Leitner's Cinematography Corner, No. 2

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D.W. Leitner

Leitner at play

Just as there are two camps when it comes to designing and using a handheld camcorder—compact, wrist-supported vs. elongated, shoulder-supported—there are now two camps when it comes to viewing while shooting.

The older viewing method, of course, involves putting an eye to the viewfinder cup.

Viewing a through-the-lens image, identical to that captured on motion-picture film itself, was an immense breakthrough in its day. Called "reflex" viewing, it enabled for the first time precise framing and focusing by eye at time of exposure.

The reflex viewing system commonly found in today's motion-picture cameras dates back to the Arriflex 35 of 1937 (a battlefield acquisition prized by Allied cameramen, whose nonreflex Bell & Howells could not verify focus or exact framing). The Arriflex 35 introduced a semicircular mirrored shutter that spun around at a 45-degree angle to the film plane. As the shutter rotated into an open position, a frame of film was exposed. As it rotated to cap off further exposure, its tilted mirror bounced the image into a viewing screen.

For film exposed at 24fps, this spinning shutter/mirror system created the alternating 1/48-second exposures and 1/48-second glimpses of image viewed ever since in film camera eyepieces as flicker.

In the early 1980s, the first video-assist systems for motion-picture cameras relayed this flickering viewfinder image to a black-and-white video monitor. This was the first time anyone besides the camera operator could view the camera's image, and it engendered deep changes on the set. For the first time, a director could scrutinize performances as seen by the camera (often undermining the personal attention the director had previously lavished on the actors), as could the members of other departments. Little wonder that DPs of that era hated this innovation, the precursor of today's video village.

Of course, pedestal-mounted TV studio cameras had long used miniature black-and-white video monitors for viewing (no flicker). Only with the success of portable videotape recording systems in the 1970s followed by compact EFP (electronic field production) and ENG (electronic newsgathering) cameras like the wildly popular Betacam did the eyecup-style viewfinder become a familiar feature on modern TV cameras.

Which brings us to the latest wrinkle in viewing, the flip-out LCD screen, which debuted about a decade ago in consumer camcorders, enabled by advances in low-cost color LCD manufacture. It has since migrated to professional camcorders of all stripes.

Indeed, it would be hard to imagine the success of low-cost HD camcorders—HDV, for instance—without the convenience of these miniature built-in HD monitors. (Professional HD field monitors remain as expensive as low-cost HD camcorders themselves.)

To a WWII combat cameraman with a 35mm Bell & Howell Eyemo, reflex viewing meant a captured German Arriflex 35mm. To today's young camera operators, reflex viewing means a flip-out LCD.

To a WWII combat cameraman with a 35mm Bell & Howell Eyemo, reflex viewing meant a captured German Arriflex 35mm. To today's young camera operators, reflex viewing means a flip-out LCD.

Please note that in all but the latest consumer camcorders—which, like sightless fish in caves, have evolved to lose their viewfinders altogether—flip-out LCD screens exist as an adjunct to the eyecup viewfinder. Unlike studio viewfinders, which are actually small high-res monitors, flip-out LCDs were not intended as primary viewing devices—at least in the beginning.

Why? Focusing is compromised. Flip-out LCDs display only a subset of the full-HD count of 1920x1080 pixels. Secondly, as anyone who has ever viewed a small color LCD screen knows, viewing angle dramatically affects the appearance of brightness and contrast. Worse, in daylight or sunlight, they typically wash out.

No one who has encountered the vivid, razor-sharp optical images produced by an Aaton or Arri viewfinder would suffer such degradations gladly. (This includes Arri's D-20 and D-21 digital cinema cameras with spinning mirror shutters.) But, as Zero Mostel might put it, a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.

Over the past decade, a new generation of camera operators has arrived that has zero experience with film cameras and no use for eyecup viewfinders. They know only how to use a flip-out screen as a framing device—and prefer it this way.

They get away with this partly because they use 1/3in. sensor camcorders with deep focus that would make Gregg "Citizen Kane" Toland green with envy. Many, sad to say, self-admittedly lean on autofocus too. (It shows.)

Which is why color peaking was recently introduced. Conventional peaking amplifies edge detail in an electronic viewfinder to make manual focusing faster and more certain (at the expense of image fidelity). When focus is achieved, a fine, white outline pops into sharpness around any detail of adequate contrast. (Peaking doesn't function well with low-contrast images).

However, conventional peaking works poorly on flip-out LCDs with their uncertain resolution and varying contrast. Color peaking adds either a red, blue, or yellow edge around any detail in focus, which presumably can be discerned on a smallish LCD at a distance, regardless of contrast or screen angle. Does this help any? You'll have to decide.

Zacuto Z-Finder V2

Zacuto Z-Finder V2

For me, most significantly, there's a psychophysical dimension missing when viewfinder use is supplanted by reliance on flip-out LCDs.

When you watch a movie in a dark theater, all your concentration is directed toward the screen. When you watch TV at home, the screen occupies but a fraction of your visual field. Which experience is more immersive? Which causes more blood flow to your visual cortex?

Now transfer this principle to the topic of viewfinder vs. flip-out LCD.

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A viewfinder channels your attention. Nothing exists between your eye and the image. If you are a cinematographer, an artist of moving pictures, this is the intimate nexus of creativity you wish to inhabit while operating the camera. (Readers of my last column know that the term cinematography embraces both film and digital.)

I've done a fair amount of test-shooting of HD with HDSLRs such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon EOS 7D, often with my colleague Mark Forman in New York—the results of which will be cited in future columns—and one of the biggest frustrations I've encountered is the impossibility of judging focus, no less exact framing, on a shiny, non-tilting Live View display at the back of these cameras.

Shiny means contrast-killing reflections in daylight; non-tilting means that if the camera is aimed upward, I have to climb under it to see the image. And did I mention there's no peaking, of any kind?

HDSLRs have a way to go yet (an understatement), but at DV Expo in Pasadena, Calif., in late September I came across a viewfinder solution for HDSLRs that goes a long way toward making their rear LCDs truly useful for HD.

Zacuto product designer Jens Bogehegn showed me his new Z-Finder V2 viewfinder attachment for HDSLRs, and I'm completely won over.

Essentially, it's a box with a full-sized (yes!) wraparound eyecup that adheres to the back of any HDSLR. It contains a generous (40mm wide), antireflection-coated diopter made by Schneider Optics. Diopter focus (-2.0 to +0.4) is achieved by means of a large red-anodized knurled wheel. Like all things Zacuto, build quality is first-rate.

In use, the result is similar to what Sony accomplished with its PMW-EX3 viewfinder, when the company simply placed the PMW-EX1's superb LCD under a diopter for better focusing and image display. (The first time a flip-out LCD ever became a viewfinder too!)

For me, inveterate viewfinder user and wearer of eyeglasses (yes, I'm past that certain age), the Z-Finder has already transformed my use of these paradigm-shifting HDSLR cameras.