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What is a Director's Viewfinder and Why Would You Need One?

08.22.11 @ 12:42PM Tags : , ,

Director’s viewfinders are the lens-looking things you often see hanging around the neck of big-time directors. What are they? Essentially they are small, lightweight optics that allows the director to frame a shot using the correct focal length, film size, and aspect ratio — without having to maneuver the whole (heavy, expensive) camera rig into place. Most kinds of VFs won’t give you an accurate simulation of the depth-of-field of the image, but you can walk around and find the framing of the shot-to-be. Here’s a look from FreshDV’s Matt Jeppsen at the benefits of using one:

DirectorsViewfinder720pH264.mov


In the video, Matt is using a Cavision viewfinder, but there are all manner of makes and models out there. As someone who’s shot primarily handheld, with smaller DV, HDV, and HDSLR cameras, I haven’t had a need for a director’s viewfinder to date, but the tool will very likely come in handy on that feature film I’m trying to make with your help.

There are also digital director’s viewfinders available for the iPhone/iPad and Android; one popular example is the $30 app Artemis (iOS, Android), which offers this cute video explanation:

Anyone out there using a director’s viewfinder on the reg (NSFW language in that link)? Any specific models you’d recommend?

[via FreshDV]

[viewfinder photo by Paulo Wang]

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  • One of the first things I bought when I have saved up the money in college (besides a slate and a mattebox for my XL2) was an Alan Gordon Mark V director’s viewfinder. This is the beast, the on you see most director’s using (including, somewhat arrogantly, Michael Bay).

    When shooting DV with video lenses, I didn’t have much use for it, except to say, okay, here’s what I’m thinking. However, in college, when I started using the Mini-35 adapter, and true cine lenses, it started becoming really handy. Without the benefit of the viewfinders used on a lot of pro productions (where you can attach the actual lenses to get a sense of the framing and depth of field) my DP and I often turn to the Alan Gordon when we need it.

    However, as I’ve progressed in my own career, I’ve found myself turning to it less and less as I’ve developed a fairly instinctual knowledge of how a lenses will frame a shot. They’re definitely great for when you’re starting out, because it can really help you get a sense of what each lens looks like, in relation to the format you’re shooting on (16mm, Super16, Super 35) etc.

    However, as soon as I get the new iPhone I’m getting the Artemis.

  • I find the best kind of finders are the ones where you can mount the lens onto it. I was on a feature where the DP had a PL Mount finder and having the ability to see through the actual lens, I think, is a more authentic approach than to the finders where you set different variables.

    Of course, budget is a major factor. A DP I work with frequently has a finder similar to the one Jeppsen is using in the video and he likes it because it is compact.

    The only thing I’ve heard about iPhone/Droid finders is they aren’t terribly accurate — useful for location scouting, but not dependable enough for shoot days when every minute spent repositioning the camera matters.

    • Exactly — I could see it coming in handy to be able to take pictures (for storyboards, shotlists, etc), but time is money on the set and I can’t imagine tweaking touchscreen menus is the best use of everyone’s time…

      • I’ve seen Artemis in action and I’m not too sure how useful it would be for longer focal lenths as it digital zooms the quality to hell. I would say the benefit would be seeing the framing of muliple lenses at the same time before you select one. it’s got a zooming frame grid for a bunch of focal lengths… I don’t really know when you’d need to use it, but it’s nice to see at any rate.

        • I wouldn’t trade it for a legit viewfinder but I think during scouts and so forth, along with the ability to snap screengrabs, it could be very useful for prep.

      • If anything, it would probably frustrate everyone else! As an AC, I’d rather just move the camera for you than make you use your phone to get an idea for the image.

        For scouting, storyboards and shotlisting, apps are perfect, but if you want something to walk around with while blocking a scene on set, I’d go with something tangible.

        I’ll ask the DP I work with which one he ended up buying — was only a couple hundred bucks, so nothing too outrageous.

