This isolated view doesn’t show the old car on the right, the bright scene to the left, and so much more.  I feel fortunate to have selected the gem from a basket of rotten eggs.

Canon 5d Mark II, 16-35mm  F2.8L  @F8  1/250th  35mm  ISO 100

This isolated view doesn’t show the old car on the right, the bright scene to the left, and so much more.  I feel fortunate to have selected the gem from a basket of rotten eggs.

 

In the world of modern photography we have many more camera types than ever before from which to choose.  For the purpose of this article I’m going to focus modern DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras and the viewfinder we all know and love, the pentaprism optical viewfinder.  Perched high atop the body its hard to miss.  Supported by a complex arrangement of mirrors, gears, springs, and ground glass with the better bodies boasting specifications like “100% viewfinder coverage” and “0.71x  magnification “ you’re left with little doubt that the manufacturers put a great deal of thought, expense and never ending research into that one specific feature.  The viewfinder. 

So you ask, “is it really as important as they make it out to be?"   In a word YES.   Even more so.   It’s through this viewfinder that you not only “see” and compose your compositions, but you also monitor and change your cameras settings.   Every new generation of DSLR’s wouldn’t be complete without the newest viewfinder functions promising to revolutionize photography and rock your world.

As each new workshop class filters through with each student armed with the latest in DSLR technology, I continue to be challenged to impress upon them the two most important functions of a viewfinder.  To “see” and compose their compositions, and to “control” their camera.  That’s it, to see and control.  This is all it takes to be the most awesome photographer.  Seeing and controlling.

Let’s talk about controlling first.   Among seasoned photographers there’s a running observation we often joke about.  An old Leica camera manual had but 16 pages of fairly large print which described every control and feature of the camera and how to use them.   At the very end in big block letters there is the final instruction “PRACTICE UNTIL YOU CAN OPERATE THE CAMERA WITH YOUR EYES CLOSED.”  And yes, they were absolutely serious.  Compare that to the modern DSLR manual of several hundred pages in small print, and they recommend you carry it with you.

 

See the car on the right and all other undesirable elements?  There are many more to each side.  By shifting t my left a few paces and refining my angle and bending down I was able to crate the first image in this article and no settle for this one.

Canon 5d Mark II, 16-35mm  F2.8L  @F8   1/200th  16mm  ISO 100

See the car on the right and all other undesirable elements?  There are many more to each side.  By shifting t my left a few paces and refining my angle and bending down I was able to crate the first image in this article and no settle for this one.

 

Any competent photographer should be able to at least control their basic settings (exposure mode, AF mode, AF point movement/activation, ISO, shutter speed, aperture) with the viewfinder at their eye.  A good photographer will be able to control every function used in their style of photography with the camera at their eye.   When experienced photographers take outings with each other it’s well known they’re watching each other’s control of the camera and subsequently judging each other through the process.  There is no denying you can control the camera must faster AND track your shots at the same time ONLY by controlling your camera through the viewfinder. 

If you’re reading this article and cannot yet do this, then I’d recommend putting your camera manual and camera on the table in front of you and practicing 10-15 minutes at a time until you can.  This is a non-negotiable vital skill every experienced photographer must have.  Before every shoot spend 5-10 minutes with the camera to your eye manipulating the controls you know you’ll be using that day.

Camera control aside, it’s probably 100x more important to be able to '”see” through your viewfinder than control.  And without a doubt it’s the single most important thing for me to get across to my workshop students.  During the course of a workshop I’ll talk and put out books and books of information verbally, we’ll discuss this information, and then the workshop takes a sudden left turn where I stop talking and the student starts thinking for themselves.  At this point I observe and advise as necessary.

In this spirit I’ll also teach through example.  For instance, I’ll make it a point to sit down somewhere odd with my own camera and take a big chunk of time looking through my viewfinder.  I’m looking for them to ask and then notice two things: 

1.  What is he doing. 

2.  I should be doing that too!

 

 There were many scenes which would include this colorful shipping vessel, but this was the only angle which let it loom to the forefront and cut out the pile of garbage to the right.

Canon 5d Mark II,  Sigma 12-24mm F2.8L @F8 1/400th 24mm ISO 100

There were many scenes which would include this colorful shipping vessel, but this was the only angle which let it loom to the forefront and cut out the pile of garbage to the right.

