12 May 2009

Photography: digital cameras and viewfinders

Why have manufacturers abandoned the viewfinder on just about all compact cameras and soon on basic DSLRs?
What is wrong with the trusty little viewfinder?
Actually, a lot.

My photographic education started when there was no other option than a viewfinder (or back plate on a field camera for studio work).
Not knowing better I assumed that's how it is and you live with it.
Some manufacturers (Nikon) tried to make the viewfinder more user friendly (bigger) but it still required bringing your eye to it and placing it close to your face.
There were times that a viewfinder was useless when shooting close to the ground or raising my camera high up above eye level to get a better vantage point.

self portrait
Those were the days of film photography as well.
Unless somebody else was paying for the materials you ought to be rather careful snapping away trying to get a decent image and wasting all that costly film.
And finally one day I lost my beautiful Nikon titanium body range find camera.
Devastated at first only now I realize it was the best thing it could have happened to me.
See, I was acting like an old coot (I still do :-) and did not want to embrace the new digital photography (mind you, at the time 1.3 megapixels was regarded as "high resolution" !).
Eventually I borrowed some compact digital cameras and joined "the enemy".
Never looked back.
But let's go back to the viewfinder.

So what's wrong with the viewfinder?
If you take pictures of landscapes with all the time in the world, probably nothing.
But for my style of images where speed is essential and the subject is often a human element the viewfinder is dead.
Years ago when I started using my Hasselblad I noticed a marked difference in portrait photography.
Nothing to do with the insanely sharp lenses but much more to do with the waist level viewfinder.
When photographing people it is vital that your subject can see your face.
Only a highly trained actor can overcome the psychological disturbing factor of being viewed by a person that does not show his/her face.
For a moment, imagine having somebody staring and talking to you with his/her face covered by a hood.
Most people would feel very uncomfortable.
When reviewing my old images taken with a SLR with viewfinder I notice a certain stiffness and "posed" behaviour that makes the image staged.
However, going to a studio photoshoot where human models were involved I noticed that once the camera was set up on the tripod the photographer then stepped away from the viewfinder and faced the model talking to them "face to face".
From the Hasselblad days to now digital LCD screens (used only as reference for composition) my subject can see my face.
I talk to them and they can see my eyes.
My pictures now show a much more relaxed and natural portrait.
I never hide behind the camera anymore. I don't need to.
I can view the composition of the image I am about to take somewhere away from my face and can interact with my subject in a natural way.
Results speak for themselves.

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