Company Profile: Vivitar

Pekka Buttler, 03/2024

Quick summary

Vivitar initially was the trade name used by Ponder & Best Inc. until Ponder & Best changed its name to Vivitar Corp. From the 1960s to the early 2000s the company contracted various (mostly Japanese) optical and electronics manufacturers to manufacture photographic gear to be branded as Vivitar. Ponder & Best in turn sold Vivitar gear to other photographic resellers.

While some designs were manufactured solely to be sold as Vivitars, many lenses sold as Vivitar lenses are also available under the actual manufacturers’ brands.


Max Ponder and John Best fled Germany to the US when the Nazi party rose to power. In 1938 the duo started importing and distributing photographic gear, initially sellin out of the trunk of a car.

After WWII Ponder & Best imported both established West German brands (including Rollei and Voigtländer) as well as rising Japanese brands (specifically Olympus, Mamiya and Petri). After the 1964 loss of some of the existing distribution rights Ponder & Best decided to start buying optics and camera equipment in bulk and selling them under their own brand. The name Vivitar was chosen for this line of equipment.

Initially Ponder & Best simply bought existing products in bulk, slapped the Vivitar brand on the product and sold it onward to retailers. Subsequently Vivitar changed tack a bit, and started contracting manufacturers to manufacture large badges specifically for Vivitar, often leading to that fundamentally the same product could be found both as a Vivitar and as an ‘original’ product. Ponder & Best seemingly had a knack for selecting good products and building partnerships, because Vivitar gear quickly developed a reputation for being the affordable, yet quality choice. Vivitar’s business logic was that they aimed at being able to outcompete their competition by buying high quality, in bulk. By and large, this was a successful strategy. Besides lenses, Ponder & Best diversified into cameras, flash units and other camera accessories, darkroom equipment and other optics including binoculars. Due to JAPB’s focus on legacy lenses, we’re mostly interested in Vivitar’s interchangeable lens business.

In the early 1970s Ponder & Best modified their approach somewhat. While they continued to buy and rebadge bulk lots of gear that the manufacturers had designed and manufactured, Ponder & Best also started participating in the design of lenses – first with designing specifications, but subsequently, Vivitar founded its own lens design bureau in the US and started using computers to design the optical recipes for lenses (something not all major manufacturers had yet started doing). Hence the Vivitar Series 1 was born. Vivitar was such a runaway success that in 1979 Ponder & Best changed its name to Vivitar Corp.

Vivitar had a long history of being platform agnostic. Ponder&Best/Vivitar wanted to be able to sell Vivitar lenses and flash units for every relevant camera system and lens mount, and in many cases the need to offer a lens for almost 10 mounts meant needing to keep not one one lens in stock but keep 10 mutually incompatible lenses in stock. Not only was this a complication, but it also impeded reaching economies of scale.

Hence, it’s no surprise that Vivitar was very interested in the concept of using intermediate mounts, because using intermediate mounts made it possible for Vivitar to stock just one lens (and a wide range of lens-independent adapter rings) instead of needing to stock each lens in each version separately. Vivitar was instrumental in getting Tokina to modify its T-4 interchangeable lens mount into the TX mount (the abilities of the TX mount are a 1:1 copy of Vivitar’s wishlist). Read more on the the T-4/TX interchangeable mount here.

Minolta’s 1985 introduction of its autofocus system (and the subsequent introductions of competitors from Olympus, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Yashica and others) did complicate things for Vivitar, because with AF lens mounts came electronic communication. Suddenly major brands had the ability to force third party manufacturers to either pay license fees or risk that their lenses might suddenly stop working on the newest Canon/Minolta/Nikon/Pentax/other model. While this did not force Vivitar out of business, it did impact both profitability. More importantly, this change in major brands’ attitude towards third party manufacturers forced many of them to focus on other businesses, and hence constricting the base of manufacturers Vivitar could draw upon. More insidiously, it led to that those Vivitar suppliers that survived the cull started considering whether they should focus on building their own brand instead of trusting their fates to their ability to supply the Vivitars of the world. Tokina is a case in point, as in the 1980s Tokina’s stance clearly shifted from a company happy to sell its wares to the likes of Vivitar to a company keen on making the maximum profit on each lens they managed to sell.

In 1985 Vivitar was sold to Australian competitor Hanimex, which in turn was owned by the Chase group – a real-estate conglomerate. When the late 1980s real-estate slump forced Chase to sell of some of its holdings, Vivitar Corporation transformed into one of those companies that seemed to change ownership more often than regular companies revise their strategy. Whether Vivitars decline starting from the late 80s should be attributed to a fundamental shift in the business landscape of the camera business or to the fickle vagaries of ever-changing management I would not want to guess. Suffice it to say, neither did the company’s proud legacy any favours.

In 2008 the Syntax-Brillian Corporation – the then overlords of Vivitar declared bankruptcy and sold the name and intellectual property to new owners while the remaining product stock was auctioned. The ‘Vivitar’ brand is still used for selling cameras and other consumer electronics. In that it is worse than the average geriatric rock band as most of those still have some of the same players as they did in their hay day.

Who were the OEM’s?

One interesting question with rebranders is always the origin of the actual gear. In the case of Vivitar there is a rather easy system (that however is not entirely foolproof).

The system employed by Vivitar post ≈ 1968 was based on the serial numbers ranges each indicating a separate manufacturer. Looking at a post-1968 Vivitar branded lens, you can use the following table to identify the manufacturer:

First digit(s)
of serial number
9 (or 09)CosinaJapan
13Schneider-KreuznachW. Germany
22Kino Precision (Kiron)Japan
25Ozone Optical Co. Ltd.Japan
28Komine Co Ltd.Japan
32Makina Optical Co Ltd.Japan
33Asanuma & Co Ltd.Japan
37 Tokina Optical Company LtdJapan
42Bauer (or Bauer owner Bosch GmbH)W. Germany
47Chinon Industries Inc.Japan
51Tokyo Koki (?)Japan
56Kyoei Shoji Company, LtdJapan
61Samyang Optics Co., Ltd.S. Korea
75Hoya Corp.Japan
77Kobori Manufacturing Co., Ltd.Japan

However, for pre-1968 lenses no foolproof system exists, except that Vivitar up to that point mostly relied on Tokina and Kino precision.

Vivitar gear on JAPB

Vivitar 19 mm f/3.8 data sheet
Vivitar 24 mm f/2 data sheet
Vivitar 28 mm f/2 data sheet
Vivitar 28 mm f/2.5 data sheet
Vivitar 100 mm f/2.8 data sheet
Vivitar 35-85 mm f/2.8 data sheet

Further reading:

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