Shining a Light on Bright-Line Viewfinders

Over the years, many different manufacturers have offered many different types of accessory viewfinders that have taken on numerous forms. I have tried only a handful but am pretty committed to what are known as as “bright-line” accessory viewfinders. Unlike early viewfinders that consist only of wire frames of appropriate sizes or even simple optical viewfinders that contain a magnifying lens element, bright-line finders are tiny optical treasures.

Dutch designer L.E.W. Van Albada came up with bright-line viewfinders in the early 1930’s while working with Zeiss. He developed several types of viewfinders that were made both as accessories and built-into Contax cameras of the period. Albada’s bright-line finders contain multiple glass lens elements in order to replicate the focal length of the taking lens. They also feature a concave mirror that focuses light onto printed or etched frame-lines. The result is viewfinder that is often at least as bright, or brighter than most newer built-in finders, as well as frame-lines that are projected onto the scene and are easily visible wherever there is ambient light. The latter being of particularly important historical note.

According to the Leica Accessories Guide, bright-line or Albada-type viewfinders were originally called sports finders due to the benefit of being able to see a subject enter the frame-lines within the viewfinder. Prior to the Leica SBOOI of 1951, bright-line viewfinders were just one of many types of finder designs. But Leica made an entire line of them with similar encasements that solidified bright-line finders as a particular accessory in and of themselves. Indeed, the Leica IIIg and M3 cameras contain the same bright-line viewfinder design, built-in.

Leica’s adoption of Albada’s viewfinder cemented the projected frame-line feature as standard in all subsequent rangefinder camera designs and ignited competition for brightest viewfinder as a benchmark for assessing the quality of a camera.

Each accessory bright-line finder is dedicated to just one, or sometimes two, focal lengths. This makes them less versatile than simple, multiple length wire frame finders or finders that contain basic magnifying optics mounted in a turret. If you choose a set of bright-line finders in favor of a turret finder, you are committing yourself to changing finders out and storing them appropriately each time you change lenses. Or are you?

For me, I typically only use one or two different lenses per body during a shoot. Therefore, I don’t make a habit of swapping out my bright-line viewfinders mid-shoot, I simply use the built-in finder and leave the accessory finder atop the body at all times. So for example, my M6 TTL supports multiple frame-lines. I use one of these built-in lengths, such as 50 or 90 but I leave my 15mm bright-line finder in the accessory shoe, ready for whenever I mount my 15mm lens. On my 1930 Leica, I often prefer to use the 50mm bright-line SBOOI instead of the built-in finder and keep it mounted at most times.

If you like to swap lenses more frequently than I do, or use multiple lengths that require an accessory finder, you may want to get one of those turret finders. But personally, despite being what I consider a pretty fast photographer, I prefer the viewing quality and smaller physical size of bright-line finders than the speed of a larger turret finder, because my workflow doesn’t require anything faster.

I particularly enjoyed using my Voigtländer 90mm bright-line viewfinder recently while practicing street photography. The ability to see slightly outside of the frame-lines and to concentrate strictly on composition made shooting this genre with this set-up fun and effective.

I wrote about bright-line finders a few years ago and got a number of questions about them that I thought deserved another blog. Below are some topics that came up – I hope you find my thoughts on each, useful. And if you have more, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

LEICA vs VOIGTLÄNDER vs ZEISS

I’m going to concentrate on just two noteworthy manufacturers of bright-line accessory viewfinders as they’re discussed here; Leica and Cosina. Nikon of course made their own compliment of viewfinders and some Canon viewfinders even feature automatic parallax correction when used with some Canon rangefinders. I’m going to exclude these brands simpIy because I find that they are less available I don’t use these brand cameras, though they also appear to be very nice. I’m also not going to include those early Zeiss bright-line viewfinders that Mr. Albada originally designed because each model does not fit into a model line as we know them today. No disrespect to the originators!

