On Viewfinders

As someone who shoots with rangefinder cameras almost exclusively, I have a long association with the accessory viewfinders necessary to use lenses of anything other than the 50mm focal length for which most rangefinder bodies were made to work (and also as a useful supplement for 50mm). There are myriad options (relatively speaking), and having accumulated more than a few of these of varying style and effectiveness, I thought it might be worth briefly discussing their relative merits and shortcomings.

First off, it should be said that even the worst viewfinder will work for any sort of photography that doesn’t require speed. If all you’re doing is shooting landscapes or still-lifes or what have you, all you need is roughly accurate framing, and the smallest, darkest, squintiest viewfinder will do that. It’s in the sort of application where rangefinders tend to excel – street photography and other sorts of quick-moving situations – that you start to realize that a good viewfinder really adds a lot to the usability of a camera, so much so that even when working with a native 50mm lens an accessory finder is a big plus.

Let’s start with the simplest type of finder. These are usually relatively small, not very bright, and lack framelines, relying on the outer edge of the visible area for framing. Parallax correction will be by a dial or lever. These are OK for what they are, and some are actually pretty decent – the Nikon 28mm finder shown above right is quite good – but the view is often constricted, especially for longer focal lengths, and there’s no way to see beyond the frame to anticipate moving targets. These finders will do the job, but they’re not ideal. On the plus side they tend to be readily available and often reasonably priced.

The next step up, and it’s a big one, is brightline finders. These add their own framelines on an oversized piece of glass, tending to make them brighter and adding space to lead subjects in motion into the frame. They tend to be a lot larger, and a lot more expensive. Normal and wide finders will not have parallax correction, instead relying on close-focus marks. One can debate the worth or value-for-money of these (prices can be downright ludicrous), but there’s no question that they make shooting easier and faster, provided zone focusing is used.

The Leica finders shown above are considered the cream of the crop, but the full-size modern Voigtlander units are also excellent. The 35mm Leica unit (SBLOO in Leicaspeak) is large and ungainly, but the 50mm (SBOOI) is much more reasonably sized. The plastic Voigtlander pieces work just as well as the metal ones, but are considerably larger and not especially attractive. Some wide angle finders will combine two focal lengths with different sets of brightlines – the Voigtlander at back right is a 21/25mm, for example.

Worth noting are the Komura 35mm finder, which is rather uncommon and not as bright as the others (it actually has a slight dark tint), but also cost a fraction of what the bigger names command, and the tiny Voigtlander 28/35mm minifinder, which is quite rare, optically very good in spite of its size, incredibly useful, and so eye-wateringly expensive that I question my sanity every time I take it out.

One last point, which really only applies to 50mm finders: if you can find one with a 1:1 magnification ratio, you can shoot with both eyes open. The value of this in street shooting cannot be overstated. The Leica and Voigtlander 50s above both work this way, and it’s great.

Then there are the slightly stranger options. Turret multi-finders do provide a certain degree of convenience and usually aren’t too pricey, but they significantly impair one of the primary rangefinder virtues of small size. The view tends to be quite small. I only have one of these, which is fine for what it is, but the trade-off in size is too much for me. However, if can afford only a single finder, or if you don’t want to carry or keep switching between multiple units, this sort might be your answer.

Another that works well – surprisingly so – but is hindered by size is the Voigtlander Kontur, probably the weirdest viewfinder you’ll ever see. If you close one eye and look through it, you’ll see framelines and black. The Kontur works only with both eyes open. It tricks the brain into projecting the framelines onto the scene by using natural stereoscopic vision, with one eye seeing the framelines, the other seeing the scene, and the brain working out the details. This also means that it’s 1:1 by definition. It’s really a clever system and works great, except for the fact that it’s enormous and looks like a 1970’s mini-TV sitting on top of your camera.

So what’s left? I saved the best for last, although there is a caveat. Canon produced a nice line of brightline finders with a party trick that makes them extra special: they correct for parallax automatically when mounted on a Canon rangefinder of the L/V/VI lines. A little pin in the body pushes on the spring-loaded finder, moving it up or down as the lens is focused. This is a brilliant and simple system, and should have been used more widely. These can be used on other bodies as well; the position seems to rest at a focus distance of 10ft/3m on bodies without the pin.

The finders are good, too; not as bright as the top of the line Leica or modern Voigtlander, but close. This is especially useful with longer focal lengths. Shooting with an 85 or 135 and the appropriate Canon finder, it is very easy to frame subjects accurately, even fast-moving ones. The 50mm finder is also 1:1, so the same advantages apply as with the others of this sort. As a final bonus, these tend to be a bit cheaper than some of the other brightline options.

As I mentioned, there is one caveat, and that is that the wide angle Canon finders don’t offer the same benefits. They do not have brightlines, and the view through them is comparatively small. For wide lenses these are not really worth the effort – better to go with a brighter fixed unit.

So there we are, a quick tour through my pile of viewfinders. If I were to divest myself of all but the bare essentials, I’d keep the Canon finders for anything over 50mm, the Leica SBOOI for 50mm, and probably the Voigtlander mini-finder for 28 and 35mm, but I do like having the option of the larger SBLOO for 35mm or the self-adjusting Canon for 50mm when I use one of those bodies. You just need to try different options and see what works best for you. Hopefully this helps someone make an informed choice somewhere down the line.

