A video camera has an electronic viewfinder that you can adjust vertically to accommodate typical videocamera shooting positions (handheld, on the shoulder, low angle, etc). A SLR film camera, on the other hand, has a fixed optical viewfinder requiring you to press the (much smaller) camera to your face. When shooting movies with a DSLR, however, the camera’s mirror is in its locked-up position, so if you look into the camera’s optical viewfinder all you’ll see is black. Today’s DSLRs offer an electronic solution similar to video cameras: the Live View LCD was one of the first steps in enabling DSLRs to shoot movies, and as a result, the LCD screen is what you’ll use to frame and focus shots.
However, there are a plethora of issues with shooting movies on a small, fixed LCD screen; an add-on viewfinder is one way to address (some of ) these issues. A viewfinder usually provides magnification and allows you to isolate the LCD screen from sunlight; additionally, it provides a crucial third point of contact for stabilizing all-too jittery DSLR shots. An LCD viewfinder is basically just a loupe that you attach to your DSLR’s screen (via straps, adhesive, a fixed mount, or magnets). Models vary in their magnification, optic quality, and attachment method; I’ll spotlight two popular models and provide my own review of a third option.
At the top of the heap is the Zacuto Z-Finder. Here’s a review by a self-professed “Zacuto fanboy,” but everyone else seems to love it too; for $395, it better be the best. For that price, one has to question whether they would rather have an external monitor, but if you’re planning on shooting primarily handheld and on-the-go, a good viewfinder is a worthwhile investment, and the Z-Finder is the one to beat. The Zacuto provides 3X magnification, attaches via an adhesive frame, and offers a diopter for shooters who wear glasses. There’s also a cheaper Z-Finder, the $265 Z-Finder JR, which leaves out the diopter and mounting frame in favor of a less expensive bracket.
At half the price of the Z-Finder is the very popular LCDVF, which was bootstrapped in Estonia by Cinema5d user Tonis. Originally sold direct and now distributed by a network of dealers, the LCDVF is available for $180, offers 2X magnification, and attaches via a magnetic frame. There are some user opinions here, and even Philip Bloom (the aforementioned Zacuto fanboy) seems to like it; dozens more reviews can be found via search. Tonis might just have hit the sweet spot for price/performance, but the LCD omits an adjustable diopter: if you wear glasses, you may or may not be able to focus through the viewfinder.
Because I had some old Cavision parts lying around from my previous camera rig, I went with the Canadian manufacturer’s LCD model because I liked the idea of having a viewfinder that could swing-away. However, while the direct sales staff were very helpful, I can’t say the same about the viewfinder itself. Cavision parts are modestly priced, but many of them are also modestly manufactured, and I’ve found that the viewfinder has too narrow a field of focus, so that the edges of the screen appear blurry. With a magnification factor of 6X, the Cavision offers the largest image size of the bunch, but I’ve also found this to be a disadvantage for two reasons: one, the resolution of DSLR LCD screens isn’t high enough to support a 6X magnification, so you become too aware of the distracting gridlines between pixels; two, the image is large enough that it takes up too much of your field of view and it’s not easy to “take it all in” for composing shots. I found my eye frequently panning across the magnified image, and I’d rather have something that doesn’t force me to shift my focal point so often. It’d be like trying to compose a shot with an IMAX screen in front of you; as a cinemagoer, the huge screen size offers an immersive experience, but as a cinematographer you’d want to back up for framing purposes. Some of these issues have been corroborated by others, so I’d have to recommend one of the other two options.
The chief drawback when shooting with a viewfinder attached is: you don’t have the vertical adjustability of a real videocamera, where the eyepiece swivels up and down. This allows you to get low and high angles; with a DSLR viewfinder, you’re locked in to shooting straight ahead from head-level. This is why DSLR viewfinders have some sort of release mechanism, but even without a viewfinder it can be hard to get low and high shots since the LCD screen itself does not articulate. When you’re thinking about monitor versus viewfinder, a lot of it comes down to what size rig you’re planning on using. Smaller rig for low profile shooting? Viewfinder. Larger rig for narrative projects? Field monitor.