Cosina, of course makes products under the Voigtländer namesake and for Zeiss. Leica really embraced bright-line finders in the 1950’s and they still make several which have a rectangular rather than the classic round silhouette and are a bit larger. Cosina began selling bright-line finders in the early 2000’s. Voigtländer issued plastic finders that were black and metal finders that were a conventional satin silver chrome or gloss black paint. Modern Zeiss finders have a squared off housing and came only in black painted metal. Modern Leica bright-line finders are squared silver chrome or black painted metal.

I prefer the metal finders because I don’t trust the rigidity of the plastic “foot” of the plastic finders. And practical concerns aside, I just don’t like the idea of plastic. I like classic, metal and manual cameras and don’t have any desire to top them off with glass encased in cheap, modern plastic. I appreciate the quality of paint filled etching on the metal finders and their general feel and cosmetic look. Sorry if that makes me vain or superficial! [UPDATE: several readers have noted that they prefer plastic viewfinders because the metal versions scratch their eyeglasses. I don’t personally press my eyeglasses directly against my viewfinders so I don’t find this to be a problem. I have some other solutions for glasses wearers too though, it may warrant a whole other blog!]

Where I’m not superficial though, is on brand. I believe vintage Leica and modern Voigtländer metal barreled bright-line finders are of totally equivalent build quality. And both are beautiful, jewel-like masterpieces of design and execution. Since neither company continues to sell these style finders (Leica’s current bright-line finders support only a few focal lengths and are larger), we’re not supporting or hurting either company by purchasing these products.

One difference between brands is that the Leica finders were mostly made during the 1950’s vs Cosina being more contemporary. So some Leica bright-line finders have either been heavily used or improperly stored for decades and will require service. I have yet to see any examples that exhibit de-silvering of the mirror but it would only follow that this should be a concern. And particularly when choosing longer focal lengths such as 90 and 135mm that feature parallax correction, these finders contain a small, simple mechanism and vintage copies will likely require service. Voigtländer finders appeared in the early 2000’s and were made for about ten years. So even the most heavily used and poorly stored Voigt’s are likely to be in better shape than similarly used/stored 70 year old Leica’s, all things being equal.


Zeiss viewfinders seem to sell for $300+, used or new. Leica finders, of which there are few modern models, sell for $900+ new. So that leaves now-discontinued Voigtländer and vintage Leica finders for reasonable prices. “Reasonable” is still in the $50-$150 range used, depending on focal length, condition and included packaging/accessories. There are some rarer finders such as the Voigtländer 40mm or Leica 85mm that command higher-than-average prices; more in the $250+ area. Since I’ve been purchasing and using bright-line finders though, for about ten years, they appear to at least hold their value. Used prices on metal Voigtländer finders seem to equal vintage Leica. I guess that if you wanted the look/specific function of the current Leica M type bright-line finders, the Zeiss versions provide an economical alternative. But even if you don’t care about price, there are just more focal length options available for vintage Leica and Voigtländer than modern Leica and Zeiss.

FOCAL LENGTHS AND MODELS

I would like to catalog every single focal length bright-line viewfinder that each manufacturer has put out but I’m sure there will always be something missing. I’m going to list what I know from my research and experience and hope that I get most of them! If you know of others, please go ahead and let me know in the comments!

Leica’s vintage bright-line finders were available in the following lengths and of course, correspond to some silly five letter words: 21mm (SBKOO), 28mm (SLOOZ), 35mm (SBLOO), 50mm (SBOOI), 85mm (SGOOD), 90mm (SGVOO) and 135mm (SHOOC). These were all brass (I presume brass) and finished in satin chrome with black and red paint-filled etched text. Earlier vintage Leica bright-line finders are marked in cm instead of mm and all versions that I’ve seen are marked in both metric and standard focus measurement using different colors of paint. Earlier Leica finders came in classic red boxes with gold lettering. Newer copies were sold in beige boxes with printed graphics. Leica’s current bright-line finders are available in just 18mm (12023), 21mm (12002) and 24mm (12026) with a solid milled brass enclosure and finished in satin chrome or black paint with a rubber eyepiece. They feature a printed Leica logo but etched and paint-filled focal length text. In the 1980’s the 21mm 12002 finder was also made in black plastic and there was a similarly constructed 28mm (12017) for some time that is no longer available new.

