What will I photograph? What will my picture look like? Two fundamental questions in photography. The answer lies in the viewfinder, arguably the best and most important interface between the camera and the user. In this article, we will look at some (mainly third-party) attachable viewfinders for the rangefinder and other cameras.
The basic concept of the M Files series is to provide an overview of cameras, lenses and accessories that are not part of the Leica M system but are compatible with it. In this sense, a tour d’horizon of attachable viewfinders fits in perfectly: There are several items that are not part of the Leica M series or were not even made by Leica/Leitz but which work well with M mount gear. On the other hand, their use is certainly not limited to M-mount cameras and lenses. But let’s be generous.
Attachable viewfinders, a widespread accessory over the ages
Attachable viewfinders have been around for more than 100 years, and photographers use them for a variety of reasons. Either the camera has no viewfinder at all (in very early models and, ironically, again today in the digital market). Or the camera’s own viewfinder can’t cover a certain angle of view because it’s not technically possible or feasible. A third reason may be the superior performance of an external viewfinder.
Attachable viewfinders from eight decades
I guess hundreds of different viewfinder models have been made over the years. They have even become the subject of entire collections. It’s impossible to give a complete overview in this article. So, the story has to be exemplary. We meet viewfinders from eight decades, the oldest (the venerable Leica VIOOH) being a design from 1940 and the newest (Ricoh GV-3) from 2022. They all reflect in their own way the state of the art of their time.
It’s not about focal length; it’s about the angle of view
As beautiful as such a precision optical instrument can be, attachable viewfinders do have some shortcomings. Most attachable viewfinders support a specific focal length — or better, a specific angle of view. You can use one and the same “40mm” viewfinder with a 40mm lens on a full-frame camera, with a 26mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera such as the Ricoh GR IIIx, or with a 20mm lens on a viewfinder-less Micro Four Thirds camera like the Olympus E-P7.
Some attachable viewfinders show two or more angles of view
There are also attachable viewfinders that can provide more than one angle of view. These are either more or less “zoom” designs with hard stops for fixed focal lengths. Or they have a dual-frame viewfinder, as we know it from many rangefinder cameras, showing lines for a 28mm and a 90mm lens at the same time. I will show you both principles below.
The article’s main focus is on non-Leica products
While I usually focus on non-Leica products in my The M Files series, I will include some Leica items in this episode about attachable viewfinders. The reason for this is that these Leica viewfinders are popular, they are widely available (both new and used), and they are often considered to be benchmark products. We will see if this is true when we take a closer look at Voigtländer, Zeiss, Olympus and Ricoh viewfinders.
Attachable viewfinders for a specific angle of view
The most common type of attachable viewfinder is the one for a specific angle of view (that is, focal length, see above). Such accessories have been made by many manufacturers over the years, most recently by or for Contax, Voigtländer, Konica, Olympus, Ricoh and Leica. I will concentrate in this section on non-Leica-M-system viewfinders. Leica’s current metal bright line finders (for example, 12024 for 21mm, black) are certainly benchmark products, and the previous generation in the plastic housing (such as No. 12008 with or 12012 without lock for 21mm) is not as solid, but optically of similar excellence.
Voigtländer: Two generations of attachable viewfinders
Voigtländer made and still makes different models of attachable viewfinders for different angles of view. The earlier models were a bit plasticky, but they are widely available and easy to find. They have no frame lines — the angle of view of the lens is the angle of view of the viewfinder (more or less). The ones I tried are large and bright, but they fall off the camera quite easily; the plastic shoe has too little friction to grip the camera’s hot shoe securely. The newer Voigtländer viewfinders (€250) are all metal, beautifully designed and made, and they have frame lines.
Zeiss: T* coating and arguably the best image
Zeiss also has viewfinders in the ZM range. There are attachable viewfinders for focal lengths from 15 to 25/28mm, and they are simply excellent. They are super bright and give a remarkably large image; they are flare-resistant (thanks to the T* coating) and very well made. Although not as tiny as the newer Voigtländer viewfinders, they hit the sweet spot for me of combining small form and optical excellence. The frame lines, including the parallax marks, are very visible in all lighting conditions. I would say they are at least as good as the current Leica brightline viewfinders at almost half the cost (€400 vs €725). But for the price, Zeiss could really have added a case or a pouch.
