Photography / Tips and Solutions

Using Optical Viewfinders on Cameras that Already Have Viewing Systems

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I recently posted a photo of a Sony A7R II with a Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Super Wide-Heliar lens and Voigtländer 15mm optical viewfinder mounted on the accessory shoe, on Instagram. Though not an unusual setup for me when I’m out shooting on the street, I received a flurry of comments questioning why I would be using an optical finder (OVF) when my camera already has an excellent electronic viewfinder (EVF) and an equally adept LCD. That’s a good question for which I happen to have an equally good answer.

My attraction to optical viewfinders has to do with visual simplicity. Specifically, when composing a photograph, I don’t want to have to peer through a barrage of backlit numbers and flashing icons. I want zero distractions—I don’t want my subject bordered by a Broadway theater marquee.

The Sony FDA-V1K Optical Viewfinder for Sony RX1-series cameras (left) and the Sigma VF-11 Optical Viewfinder for Sigma DP-series cameras (right) can be used with lenses having angles of view of 64° and 72°, respectively (35mm and 28mm lenses on full-frame cameras).

When composing through an optical viewfinder, all I see are the bright lines that indicate the edges of my frame based on my choice of lens. I don’t see exposure data, grid lines, exposure compensation graphs, or flashing icons of any sort in my viewing field, and that’s what an optical finder affords me.

Something I especially like about composing through an optical finder is that unlike the black-bordered, tunnel-like view of the scene you get with LCD, electronic, and conventional reflex viewing systems, optical finders allow you to see beyond the borders of the frame, which gives you a definitive edge when photographing fleeting moments.

If there’s anything going on beyond the bright lines that can strengthen the composition of the picture, you can easily reframe accordingly. If a person or object is about to enter the live section of the viewing area, you can choose to either wait until they pass, or perhaps wait for them to enter the live area of your field of vision if doing so improves the picture.

There are fewer surprises when you compose photographs or video in this manner, and sometimes welcome surprises that enhance the impact of the photo you’re about to capture.

The Voigtländer 21/25mm Metal Viewfinder contains bright lines for 21mm and 25mm lenses. Conversely, the Voigtländer 75mm Viewfinder, like most optical viewfinders, is dedicated to a specific focal length.

Lastly, when shooting in low light, optical finders are as clear as window glass—minus the reflections. Reflex finders, EVFs, and LCDs are all terrific under bright and even moderate lighting conditions, but once the light starts dimming, nothing beats an optical finder.

Are there downsides to using optical finders? Yes, the first of which is the parallax issue. Because your lens and finder are separated a measure of distance, they are seeing the picture from different points of view. When shooting at infinity, which in the case of wider-angle lenses lies as close as 5 to 10' from camera position, this isn’t consequential.

As a rule, the frame lines in OVFs are quite accurate for distant scenes, and progressively less so as you get closer to you subject. Depending on the finder, some EVFs feature secondary frame lines that indicate the edges of the top and bottom of the frame when the lens is focused at its closest focusing distance. A few test exposures are all that’s needed to figure out how to frame subjects accurately when they are situated between the lens’s closest focus point and infinity. In the case of ultra-wide-angle lenses, this ranges from three to twelve feet from camera position, depending on the focal length of the lens.

The Leica Universal Wide-Angle Viewfinder for M-System Cameras (left) and Voigtländer 15-35mm Multi-Format Zoomfinder (right) can be used with 16mm, 18mm, and 21mm lenses or 15 to 35mm lenses, respectively. Both finders can also be used with full-frame, APS-C, and MFT camera formats.

When shooting closer to your subject, you must compensate for the difference in viewpoints. Compensating for parallax is easier with wider-angle lenses, but dicier with longer focal lengths, because they have narrower angles of view. Depending on the make and model, some optical finders enable you to compensate for parallax by incorporating a distance adjustment mechanism into the base of the finder, though this feature is less common among newer finders.

For the record, don’t even think about using an optical finder for macro photography—it’s the wrong tool for the job.

Depth-of-field (DoF) preview is an attribute you lose when shooting through an optical viewfinder. Unlike DSLRs with DoF preview functionality and mirrorless cameras that display DoF in real time, everything is in focus when you compose photographs through an optical finder. If need be, you can always previsualize the image by sneaking a chimp at the camera’s native viewing system.

If your camera has an existing TTL viewing system to which you can refer, you shouldn’t run into any problems using filters. If your camera should, for whatever reason, not have a LCD, EVF, or reflex viewing system that allows you to preview the results, Polarizer and graduated filters can be problematic. In the case of Polarizers, you can rotate the filter in front of your eye, note the position of the filter at its optimal position, attach the filter to the lens, and rotate the Polarizer to the previously noted optimal position. Graduated filters will be hit or miss unless you position the filter using the camera’s LCD, EVF, or reflex finder.

Vintage cameras with optical finders include the Hasselblad SWC Superwide and Contax G2 with 16mm Zeiss Hologon with dedicated optical finders (left) and a pair of Leica M-series cameras with 15mm and 21mm lenses and finders (right).

If your camera has autofocus and auto-exposure controls, so much the better—let your camera do the thinking while you concentrate on taking pictures.

No auto exposure? No problem. Use a handheld meter or use the Sunny 16 Rule. No autofocus? Simply pre-focus the lens and stop the lens down a few stops or, better yet, stop the lens down to f/8 or f/11 and set the lens to its hyperfocal distance—the point at which everything from a foot or two from the lens to infinity comes into focus.

Many the optical finders available at B&H are for fixed focal lengths, though some, such as the Voigtländer 21mm/25mm Metal Finder, contain frame lines for two focal length lenses (21mm and 25m). Voigtländer and Leica also manufacture multi-focal length optical finders for wide-angle lenses that, while bulkier, do offer a degree of convenience. These finders are compatible with full-frame, APS-C, and Micro Four Thirds camera systems.

Photos captured using Hasselblad Superwide SWC (38mm Zeiss Biogon with matching optical viewfinder)

It’s also worth noting that optical finders can be mixed and matched among camera formats, provided you understand crop and magnification factors. As an example, finders designed for full-frame 35mm lenses can be used with equal precision with 17mm lenses designed for Micro Four Thirds-format cameras, and vice versa—the angles of view are the same. Similarly, an optical finder designed for use with a full-frame 28mm lens can also be used with an 18mm lens on an APS-C format camera, and vice versa.

As mentioned earlier, optical viewfinders, which are available from Fujifilm, Leica, Olympus, Pentax, Ricoh, Sigma, Sony, Voigtländer, and Zeiss, are best used with wider-angle lenses. They are also available for lenses as long as 135mm.

Do you use optical viewfinders when you’re out taking pictures? If so, drop us a line and let us know what you think about shooting in this manner.

2 Comments

Back in my early digital days when dSLR cameras were outside my budget, I built my own OVF out of a one-time use film camera and attached it to the top of my digital P&S camera. My wife complained about how geeky I looked, but I pointed out it was less geeky than putting a jacket over my head so I could see the LCD panel on the back of the camera in bright sunshine.

While I mostly shoot an APS-C dSLR these days with TTL OVF, I do still have a P&S I won't give up, the Nikon p7100 - because it has a built-in OVF.

Spoken like a true-blue shooter.

I like your attitude James!

Thanks or your take on the matter.

Allan

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