by Karen Nakamura
Although in this day and age of 100% coverage SLR finders and digital LCD viewscreens, it's hard to remember that in the golden days of early 35mm photography before the 1950s, it was possible to buy a camera that didn't have any coupled focusing mechanism - this was euphemistically called "scale focusing" - or a camera whose built-in finder didn't match the coverage of the lens you had attached. What to do? To the rescue were various types of attachments: accessory rangefinders and viewfinders.
The early Leica A and Leica I cameras of the 1930s as well as the Kodak folding cameras had no way of telling you the distance to the subject, so how do you focus the lens on a camera without a built-in focusing device? With your own auxiliary rangefinder! These clipped into the camera cold-shoe and allowed you to determine the distance to the subject. You'd then transfer the distance to the camera lens.
The Leica auxiliary vertical rangefinder is perhaps the most famous. When I find a legal image to post here, I will But until then, visit Stephen Gandy's gorgeous Leica A. This was perhaps the first rangefinder, produced in 1925. Rangefinders were previously used in military optics, so this was a nice civilian benefit of this technology.
My oldest rangefinder is a Saymon-Brown rangefinder from 1920s or 1930s (I think; pictured here to the right). I'm not sure what type of camera it's designed for, the round circular foot barely fits on regular accessory shoes. Perhaps older Kodak folding medium-format cameras. The camera focuses from 2'6" to 300' to infinity. The focusing dial is smooth. It's easiest to focus holding it horizontal although when it's in the accessory shoe, it becomes has a vertical focusing split image which is more difficult.
What's really neat about the Saymon-Brown is that it also has a built-in extinction lightmeter. You peer through the top metering eyepiece and read the darkest visible aperture/shutter-speed combination. The one flaw is that I'm not sure which film speed the meter is calibrated to. Most probably something ridiculous like ASA 4. If you know, please let me know.
Another rangefinder I have is a Widor Universal Rangefinder produced by Widina in Bad Nauheim Germany. The packaging lists "Germany" while the rangefinder itself is stamped "DRGM" (Deutsche Reich Gebrauchs Muster) and "Germany" and is calibrated in feet, so it is most probably an early post-War model (1950s). It is quite a nice unit. The display is a bit dim with age, but the rangefinder spot is quite visible and easy to focus. The unit sports both horizontal and vertical rangefinder calibration capabilities. With a baselength of 35mm, the rangefinder is precise enough to focus 50mm f/2 and 90m f/4 lenses.
This rangefinder came with the nice condition Lordox camera pictured.
For the rare cameras of the 1940s and 1950s that had interchangeable lenses, it was unlikely to have a built-in viewfinder that showed framelines or coverage for the lens that you chose.
Even the venerable Leica IIIf and Nikon S2 cameras, for example, only showed coverage for 50mm lenses. If you had a 35mm or 135mm lens attached, you'd have to use an auxiliary external viewfinder. It wasn't until the Leica M3 or IIIg (or Nikon SP) that you had projected framelines for anything other than 50mm.
Designed for the Leica III series, the Leica VIDOM (above) produced from 1933-1939 looks fantastic but is not that great to use in practice. Rather than a zoom type, it simply increasingly crops the viewfinder image from 35mm to 135mm. So at the 135mm end, you have a tiny little "light at the end of the tunnel." While that's fine for rough framing, it doesn't really have much kick. The VIDOM only has one prism, so things are laterally reversed - a mirror-image. So when you pan left, everything moves right. When you pan right, everything moves left. When you turn the camera 90° into portrait orientation, then everything is upside down. There's a knob on the rear of the VIDOM that allows you to turn the internal prism so that everything is right way up (but still left-right reversed). One cool thing about the VIDOM - it has a marking for a 7.3 cm Hektor lens (73mm) which wasn't very popular and is quite rare.
The Leica 35-135 Imarect/VIOOH (1940-1964) looks cute (especially with its leather case to the left) and is a great improvement on the VIDOM because it has two prisms, so things are laterally correct. This makes it much easier to use. Both the VIDOM and Imarect/VIOOH are parallax compensating (manually). Like its older sibling, the Imarect is also a cropping finder. You can't see outside the framelines ('cuz it's a crop), which is one of the beauties of the Leica system. Get the Nikon zoom finder ($$$$) or Russian turret finder instead ($).
The best accessory viewfinder for the money has to be the KMZ Universal Viewfinder. Do a search on eBay for "universal viewfinder" or "turret viewfinder" and these will pop up for between $40-60. These are clones of the original Zeiss Universal Viewfinder. Unlike the Leica and Nikon variable viewfinders which mask or crop the image so that while 28mm shows the entire field by the time you're at 135mm you're looking through a tunnel, the Zeiss/KMZ actively switch the magnification and thus are true zoom finders. Thus, 135mm provides you with a bright, large full field image. There is even parallax compensation built into the device. Quite nice.Look for a Soviet clone in good condition with clean optics. The finder image has a nice cross-hair (as in spy movies) and you can see outside of the frame image which makes it easier to frame.
This 35mm auxiliary viewfinder came with my Canon Serenar 35mm f/2.8 lens. It is quite bright and clear. Half of the value of this lens set is in the finder, so I'm keeping it around just in case I end up with a Leica M3 and want to stick a 35mm lens on it. I also use it with my Nikon S2 and 35mm f/2.8 lens.
I have a couple of other viewfinders, photos and more detailed comments to come.
The other aux finder I have is the Yashica finder that came with the auxiliary tele/wide set for the Yashica Electro 35 rangefinders. It's non-parallax corrected and is has framelines for 37mm / 58mm, the paltry angles provided by that set.