Ricoh: Super small, featherlight and expensive
While Zeiss and Voigtländer have viewfinders for all common wide-angle focal lengths, Ricoh covers just two different angles of view — no surprise, as the attachable viewfinders for the two current GR III models are in line with their lenses. There is a ’28mm’ version for the GR III (with a real focal length of 18.3mm) and a ’40mm’ version for the GR IIIx (26.1mm, read more about this great little camera here). They are very small, which makes sense for such a small camera. On the other hand, the image looks very tiny, and there are no parallax marks (although there are marks for a square image if you happen to have the wish to set your camera to 1:1). And they are expensive for what they are (€230-250).
Olympus: An inexpensive solution not only for Micro Four Thirds
If you need a viewfinder for your 35mm lens or equivalent, the Olympus VF-1 optical viewfinder is worth considering. It was launched many years ago with the Micro Four Thirds 17/2.8 lens. The VF-1 was designed to provide framing control through a viewfinder for the early Pen camera models that had only a rear display. While not great, this small and inexpensive viewfinder can be helpful and is easy to find second-hand. It was only made in silver (the body is plastic).
Leica: The 36mm viewfinder is great, not only for X cameras
Speaking of attachable viewfinders for 35mm lenses, Leica’s own viewfinder for the X-series is worth mentioning. It was designed for a 36mm equivalent, but you can use it with a 35mm lens without hesitation, and with a bit of practice, it will work with a 40mm lens as well. It’s a brightline finder (Leica No. 18707) with a clear and large image. It’s not all metal, but is apparently well-made and optically great, with parallax marks. And it is easy to use.
Attachable viewfinders with multiple frames
There are a number of attachable viewfinders for more than one individual angle of view. They all work in much the same way: There are two frames or two sets of frame lines within your window, the inner one for the longer focal length (narrower angle of view), and the outer one for the shorter focal length (wider angle of view).
Voigtländer: 21/25 for a quick comparison
Voigtländer offers a 21/25mm viewfinder. It’s a second-generation model, very small and well-made. The eight-degree difference in the angle of view is just enough to leave some space between the two frames. The larger frame still leaves a bit of space around it, which I really appreciate: You can see what’s just outside your frame. And you can check instantly if the other focal length might be even better for what you want to show in your image.
Konica: The crazy viewfinder for the crazy 21/35 Dual-Hexanon
Another, extreme, example is the Konica viewfinder for the Dual-Hexanon 21/35mm lens (VL-6, discontinued). The viewfinder that came with the Dual-Hexanon actually has a pair of frame lines for 21 and 35mm. This is extremely useful, with the only drawback being that the 35mm frame is very small (imagine it as being similar to the viewfinder on the M6 when a 90mm lens is attached). Konica’s viewfinder itself is bright. There are striking design similarities to the first generation Voigtländer viewfinders.
Zeiss: The 25/28 combination has its limitations
Zeiss also has one combined viewfinder, 25/28mm. It is as well-built and beautiful as the other Zeiss viewfinders and has a bright and large image. As a bonus, it gives a good 25/28 comparison. But, to be honest, the difference between the 82-degree angle of the 25mm lens and the 75-degree angle of the 28mm lens is not that great. I tend to think of it as a 25mm viewfinder with a little extra. In practical use, you would never combine a 25mm with a 28mm in your kit but rather with a 50mm (a very nice pairing, by the way).
Ricoh: Their cheapest viewfinder is the most practical
Finally, Ricoh has also produced a multi-angle viewfinder for 21 and 28mm (GV-1, €160). It was designed for some GR models, which can be fitted with a wide-angle conversion lens. Not as miniature or expensive as the later attachable viewfinders, it is a good choice if you occasionally use a 21mm lens on a rangefinder camera. It is not as bright as a Leica or Zeiss viewfinder, nor is it as accurate, but it is certainly good enough to try out this particular way of photography.
Attachable viewfinders with a “zoom” mechanism
One viewfinder for several focal lengths: this is by no means a new invention. Leica was already selling them in the 1930s. The now iconic VIDOM was introduced in 1933 and replaced by the VIOOH in 1940. But there are newer solutions, too.
Built over decades: The VIOOH
I have used a VIOOH with quite some success, probably a late model. There were many changes over the decades that this viewfinder was built. The one I used is engraved with 3,5,5, 8.5, 9 and 13.5 (in centimetres of focal length). Other models have 7.3 or 10.5; this page gives a very good overview. The peculiarity of the VIOOH is that it does not zoom. It rather changes the angle of view by adjusting masks. The magnification factor is constant, so you see a large image at 3.5 and not much more than a pinhole at 13.5.
15 to 35mm, for full frame and crop cameras: Voigtländer‘s Zoomfinder
In a way, the Voigtländer zoom viewfinder for 15 to 35 millimetres is definitely a successor to the VIOOH — if only because of its retro design. Here we are talking about type A, which is suitable for full format. With an ingenious mechanism (additional scales), it can also be used for cameras with crop sensors (1.3x for the M8 and 1.5x for the Pixii, for example).
