A director’s viewfinder is an iconic depiction of a filmmaker’s planning and vision. Set photos from films across decades feature a viewfinder up to the eye or around the neck of the art form’s greatest directors. In today’s world, viewfinders are accessible at various prices in different modalities, now even including phone applications, but all fill the same role: audition the field of view. Once you’ve decided on a focal length that best suits your needs, you can communicate a detailed plan to your department heads and crew.
The phone as a director’s viewfinder has its drawbacks and so does a non-electronic viewfinder.
First, let’s talk about the apps out there — at the end of the day, while you are getting a programmatic sense of your chosen field of view with a specific lens and camera selection, you aren’t seeing how a real glass lens is playing with the current lighting setup, nor are you getting a true understanding of bokeh handling at a given T-stop. On the other hand, applications do have the advantage of being able to take in-app stills for the purpose of sharing with stakeholders and of course, they are mobile. Perhaps the greatest advantage of in-app stills is that when used in tandem with a phone’s GPS, you can know exactly where to position sticks, tracks, or an operator to recreate that image. That information including the degree of tilt, is stored in the still’s metadata. (There are also tools like virtual stand-ins, but quite frankly, those features can be really obnoxious and do more harm than good.)
With the bulkier mechanical viewfinder, you are using the same lens with which you’re shooting the film, and this can have its advantages. As with the app, you can usually select a sensor size and aspect ratio, but sensor sizes change from manufacturer to manufacturer and a true field of view is still tough to determine as formats advance beyond super 16mm and 35mm into large format territory. Of course, with the mechanical viewfinder, there is no possibility of taking stills or sharing externally.
You see where I’m going with this. Neither option is perfect. However, work on a recent film showed me the promise of another option.
Before shooting a feature film in Indiana with director Paul Shoulbourg and DP Madeline Kate Kann, I used some combination of the options above as the situation required. As the A-Cam operator and a Sigma Cine Pro, I thought this might be a great opportunity to give the brand-new Sigma fp camera a whirl in director’s viewfinder mode, while providing a useful tool for Madeline and Paul. Is this mode on this tiny camera the best of both electronic and mechanical worlds? Let’s dive in.
Much has been written praising the still and video images delivered by the full-frame mirrorless fp camera, which weighs less than a pound. We know it’s a great camera, but for those cinema and commercial professionals out there, the director’s viewfinder mode should not be overlooked. The Sigma fp plays well with other manufacturers and gives you the option of choosing between cameras from brands like Sony, ARRI, and RED in-menu, even allowing the selection of specific shooting in-camera modes like 4.5K Open Gate or UHD in the case of ARRI.
We used the Sigma fp on set as a tool for precise communication and after selecting frame guides, we were able to use PL-mount Panavision and Sigma Cine Prime lenses directly on the camera with the help of a Wooden Camera L to PL adapter to take any guesswork out of the equation. For us, being able to audition different camera placements without needing to move a 30 lbs. Arri LF + Slider/Sticks around saved time and our backs during complex 2-camera setups.
Sharing high quality fp stills meant all departments were well informed of the plan from day to day and from moment to moment. Being able to set a specific ISO while in viewfinder mode allowed us to know how open the iris would be, which all in all, gave us a clearer idea of the full-frame bokeh on a specific lens. Even though the official operating temperature of the Sigma fp is between 32 and 104 degrees, the camera handled well in an Indiana winter that sometimes drifted into single digits while filming outside overnight.
I’m consistently impressed by the fp. Whenever I’ve felt like I’ve stretched the little full-frame camera to its limits,I find yet another place for it. This camera punches well above its weight, and if you haven’t tried out the director’s viewfinder mod, then it’s time to move the button over to Cine and give it a shot.
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