Compiled and written by Andrew Nemeth, Australia
URL:   <leica.nemeng.com>
Site last updated:  Thu, 14 Jul 2016

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Accessory "bright-line" viewfinders

Introduction

These are small optical viewfinders, roughly half the size of a roll of film, which slide into a camera's flash shoe. They come in a range of focal lengths and are useful for wide-angle or tele work, or when you want to use the brightest possible viewfinder to frame your shots quickly.

There is a trade-off however - none of them help with focusing. You still have to look through the camera's built-in viewfinder to do that. Framing accuracy is also far from precise, so don't rely on these things if you're the kind of photographer who insists on 100% cropping precision. The framing accuracy is even worse on a M7 or M6TTL, owing to these cameras 2.5mm taller top-plate height (see notes further below).

Framing accuracy aside, these viewfinders provide a super-bright viewing image, with a simple, uncluttered, very-bright frameline box (hence the reason they are known as "bright-line" finders). Most importantly, they work exceptionally well in dim light and also tend to provide greater eye relief - a real plus for spectacle or sunglass wearers (beware of scratching your glasses though - see discussion below).

They broadly come in three kinds: those made by Leica, those made by Voigtländer and Russian-made clones.

Leica Finders

Bring your money with you, then go back and get some more. Older finders are coveted by Wetzlar Snobs & frenzied collectors, whilst current production models are priced at typical Solms sticker-trauma levels.

Vintage finders (1930s-1960s) are identifiable by five-letter acronyms Leica used from the 1930s onwards. The most common are:

Leica Viewfinder Codes
28 mm SLOOZ
35 mm SBLOO
50 mm SBOOI
85 mm SGOOD
90 mm SGVOO
135 mm SHOOC

All are silver chrome and feature solid metal construction. The optics aren't multi-coated (duh - most of them are over 40 years old) but they have excellent eye-relief, are very well made, and the 90mm and 135mm finders can be set to various distances to compensate for parallax error.

If money is no object (and I'm talking $US 200+ for mint examples here!), then definitely get one of these. They are beautifully made and tend to appreciate in value over the years, especially if you manage to get one in near-mint condition with clean glass.

(I can't help wondering about how many of these things spend their existence sitting in display cabinets or safes, waiting for the day when they are sold to someone else, who will again carefully store them until they are sold to someone else…)

How do you find/ buy these things? The easiest way is to punch in the 5-letter code-name into a web search-engine. FWIW I did a quick search in Nov 2007 and found the following links - hopefully they won't go out of date too quickly:

  1. Schouten Select Cameras (Netherlands)
  2. KEH Used Cameras (USA)
  3. Pacific Rim Camera (USA)
  4. Adorama (USA)

Voigtländer Finders

These are updated versions of the Leica finders, available in three different types: black plastic, black metal or silver-chrome metal.

As at the date of this page, the following are available:

Voigt VFs Types
12 mm Black Plastic
15 mm Black Plastic
21 mm Black Plastic
25 mm Black Plastic
28 mm Black Plastic or Metal + Silver-Chrome Metal
35 mm Black Plastic or Metal + Silver-Chrome Metal
40 mm Black Plastic
50 mm Black or Silver-Chrome Metal
75 mm Black Plastic or Metal + Silver-Chrome Metal
90 mm Black Plastic or Metal + Silver-Chrome Metal

They aren't as exquisitely crafted as the older Leica VFs, but the metal versions are pretty damn good. For starters they only cost @ $US 140, have multi-coated optics, are compact and - to put it simply - do the job more than good enough. They also have thicker framelines than the Leica units, making framing easier.

They are also much easier to buy, especially the wide or tele versions. See for example the following dealers:

  1. Stephen Gandy at Cameraquest.com
  2. Mainline Photographics, Sydney Australia

Similar to some of the Leica finders, there are parallax distance compensation dials for the longer focal lengths. Likewise the shorter VFs have a dotted line below the solid frame-rectangle, to show the upper frame limit when the camera is used at 2m.

new Zeiss Ikon Finders

With the release of the Zeiss Ikon 35mm RF camera system in 2004/5, a number of accessory finders were also released. May be worth a look (if you are prepared to pay € 375 Euro!):

Viewfinder Part Number
ZI 15 mm 30 85115
ZI 21 mm 30 85121
ZI 25 mm /28 mm 30 85125

Russian-made Finders

These appear to be available in the more popular sizes of 21, 35, 50, 90 or 135mm, and of course the construction and optical quality is nowhere near that of the Leica or Voigtländer units. To their credit however, they are reasonably cheap and work alright.

The easiest place to buy them is online through Kiev USA:

<kievusa.com/kievpricelist.html>

Alternatively, BPW Limited also stocks a few focal length sizes. (After the BPW page loads, search for "viewfinder" to locate items like their "Kiev Arsenal 35mm" VF etc.)

