Saving the subject's spirit: viewfinder vs ground glass?


Super Moderator Emeritus
Down Under
This is not so much a new thread as the continuance of a segue from another - preventing me hijacking it for my own selfish purposes. The subject there meandered to the topic of viewfinders vs. LCD screen, from the subject's perspective, are they active or passive?

It got me thinking, but before I toss in my 2 cents, here's some background - don't know the best way to present it so I will go with a series of replies from the above referenced thread:

Using a screen lets you be an active observer.
Using a finder makes you a passive observer. There's a false sense of security with a finder. The camera covers your face. This can create an uneasy feeling when potential subjects see you.
So you are in a passive mode because you are hidden.
The screen makes you active in the scene. People can see your face. The threat dissipates rapidly.
Both methods work fine but the screen allows your frame to move in time and space with the flow of energy around you.
I'm an observer of life. I don't want to be a secret observer.

This screen thing goes back farther than finders. It goes back to the beginning of photography.....

Don, I do know what you mean about the format. However, I beg to differ when it comes to "using a finder makes you a passive observer". You clearly feel that it makes you a passive observer. I don't use it to block my face or to hide behind - I use it to see. Seriously, generally speaking it is not that easy for me to see a small sized screen. I do use solely the LCD sometimes, depending upon the scene. I feel very actively involved with my subject when using the viewfinder.

I really believe it is a matter of different strokes for different folks - including different subject matter and settings - not aperture or f stop...but location, location, and action or not, etc. Heck, after using that former NEX5 of yours, I fell for that tilt up screen! I guess there will always be options out there for all of us...and maybe eventually one camera that meets everyone's individual needs?

Right now I am in the diehard "must have the aperture ring and F stop controls" as on the X100. Those two "normal" to me controls make the biggest difference to me. So that's a big part of the format for me. Chances are in real life I could be swayed...but for now I'm a happy camper.

BB, being a passive or active observer is not about your feelings. It's about the subjects feelings.
It's how the subject sees you not how you see the subject.

Think about it this way. Your making photos at a party.
Your subject sees the camera and not your face/eyes.
The screen allows the subject comfort by having eye contact.

I know what you mean, Don. Fortunately, if I'm in circumstances that make me feel that someone will be intimidated I can use the screen. What happened before the LCD?

Ground far back as the first image.....

I see, a view camera, eh but without the black cloth?;)

What a great dialogue - thanks guys (y)

The distinction between the 'active' and 'passive' capturing of the subject, from the subject's perspective, is a very interesting one. I think even more so when you cast in light of the difference between 'making' and 'taking' a photograph. As you talk of the "threat" of a photograph,
The threat dissipates rapidly.
so you are referring here to the aggressive or active act of 'taking' a image from the subject's perspective. Now one could easily fall into the error of transposing the terms "active" and "passive" with "taking" and "making" an image....and it might be a useful exercise, but then one quickly hits the dichotomy between what the subject perceives as the intent of photographer and the actual intent of the photographer; is s/he, alternately am I, 'making' or 'taking' an image? Street photography is an interesting one here as it does often rely on documenting life as accurately as possible, so attempts to be as non-interventionist as possible - i.e., capturing subjects in their natural state. Otherwise if a subject realises they are being photographed and begin 'posing' - even by very virtue of knowing they are being photographed and projecting how they would like to be perceived by - for the camera then the spirit and intent of the image changes. But contentiously I here believe that the genre now also changes from 'street' to 'portraiture'.

So let's stick to the context of street photography and be clear on my premise is that it is, by its very virtue, an active/aggressive act of "taking" a photograph. A photographer composing their frame on an LCD or through the viewfinder remains an active act either way. They are taking a photo through whichever means best suits them. Now let's arrive to that decisive moment - not when the shutter clicks but when the bubble bursts and the photographer is 'busted' or discovered by the subject. What then? Ah and I think herein lies the rub. Some might argue, and I am one of them, that the subject upon seeing a face hidden behind a viewfinder realises that I am taking their photo. What I do from that moment on is up to me...and we all have our tricks here including "yeah and so what?". It is an honest portrayal of that active process. Whereas, if the subject sees through the subterfuge and discovers that they are being assessed by someone staring perpendicular to their camera. The reaction is the same. You are making much the same excuses as the photog busted through the viewfinder. But, and I think we hit the essence of it here, ground-glass shooters are preying on the fact that folks don't equate looking perpendicular down at a camera with having their photo taken. Granted your chances of being busted are lessened, as subjects are not yet conditioned to equate another human's lack of eye contact - i.e., looking down - with the threat - in this case of being photographed. So really this is a little sneaky, and far less 'honest'. The subject here has been doubly betrayed.

