The Ideal Viewfinder for Directors

Looking for a viewfinder for directors (Director’s viewfinder or DVF)? Imagine this:

DVF vs Ear Scope

Not so cool now, eh? I’m sure if you’re a director or DP you’re going for this look:

Director Neill Blomkamp on the set of Elysium. Photo By: Stephanie Blomkamp
Director Neill Blomkamp on the set of Elysium. Photo By: Stephanie Blomkamp

Why not carry a Red Epic or Canon 1DC? Isn’t it smaller?

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Jokes apart, I can understand that most directors pine for a viewfinder simply because it makes them look cool, and tells everyone on the set who the boss is (or whom to target). If you’re really only wanting one for that purpose, here are three options for you:

However, if you’re looking for a functional tool (it is going to hang around your neck the whole day), then lets take a more practical look.

Why do you need a viewfinder for directors?

Here are some strong reasons for wanting a director’s viewfinder:

  • Precise framing.
  • Fast framing, composition and blocking.
  • Light-weight.
  • Able to adapt to the exact standards being used (sensor, lens or film).
  • Somewhat tough.
  • There is no other way to efficiently manage framing or composition.

Contrary to popular belief, you shouldn’t need a viewfinder to look at out of focus areas or the color in the final shot. The only tool that can perfectly recreate what your camera records is an exact duplicate of it. Any other tool is a compromise. A viewfinder is primarily a framing tool – a quick framing tool.

The two most important things to get right are:

  • How precise a frame do you want?
  • How heavy can it be?

Understanding different sensor sizes and Super 35mm

If you haven’t already, read about sensor sizes, 35mm equivalents and crop factors here.

Old-fashioned director’s viewfinders are designed for film frames, mainly Super 35mm, Super 16mm, etc. Some of them have frame lines for television CCD sensors. Very few of them can accommodate the pseudo-Super 35mm sensors coming out into the market every year. Take a look:

  • Red Epic: 27.7mm x 14.6mm
  • Blackmagic 4K Production Camera: 21.12mm x 11.88mm
  • Arri Alexa: 23.76mm x 13.365mm
  • Sony F65: 24.7mm x 13.1mm
  • Canon C300: 24.6mm x 13.8mm
  • Sony F55: 24mm x 12.7mm
  • Actual Super 35mm 3-perf frame size: 24.89mm x 14mm

See? If the sensor is not exactly the same, you can’t get the same angle of view (AOV). There goes your precise framing requirement. None of the sensors match the horizontal size of actual Super 35mm. The ‘error’ is between 10-15% either way.

What does this mean? E.g., if a 32mm lens has a horizontal AOV of 40 degrees, and the error is 10%, you’ll see either 36 degrees (smaller sensor) or 44 degrees (larger sensor). Is this error significant? You bet it is.

A 35mm lens will have a horizontal AOV of about 37 degrees, and a 28mm lens will have a horizontal AOV of 45 degrees. So, if you think you’re looking at the frame from a 32mm lens, you might be as far out as a 35mm or 28mm lens! That’s an unacceptable error if you’ve spent a lot of money on your viewfinder!

Before you go out and buy a viewfinder, always compare its angle of view (with the in-built lens or actual lenses) with your camera and lens setup. You might be able to live with the error. If that’s so, why can’t you live with the error from a cheaper viewfinder or iPhone app?

I will never recommend an expensive viewfinder that can’t precisely match the exact camera-lens combination you have going. The reason why expensive Arri or Denz viewfinders are used is because they can take the PL lenses directly, and these movies are usually shot on Super 35mm film.

Recommended viewfinder for directors

Before I make my recommendation I’m going to add a few cool features that a modern-day director’s viewfinder should have:

  • Ability to record stills or video.
  • In-camera editing if possible.
  • Wi-Fi, so you can share your work with everyone else.
  • A mount and sensor that will adapt to your changing needs.
  • Tilt-able LCD
  • Light-meter for exposure!

If all you need is basic framing, then look no further than the Artemis Director’s Viewfinder app for IOS, Android and Blackberry phones. You have almost all the sensor sizes in the market, plus you can customize your own. Being tied to a smartphone means you can quickly share your work with others.

It has its limitations, which is married directly to the limitations of the camera on your smartphone. This is especially a problem for wide-angle and extreme telephoto lengths. Plus, you can’t record video (but you can save stills). Here’s a video overview of the app:

What else is possible? Here is my recommendation for a really good viewfinder for directors:

Sony NEX-5R (About $498 body only)

Sony NEX-5R

You can pair it up as follows:

Reasons:

  • APS-C sensor: 23.5mm x 15.6 mm
  • 1080p60 recording possible
  • HDMI connectivity
  • Wi-Fi connectivity to any network
  • Both Mac and PC compatible
  • Only 218g without battery and card
  • Writes AVCHD to SD cards
  • Stills are both JPEG and RAW
  • Tiltable touch screen and provision for EVF too
  • Autofocus on both stills and video
  • USB charging
  • It’s pocketable! You no longer have to hang it around your neck.

Here’s a video review of the camera:

Hmmm…for about $600-$1,500 you have a camera that can record 1080p video as well as any other camera you might have. And you’re using it as a director’s viewfinder. You stud.

What do you think? Crazy, or a perfectly valid choice?

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

5 replies on “The Ideal Viewfinder for Directors”

  1. Good job. Please what do you think of the Canon 60D as a Director’s Viewfinder. 

    Thanks.
    Omobolaji Opakunbi

    1. Carrying a dslr instead of a viewfinder is gonna be annoying. Better try a mirrorless like a sony a6300. Also sony APS-C sensor size is more identical to most super35 sensor sizes, helping you to frame better.

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