The "Ikodot" Sports-finder

Announced in June 2004, the "Ikodot" is a modern wire-box sports-finder for use on Ms. The manufacturer claims it works with with a variety of lenses, merely by varying the viewing technique.

<ikodot.com/takealook.html>

In Aug 2004, Fritz Dumville, the man behind the Ikodot, sent me the following note:

The 'manufacturer' (me) does not claim nor recommend that the Ikodot finder be used with telephoto lenses, though it is certainly possible. For this reason I do not describe the Ikodot as a 'sports' finder. It is much more a general use finder for normal to wide angle lenses. It is especially friendly for eyeglass wearers.
 
The single 'frame in the rear' design, and the seperate aiming function (the balls) is what allows the device to be easily used for different focal lengths.
 
The Ikodot was first mentioned in the LHSA viewfinder, January '04 issue. I expect to formally introduce the production finder sometime this fall when I get the manufacturing issues fully sorted out.

Using these finders

Very easy. Slide them into your camera's flash shoe, look through the camera's viewfinder to focus, then look through the accessory viewfinder to frame and compose. Yes it's a two-step process, but if you do a lot of zone-focus candid shooting, then you can usually skip the focus step.

The Voigtländer 35mm or 50mm (black metal) finders work brilliantly on a Leica M3. As this particular camera doesn't have any kind of 35mm frameline, the accessory viewer lets you use a 35mm lens with good-enough framing accuracy, without having to pack a second 0.72 or 0.58 body. Alternatively, the 50mm bright-line VF is much brighter than the M3's and provides greater eye relief, letting you use the camera more easily when wearing sunglasses.

Using an external VF is a sobering experience though. You'll never realise just how grim your M's built-in viewfinder can be until you've looked through one of these babies!

Framing accuracy - M6TTL, M7, M8 & M9 warning

Users of these cameras tend to forget that the camera top-plate for these particular models is 2.5mm taller than the typical M or LTM body.

Although this has no effect on general camera usage, the extra height does impact on the vertical framing accuracy. Accessory viewfinders were all designed to work at a certain height, mainly that of "standard height" M, LTM or Voigtländer Bessa cameras. So if you raise them above this, then it will introduce a vertical parallax error and affect the vertical framing accuracy.

What to do? For wider focal length finders (21mm, 28mm, 35mm etc.), simply use the "dotted-line" parallax-marker beneath the upper frame line as the top of your image frame. Works well enough for subjects more than 2m away.

The trick won't work however with longer finders. Even with the 50mm VF, the extra 2.5mm knocks out the framing enough to make it a concern. With longer 75mm or 90mm finders, the vertical error is of course much worse.

So beware of this! It means you should be cautious when using accessory finders longer than 35mm on your "tall plate" Ms.

Framing accuracy - generally

In Jan 2004 Marco Sobrevinas sent me the following note about slight horizontal framing inaccuracies when using Voigtländer VFs on Leicas (and vice versa):

[…] The offset of the hotshoe in relation to the lens center is different on a Leica M vs. a Voigtländer body. Consequently, both manufacturers make their finders for their own bodies, and it is slightly off when mixing and matching.
 
I've found good results using a 25mm Voigtländer finder on a Voigtländer Bessa T, while I'm using a Leica 24mm lens on it. Horizontally, it's a touch more accurate than using the 24mm Leica finder on a Voigtländer body.
 
Conversely, when I use the Leica 24mm lens on a Leica body, I stick with Leica's own 24mm finder. Obviously, it's horizontal offset is optimized for a Leica M body.
 
In general, when using ultra wides, this isn't that much of an issue, but if you have access to both brands of finders, it's worth keeping the finders on their own brand of camera bodies. […]

Of course, the key phrase here is "a touch more accurate". Although it's something to keep in mind, that's all. The finder-offset inaccuracy is never as bad as that experienced on the taller-bodied M6TTL or M7 (see above).

In response to an online discussion about this in June 2004, Joel Matherson added the following:

[People who have pointed this out] are quite correct on this point and this is why some viewfinders don't frame perfecly. All of the Voigtländer finders were made for a centered shoe except for one! The 40mm finder was specifically designed for Leica M users for framing of the 40mm Summicron, and this finder has the ofset shoe to correct for the different placement of the M shoes compared to Voigtländers Bessas. So Voigtländer is well aware that there is a difference, it's not a fault of the design of their finders.

How NOT to scratch your glasses

A big problem with most of these finders is that they have metal eye-piece rings which, if you are not careful, can scratch the blazes out of your spectacles or sunglasses.

I can forgive this fault in older finders, but even the latest Voigtländer VFs suffer from it. You would think that after all these decades, someone, somewhere, would have figured a way to make a finder with a non-scratch rubber eye-ring.

So until that far-off day comes, what can you do? The easiest solution is to put a few layers of electrical tape around the eye-piece ring. A more elegant alternative would be to glue on a leather washer or donut. In my case, I painted the rings of my finders with a thick coat of black Liquid Electrical Tape.

Either way, scratches begone!

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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