The  past  few years  have  brought a  number of changes  to  the 35mm camera regarding viewfinder systems.  Not only is your camera viewing the scene you’re aiming it towards, it is also giving you important exposure information as well.    Many people feel rather intimidated by the quantity of information contained in the viewing area of their camera’s, so let’s address those areas individually.  The two areas of concern are the focusing screen, (the area that you actually view your image on), and the symbols found on the side, bottom or top of the viewfinder.  Let’s begin with your focusing screen.  When you purchase a relatively sophisticated 35mm camera,  you have at your disposal many accessories as previously mentioned.  One of these is a series of focusing screens designed for almost any conceivable photographic situation.  My current camera offers 7 screens available for purchase however, my older 1985 model offers a total of  13!   These screens are made with very specific intentions to give photographers as much control over the scene they are photographing as possible.  In my camera as with many others, when looking through it a person  notices a large central circle, with a horizontal line in the centre of it; often on a diagonal, with another smaller circle-(both of these circles are contained in  one circumference at the centre of your focusing screen).  This is called a split image viewing system and greatly benefits your focusing techniques particularly  in low light levels.  A split image system is designed either horizontally or on an oblique line, but regardless of it’s position, it’s operation remains the same.  Here is  how to use it.  

If when focusing your camera you are still not certain of your focus, re-position  your camera at an object roughly the same distance away  as that which you were originally  focused on–preferably a vertical one.  This could be a zipper on a persons jacket, lettering on their shirt, a brick wall etc.  Continue to rotate your lens back and forth until you find the spot where the vertical lines become “one perfectly vertical” and not “bi-sec-ted” line.  To be more specific: if you fill your viewfinder with an object such as a lamp post, and throw the camera out of focus, you will see part of the post coming down from the top on one side of the viewfinder, and the other part of the post will come up from the bottom on the opposite side of the viewfinder.  The post appears to be split in two approximately in the centre of your viewfinder.  This is intentional and is there to make you realize that if no changes are made to your focusing system, the picture will remain out of focus.  The solution to the problem is to rotate your lens so both pieces of the vertical lamp post mesh with each other and appear as one. This split image system, is excellent when you are making pictures in low light levels.  I have often noticed after photographing for an entire day particularly when light levels are rapidly decreasing,  that refocusing my lens due to fatigue several times trying to finalize the image and ensuring sharpness of the subject matter is commonplace.  By utilizing  this technique, you obtain a higher rate of clarity in your photographs, in comparison to cameras that do not contain this split image feature.  This technique, applies to both auto and manual focus products, since many photographers I know often choose to take their cameras off the auto focus mode, and dial  in specific manual focusing  adjustments.  Auto focus cameras suffer particularly when faced with a scene that contains  very limited contrast, which prevents them at times  from fulfilling their focusing capabilities. Specifically, the lens itself  begins zooming back and forth without stopping attempting to lock on to a particular object of necessary contrast  in the scene.  Should you experience difficulties of this type, simply turn off the auto focus system and revert back to manual focus instead.  Older style camera’s often contained only one circle in the centre of their focusing screens.  This circle had a tendency to “shimmer” when the camera was out of focus when aimed at your subject matter.   By readjusting your focus, the shimmering effect  disappeared  informing you of a scene that is now in focus.


The symbols found on the perimeter of your focusing screen often create levels of confusion, but  they need not be difficult to understand if you simply give yourself a few hours of time to define each one of them separately.  Take yourself to a location where you know you will not be disturbed when reading your owners manual, and try to put them into practice.  When I purchased my new camera, I situated myself in a nearby cemetery and spent a few hours of an afternoon experimenting with tombstones.  (I can assure the reader there were no interruptions).  Symbols   commonly found   around   your viewing   screen are:

  1.  An exposure compensation scale–when your camera is set on manual exposure, the metering system will tell you how much over or under exposure you have dialed into the metering system from a so called “correct 18% grey standard exposure” 
  2.  An “in focus indicator” which  often appears as a red or green circle which lights up when the camera knows it is in focus when aimed at a particular object  
  3.  The indicated f-stop/aperture you have your lens set at  
  4.  The indicated shutter speed  which you have your camera currently set at         
  5.  A  “M”  for manual or “A” for auto exposure appears  indicating which exposure mode you are set at        
  6.  A frame counter indicating how many exposures you have used on your film/digital media product    
  7.  A metering indicator which tells you if you have your camera set for wide area  “matrix metering” or a more defined smaller  circle could appear indicating you are set in the  “spot metering mode”.  These are the most frequently  displayed symbols in the camera’s of today.  We are going  to discuss each one of these symbols in detail as this course progresses, so continue referring back to this article for regular up-dates. 

Incidentally, I feel it worth mentioning that when I purchased a brand new 35mm single lens reflex camera years back, it did not contain anywhere near the quantity of features that the camera’s of today contain.  I often have to step back and reflect upon the picture making I was producing years ago in comparison to now and ask myself, with the advent of this new generation of auto focus camera’s, digital products etc.,  has it made my photographs any better?  The answer is definitely NO!  If you are a serious photographer who has developed an appreciation for high quality imagery and composition refinement, you’re most likely the type of  individual who understands that patience and time are mandatory requirements regarding placing imagery correctly onto film or a digital media product.





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