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M Waist level finders?

You want to shoot with the camera away from your face (eg "from the hip" or "over your head" or "around corners"), and want to use an accessory viewfinder to help with framing and composition. What are your options?…

Leica AUFSU

In the 1930s and early 40s, Leica made a range of waist level finders for their thread-mount 35mm cameras. Basically these finders were small (approx. 20mm x 30mm x 40mm) right-angle viewers which slid into the camera's flash accessory shoe. They were designed to be used in either landscape or portrait format, and contain a silvered prism with appropriate optics to show the scene with correct lateral orientation and right way up. This is unlike the Rolleiflex TLR or Nikon DW-1 waist-level finders, which actually show the scene L-R reversed.

Three different types of Leica finder were made with differing angles of view:

Leica WL Codes
50 mm AUFSU
28 + 50 mm AHOOT
35 + 50 mm AYOOC

The "AUFSU" is the most common of the three, with the others being (seriously) harder to find. You can see photos of the AUFSU at the following URLs:

  1. <wlf_aufsu.jpg> (JPEG 57k bytes)
  2. <lausch.com/sucher.htm>

Levelling

Late-model AUFSUs have a circle and cross engraved into the front & top viewer windows. This was done to let you level the camera, when looking through the viewer, by superimposing the cross inside the circle. For extra accuracy, purists can also insert a spirit level into the AUFSU rear accessory shoe — presumably the reason it was provided. FWIW I use a Hama Camera Spirit Level 5410 (see the RHS photo in the "wlf_aufsu" link above).

Flare free viewing

The AUFSU has a perfectly flat, 14mm square upper window. Because the surface isn't curved like the Zeiss units (see below), it doesn't reflect overhead light sources as readily, meaning you can use the AUFSU beneath overhead lighting or in the sun without having to shield the viewer with your other hand. A definite plus for one-handed inconspicuous candid shooting!

Price

Occasionally AUFSUs pop up for sale on the net, but be prepared to fight your way through a scrum of collectors to buy one. Expect to pay $US 300 (or more) for a clean example in good condition.

Yes you read correctly. $US 300++ for a simple little gizmo made in the 1930s! You can thank bottomless-pocket collectors for this :?(

Zeiss Finder 436/8 waist-level finder

Made by Zeiss in the 1930s, the "436/8" is a small viewfinder (approx. 30mm x 30mm x 40mm) similar to the Leica AUFSU. Like the Leica finders, the "436/8" also contains a prism plus optics to show things right way 'round and up. Unlike the Leica viewers however, the Zeiss model rotates ±90° to allow for portrait or landscape shooting without having to remount the finder. It also works equally well for 35mm or 50mm, and the rim surrounding the viewer-eyepiece has a notch around it to allow the use of masks for more accurate framing.

Frame-mask hack

To improve framing, I took my 436/8 apart and inserted a square mask made from transparent orange stage-lighting gel, with a central rectangle cut into it to approximate 50mm lens coverage. After reassembly, I can now use the central clear rectangle for framing 50mm shots, and still use the full square viewer when shooting with a 35mm lens.

Viewer performance

Unlike the Leica units, the Zeiss doesn't have the Leica's circle + cross-hair leveling mechanism, or any ability to use a spirt level, meaning you often end up with unintentionally tilted images (the bane of all WLF shooters!).

Again unlike the AUFSU, the viewer image is less contrasty and more susceptible to flare from overhead light, meaning you always have to shield it with your hand. Additionally, the 13mm square viewer window provides a greater angle of view than the AUFSU, giving you a much — much — smaller image when working with a 50mm mask. (Is "436/8" Zeiss-talk for "squint"?)

The advantages of the Zeiss unit however are its good 35mm coverage and — most importantly — that it isn't as desperately sought after by fanatical collectors, making it easier buy at @ $US 120-200. In May 2003 I even managed to find one in Sydney for the equivalent of $US 48, one-sixth the price of a similar condition AUFSU!

You can see a photo of a "436/8" at the following link:

<wlf_zeiss4368.jpg> (JPEG 71k bytes)

BTW sometimes you will see the Zeiss finder described as a "right angle finder", implying it only works at eye-level. This is not correct. It is a true waist-level finder (okay, make that chest-level…), designed to be used at more than 15cm from your face.

Zeiss Finder 436/5 waist-level finder

In Jan 2004, Christopher Chen noted:

FYI, the 436/8 was meant for the Super Ikonta B, a 6x6 camera, and thus shows a square image. It will work for rough framing, but you should know that Zeiss Ikon also made another model (#436/5) for the Contax RF [35mm rangefinder cameras], which has built in masks to show the proper 35mm film-frame rectangular perspective.

Here is a link to some photos of the 436/5 I found via a google search — hopefully it won't go out of date too quickly:

<www2.ttcn.ne.jp/…/436-5.html>

Note — the 436/5, with its 50mm lens, seems to imply the angle of view is limited to that of a 50mm lens. This may be an issue if you also want to use the finder with wider lenses, say a 35mm.

