If you’ve ever wanted to shoot a 35mm lens on a camera that lacks 35mm frame lines, you know how annoying and expensive this problem can be. To shoot a 35mm lens on Leica’s M3, for example, you’ll need to buy a massive goggle attachment that not only adds quite a bit of weight, but also manages to completely ruin the clean lines of the otherwise gorgeous M. Many of today’s digital mirrorless cameras lack viewfinders altogether, favoring LCD live view instead (which is criminal). And accessory shoe-mount viewfinders, such as the ones made by Voigtlander and Sony, cost of over $200 and $379 respectively. That’s painful.
Which is why I was more than interested when a resourceful chap named Robert Jagitsch contacted me with an offer to test his latest clever idea – a big, bright, 3D printed optical viewfinder with 35mm frame lines that costs less than $20.
Robert’s been involved with photography for a long time, and through his company Metro Case he’s been designing and manufacturing grips for cameras for years (and some pretty unique iPhone cases, too). The company’s do-it-yourself viewfinder cannibalizes the relatively massive viewfinder components of a common and inexpensive point-and-shoot from the early 1990s, the Canon Sure Shot Owl, and repurposes them into the Metro Case VF. You’ll need to source your own Owl to build your viewfinder (at time of writing, an Owl and many other Canon’s with the same VF can be had on eBay for approximately $4, plus shipping), and this brings the total cost of the viewfinder to approximately $30.
It’s a genius idea, on paper. But does it work in the real world?
Removing the donor parts from the Owl is simplicity. You’ll need a small screwdriver, superglue, and the usual complement of fingers. That’s it. Remove a total of six screws from the sides, bottom, and inside of the camera, prize the front plate away, and lift out the viewfinder elements. Insert them into the waiting slots of the 3D printed viewfinder, drop two drops of superglue onto the alignment pins, and press the assembly together. You’ve just made a surprisingly large, bright, and capable 35mm viewfinder in approximately six minutes.
Once the superglue has dried, the assembly is pretty well sealed. I tried to pull it apart and failed. I also dropped it several times (on purpose) to see if this would damage the plastic housing or cause the entire thing to spring apart. It didn’t. This all leads me to believe that it should stand up to normal use perfectly well. Fitment is excellent, with all the elements fitting into their slots with precision (there’s exactly zero rattling or movement of the elements), and the whole assembly fits into the accessory shoe of the camera with similar snugness. The bright lines of the viewfinder match anything from more expensive external viewfinders (and why shouldn’t they? You’re effectively using a Canon VF here), and there’s enough free space on the side to allow easy composition on city streets.
What’s most incredible, however, is just how massive and bright this viewfinder is. With a magnification .68x, it’s world’s ahead of the viewfinders found on Leica screw mount machines, those commonly found in point-and-shoot cameras of its day, and a massive improvement on many premium compact film cameras of the 1990s and 2000s. Hell, it’s bigger and brighter than the VF of my Contax G2, a camera that I consider to be mostly perfect, otherwise.
The entire assembly is small and nearly weightless. Its dimensions are approximately one inch cubed, and it weighs less than half an ounce. While the size is about the same as what we see from Voigtlander’s accessory VFs, the weight is substantially less (Voigtlander’s VF weighs 2.5 ounces). This makes the 3D printed VF the clear winner if lightness is a concern. It’s also the clear winner in the “I wish I didn’t drop my viewfinder” test, an event that with any of those other finders (new or vintage) is an expensive accident.
That said, there will certainly be those who look at this solution and scoff. It does add another step into the shooting process on certain cameras (you’ll need to focus with the camera’s usual viewfinder and then compose your shot in the external VF). And then there’s the fact that it’s plastic, and you build it yourself. While that’s not a problem for me, it could be seen as decidedly less sexy compared with the gorgeous, metal offerings from the likes of Leica and Voigtlander. But this viewfinder costs one-tenth the price of those, and there’s always zone-focusing to solve the focus/compose issue (can we really call it an issue?).
These caveats noted, I can’t help but be impressed with this simple viewfinder. It’s one of those rare products that keenly addresses a common problem and solves it with little fuss or fanfare. The Minolta CLE is my favorite 35mm film camera, but it lacks frame lines for 35mm lenses. But with this viewfinder I can now easily shoot a 35mm lens on my favorite camera. That’s pretty valuable, and the simplicity, effectiveness, and low price of this viewfinder make it one of the more practical accessories I’ve tested.