As I have mentioned before I am enamoured of proper viewfinders. Not that I have a philosophical objection to electronic viewfinders mounted on that backs of cameras. They are not all that dissimilar to the ground glass viewfinders found on large format viewfinders. Both even suffer from the same problem – the need for a dark cloth over the head in order to see the image.

That’s fine when shooting with a tripod and the subject is immovable. The real world is constantly in motion and tripods are not always an option, so an alternative method of viewing the subject is needed. Needed is perhaps, too strong a word … it is possible to point a camera at a scene and hope that the final image is, more or less, what you envisaged. Very early cameras did use this method, which was refined to a notch on the front of the camera. This in turn gave way to a wire frame, or a rough optical device, that was marginally better than useless. Eventually someone came up with the idea of the direct optical viewfinder that led to the coupled rangefinder and through the lens viewing.

My first camera, a Kodak Baby Brownie, had a variation on the wire frame; my second and third optical viewfinders; the next being a twin lens reflex had viewing though the upper lens; the next a coupled rangefinder,  then I discovered the single lens reflex and there I have stayed.

It is a complicated but quite elegant solution with 100% view instantly adjusted to suit the lens fitted, image right side up and right way round, and no parallax error. It’s not perfect. The mirror slap can compromise image sharpness and the black out of the scene as the mirror opens and closes is an irritant and that’s all it is, while good technique can overcome the slap.

I’ve owned a Nikon S2 for nearly fifty years and I like the rangefinder viewing and focus when I am shooting casually for myself, and I’ve owned and used a C2 Mamiyaflex even longer, but the first time I looked through the viewfinder of a Nikon F it really was love at first sight.

For the first time I knew exactly what I was going to get on the film at the time of shooting. No bits missing at the edges, no more cut off heads. I like the option of being able to frame tightly … the 35mm frame is not very big and I prefer not to waste any of it.

The same applies to digital, of course, but not being able to afford a 100% viewfinder camera when I bought mine, I now frame more loosely and crop a lot more (hence the square format post), but I don’t like it all that much. The viewfinder is one reason why I wouldn’t buy a Leica M9.

The whole concept is a nonsense when you think about it logically, not emotionally. Fit a lens to an SLR and the field of view is the view you see. Depth of field preview a touch of a button away. Fit a lens to a Leica M9, move a switch and the lines you see equate to the parallax corrected field of view. No depth of field preview and lots of crap around the edges.

Apologists claim that this enables you to see what is going on outside of the frame. How often is that useful, really? All I want to see is what is going on in the frame, with no distractions. And don’t get me started on those lenses like the Tri-Elmar that need an additional viewfinder, perched like a lonely shag on a rock above the camera and require focussing with the rangefinder, moving the eye to the viewfinder to frame, then shoot if you are sure you, or the subject haven’t moved. Actually this type of viewfinder is more useful with an auto focus camera than an M9.

The 90mm Macro lens set is another nightmare. In the vernacular of my youth it’s a “bodgy” job. I have to say I am constantly surprised what Leica rangefinder users will put up with … and defend to the hilt, even though they are designs stuck in the Nineteen Fifties. Leica had a sensible and very high quality alternative in the R Series cameras, but somehow Leica lovers never considered them to be real Leicas (?). I think that R series lenses are the only sensible second-hand buy in the Leica market now.

If cameras must move on the viewfindered Sony NEX, Fuji and Panasonic GH cameras  seem to be taking the right road, so far as I am concerned. But to be honest, I don’t mind cameras with bumps on top and I my preferred option will probably remain the single lens reflex.

Cameras like the Sony RX1 which lack any sort of viewfinder other than that nasty screen on the back leave me cold. I know that there are work-arounds, but most of them are either larger than the  camera or made of bits and bobs of who knows what, either fixed to the tripod screw, hot shoe preventing their use by something useful, or held on with rubber bands. Two hundred years of camera development and we’re using rubber bands!


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