What is a director’s viewfinder?
A director’s viewfinder is an optical device used by cinematographers and directors to pre-visualize the framing of a motion picture camera. The light and portable director’s viewfinder allows for faster and easier planning of camera movement and position without repositioning heavy equipment. There are a couple of fairly different versions of a director’s viewfinder currently in use, but they both ultimately serve the same purpose.
Classic director’s viewfinder
The traditional form of a director’s viewfinder resembles a small telescope with several rings and setting dials. Pictured above is the most popular viewfinder of this type, the Alan Gordon Enterprises Mark Vb Director’s Viewfinder. It’s optics allow for various focal lenghts and aspect ratios to be set with the twist of a ring, vastly speeding up the shot planning process. The coverage varies between different makes and models, and is also dependent on the format used. As an example the Mark Vb above covers focal lenghts from 18mm to 200mm for standard 35mm film format.
High quality director’s viewfinders come with precise, coated optics and a hefty price. However, Alan Gordon also offer a smaller, significantly cheaper model, the Alan Gordon Enterprises Mini Directors Viewfinder. Covering the same 18mm to 200mm focal lenght range as the Vb model, the mini version is a good choice for budget oriented filmmakers.
Alternatively, Opteka also offers a comprehensive range of director’s viewfinders at very competitive prices. The Opteka 11x Zoom Professional Large Director’s Viewfinder is an alternative to Alan Gordon’s Mark Vb. The smaller Opteka 11x Zoom Professional Micro Director’s Viewfinder is an Alan Gordon Mini competitor.
While the traditional director’s viewfinder is the easiest and quickest way to visualize a shot, it does have some disadvantages. Key among those is that it does not show you the individual characteristics of the actual camera lens that will be used. While it is able to provide a pretty accurate representation of the field of view, a traditional viewfinder cannot show lens-specific characteristics. Depth of field, distortion, anamorphic effects or flares can dramatically alter the look of a shot. If these elements are important to you in the shot planning stage, a better option might be the second type of director’s viewfinder.
The second type of director’s viewfinders, also referred to as a lens finder, is a device designed to work with the actual lenses that the camera uses. It generally constitutes of a mirror, prism, a ground glass screen, a handle, lens mount and an eyepiece. It’s optical construction resembles the viewfinder design of SLR cameras. The image from the lens is bounced by the mirror, projected on the ground glass screen, subsequently flipped right way round by the prism and viewed through the eyepiece. More sophisticated models, like the Denz OIC 35-A pictured above, can feature switchable anamorphic desqueeze and diopter correction for the eyepiece.
The precision of the lens finder does come at a price, so you will generally find them on bigger budget productions. This type of director’s viewfinder is a lot more expensive and difficult to use. Before you even start, you need to make sure that the lens mount on the finder matches the one on the camera you will be using. If you are using several different cameras and lens sets, you will need a separate lens finder for each different lens mount or try your luck with adaptors, if available.
Another specific of lens finders is that in order to change the format you are viewing in, you need to change the ground glass screen inside of the viewfinder. While you might not have to do this on set very often, it is a delicate operation that requires special tools and a clean environment. In addition, a single ground glass screen can cost more than a complete classic director’s viewfinder, so there’s that.
Finally, the key advantage of the lens finder, the fact that it works with the camera’s taking lenses is also one of its main operational drawbacks. While the lens is used on the viewfinder, it is not available for the technical crew of the camera deparment to prepare the camera for shooting. In a fast paced production environment, this may greatly reduce the time that the assistants and camera operators have to technically prepare for the shot. Such delays can complicate the process when elaborate rigging or difficult focus racks are involved. For this reason, a 2nd AC would generally stand by the director while he/she is using the lens finder. As soon as the lens is confirmed, the assistant would take it off the finder to put it on the camera.
Smartphone viewfinder applications are an increasingly popular alternative to traditional director’s viewfinders and lens finders. The Artemis app pictured above is one of the most popular options. Other popular ones are Cadrage and Magic Cinema Viewfinder.
In operation, viewfinder apps work pretty much like a classic director’s viewfinder. All of them work by augmenting the image from your phone’s built in camera. You just fire up the app, select your format, aspect ratio and lens. The app shows the field of view of the camera/lens combo by means of frame lines (as with Artemis above) or masks. Most apps allow you to build a database of formats, cameras and lenses for quick access. In addition, many of them allow you to capture stills or video with the simulated camera/lens combination for later reference.
Viewfinder apps are often used alongside traditional viewfinders and can be an indispensable tool in certain situations. Due to their accessibility, pretty much any crew member can add a viewfinder to their tool set. This can help with location scouting and advance prep in all departments.