Saturday, December 8, 2012

Finding the View

Front of an optical viewfinder system
(subject side)
The groundglass was an early and major innovation in composing the photograph and it was soon followed by the viewfinder. While the groundglass was a "focal" (image producing) type of system, the viewfinder is a distinctly "afocal" (non-imaging) scheme. The point of this particular compositional aid is not to produce a duplicate, or surrogate, of the photographic image, but to allow the photographer to continue looking "out into the world"– with the additional assistance of a synthetic framing boundary overlaying the visual scene. This artificial frame represents and marks the region of the scene that will be captured by the actual photograph.

Rear of optical viewfinder system
(eye side)
The first (and most rudimentary) viewfinder was a simple set of wire frames through which the photographer viewed the scene directly with his eyes, with no intervening lenses or other optical components. This simple metal framing device was something akin to the aiming sight on a rifle or gun. It allowed the photographer to retain a fairly intimate connection to the real world while, at the same time, having some objective means of properly aiming the camera and understanding what the photograph's ultimate composition would be. The photographer simply lined up the two metal frames with each other and then observed what part of the scene appeared within the frame. It was simple, quick, cheap, and effective– a very attractive combination of attributes.

As photographic hardware developed over the decades optical technology became not only more sophisticated but less expensive and, therefore, more available. This made it possible for the viewfinder to advance from a simple pair of geometric framing devices to a true optical system comprised of multiple optical components. The optical viewfinder system would allow placement of the camera close to the photographer's eye, and through which the photographer would be able to view the scene, with the ultimate image conveniently framed. The effect of this was something like viewing the world through a telescope or binoculars, albeit with a rectangular rather than circular framed field of view.
Looking into viewfinder

The optical nature of this viewfinder system also allowed many new additions to what this device was capable of. Precision reticles could be inserted into the interior of the viewfinders that would allow changing the field of view to match whatever lens (for example, wide angle or normal) happened to be placed on the camera. The optical components of the viewfinder could also be mechanically coupled to the focusing system of the camera's main lens to help the photographer know when the camera was properly focused without moving his eye from the viewfinder. As practical zoom lenses were eventually invented and added to the photographer's bag of tricks, the viewfinder became a zoomable device as well, with its zooming capability coupled to the main lens's zoom state, thus providing the photographer with an accurate view of the photograph's composition.

As cameras became more and more electronically instrumented, the display of the camera's exposure state (shutter time, lens aperture, and film speed) was ultimately incorporated into what could be seen within the viewfinder. At this point the photographer no longer had to take his eye away from the viewfinder to adjust the camera settings. He could remain looking at the composition of the photograph while simultaneously and actively manipulating the exposure state, lens focus, and zoom of the camera. This was a powerfully attractive capability, but as with most powerful technologies there was a price to be paid.
Scene framed in viewfinder

Just as the groundglass caused earlier generations of photographers to retreat from the real world under the isolation of their blackout cloth, this new generation would be isolated behind the camera body, with their open eye pressed up close to the rear of the optical viewfinder. The world beyond the photographer (the subject) could not now maintain true eye contact with the photographer, who began to appear as something of a mechanical man– his head and face replaced by a black rectangular box and a glass lens as his Cyclopean eye, staring coldly out into the world.

It would seem that regardless of the technology involved, there is always a tendency for the photographic artist to be removed from their immersion in the real world and be inserted into an isolated, artificial world. And perhaps that is the bain of all artists– that their art would attempt to dominate and replace the real, objective universe and the real human lives within it with a world of their own making. The power and beauty of artful creation can be seductive– for the creator as well as the beholder.

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