Meet the Lens: Nikkor P.C. 85mm f/2

(I started putting this together right around the time things started falling apart, so after much delay and reediting and faffing about, it might seems slightly disjointed in places. Deal with it.)

As part of the cleaning and reorganizing of the site last year, I went through the gear listings to update status, add links, and just make everything generally more usable. In the process I noticed that there were some bits and pieces that had not been properly introduced, and thus had no posts to link to. This really bothers my OCD, so in the interest of calming the nagging voices in my head – well, one of them at least – I will be attempting to correct these oversights.

First up is the Nikkor 85mm f/2 in Leica Thread Mount. It’s a big beast of a lens, all solid brass and huge lumps of coated glass, with a nice two-piece hood that also holds a Series VII filter. The focusing throw is as long as it can be, allowing for precise, if not fast, focusing. Mine is a later version, so the aperture closes down all the way to f/32; earlier versions only stopped down to f/16. My example is, aside from a few meaningless cosmetic rubs on the finish here and there, almost pristine.

The sheer size and mass of the thing makes it a bit unwieldy on smaller Leica bodies, but it works well on the larger Canons. An added bonus of the latter is that there’s one of Canon’s trick automatic parallax-correcting brightline finders available in 85mm, making the L/V/VI-series bodies – all of which have the pin necessary for it to function – great option. I normally mount it on my Canon L1. Without a good finder, the lens would be largely relegated to static subjects; with it, it becomes useful for a wide range of tasks.

Obviously, this is all secondary to the sort of photos the lens produces. On this front, I cannot say enough good things about it. It’s sharp without being hard, creamy and smooth as it goes out of focus. Rendering is typical of Sonnar-formula lenses, but even by that high standard it’s excellent. From the first photos I took with it I knew it was going to be one of my favorites. I’ve only shot black and white with it thus far, but I’ll get some color behind it soon.

More than once I’ve heard or read of people advocating the 85mm focal length as the long half of a 35/85 two-lens kit. Given my increasing comfort with the 35mm focal length, I may give this a shot as a travel setup at some point, though I’m still instinctively inclined toward 28/50/100, but managing two lenses rather than three would be nice. The only real downside is the weight of the big Nikkor, but I’ve carried more and heavier gear before.

Regardless, it’s just a wonderful lens, one of the best I’ve ever shot with (by the purely subjective standards I apply to these things). While in a similar range to my Canon 100/3.5 and Elmar 90/4, it’s a very different animal, and it’s not just the extra speed. While both of the other lenses are quite good, the Canon especially, with pleasant rendering and good sharpness, they don’t have the smoothness, the elegance, the personality of the Nikkor. If you are looking for something in a portrait-length lens for LTM, I urge you to seek out one of these lenses – I cannot imagine you’ll be disappointed.

If you’d like more history and technical information, Nikon has thoughtfully provided an in-depth discussion here.

Schrödinger’s Film

As I was developing a few rolls of film recently, it occurred to me that the developing tank is akin to Schrödinger’s Box, with the film taking the place of the cat (rest assured I did not try to stuff a cat in the developing tank). If I’ve already lost you, Schrödinger’s Cat refers to the thought experiment proposed by Erwin Schrödinger whereby a live cat sealed in a box with a radioactive poison exists in two states – alive and dead – until such time as the box is opened to observe it. Similarly, film in the tank with the developer is both developed and undeveloped until you open the tank and have a look. The isotope decays, the developer develops, and you know it will happen in theory, but in practice the closed container prevents confirmation, and thus both cat and film exist, respectively, in two states simultaneously.

By the same logic, film in a camera also exists in two states – exposed and unexposed. Just as we know the poison will kill the cat, so too do we know that the shutter will expose the film, but we cannot confirm that it has happened without examining the result. One might argue that releasing the shutter is a more positive action on the outcome than simply placing the poison in the box – indeed, I would make that argument – but the uncertainty remains.

This observation, like so many of the things that run through my head and occasionally spill out, is fairly useless. I find it an interesting thing to consider, however, primarily in the psychological sense. How does the dual state of film affect they way photographers shoot it? How has this changed since the advent of digital photography, i.e., now that a more certain alternative exists, how does the deliberate selection of a medium that by definition must exist in an unknown (or dual) state from the time the back of the camera is closed to the time the developing tank is opened reflect upon the type of photographer that prefers this to the reassuring and instant certainty of digital? What is the appeal? Why do some photographers embrace uncertainty?

The prosaic answers, focusing on the physical objects, are that film looks different than digital, or that the cameras are more fun to use, or that one likes the process, but I wonder if it’s more than that. Is it the promise of the endorphin rush of pulling freshly developed film from the tank? Is it the gambler’s stake of having something to lose by screwing up, or simply by the whims of chance (light leak, expired fixer, whatever)? Is it the displaced manifestation of a latent hatred of cats? I don’t know that there are clear answers here, even for me (except for the last one – I like cats), let alone any universal truth, but I think the question is valid.