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I Can See It For You Wholesale » Blog Archive » Perception and viewfinders

Perception and viewfinders

I’m not big on bemoaning progress and eulogizing the good old days. However, I am coming to realize that there is at least one area where we photographers who started out in the digital era are at a distinct disadvantage: viewfinders.

I’m not talking about how film SLRs may (or may not) have bigger and brighter viewfinders than their digital cousins. I’m talking about diversity of viewing and focusing methods.

It is quite likely that photographers who start out with digital cameras and do not subsequently get into film cameras will only ever use two methods for framing and focusing: live view and SLR viewfinders. And it’s entirely likely that — unless they’re wealthy and can afford exotic systems or they do turn to film at some point — they won’t ever use a rangefinder camera, or a view camera, or even an SLR or TLR with a waist-level finder.

This may seem trivial. After all, it’s the final product that counts, not the process. No one would deny that it is possible to make very fine photographs with modern DLSRs, and it’s not as though the viewfinder appears in the print. As long as your photograph is framed the way you want it and focused on what you want it focused on, why should you care what you were looking through when you did the framing and the focusing?

Well, for any given photograph, you probably shouldn’t care. But at the same time, it’s a shame that generations of photographers are quite possibly going to be going their whole photographic lives without experiencing some of the alternatives.

Dorothea Lange said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” This is true, and what is more, not every camera teaches the same lessons on how to see. This is something I have come to realize more and more as I shoot with a combination of small-format SLR, medium-format SLR with WLF, rangefinders, and — although my experience with them so far has been very brief — view cameras.

Small-format SLRs

With a small-format SLR, you are almost certainly seeing

  • Through the lens
  • A vertically and horizontally unreversed image (i.e., right is right, left is left, up is up, and down is down)
  • An image which fills the viewfinder, but which is probably not precisely the same as the image which will be recorded on the film or sensor (i.e., most SLRs don’t have 100% viewfinder coverage, although some do)
  • Nothing which will not be recorded on the film or sensor
  • An image which is focused at the point the lens is focused, and which displays the DOF of the lens at its widest aperture

(Note: To be more specific, I should say a small-format SLR with a prism finder, but very few small-format SLRs feature other finder types, and they’re even more seldom used.)

There are lots of advantages to working with this kind of camera. Some types of photography are nearly impossible without them, in fact.

But there is also a sort of deceptive pseudo-realism to viewing the world through an SLR. The way the image fills the viewfinder, zooms with the lens, and displays the shallowest possible depth of field tends to decontextualize the subject as we see it while photographing.


The result — at least for me — is that while photographing with a small-format SLR, my eye was taught to look for detail, for the specific, for distant or small objects or patterns or entities, which can be pulled out of their surroundings and brought into view and into focus.

Surf and Turf (September 2007)

The learning process is twofold:

  1. Because I become habituated to seeing subjects in the decontextualized way the viewfinder presents them, I come to want and expect photographs which resemble or live up to the promise of the viewfinder image.
  2. I learn that the better I am at spotting fine details which are well-suited to this type of treatment, the better I am at making the photographs I am coming to want and expect. I am rewarded for developing an everyday seeing which skews away from seeing forests and toward seeing trees.

There is nothing wrong with this sort of photography, and most of my best photographs are — to greater or lesser extent — of this kind. But it was not until I started shooting with other types of cameras that I realized how much I was skewing more and more toward just those lenses and perspectives and subjects which worked in this way — and how much my eye was being trained to spot subjects which could be gainfully approached with those tools, and to disregard subjects which would be better approached by other means.


Because I had been shooting for some time with small-format SLRs, and because I had come to rely more and more on long and/or close-focusing lenses, I had a rather steep learning curve when I first picked up a rangefinder camera — much steeper than I would have if I had picked up a rangefinder as a total novice.

Koni-Omega Rangefinder

There are many differences between SLRs and rangefinders, and each has many strengths and weaknesses. For a good general enumeration, see Karen Nakamura’s site.

