Do You Need a Director’s Viewfinder?


Let’s explore the director’s viewfinder, the various options available to you, and budget-friendly tips to apply to your next project.

Gear acquisition syndrome, also known as GAS. My father had it. I have it. My sister has it. You have that power, too—Return of the Jedi, anyone?

The point is, in this digital age, we all tend to acquire a lot of filmmaking and photography equipment that we may not need. We see online creators touting the latest Canon lens, and we think, “If I had that, I could do the same shots, too.”

Or, perhaps you’re watching the behind-the-scenes footage to Blade Runner and see the DOP using a light meter and think, “If I had one of those, my cinematography could reach new levels.” When, in most cases, you just need to spend more time with the gear you already own.

However—and I say, however—what if you had a director’s viewfinder. Indeed, that would up the game, right?

Woman's hand with red painted fingernails holing a collapsed Pocket Mini Director's Viewfinder against a white background
The Pocket Mini Director’s Viewfinder. Image via Alan Gordon.

As an indie filmmaker, it’s not uncommon to be the director, cinematographer, editor, and even the writer of your film. As you creatively grow, you’ll find that you suit one role more than the other. After weeks of thought, you decide that you want to be a director—your vision will be the film’s soul.

However, unlike the short films where you controlled everything and could quickly switch to live view on your mirrorless camera to see every possible shot composition, you may now be on a more extensive set with a cinema camera, which would take a few crew members just to change the position of the camera. Therefore, readjusting the camera for the sake of your curiosity isn’t going to sit well with the crew.

This is where the director’s viewfinder comes into play. The viewfinder is a small viewing glass that bears a resemblance to a telescope. The viewfinder lets you see what the framing of a shot will be like depending on the given lens and shooting format.

If you consistently use the viewfinder, you’ll come to know the aesthetic characteristics of specific focal lengths—the field of view, perspective, and how all of that can affect motion through the Z-axis.

The price of the viewfinders range from $100-$10,000+. The classic saying “you get what you pay for” should be considered in this instance, as a $100 viewfinder will only have basic glass functions, such as zoom and focal length changes.

The viewfinder below, which is $8,000, allows you to mount the glass to the viewfinder giving you the closest possible image-like match to what the camera sees.

Screenshot of the Denz OIC 35-A viewfinder
The DENZ OIC 35-A. Image via Denz.

Viewfinder Apps

I know there’s a tendency to dismiss mobile phones in replacing physical and traditional media. Everyone knows that there’s an app for everything, which goes for viewfinders. How could a $30 app mimic the functionality of a $3,000 viewfinder?

Let’s first quote a very famous cinematographer with his use of the viewfinder apps.

It’s excellent having Artemis on my iPhone. Since I always have my phone with me, I always have a viewfinder at hand. Not only convenient but highly accurate.

Any idea as to who? Yep, esteemed cinematographer Roger Deakins. The app he’s referencing is Artemis, one of the more popular viewfinder applications available to buy and download.

Artemis ViewFinder app showing a closeup of a monkey in the wild

Artemis Director’s Viewfinder from Chemical Wedding is an app that allows you to replicate the viewfinder of any camera. This app is excellent for blocking, scouting, and even making storyboards.

There’s little to no learning curve with the apps, either. You simply start the application, then dial in the format, aspect ratio, and focal length. The app will show the corresponding field of view with overlays on your mobile screen. 

With their 2018 update, you can also include stand-in overlays within your frame. So, if you’re just out location scouting, you can get a better read of what your shot would look like without having actors on call.

Alternatively, perhaps you’re not at the location, but a friend or crew mate is. They could use the app, screenshot the results, and instantly send them to you, opposed to looking at still photos of the location. 

However, one thing to note is that you’re, of course, using the pre-built camera on the phone, and in most circumstances, it’s a wide-angle lens. As such, you’re only simulating longer focal lengths, which harms the quality of the image and denies you the ability to see what the depth of field would look like and the compression of the image with longer focal lengths.

Demonstrating focal length through a viewfinder

Using DSLRs and Mirrorless Cameras as a Viewfinder

Do you watch behind-the-scenes content as much as films themselves? If so, you may see some filmmakers use a DSLR (and now mirrorless) to act as a viewfinder.