Voigtländer finders were sold both plastic barrel (Version I) and metal barrel (Version II) finders. I am not 100% certain that each of the following lengths were available in both plastic and metal and which metal were available in black or chrome, nor do I feel it necessary to go into specific years of production for each model. But sizes by Voigtländer included 10mm, 12mm, 15mm, 21mm, 28mm, 35mm, 40mm, 50mm, 75mm, 90mm, and 135mm. Voigtlander also made a 12mm D 1.5x finder for the Epson RD-1 and it’s crop-sensor, as well a mini versions of the 28/35mm finders and a Heliar 101 anniversary 50mm finder that is not 1:1. All plastic barreled finders were black in color with the logo and text printed on. Voigt metal finders came in satin chrome or black paint finish. The Voigt satin chrome very closely matches vintage Leica in terms of color and weight. I don’t know if the barrels themselves are made of brass or something cheaper but I can report that as the paint has worn off my Voigt 15mm finder, it has revealed a brass-colored metal. 12 and 21mm Voigts have two-piece housings with a silver chrome front bezel and the rear hemisphere is finished in black crinkle paint. The 12mm finder has no frame-lines and technically is not among Albada’s design but does contain four elements of glass! The only way to tell an older Voigt finder apart from a newer one is the box. Older boxes were green and newer ones are black.

[UPDATE: Thanks to Dagmar E. Baechli for providing image above and the following clarifications: “The 15 and 25mm black plastic don‘t have bright frame lines. Neither do the two big 12mm metal.” He also pointed out that the Fujifilm VF-X21 bright-line finder which shows 21/28mm frame-lines also appears to have been made by Cosina.]

Zeiss finders were designed to follow the styling of modern Leica finders and are rectangular rather than round. They are also made of an unlisted type of metal and feature a raised blue Zeiss logo as well as etched and paint-filled focal distance text. Zeiss finders have been produced in the following lengths: 18mm, 21mm, 25/28mm, and 35mm.

CARE AND USE

This was probably the Number One topic of direct messaged question that I got the last time I posted about bright-line finders. People are nervous about how to store and protect a hunk of expensive, delicate glass sitting atop their camera or tossing around in their camera bag.

As I previously noted, I typically keep my finders mounted to the cameras, even when not actively using them. Certainly I leave them at home if I don’t expect to use them at all but during a shoot where I’m using both 50 and 90mm lenses, I keep the 90mm viewfinder mounted while shooting the 50 and then I don’t have to make any further changes to the rig when I switch to my 90 or back to the 50. Doing this not only allows for faster use but represents that much less time that the viewfinder needs to be tucked away and safely stored in ones camera bag.

When shooting my 1930 Leica III, I seldom remove the 50mm SBOOI finder and this is my daily or near daily carry rig. I have been using it this way for about three years and, knock on wood, the glass has yet to be damaged. I guess that concerns over outward facing glass is always a concern with rangefinders. But unless one is shooting in harsh conditions, where you may prefer an SLR anyway, I don’t worry much about adding yet more outward facing glass to my rangefinder!

Leica bright-line finders sometimes come with an accessory leather button case for storage. I personally wouldn’t recommend using these. Leather fitted cases, while attractive and properly vintage, seem to have a habit of causing oxidation or chemical reactions with chrome and painted surfaces. I tend to see vintage Leica finders on eBay that have a turquoise corrosion around the black paint part of the finder. I have seen this crud appear on vintage cameras that were stored in their case and likely in humid conditions also. So I just don’t see any value in the risk. But admittedly I don’t know or care to research the science on this. Your mileage my differ!

Voigtländers came in a blue velveteen pouch with a gold “V” printed on it. They open and close via a red draw-string. I keep Leica finders in similar jeweler’s drawstring bags that my wife’s ear rings etc. have come in. These are great for tossing into ones camera bag and keeping the bright-line finders safe and clean.