 

If you’re a regular reader of this column you’ll remember me mentioning one of the most difficult things for new photographers to do.. is to slow down and really ‘see’ what’s around them.  The viewfinder is there to help you see.  If you have a 100% viewfinder, and it’s accurate, then what you see in the viewfinder, edge to edge, will be what you see on your image.  If you have a 95% viewfinder, then your resulting image will have an extra 5% on all sides.  Professionals far prefer 100% viewfinders because accuracy is vital to our clients.   It’s not professional to cut off someone’s feet, or a hand, or the top of their head. 

Viewfinders also accomplish another function seldom thought about.  They isolate you from the entire scene except for the part you can see.  They become like a directors loupe in that they frame your composition on all four sides allowing you to concentrate only on that portion of the skyline, the room, a church, or whatever.   As you move your viewfinder you’ll start to notice compositions you hadn’t  previously considered.    Isolating a portion of a scene (framing) that you will subsequently capture as an image is the entire creative purpose of the viewfinder.  With practice you’ll learn to use your eyes alone to isolate compositions, but it’s always helpful to use the viewfinder to see the composition you’re considering.

As you isolate the scene with the viewfinder, if you watch carefully, you’ll  also see instances when you’re isolating the direction of the light as well.

 

A wider view in this case isn’t as intimate of a scene, but the view is compelling.

Canon 5d Mark II,   6-35mm F2.8L @F8 1/400th 20mm ISO 100

A wider view in this case isn’t as intimate of a scene, but the view is compelling.

 

There are times when you come upon a scene, throw the camera to your eye, and then snap a picture and this works.  Never underestimate shots that come upon you quickly.  But if you use your viewfinder to break down an area, whether it be certain locations for street shooting, different areas in the room for portraits (where the furniture, door openings, etc in the room work for you), and especially for landscapes.. then you’re practically guaranteed to see more and better compositions.  And of course, the more you practice these methods the faster you’ll be able to accomplish them in real time while in the field.

To summarize:  Using the viewfinder to isolate the scene will allow you to see different subjects, colors, light, scenes, moods, textures, and much more.  Every possible compositional element comes into play including anticipated post processing and even anticipated movement within the scene.

 

This has become one of my classic shots from the boatyard.  When a ship is being winched onto the tracks you can see the cables, the pulleys, the W forming the cable runs, and the ship centered in the frame looms powerful even t5hough it’s far away.  If the light is right sunlight will gleam off the pulleys and parts of the cable.   I love these compositions.

Canon 5d Mark II, 16-35mm F2.8L @F8 1/250th 22mm ISO 100

This has become one of my classic shots from the boatyard.  When a ship is being winched onto the tracks you can see the cables, the pulleys, the W forming the cable runs, and the ship centered in the frame looms powerful even t5hough it’s far away.  If the light is right sunlight will gleam off the pulleys and parts of the cable.   I love these compositions.

 

Taking the time to carefully analyze the scene through your viewfinder will allow compositions you’d otherwise never see.  It’s all about practice and training yourself to see.  It’s commonly called “having the eye.”  But eyes can be developed and for most part they are developed.  They’re developed through practice and repetition.  As you come upon a shooting location try to arrive far enough in advance so you can sit there for a 5-10 minutes period studying the scene through your viewfinder.  Study in an organized manner which is really material for another article.  Have a mental list of the common things you’ll be looking for, but leave your mind open for the uncommon.  And all the while keep track of the light going on around you, are there clouds and if so are they moving and in what direction, time of day, and whatever else affects the light in your scene.

The viewfinder is a powerful tool.  Professionals are long accustomed to certain types of viewfinders and focusing screens and don’t really care for much else.   A good bright viewfinder such as those found in full frame DSLR’s are a joy to work with, while the tunnel vision like extra-small versions found in crop framed DSLR’s become irritating and slow in comparison.  Once you grow accustomed to seeing certain information in certain locations in your viewfinder nothing else will do.

A viewfinder is like a magic tool which allows you to see things others can’t.  They’re either small and irritating or large and bright.  They contain vital information.  With patience viewfinders will talk to you, they’ll share secrets, they’ll be the difference between an ordinary common image, or a beautiful well planned landscape.  Make your viewfinder your best friend and you won’t be sorry you did.