Talking about cameras and lenses the other night reminded me of something I meant to post but had completely forgotten about. Before leaving on vacation, I decided to try to revive my on-again, off-again love affair with the only digital camera I currently own*, the Panasonic GF1. I like the GF1 overall, but I get frustrated with the viewfinder. Although live view on the screen is actually great for indoors and low-light situations—I actually like it better than a viewfinder sometimes—shooting in bright sunlight can be very frustrating.
So, as a fix—and thinking it would be a kludge (because you can't see where you're focusing)—I took the advice of TOP reader dkreithen, in a comment posted last July 11th, and had my friend Stephen Gandy overnight me a 35mm Voigtländer optical viewfinder (the page is here, but you'll have to scroll down; B&H also has them, although they're temporarily out of stock so there would be a short wait; lastly, here it is from Amazon).
I'm always amazed by this, but even after years of shooting with many different cameras—years as a camera reviewer, for cryin' out loud—I constantly have it reaffirmed to me that you can't make decisions about how cameras are going to be to use from secondary sources, like reading, thinking about it, or guessing. You think you can, but you can't. You have to actually use them. Hands on, for real shooting, putting some time in.
Somewhat to my surprise, the optical viewfinder transforms the experience of using the GF1. I really liked it. Now I almost think it's what completes this nice camera-and-lens package. It makes the shooting experience more free, and more confident. And, for me anyway, a lot more fun.
The big rap against optical viewfinders is that you lose the focus information. And it's true that when you're using the Voigtländer optical viewfinder on the GF1 you lose the focus indication—you can't see what you're focusing on. But here's what I discovered. (This is, obviously, true for me, but might not hold true for you.) When I use the optical viewfinder, I set it to FYYSLC** Mode and just go for it. Without me riding herd on what the focus is doing, I miss my preferred focus on a few shots every now and then. Either the camera doesn't grab focus where it should, or it guesses where I want to put the focus and guesses wrong. Nothing bad, just occasionally. Most shots are still in focus.
So why don't I mind? Here's the thing. When I'm focusing with live view, I use only the single central focus point set fairly small, and set the focus deliberately for each shot. When I use the camera that way, I also miss focus on a few shots occasionally. Also to be expected, and also no big deal. But those misses are more frustrating because I expect to be in complete control. With the Voigtländer viewfinder, I don't worry about it. I just shoot. I expect to lose a few frames to incorrect focus, so, when I do, it doesn't bother me. (Note that you can still focus and recompose when you know it's critical, even without referring to the live view.) If anything, I've been consistently pleased that the camera does so well on its own. The important thing is that I don't worry about it when I shoot; it just flows. Nice.
I'm going to continue to use the live viewing screen for focusing and composing in many situations. I might even sometimes switch back to single-zone focus when I do, I don't know. But the optical viewfinder makes this camera about three times more fun to shoot with. I recommend it to others, and thank dkreithen for recommending it to me.
*Not counting loaners or my old semi-broken K-M 7D.
**Focus Yourself, Ya Stupid Little Camera. Real name: 23-AREA focusing.
ADDENDUM: To answer the question from Joe Cameron and others in the comments, I just did a few quick and dirty trials. With the camera set on 3:2 ratio, I'm finding the 35mm finder (rather than a 40mm finder) is almost perfectly accurate at middle (say, 20 feet) and farther focusing distances. Up close (1–2 feet) it shows a little more than you'll record on the sensor, and of course as you get closer you have parallax issues as well. So that's where a 40mm finder might be more accurate (at the sides, that is—at the top and bottom edges, at 1 foot, parallax has a large effect. I'm speaking of the camera held normally in "landscape" orientation). But for most shooting the 35mm finder is very accurate, as long as the camera is set to the proper aspect ratio.
ADDENDUM #2: To those of you who asked about the lenshood, I've been wracking my brain to try to remember where I got it and doing lots of Google searches to little avail, but Thomas Risberg seems to have found it—it's being sold by "heavystar" on Ebay, as "New Metal 46mm Screw-in Wide Angle Lens Hood + Cap E46." Item #360282330477 will also get you there. He says he has three to sell. Hope this helps, but thank Thomas, not me.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Photogdave: "The electronic viewfinder works very well too. You get eye-level viewing, all the information the LCD can give you, focus confirmation, and it sees through the lens so it's useful for any lens you mount. Also it tilts! Don't let the naysayers tell you it's too small—you get used to it quickly."
Featured Comment by Stuart Hamilton: "I know, I know, it's not cool, but Amazon currently has a few Panasonic G1's in black with the 14–45 for $499. Better EVF than the clip-on versions, and a flip out / swivel LCD. Nice little camera, great price. I know; I bought one."