If you use the x1.5 scale, for example, switch to the 21mm full-frame Position, and you can read directly that you need a 14mm lens to cover this angle of view on a 1.5x crop sensor. Or, the other way round, switch to the 18mm position on the x1.5 scale, and you will see that this will give you the angle of view of (around) a 28mm lens in full frame (in fact, it’s 27, but there is not click stop for this value, intermediate positions are possible however).
The Voigtländer Zoomfinder is rather compact and even offers dioptric correction at the eyepiece (a rarity in attachable viewfinders). Also, in other respects, this attachable viewfinder is really astonishing: totally bright image, easy to use and at least sufficiently precise (here are some more technical data). It’s a pity that this little gem is no longer in production; it is very hard to find even second-hand (try also the manufacturer’s article number DA466A). Oh yes, type B was also available for Micro Four Thirds, but that is of no further interest here.
Made in Japan: The 12013 variable viewfinder
A much more recent design is the Leica 21-24-28 viewfinder (12013). This has a real zoom mechanism with greater magnification for the longer focal lengths. It’s a beautiful piece of glass and metal. Despite the prominent “Leica Camera Germany” engraving, it is made in Japan (less prominent engraving on the bottom of the shoe).
It has no frame lines, which is quite different from what you are used to in rangefinder photography — no chance of checking what is just outside your frame. It’s a bit like looking into a tunnel, but it’s quite big and bright, to be honest. And the leather case is nice, like a mini-M lens case. According to the Leica Wiki, the 12013 was introduced in 2006 (the drawing of the frame lines is misplaced in the article) and is now discontinued.
Frankenfinder: So bright, so clear — and so big
Finally, the Leica Universal Wide-Angle Viewfinder for M System, aka Frankenfinder (12011). So much has been written and said about this one; much of it is nonsense, but there are also great reviews, such as the one by Dante Stella. It is big but stunning both optically (so clear!!!) and mechanically. It supports 16, 18, 21, 24 and 28mm focal lengths. If you have several lenses in this range, the Germany-made Frankenfinder makes financial sense despite its high (€885) price.
Much like the old VIOOH, the Frankenfinder has a fixed magnification, and the frame lines change depending on the focal length used. That’s clever because you can easily see the effects of using a different lens. You can also set your distance between 0.5m and infinity for parallax compensation. A spirit level with glow-in-the-night background — visible through the eyepiece (!) — is the icing on the cake.
Electronic attachable viewfinders
With the advent of Live View — made possible by the move from CCD to CMOS sensors — it became feasible to judge the image that is about to be taken from the camera’s display. The most common way of doing so is, of course, through the rear screen of digital cameras. However, the first mirrorless system, Micro Four Thirds, also pioneered the electronic viewfinder. Remember, this was at a time when the SLR principle was dominant everywhere else. For cameras without built-in EVFs, attachable viewfinders became available. And they are useful — unlike working with the display, you hold the camera close to your body, which reduces camera shake. And you get a clear picture even in bright sunlight.
EVF-2: Leica or the Olympus alternative?
Olympus’s first electronic viewfinder was the VF-2 (1.44 MP). It could be fitted to the viewfinder-less Pen camera bodies but also to the ZX-1, a pioneering compact camera at the time with a one-inch sensor and very good image quality. I’ve heard that the VF-2 was actually made by Epson, and that’s where Leica will have sourced it from. The Leica M (Typ 240) and M Monochrom (Typ 246) have adapters for an EVF by means of an electronic interface below the hot shoe. If you need an EVF for one of these cameras, you can use the Olympus VF-2 instead of the Leica EVF-2. It costs less than half the price on the second-hand market, under €200, compared with over €300 in March 2023.
The electronic versions of these Olympus and Leica attachable viewfinders are identical except for the brand name. I have only an M body (Typ 262), which doesn’t support live view. But I still use the Olympus EVF-2 on the X-E, which (like the X2 and X Vario) has the necessary interface. The resolution is too low for precise focusing or fast-moving objects, but for defining your frame it is better than you might think. And a fun fact: The newer (!) Olympus VF-3 is an inferior successor to the VF-2.
Leica Visoflex 020: Finally, an acceptable resolution
With the Leica T (later changed to TL) came the Visoflex 020 electronic viewfinder (€520, considerably less when bought used). Released in May 2014, it had a resolution of 2.36 MP (a decent standard at the time) and became the EVF for the M10 in 2017. It has a different interface to the Olympus VF2/Leica EVF-2. But it shares a very practical feature: The tilting eyepiece allows you to take pictures with the camera in front of your chest (a bit like the two-eyed Rolleiflex and similar cameras).
