not saying a camera shouldn't be able to withstand that-- Pentax K-1000  cameras did for years-- I'm just saying that you should have better luck than they did with this camera.   As I said before, those reviews also tend to be from around 2008-2009, and I read one review that said they were the cameras made before the company changed hands.  

Besides, if the Pentax K-1000 were made new today with no design changes, it wouldn't be $200 with a lens.  Try more like $500 in today's dollars.   For what it is, the V3800 is a pretty reasonable deal;  the build quality is about right for the price point.   (If Pentax K-1000's were available newly-manufactured today at $500, I'd save the money and get one of those before I'd buy a DSLR.  But they'd have to be made right, like the originals....).

Star Trails

Put it on a tripod, set the shutter to "bulb",  and
rubber band a piece of cardboard on the shutter button.
Let it sit for about two hours.

As I mentioned before, my V3800N has been dropped (broken strap lug), yet everything else still works fine.  Your mileage may vary.  Personally, I love this camera.  I just don't want to tell you this is the greatest thing since sliced bread and then have you end up with a customer-service debacle (I kind of don't think that will happen, though).    I'd like for you to be an educated camera buyer.   Keep in mind that any major retailer is going to have a return policy, usually 30 days, so you shouldn't go too far wrong with this camera.  If it has a bad meter or something, just exchange it.

Where Can You Buy This Camera?

At the moment you can buy the Vivitar V3800N online at Amazon with the 50mm lens or  with the 28-70 zoom lens.   


Either one of these will fit into a smaller camera bag such as the Tamrac 5602, which I like a lot.  The 50mm will leave plenty of room in the bag for a used Vivitar 283 flash, which is worth getting for this camera (try this link).   There are a lot of 283's kicking around, and many of them still work great (just don't ever use one on a digital camera... the back voltage will fry your camera).

Be sure pick up some 35mm film, too.  I like Fuji Superia 400.   (The 36-exposure rolls should be available here.)  Don't forget to set the correct ISO on the camera!   Speaking of ISO, you might also try some Superia 800 film (try this link) and Kodak Portra 800 (try this one).  (I'm a huge fan of Superia 800, but Portra 800 is a pro film and tolerates underexposure much better.) 

800 film pairs well with the V3800N's fast f/1.7 lens for low-light situations. 

(If you use these links to buy your cameras & supplies, it really helps me keep this site going.  Thank you for your help.)

The V3800 isn't bad.  There are a lot worse things you could spend $200 on.  As I said, my 3800 has been working just fine, and I really like it.  If your skills have atrophied from using autofocus and aperture-priority a lot, this camera will get you back into practice.

I hope you enjoyed this article and photo gallery.  Thanks for visiting this site.

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