Rangefinders, External Viewfinders, and You

First, a confession. I was for a time rather opposed to the idea of using external viewfinders except where absolutely necessary; I have come around to the belief that they can actually offer some considerable advantages.

Those who use interchangeable lens rangefinders, especially older models, that either lack framelines for multiple focal lengths, or at least the framelines for a particular focal length you want to utilize, are of necessity familiar with external viewfinders. They provide the only way (short of just guessing or using the Force) to frame with these focal lengths, whatever they might be. I always accepted this necessity rather grudgingly, as I found the external finders I encountered, particularly adjustable finders than accommodate multiple focal lengths, made the camera seem larger (well, they do actually make it larger, so I suppose that’s natural) and the view through them was often a bit squinty, especially in the longer focal lengths.

My perspective on this began to shift when I bought my Voigtländer Color Skopar 21 f/4, which came with a viewfinder. But rather than one of the old vintage pieces I’d used before, this was a modern one, and it was very, very different: big and clear, with bright framelines. Yes, it’s large – larger than the single focal length vintage finders, though still smaller than the turret-type multifinders – but the clarity of the view and resultant ease of use of the whole rig goes a long way to mitigating the feeling of compromise. The Snapshot Skopar 25/4 came with a similar viewfinder.

Finders like this aren’t cheap. The prices they command seem frankly absurd in many cases, but many were produced in limited numbers, and demand keeps prices high. Still, if you want to use a lens on a camera without a built-in set of framelines for it, you don’t have a lot of options. But what about when you have a choice – when your chosen camera has a viewfinder or framelines for the lens you want to use – why would you want to use an external finder if you don’t need it?

This is where experience, or perhaps lack thereof, comes into play. For a long while, I simply rejected the notion of sticking a viewfinder on top of a camera that already had a perfectly functional one built in. But as I used more and different cameras, I slowly realized how much difference a good viewfinder can make to the overall experience of using the camera. My Canon P, for example, has a 1:1 viewfinder that’s fairly bright – it is far more pleasant to use than the tiny, dim, and squinty finder on my Certo Super Dollina II. This comparison is a bit extreme, but sometimes it takes extremes to kick me into consciousness.

Based on my broadening photographic experience, a while back I purchased a old Voigtländer Kontur viewfinder. This is a clever yet slightly bizarre device that works remarkably well. The view through the finder itself if black save for a set of bright, backlit 50mm framelines. Used with one eye closed, it’s useless, but open both eyes and you see just how clever those Voigtländer engineers were: the Kontur relies on your own brain to overlay the images from both eyes, which results in those framelines being projected over the scene in front of you. Sounds crazy, but it works. It even has good eye relief, so people who wear glasses can use it easily. About the only downside to the Kontur is that it’s quite large, and mounted on a smaller camera body it looks rather disproportionate (so I’m vain – sue me).

I used the Kontur from time to time, but the size made it something I only considered when I knew I’d have the camera out constantly, as getting it in and out of the bag became a bit awkward. Still, for dedicated street shooting expeditions and such it proved a useful addition, useful enough that I started to have thoughts about a smaller brightline finder for my 50mm photographic needs.

Well, I finally got one. It took a while since the better 50mm finder options are among the most sought-after and thus pricey viewfinders out there. It seems there simply weren’t as many produced, as they weren’t strictly necessary in the way that other focal lengths required them, and so demand is quite high. The best of the lot are generally considered the Leica SBOOI and the more modern Voigtländer (the Japanese Cosina revival this time) – I got one of the latter. It’s heavy brass and looks perfect on vintage rangefinders. The view is 1:1, very bright and clear. On my Leica IIIc in particular, it seems like it was meant to be there. Sure, it adds a bit to the overall height of the camera, but it’s not terrible, especially on something as small as the Leica.

I liked it so much that I went to the additional trouble and expense of buying a brightline finder to use with my Canon 100/3.5. I use the lens to shoot auto racing, among other things, and the original viewfinder wasn’t going to cut it in that application. In a strange twist, the finder I ended up with is actually a Nikon piece intended for their 105mm lens, but it’s a high quality unit and the difference in framing is negligible.

That’s my story. I was wrong. The new finders weren’t cheap, though I still consider the prices I paid pretty good deals given the market, but looking through them I know it was worth it. I’ve seen the error of my ways.


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