When you’re directing on set, sometimes the hardest thing is to experiment. This is a pity, because so many positive things can come from a crazy idea that you want to try out. What if we put the camera on the floor? What if we got a really high angle of this scene? Or dollied out from behind this statue to start the scene? This is where the Director’s Viewfinder mode on the SIGMA fp L steps in.
Traditional Director’s Viewfinder
With tight schedules, it’s almost never practical to have the DP or camera assistants take the camera off the tripod and put it somewhere different, just so you can “see if it works.” And this is almost always to the detriment of the project you’re filming, because it’s those kind of angles and ideas that breathe fresh life into a story and give it some kind of perspective — something many films and TV shows today are sorely lacking.
People have tried to get around this by using a tablet or their phone to see what a shot looks like before they go to the trouble of moving the camera, but this can get you into more trouble. The iPhone’s tiny sensor is nothing like the large, shallow focus capable sensors of today’s cinema cameras, and while using this method will give you a frame, it communicates nothing of the character and depth of the lenses you’re shooting with, and can lead you to chase possibilities that aren’t really there, or fail to accurately communicate your vision with your team.
Enter the director’s viewfinder. Traditionally it’s a PL mount on a handle with an optical eyepiece. You can place a lens on the mount and look through the hole and see a good approximation of how the shot will appear to the camera. Google “film director” and you will see every famous director from the last 50 years doing one of two things: pointing to the distance or looking into a director’s viewfinder.
There are a couple of downsides to the traditional optical viewfinder. They aren’t adaptable between mounts, so you would need one for a variety of lens types. A more meaningful one is that you can’t capture and share what you see through it. If you find a great shot at the top of a ladder, anyone else that needs to see it will have to climb the ladder themselves and take a turn.
The New Director’s Viewfinder
Enter SIGMA’s new fp L and its Director’s Viewfinder mode. This tiny, full-frame camera comes in L-mount, but can easily adapt to both EF and PL mounts. It has a dedicated mode that can be set to capture stills and video, mimicking the cinema range of Arri, Red and Sony Cinema cameras. Right down to aspect ratio.
You can also add custom frame lines, so you can adapt the viewfinder to any camera, lens combination and shooting mode you happen to be using. This option also allows you to add lines such as thirds, to better help with you compositions. The fp L also supports anamorphic lenses, applying the correct de-squeeze and letting you see the image as it will appear on the screen.
You can use the bright, 3-inch screen to set up your shots, or the optional EVF-11 to hold the camera to your face and get a shoulder mounted feel. You can record stills from the 61-megapixel sensor or shoot raw video up to 4K, even applying SIGMA’s built-in color grading looks, such as Teal & Orange, Powder Blue, Cinema and Monotone.
On a recent shoot with the RED Komodo, we were waiting for the operator to balance the gimbal. During what would normally be downtime, I was able to block the scene with the actors and DP. We were able to try different lenses, angles and framings with the fp L and the actors, easily finding what worked best for the lens and the light. I then played this for the client, who loved seeing options before we even got the A camera ready. She was able to sign off on the framing and movement. When the operator and the gimbal were both ready, we were lit and the actors already had their marks. With the resources of the pre-shoot with the fp L, we finished the shot in just two takes.
The SIGMA fp L is an incremental upgrade to SIGMA’s revolutionary fp, released in 2019 (NOTE: with firmware Ver. 3.00, the original fp now offers many of the handy features available in the fp L). The fp L has a couple other tricks up its sleeve which make the upgrade worthwhile. Now, you can charge as you shoot from the USB-C port. This helps if you’re doing time-lapse work or something else that requires long run times. It also has a lot of new crop settings, from 1x all the way up to 5x. The higher levels are only available in 1080p, but if your lens is sharp enough, you can turn a 50mm into a 250mm lens with the push of a button.
The SIGMA fp L is a small camera that packs a lot of punch. It has become an essential part of the shooting package. Great as a Director’s Viewfinder, it can also step up as an A camera should the need arise, capturing amazing 4K 12-bit DNG footage with jammable timecode.