  • Personally, I find that Artemis is more than enough for my needs. It’s also a lot better than the Panavision iphone app. I don’t find that the Alan Gordon, Cavision, or other Compact viewers are much more accurate and their certainly not $170 more accurate. Besides, the ability to take photos and send them to the rest of the crew far outweighs any slight accuracy issues as far as I’m concerned. I don’t look at a viewer to be the end all be all of camera placement. It’s just a good guide to get you in the right place to begin with. So unless you have the budget for a PL mount ‘finder, I’d just stick with the iphone apps. Definitely enough to get you in the ballpark.

    For 7d shoots, I just bring my t2i and use that as a finder. I can stick the same lenses on it. Take pictures. Etc.

  • Are they universally configurable ie. if using 35mm lenses (for full Frame cameras) on a crop body (a la 7D)? Will you get the exact field of view as you would your set up?

    • Liam, your talking about the iPhone app correct? Yes they can be configured by camera type (sensor size) and lenses. The field of view is pretty darn accurate.

  • I’ve used the three options (Artemis, pl and mark v). The best one in my opinion is the iPhone route, cause you can show the crew exactly what you mean taking a photo. And its fast. A lot faster then have to change pl lenses.
    Yesterday I discovered Panascout, that lloks good and it’s a lot cheaper.

  • I use a $99 OPTEKA MICRO PRO Directors Viewfinder, and find it serves me just well even with shooting on a 5D and T2i.

  • I had a director using an old 350D rebel and 5D classic, on a 7D & 5DII shoot. Effective, and you can use the exact lens and get the FOV/DOF.

  • Hi,
    I used quite a lot of different view finders. The Alan Gordon is the best in its class but it is expensive and it lacks some video/digital formats. It is also not as precise as you might expect. I own a Cavision one, which is 1/3 the price of the Alan Gordon. It is less precise but also less heavy the A.G., it is also less precise, but is enough to get the idea of a shot. And it features a lot of different formats including 1/3″, 1/2″, regular 16mm… I also found myself using an old ISCO optics viewfinder, which was good and felt very much like the cavision.
    Beware of low-cost director’s viewfinders that you find all over the internet. The very small model, made by Kish Optics is not that good.

    All of the previous viewfinders are afocal, which means that the borders of the frame will always be more or less blurry.
    That’s why it’s better to use a viewfinder on which you can mount the lens, the image is then formed on a real ground glass and is much more precise.

    Lower-cost viewfinders (including the Alan Gordon) use a combination of zooming and cropping the image in order to display the correct framing. This can be surprising the first time you use one because the longer the focal length, the small the image. The downside is, you need to be more precise at the telephoto end, and thus the image you see is smaller and even less precise.
    But a viewfinder is also useful at the wide-angle end, because you can see the distortions of the perspective.

    The important thing for a viewfinder is to find where the camera will be. It allows the director to find the shot in advance (while the camera team is still busy breaking the previous shot’s setup) and try many different camera places. Some directors like to carry this item around their neck just to show that they are the Director. It’s pretty much the same as a DP with his lightmeter or a contrast viewing glass.

  • I’m in the middle of a short film right now and I find my viewfinder (Mark Vb) to be very valuable and a time-saver on our sets. One of the reasons is that we are shooting with prime lenses, so camera placement is more of an issue. I have enough experience to get in the ballpark with a lens, and if we’re using zooms, then a tweak is simple. When shooting with a set of primes, however, I have found that it is helpful to give the exact focal length and position myself without waiting for the DP/Operator to move the camera into place.

    I have also shot many films while making little use of the finder. Depends on the crew, the lenses available, time, etc.

    All the best!
    Tom

  • I was going to make a comment about the ease of using a DSLR as a ‘directors finder’ and Jeff covered that. That was a nice informative video!

  • Which viewfinder would you use that would simulate a Blackmagic camera?

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