When I purchased a 135mm Leica finder recently, I had to use a cotton swab to apply lighter fluid to the focus ring in order to free up its movement. I’ll still need to mail this out for service to ensure that it is properly lubricated long-term. But I wanted to mention a safe way to free these vintage finders up in case you com across one also. Thanks to Jay Javier, Leica photographer and professional repair technician for this tip.

Finally, I should note that not all bright-line finders fit all accessory shoes perfectly. I place a little bit of cardboard from a film box on the accessory shoe of my 1930 Leica in order to secure a tight fit. For the cost of these little guys, you certainly don’t want them coming lose and disappearing!

CONCLUSION

Built-in and accessory viewfinders have evolved to offer light years more comprehensive information and feedback to us. Today’s viewfinders are often either fully electronic or hybrid optical/electronic previews of scenes. They no longer let us see our subjects and scenes directly but, have turned into representations and speculations by, of and for computers. Bright-line viewfinders offer photographers something that has become an unusual luxury; a gorgeous, unencumbered view of the scenes that we’re photographing. Sometimes you just don’t need to see exposure scales, focus points and confirmation, to know if a flash is ready, how much power is left on your battery or contrast in a scene.

Believe it or not, there are times that all you want or need to do is see your subject!

And this is where one comes to appreciate bright-line viewfinders – beautifully crafted devices that, quite literally, get the camera out of the photographer’s way.

Thanks to L.E.W. Van Albada for creating these little gems and thanks to you for reading. Happy shooting!

Follow, Favorite, Like, Add, Insult, Contact Johnny Martyr 

     

3 thoughts on “Shining a Light on Bright-Line Viewfinders

  1. Hi Johnny,
    I enjoyed this esoteric peek at the external viewfinders.
    Plastic vs, metal will get the hackles up on almost every Leica owner.
    WE traveled to Ireland in 2018. I packed my M4-P and two lenses – the Voigtlander 28mm & the 40mm m-Rokkor. For the 28mm lens, I bought a used 28mm Leica external viewfinder. It was plastic.
    I know the M4-P has built-in 28mm bright lines, but the external viewfinder provided me with the optical angle of view, not just borders. That is the advantage of a wide-angle or tele finder.
    As for the 40mm lens, I just use the 50mm frame lines for composition and know I’ll get a bit more, like a baker’s dozen of donuts.
    A plastic viewfinder offers another advantage – it doesn’t scratch your glasses. I had to replace a left lens on my glasses (I’m a left-eyed shooter) when it was scratched while using a metal finder.
    Best regards, continued good shooting!
    Dan
    (flickr.com/photos/dcastelli9574/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Dan! Glad to hear you’re enjoying your finders. Alot of people are telling me that their metal finders scratch their eyeglasses.

      Years ago, I stopped buying lenses (often paying extra for them) that have exterior coatings such as anti-UV or reflective. My experience was that when these coatings are scratched, the entire surface begins to flake off and a new set of lenses can be totally ruined in a few months. I only buy lenses with these coatings baked into the plastic or that don’t have any to begin with. Problem solved for me. My eyeglasses now last for many years if my prescription doesn’t change.

      I also found that when shooting, very rarely do my eyeglass lenses come in direct contact with my viewfinders. When I press my face to the back of any camera, my nose prevents me from pressing my glasses directly against the finder. I also have never had a problem seeing the 35mm framelines on my M6 TTL .85 yet most people will warn glasses wearers to avoid .85 Leica finders because the 35mm lines are useless. I wonder if I’m using my viewfinders differently than most?

      In any case, I have no concerns with metal finders at all.

      Like

  2. Thanks for the reply. The only all-metal finder I use is the 75mm finder by Voigtlander for their 75mm f/2.5 lens. I actually fixed a rubber “O” ring to the back of the aux. finder using epoxy to prevent any scratching.
    A couple of years ago, I bought a number of plastic rings from DAG to fit over the eyepieces of my M bodies. This provided the necessary protection for my glasses. The M2 has a metal eyepiece; the M4-P has a thin rubberized ‘bumper’ around the eyepiece. These accessories fit both cameras. Scratching problem solved.
    Ain’t photography fun?!
    Keep shooting.
    Dan

    Like

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