The Uncluttered Viewfinder

I’ve been enjoying my modified Leica SL … FrankenLeica … or Frank for short (see a previous and entertaining entry on this) … and my Leica M2 and M3 cameras this year quite a bit. There really is something special about using these wonderful machines built in a time when … well … things were really built. The form factor, the metal construction, the weight, the tactile pleasure! I know, you have heard if all before. In my opinion it’s all true, but for me the critical feature common to these old rangefinders and SLRs are their viewfinders. When I look through them I see a clear, bright and mostly uncluttered view of the world.

Yes, you might say that the Leica SL has a needle (f stops) and a “lollipop” thingy (shutter speeds) that move, and when they intersect indicate correct exposure. And shutter speed information is visible at the bottom of the viewfinder. All true, but since my newer ROM lenses are not coupled (again, many thanks to Don Goldberg for solving this problem!) and I don’t use a battery, the meter is therefore fully inoperative. Only the lollipop is visible and how much I see of it is based on the shutter speed selected. If you don’t want to go the Leica route there are similar vintage and beautifully made SLRs that don’t have a meter at all, such as the wonderful Asahi Pentax SV. And many of the screw mount lenses made when that camera and the follow-on Spotmatic (with built in meter) was produced are outstanding.

The bottom line is that I’m hardly aware of what little there is in the viewfinder.

Then there are the M cameras without built in meters – M2, M3 and the M4 and its variants. No metering distractions to be concerned with. And with the M2 and M3 you only see the frame lines for the specific lens mounted on the camera. So no distractions at all!

I have always been attracted to cameras that exhibit as little information as possible in the viewfinder and especially don’t like blinking lights or other lit data found in more modern cameras. I only want to see is the scene in front of me I wish to photograph and these viewfinders allow me to do that. I think using these simple tools help me concentrate more on composition and make better pictures.

I work very simply; in most situations I merely take a meter reading of the palm of my hand (making sure I’m not in a shadowed area) using a handheld meter, then open up one stop. When I’m walking around on the street, one reading is all I need unless the light changes. For pictures of objects, buildings, or a landscape containing white clouds, etc., I take a reading of the brightest part of the scene and open up three stops. That’s it. This works for me and may well work for you.

Plenty of people use “sunny sixteen” and don’t need a meter at all. Then there are those so good that they just intuitively know the right exposure. Henri Cartier-Bresson comes to mind.

An ancillary benefit of my approach is that I don’t worry about batteries anymore or the reliability of camera electronics. Ok, my Pentax 1 degree spot meters use a battery, but I never have had a dead one in thirty plus years of use. Every couple of years I change them. On the other hand, I cannot tell you how many times I accidently left my Leica R9 switched on only to find out I had a useless paperweight when I was ready to go photograph. As much as I loved the R9, I have flushed electronic cameras out of my system.

So does using a camera with an uncluttered meter-less viewfinder, no batteries and electricity make me a photographic Luddite? Perhaps. Do I make better photographs than I might otherwise? I think so. Does it matter? Definitely.

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