I find the Visoflex, despite its moderate resolution by today’s standards, very useful when using wide-angle lenses or lenses with notorious focus shift. The downside is that it quickly drains the battery of the M10. And it makes the camera a bulky piece of kit that, with the EVF attached, hardly fits into your usual bag (read here a suggestion by Jono Slack to overcome this problem).
The Visoflex 2, an impressive extension to the M11
For the sake of completeness, I should mention Leica’s latest attachable electronic viewfinder, the Visoflex 2 (€725). It has the same electronic interface with the camera as the Visoflex 020. But the M11 seems to have a better signal output. As a result, the Visoflex 2 can deliver its full 3.7 MP resolution only in combination with the M11. It also works with the M10, but with limited resolution and thus is not a real improvement. I tried the new Visoflex once on an M11 and was quite impressed.
For a more competent review, read our editor’s article on the Visoflex 2 here. His comparison with the Frankenfinder is very interesting because these two very different attachable viewfinders have more in common than you might think: Very good technology, a somewhat bulky appearance and the potential to divide the Leica community into supporters and opponents.
Conclusion: Attachable viewfinders, their pros and their cons
In all cases, you will ask yourself whether working with attachable viewfinders is comfortable. I would argue: No, it is not. It is not the usual fast and seamless photographic experience that makes working with a rangefinder camera unique. It always takes two steps to get everything set up. One look through the camera’s viewfinder to set focus and control exposure, and a second look through the attachable viewfinder to get your composition right. And if you have a camera without light metering, you need a third step with your light meter. It’s neither fast nor intuitive.
Clumsy as they are, at times attachable viewfinders can save you
There are, however, situations where a viewfinder does make sense. The most common is when you want to use super-wide-angle lenses under 28mm that your non-SLR camera simply doesn’t support. Another use case is if your camera’s viewfinder is damaged. Finally, there are viewfinder-less cameras, and in the case of a digital model, you may not want to use the screen for various reasons. One such occasion is very bright sunlight. When I was out skiing with the GR IIIx the other day, the small attachable viewfinder would have been a great help…
Attachable viewfinders force you into slow photography – why not give it a try?
When it comes to the question of which viewfinder to get, I would recommend the Zeiss models if you only need one focal length. They are beautiful, bright and large. Leica’s Frankenfinder is the most versatile and accurate, but it is bulky. However, if you need it only once in a while, the affordable older Voigtländer viewfinders or the also not-too-expensive newer Voigtländer viewfinders might be just the thing. Either way: Give attachable viewfinders a try!
What is your experience? Is an attachable viewfinder a pain or even quintessentially proof of the clumsiness of rangefinder photography? Or just the other way round, is it a wonderful tool that shows you a bright and clear image of what you are about to photograph? Do you avoid using an attachable viewfinder, or is one part of your regular workflow? Any favourites among my small selection or beyond the few viewfinders I am showing here? As always, the comments section of The M Files is yours!
The M Files: Get in-depth knowledge of M-Mount lenses, cameras and suitable accessories
The M Files is an ongoing project on Macfilos that focuses on photographic equipment with or for Leica M-Mount, made by companies other than Leica or which are otherwise not part of Leica’s M system. It follows a more or less encyclopaedic approach without being scientific. The focus is always on the real-life use and useability of cameras, lenses and other items. Products covered by The M Files include cameras, lenses, viewfinders, light meters and more. Some of the brands in the growing list are Contax, Konica, Minolta, Rollei, Voigtländer and Zeiss.
Die M-Files: M-Mount-Objektive, -Kameras und passendes Zubehör jenseits von Leica M
Die M-Files sind ein Langzeit-Projekt, das sich auf Foto-Ausrüstungsteile mit oder für Leica M-Bajonett konzentriert, die von anderen Firmen als Leica hergestellt wurden oder die nicht zum M-System von Leica gehören. Es verfolgt einen mehr oder weniger enzyklopädischen Ansatz, ohne wissenschaftlich zu sein. Der Schwerpunkt liegt immer auf der praktischen Nutzung von Kameras, Objektiven und anderen Produkten. Zu den in den M-Files besprochenen Produkten gehören Kameras, Objektive, Sucher, Belichtungsmesser und mehr. Einige der Marken auf der wachsenden Liste sind Contax, Konica, Minolta, Rollei, Voigtländer und Zeiss. In deutscher Sprache erscheinen die Inhalte auf www.messsucherwelt.com.
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