dante stella stories photographs technical guestbook

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.
— Karl Marx
Strangefinder photography

I. Monkeys The photographic world abounds in atavistic accessories. Chief shaman among these might be the line of fake winding levers that people attach to their ultra-modern auto-advance (or digital) camera bodies. The use of these things seems almost offensive to evolution. Lever-winding disappeared from pro camera bodies by 1988, and between the Contax G, the Hexar RF, and a zillion other high-end bodes, you would think that people would be over it by now. We have, for heaven's sake, opposable thumbs that can grip oblong objects like camera bodies. This author (for one remembers) the winding lever as something that he would forget to use, something that would interfere with his right eye, or worse, something that would catch destructively on the pockets of his finely tailored flat-front trousers, thereby creating sartorial calamity.

II. Mes-s-sucher. The undersigned was contemplating this when lo and behold, a small box containing a precious commodity arrived. None other than the Zeiss Ikon 425 viewfinder, it sparkled with that special cheap West German chrome normally reserved for the flip-up viewfinders of Polaroid 250-series pack cameras. True to form, the bottom was made of black shiny plastic with the Zeiss Ikon logo. A small distance knob calibrated in feet graced the rear bevel. It is still not exactly clear for what this device was intended; it appears to be designed for some low-end Zeiss Ikon camera that lacked a built-in rangefinder yet somehow had a 75mm lens (Contina III?). The 425 is a very strange bird: a 75mm viewfinder (on a 35mm camera) that has its own built in combined rangefinder (5 geet to infinity).

III. Mystery. Once you get over the initial puzzlement of this whole thing, you think about how ancient people must have used this. Sight through the viewfinder/rangefinder and turn the knob to achieve the focusing distance, whereupon, you transfer that distance to the camera's lens. The German engineer who cooked this up clearly had never done a time-and-motion study on how this would actually work - since you would have to look back in the finder to make sure the picture was framed correctly.

IV. Men. Not only does the 425 require three steps, but it violates the principle than men can only do processes (like driving) in a forward direction. No turning back - or here, no going back to a viewing device you have used before for the same picture. It's simple biology. In this sense, although it also requires three steps, the original Kodak 35 (popup version) is 100% more male-oriented. You find the distance with an accessory rangefinder, transfer distance to the lens, and then look into the viewfinder. See, all forward motion. The Contax III and Leica M3 are, a fortiori, more manly because you only have to look in one place to compose, focus and shoot.

V. Manual focus. There was a point here, right? One of the biggest challenges of focusing legacy lenses on something like an X-Pro1 is that there is nothing other than zone focusing and EVF focusing. The former is pretty much ineffectual for lenses longer than 24mm, and the latter is difficult to use with choices of magnification at 1.0x (too small) and 10x (too jumpy). You would use a 50mm lens for portraits on an APS-C camera. Think hard - for a generally fixed distance, what is the most efficient way of achieving accurate focus for this angle of view? Think Andy Warhol. Think... Polaroid Big Shot!

VI. Massachusetts. The Big Shot was generally a pretty poor camera (plastic f/29 lens...), but it did have two things going for it: a portrait focal length lens and a fixed distance rangefinding mechanism coupled to a fized-focus lens. With that camera, you would get to the right approximate distance from the subject (about a meter) and rock the camera back and forth until the images (thrown by a very wide-based rangefinder) lined up. The principle was actually pioneered by Kodak with its Retina close-up kits, which did the same thing - just a whole lot closer.

VII. Manipulation. There is nothing to prevent you from using Big Shot theory to focus a mirrorless digital camera. If you can set the lens and the rangefinder to the same distance (assuming tolerances for the selected aperture). Instead of turning the rangefinder knob and then the focusing ring, you simply move the camera. The 425 finder fits into the proof of concept because it has a handy combined viewfinder-rangefinder that can be manually set to any arbitrary distance with a knob. The proof of concept was set up with the 425, a X-Pro1, and a 50mm f/1.4 Konica Hexanon AR lens. The 425 was set near its minimum distance (around 5 feet), training it on a vertical line to establish that distance and then using the EVF to synchronize the lens focus. Shockingly, the rocking method actually worked, with some caveats.

  • It takes a good amount of light, decent subject contrast, and good eyesight to get it right at f/1.4, but it can be done.
  • Results are much better at f/2.8 (see the upcoming article on the magic aperture for legacy lenses on the X-Pro1).
  • Avoid bumping the lens focusing ring.
  • There is a lot of parallax error in framing at close range.

That any of this works at all is actually pretty impressive, since the finder was probably designed to serve a 75mm f/4 (or slower) lens. Near the minimum distance for this rangefinder, though, you can get away with simply setting the lens distance scale to the same number as the finder (this worked both with the Hexanon and with the XF 35mm lens). Again, a moderate aperture makes life easier and the pictures better.

VIII. Manumission. Now, even though it has a 2x3 aspect finder and frame that is perfect for a 50mm lens on an APS-C, even though it has a great distance dial, and even though it works, the 425 is not going to set the world on fire. One very big problem is that there simply aren't very many of them in circulation. But using a separate viewfinder/rangefinder unit is a start. The possibilities for finding already-manufactured mechanisms are slim. Most accessory rangefinders are designed only to measure distance and have no framing capability. The excellent units built into cameras are often bolted to the chassis of the camera.

IX. Manufacture. One possible end point may actually be in Micro 4/3 with converted finders from the Polaroid 250/350/360/450. Those finders are not of phenomenal build quality inside (it is not an overstatement to say that a hot-melt glue gun is an appropriate tool for alignment...), but they do have bright projected framelines (3:4 proportions with a normal lens) whose parallax correction is linked to the distance set. Once these are detached from their return springs, these finders can be set to an arbitrary distance (with the lever on the front) and fixed in place. You would still need to add an accessory foot, but that could simply be glued on.