Finally, some might argue, "well, no, the LCD/ground-glass ensures that I participate better in the, the camera is more passive, and my face is not interrupted from the subject". Here you rely on the camera being more passive not the photographer! To think otherwise is pure folly. Even from our ape days, the best way to communicate with a fellow ape - immediate to you - is to make understood grunting noises while looking them in the eyes. Tell me which is more genuine, saying "I love you" while looking in the eyes of your beloved or uttering the same words by looking perpendicular at their feet? OK, so in photography I might have one eye hidden behind the camera while only one is trained on the object of my affection - so does my message lose any impact with one eye obscured by a rose? Or even if I have one eye closed and the other trained unblinkingly on my subject through the viewfinder, the subject knows my vision is trained on them.
"Ah, but with the ground-glass I have both eyes on the subject only glancing down momentarily to check composition". Yes and at the moment you look down you are breaking contact with the subject. I'd prefer one eye trained on me through the whole delivery of an "I love you", rather than two eyes at "I love" and eyes down at "you".

To me I don't care of you choose to use a viewfinder, right-angle finder, LCD arms out, LCD eyes-down, ground glass draped with a black cloth or even shoot from the hip (another argument entirely). But to me its about being honest with your subject and, as importantly, with yourself.


Administrator Emeritus
Philly, Pa
Mark, I need to breathe and respond from the puter, not the iphoney.
Just a are right but there are a few areas that are left grey.

Taking vrs making... This is prolly the most important issue you address.
What do we do as photographers? We make photos. Simple yet very complex.
If we recognize that photos are 2 dimensional, it stands to reason the any help we get in process should be welcomed. A screen does just that.
We are talking the physical aspects not the emotional for the moment.

I am used to a screen because I have always used a Deardorff. I've used Leica's also but I am addressing the screen. When the image is seen on a ground glass of a view camera, it translates the subject to 2 dimensions. I used to use a Wratten 90 filter to further abstract the image by reducing the color and giving an appearance of B&W.

Time here I am with this camera that shows me a B&W image with no info and I can SEE my print in front of me. For me, this is the single most exciting part of using a digicam.
Of course I am talking about me and my end of the image, not the lens side of the image...yet.
So moving from scene to scene, I am constantly aware of the potential for a print.
The lens shows me what something will look like as a photograph.
I see this as a part of the standard reality. I see a print in reality.

The viewfinder. An EVF does the same thing but differently. Because the eye is in the camera, the presence of the image is not seen in reality. This is not to say that it's not a representation of the print, it is but not seen at the same space with reality.

The OVF. This is an engineering masterpiece. I'm talking the X100 because it's the only one that works at this time. The Leica is perfect and needs no discussion.
The X100 OVF does what a Leica does with a twist. It makes one of 2 things happen.
The first is, it forces the user to learn to see outside the box. I mean, it's about 90% of the image. either learns to SEE the extra 10% or one just settles and doesn't care because, who cares about 10% anyway? I do!

So these are things photographers need to address when choosing and using a camera.
The important thing to remember about making photos is...
we are abstracting a3 dimensional reality and Making a new 2 dimensional reality. B&W further helps that abstraction. The screen shows this better then any other method because it shows the abstraction against true reality. You see both juxtaposed in time and space. The eyes can travel from one to the other freely , without restrictions.
This is of course about process on the screen side, not the lens side.
That's an entirely different world.

I'll post my crazy thoughts about that later.
Mark, your a great guy with a wonderful mind. I am blessed to know you...