But in terms of the current discussion, what is essential is that the view through a rangefinder is:

  • Not through the lens
  • Often composed using framelines (i.e., the viewfinder image is larger than the area which will be photographed)
  • Unaffected by the maximum or working aperture of the lens
  • Not focused with the lens (i.e., everything appears in focus when the eye focuses on it; focusing is generally done only with split image patch in the center)
  • Totally unsuitable for close-up work or work with long lenses

The last point is the primary source of my initial frustration when working with rangefinder cameras, but it is also the primary source of my joy in using them now.

The type of photography which SLRs trained my eye for is the type for which rangefinders are practically useless, or at least very greatly hampered. With my rangefinder cameras, it is generally not possible to get close enough (or to use lenses long enough) to cherrypick details in the way I learned to want when shooting with my D40 and Nikkormat and my 55mm f/3.5 Micro or my 180mm f/2.8.

This is not a bad thing, although it led me on occasion to question the usefulness of my Olympus XA when I was first getting used to it. What this meant, at least in terms of the conditioning of my eye, was that I was suddenly forced to exclude the kind of detail subject which is well-suited to being taken out of context, and instead to shift my attention to subjects and/or scenes which

  1. Depend upon context for their meaning and integrate context extensively into the final photograph, and/or
  2. Are human-scale in size. (I.e., cover the space which might be occupied by one or many human beings)

In other words, rangefinders practically demand human subjects. This is one of the reasons why they are so often associated with street photography, documentary photography, and photojournalism. They are essentially optimized for that sort of work, and are really not very well-suited to most other types of photography.

Wait (View Large)

Of course, an SLR can also be used for subjects at that scale — although it is arguably much easier to frame a street scene when using a rangefinder with framelines than when using an SLR, and in some situations, rangefinder focusing may be faster and/or more definite.

But, for me, a substantial part of the advantage of using rangefinders is just that they suck so hard when it comes to cherrypicking details, and I am thus forced to consider context, to see context, to use context, if I want to make good photographs — not to mention being forced to seek out human subjects when it is often so easy for me to get drawn into the somewhat solipsistic world of still life and wildlife photography.

Yes? (View Large)

Waist level finders

With many (although certainly not all) medium format SLRs, waist level finders are as common as prism finders, or more common. With TLRs, WLF’s are certainly the standard.

Mmmm. RB67. Viewfinder=Huge

The view through a waist level finder is mostly the same as through prism finders as discussed above with small-format SLRs. However, with a WLF, the view is

  • Vertically unreversed but horizontally reversed
  • Often from a lower perspective (i.e., from waist level or a bit higher)

As a result, these cameras tend to have much the same impact on how I see as small-format SLRs do, except that they lose a bit of the pseudo-realism which is associated with the fully unreversed image, and they reward the ability to previsualize and compose a photograph which takes advantage of ease with which WLF cameras can be moved below the eye level.

This can make a surprisingly profound difference. We are accustomed to looking down on the world around us from atop our spindly little bodies; we live our whole lives seeing the world at eye-height, and the eye-height perspective carries with it a lot of the assumptions that are built into our mundane perception of the world.

Smoker's Altar

Of course, you can position any camera at any height, but WLF cameras make it substantially easier and more convenient to lower the perspective, and — for better or worse — what is convenient in practice is far more likely to change my habits than what requires awkward body positioning or extra gear.

The effect of the reversed image is more subtle; as I become accustomed to viewing the world with its axes flipped, my perception off objects is every so slightly more detached from my mundane way of seeing them; as a result, I am every so slightly more likely to see abstract qualities of form which are not necessarily dependent on how an object is oriented and positioned in real space.

This effect is much stronger with view cameras, which are reversed on both axes rather than just one, and there are other and much stronger differences in how one sees through a view camera. However, since I’ve only worked with them briefly in a group setting, I think I’ll leave them be for now; I may revise this or make a new post once I’ve had more time under their influence…


By the way, a lot of what I said here may make a great deal less sense when applied to landscape photography and work with ultra-wide lenses. I’m okay with that.

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