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 Camera: Voigtländer Vito C

_DSF3622_Crop_1024

Yeah, I know, another camera. Another Voigtländer camera. Another folding Voigtländer camera. Another folding Voigtländer camera named Vito. Sensing a pattern? I’m starting to bore myself, I’m sure along with anyone else who, for whatever reason, is still paying attention.

Hot on the heels of the Vito IIa comes the Vito C (which I’m assuming represents the third letter in the Roman alphabet, not the Roman numeral for 100, but given Voigtländer’s rather arbitrary naming schemes, who knows?), circa 1981 (or MCMLXXXI, if you prefer) from what little information I can find. It’s small, it’s plastic, and it looks a lot like my Minox 35ML, probably because they were both produced by Balda. When it came to German cameras, brand names didn’t mean a lot by the 1980s.

_DSF3623_Crop_1024

It’s a simple little thing, simpler than the Minox. Whereas the Minox has aperture control in addition to program, shutter speed indication in the viewfinder, backlight compensation, and a battery tester, the Voigtländer has none of these. What it does have is a single-stroke advance (the Minox is double) with an indicator showing if the shutter is cocked, brighter, clearer brightlines and a focus distance indication in the finder (but gets by with a simple OK (<1/30th) or flash symbol (>1/30th) indication of shutter speed), and a film loading door (the Minox has a removable back). The Voigtländer has settings for films up to ISO 800; the Minox goes up 1600. They use different batteries (PX28 vs. 2x SR44). They’re different, but it’s all in the details – the form factors are virtually identical.

The lenses are again similar but not the same. The Voigtländer has an extra 3mm of focal length (38 vs. 35 in the Minox); both have a maximum aperture of f/2.8, and are coated Tessar-types. I don’t know what sort of committee decided that 38mm was the right focal length for the Voigtländer, but it’s the kind of oddball design choice that could only have come from a group of people sitting around arguing vehemently about it in an effort to justify their paychecks.

_DSF3624_Crop_1024

I’m not sure how exactly, but the Vito C feels more mechanical but a little flimsier than the 35ML. The worst bit is the rewind crank, which you lift to release the back. It feels like it’s going to snap off in my hand every time I pull it up, and the rewind is pretty stiff, so spinning it requires some force – I need to see if I can free that up a bit. The film door isn’t exactly industrial strength either, but I guess it’s sufficiently robust to have survived for several decades. Some of this sense probably stems from my time with older metal-bodied cameras that feel like they’re carved from solid chunks of brass. Users less so-influenced may not share my trepidation.

Of course, the great virtues of both the Voigtländer and the Minox are their light weight and small size. No other camera I own, with the exception of the Olympus XA2 currently gathering dust on my shelf, is as unobtrusive and easy to carry. That they are capable of taking technically good photographs as well – and they are – makes them worth bringing along.

What remains to be seen is whether the loss of aperture control and backlight compensation prove sufficiently important to relegate the Vito C to the shelf next to the XA2 (which also lacks those particular attributes), or if it ends up in regular use like the 35ML.

 

Meet the Camera: Voigtländer Vito IIa

Well, I’m weak. A revived interest in photography did not mean that I had to buy any more equipment. I have plenty filling my shelves just waiting to be used. But reviewing the collection reminded me that my beloved Voigtländer Vito was really just too finicky to continue using. The film counter/double exposure lock is made up of a couple of wafer-thin gears, and they weren’t playing well together, no matter what I did to encourage them to get along.

This, naturally, turned my thoughts to its replacement. I really liked that camera. It has a very similar case shape to my beloved Leicas, and the uncoated lens was really very good (and I’m a sucker for uncoated lenses). It slipped unobtrusively into a pocket, the lens protected by the door. It was a fine camera.

Knowing that Voigtländer continued and (presumably) improved the Vito line, this seemed the natural course of action. Broadly speaking, the Vito II was very similar to the Vito except that it used a sprocket rather than a feeler for the film advance (the original was designed for 828 film before the war). Looking casually at the design, it seemed to use the very same arrangement that had killed my Vito, which didn’t encourage me.

_DSF3621_1024

Which brings me to the last of the line, the Vito IIa. Yes, Voigtländer continued to use the Vito moniker on many other models for several decades, but this is the last of the proper folders. In fact, it’s one of the last folders made (not the last though – I have a considerably later Certo Super Dollina II). The IIa replaced the traditional top-mounted knobs with a small pop-up knob to rewind and a lever to advance. A cold shoe appeared on top, and the viewfinder was improved. Under the slightly taller top cover, I suspected there must be a revised – and hopefully more robust – mechanism.

_DSF3617_1024

None of this would work if the camera was going to cost real money, and the scarce IIa usually commands the better part of $100, which was more than I was willing to part with for this experiment. Fortunately, I found one that was cheap by virtue of being in unknown mechanical condition. But it was pretty on the outside, so I made an offer, which was accepted, and it was soon on its way.

I tore it apart once it got here (it’s a pretty simple camera to disassemble) and found two problems: the shutter was sticking, and there was a hole in the bellows. A little liquid electrical tape took care of the light leak, and judicious application of naptha and powdered graphite freed up the shutter. Everything else, including the thankfully more substantial counter/exposure lock, got a simple cleaning and it was good to go.

_DSF3620_1024

On the plus side, it retains many of the positive characteristics of the Vito. The viewfinder is a bit bigger but offset from the lens, and the lever wind is easy to use but doesn’t cock the shutter. In the minus column, it’s bigger and heavier – not by a lot, but enough to notice – and the lens is coated, which makes it less interesting in my book.

It’s an obvious direct descendant of the Vito, and I like the camera, but so far it hasn’t quite filled the void left by its predecessor. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe I just need to use it more. I’m resisting the temptation to transplant the uncoated lens from the Vito into the IIa’s body. For now, at least.