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Essential Kit Basics - Using My Viewfinder Cameras

There are certain things you need to master if you, like me, use vintage viewfinder cameras.

I am - as were the vast majority of picture-takers in the first century-and-a-half of the existence of the photographic art - a user of cameras that do not indicate if your photo is in focus or not. The viewfinder shows you (at best) what'll be in the frame. Not much else.

In the finder there's nothing that tells of what distance your lens is focused. You don't see the depth-of-field. There's no indication of over- or underexposure.

But you do need to know these facts to be able to make a good photograph.

What you need is either experience (you can estimate distance and light conditions rather accurately)

or an assortment of paraphernalia - i. e. kit:

  - Light meter: Flash-shoe mounted/pocketable/app version

  - Rangefinder: Flash-shoe mounted/measuring tape/ruler/laser meter/etc

  - Pen & notebook: Always at hand, either paper or digital

the Exposure

I use a combination of two light meters. My Ikophot (pictured above) is really vintage. It gives a fairly good reading of the light that 'bounces' off stuff. I usually measure off my hand or the ground, giving me a fair indication of one of the strongest light sources apart from the sky. Some time in the past summer the Ikophot - which is powered by a (solar) selenium cell - had a hiccup and started to give a one stop too negative approximation. That made me under expose photos for a bit before I realised the anomaly. I have now added a filter which cuts two stops of light from the meter. The one stop over exposure it now gives me is not really an issue since most film stocks even benefit from being given more light than box speed indicates.

The second light meter is an app. Actually two: 'Lightmeter' and 'Light Meter - Free'. I am sure there are more. The 'Free' one has adjustments for reciprocity failure for long exposures, which is handy.

I use the app meters when I want sort of precise indicators - for instance in low light situations.

The values from the meter must be transferred to the camera to obtain correct exposures. Values for shutter time and aperture must be set on the lens and shutter controls. The film's ASA/ISO/GOST must be taken in consideration. The information also includes preferences for depth-of-field.

the Depth-Of-Field

A rule of thumb for control of depth-of-field is that the larger the aperture setting - the less depth-of-field. Both my Foth Derby and the Zenobia (seen above) have f/3,5 as their largest aperture. My experience with viewfinder cameras is that at large apertures it is rather tricky to nail focus. It is however easier with 35 mm cameras - the Derby and Zenobia being 127 and 120 medium format cameras.

If I were to make a portrait in daylight with the two featured cameras I would choose aperture f/6,3 and f/5,6 respectively, to obtain good subject focus but still have nice out-of-focus areas.

the Distance

On the camera lens sits a focusing ring with indicators of how far away (from the film plane) where the focus is optimal. Once the ring is turned the focus shifts, either further away or closer to the camera/film plane. So how do you know the distance to your subject? You measure it.

There are great plastic tape rulers that are like 20 meters long, that builders use. That's very convenient though a bit cumbersome to carry. (If I were a large format photographer exposing wetplates, that's what I'd be using.) My choice for longer distances is a dedicated rangefinder.

The flash-shoe mounted rangefinder works like one in a common rangefinder camera, though you need to move your eye from figuring out the distance (rangefinder) to making the composition (viewfinder). There are cameras using this very solution - for instance the Zorki I and several medium format folding cameras.

My external rangefinder needs calibrating since it's been rattling and bumping around on the bottom of several bags. So at the moment my main rangefinding tool is my first Leica. I saw it laying around at an old job for six months before I decided that it had become mine. It's a laser measuring tool which meters the distance from its base. I simply place the base at my forehead and watch for the red dot. When i spot (no pun intended) the point of focus I click the red button. The distance reading shows in the display.

The most important step you need to take when using an external or uncoupled rangefinder is to transfer the distance measurement you got from the rangefinder to the lens - actually setting the focus.


Remembering What You're Doing

If one misses any of the steps that I've outlined here the photograph is ruined. Over- or underexposure; missed focus; camera shake.

I am a social person. Too social for photography apparently. In my efforts to please my fellow humans I forget details. When practicing photography details are key. So I often forget to set focus when making portraits. I often forget to set the correct shutter speed or aperture at dinner parties. I make double exposures because I'd forgotten to wind the film to the next frame since chatting to my subjects made me forget.

I keep a notebook with columns of information for every roll since three years. That's good for reviewing and learning from mistakes. What I also need to do is tattoo or otherwise keep a list of the motions I need to go through to make a photograph, when in social situation.

  - Shutter time

  - Aperture

  - Focus

  - Expose

  - Wind the film

Don't miss a step.


Thanks for bearing with me! Check out my Instagram. Visit the photography shop getOBphoto that I run at Etsy.

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