Kühn-Wetzlar Flexameter

Alternative to the optical viewers, there is the larger and more elaborate Kuhn Flexameter — the "R8" of WLFs!

Made in the 1930s, these things have a built-in 50mm lens which focuses onto a ground-glass screen. You are then transfer the distance setting (by hand) to the camera taking lens. Unlike the Zeiss or Leica WL finders, Flexameters can only be used in landscape format, and because they lack an optical correction prism, show a view which is laterally (L-R) reversed.

As you can guess, by now these things are rare & tricky to find. Doing a web search on "flexameter" in Jan 2004, I only managed to locate two. If you get lucky, expect to pay @ $US 100.

A word of caution: people who own these things tend to be batty about them. They drone on and on about how they can photograph with impunity because the Flexameter has (magically) made them "invisible". Er, not quite. Flexameters are the size of a couple of cigarette packs — @ ten times the Leica or Zeiss units! — so they effectively double your camera's size. Combined with the big, bright 50mm ƒ2.8 viewing lens, and they are guaranteed to make you more conspicuous, not less.

DeMornay-Budd Focusing Reflex Viewfinder

DeMornay-Budd were a photographic accessories company, based in Long Island prior to WW2. In the 1930s they made a "Reflex Viewfinder" which was pretty much identical to the Flexameter, the main difference being that it would also focus-couple with the camera's lens if used with a correct Leica body / 50mm lens combo.

According to DMBFRV user Michael Bender in Oct 2003:

[…] It is a box with a lens and a 45 degree mirror that reflects the (mirror) image to a matte glass on top of the box under its lid.
 
If one uses it on Leica (III — ? not sure) with Elmar, the camera becomes a true TLR, as focussing the lens will also focus and parallax compensate the image in the finder that has a kind of arm that grows down from its lens for that purpose to touch your elmar plate.
 
[…] My second use is for looking into this smallish finder as I am walking - it shows as if a film, uninterrupted and not delayed (as digital does), and so you begin to notice many moments that you'd miss otherwise, you just do not realize those fleeting compositions exist
 
The finder is not that expensive, one should expect below, let's say, $130 (I bought mine for $110). It is not very bright, no coating on the its small lens, but as you focus it, it gives you a great understanding how DOF will look on film: it approximates the open Elmar, which is 3.5 I believe. […]

You can see a photo of this viewer in a Oct 2003 photo.net thread at:

<Photo.net: #006EJU>

Mind you, according to the following 1998 LUG post, these finders can be hard to find today, as very few of them were ever made:

<LUG - v02/msg06082.html>

Voigtländer right-angle finder(s)

What about the current Voigtländer right-angle-finders?…

<cameraquest.com/voigtacc.htm>

Unfortunately they are useless for waist-level shooting because you have to press them to your face to see the reflected image. Hardly "stealth" or "waist-level".

These viewers are actually "right-angle viewfinders" rather than true "waist-level" units. They were designed to allow you to look through the camera's viewfinder at a different angle, but not from any great distance. With the Voigtländer units, the optics are such that when held more than 2cm away from your eye, you cannot see a thing.

Larry's "MR M" DIY viewer

Until Voigtländer get their act together and remake the AUFSU, your cheapest bet may be to make your own WLF by adapting the viewer from a Kodak Brownie Starflex (127 TLR):

A hacksaw, a hammer, a bit — okay a lot — of glue, and you have a beautiful viewfinder for well under $30. Just the kind of inconspicuous, finely-crafted optical mechanism to adorn your $2000-plus camera.

Mind you, the huge Starflex viewer eyepiece is interesting though. Roughly four times the size of the Zeiss or Leica WL viewers…

Glass prism DIY viewer

While we've got the hacksaw and glue handy, why not make your own WLF using a modern, optical-quality glass right-angled or penta prism?

The right-angle version is a simple triangular glass prism where the inside of the hypotenuse is mirror coated. The penta-prism is the same sort of thing used in SLR viewfinders — which means it transmits the view right-way up and laterally L-R oriented, unlike right-angled prisms which reflect things upside-down and L-R back-to-front.

Either of these prisms can be bought reasonably cheap in a variety of sizes from the following links:

  1. <surplusshed.com/pages/category/prisms_1.html>
  2. <edmundoptics.com/US/>
  3. <edmundoptics.com/US/…/productid=2038>

Try to get a prism with large entry & exit viewer pupils (say 20mm x 20mm), and of course you will also have to figure a way of securely attaching a hotshoe-foot to its side.

But an old flash-gun, a hack-saw, nail file, craft knife, Araldite and a bit of black paint & model-making nous… and it shouldn't be too hard to knock together something that works reasonably well for less than $US 100.

A note about possible broken links

This FAQ has over 900 external links. Over time it is inevitable some of them will break. If you are bothered by this, see this detailed topic elsewhere in the FAQ.

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