In the behind-the-scenes video below, we can see filmmaker Michael Mann using a Nikon D2X when figuring out the composition of a scene. 

A DSLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses allows you to look at how different focal lengths will correctly appear on the screen. However, there’s a caveat with this—sensor size.  

Suppose you’re solely acquiring a camera for the sake of it being your onset viewfinder. In that case, you’ll need to make sure the sensor size is similar to that of the camera you’re using for filmmaking.

Of course, suppose you’re using an APS-C camera and your filmmaking camera is full-frame. In that case, your framing will not correlate across systems. 

Closeup of Michael Mann shooting with a Nikon
Michael Mann using a DSLR on Miami Vice. Image via

Inexpensive Telescopic Viewfinder – $100-$1000

If you invest in a viewfinder, you’ll have the apparatus out more than you think you would. You’ll be able to take the viewfinder on location scouts during pre-production and see your film unfold before your eyes. As mentioned earlier, you’ll be able to envision the shots around the set without moving the camera.

Typically, when searching for a director’s viewfinder, you’ll first see return results like the viewfinder below. This is a classic viewfinder (Alan Gordon Mark Vb Director’s Viewfinder) that you can buy for $750. However, you can also buy similar devices (albeit, not as good) from Amazon for less than $150.

The Mark Vb Director’s Viewfinder on a white background
The Mark Vb Director’s Viewfinder. Image via Alan Gordon.

These are incredibly simple to use. It’s as easy as selecting the corresponding aspect ratio and adjusting the viewfinder to the necessary focal length in telescope fashion.

And, to be honest, there’s not a lot more to say about them. This piece of kit realistically does one thing—mimics the focal and aspect ratio of a given sensor and lens.

For example, the listed specifications for the Alan Gordon Pocket Mini Viewfinder are:

The Pocket Mini Director’s Viewfinder is a proven, versatile accessory for directors, cinematographers, production designers, set builders, and location scouts in the film and television industry. Used as recommended, this instrument will improve creativity and flexibility in defining choices of lenses, angles, and coverage in the studio or on location.

The Pocket Mini Director’s Viewfinder features various aspect ratios for you to choose from. Various lens focal lengths are marked along the barrel of the Director’s Viewfinder, providing you with rapid selection of lens focal lengths. 

Screenshot of the Pocket Mini Director's Viewfinder
The Pocket Viewfinder is an inexpensive variant from Alan Gordon. Image via Alan Gordon.

It does exactly what it says on the can. 

However, while these devices are compact, helpful, and easy to use, they have a crucial setback. Like the camera app, it’s not going to show you the core characteristics of the lens. You won’t be able to get an eye of the depth of field or possibly lens distortion if you’re using a vintage lens with particular individualities.

If you have the budget, you may prefer opting for a viewfinder like this.

Lens Viewfinder/Lens Finder

If you browse behind-the-scenes photos, this viewfinder is traditionally the viewfinder you’ll see glued to the director’s hands.

Chris Nolan on set with a viewfinder in his hand
Christopher Nolan on the set of IMAX. Image via Warner Bros.

Unlike the inexpensive telescope viewfinder variant that mimics focal lengths and aspect ratios, these tools show what your composition will look like at 1:1 accuracy. This is because you can attach (depending on the model) the lens you’ll be using on your primary camera onto the viewfinder.

And, with a mirror, prism, and a ground glass screen, and the ability to correctly change the T-stops with a viewable depth of field, you’re seeing an image that looks exactly as it would from a cine camera.

Screenshot of the OIC35 Director's Viewfinder on a white background
The OIC35 Director’s Viewfinder. Image via Denz.

However, with this technicality, it does come at a steep price. A budget version of these tools starts at $3,000 and goes onward to $10,000+. And, this is just for a singular viewfinder for a particular lens group.

If you’re using two different cameras for your A-cam and B-cam—and, as such, have two other mounts—you will also need two viewfinders = pricey.

Although, if you’re using one of these tools, you likely have the budget to do so, and also wouldn’t be reading this article.

Get back to work!

Ultimately, with ultra-portable cine cameras and mirrorless systems, along with everyone owning a smartphone—unless you’re a full-time working director—there’s not an inherent need to go out and splash money on a viewfinder with the cheaper alternatives available.

Cover image via Alan Gordon.


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