Viewfinder Cameras  –  Vintage Camera Type

Typical Viewfinder Camera Traits

Construction: metal / plastic
Lens Quality: low to medium
User Controls: minimal to moderate

Viewfinder Camera Characteristics

Unlike rangefinders, SLRs, TLRs, and view cameras, viewfinder cameras are unable to show what is (or isn’t) in focus. Accurate focusing systems are typically missing on viewfinder cameras because their absence makes these models considerably cheaper and easier to produce. Higher end cameras in this category like the Kodak Instamatic 500 employ relatively complex optics in their viewfinders while many box cameras like the Ansco Anscoflex use brilliant finders (a magnified waist-level finder that uses a mirror to reflect the image upward). At the lowest end of the spectrum, models such as the Univex Model AF-4 simply provide a hole to look through.

The argument can be made that the prevalence of viewfinder cameras is in direct correlation to the widespread introduction of rollfilm in the early 1900s. While holders for sheet film and/or photographic plates could easily be swapped out for the ground glass screens used for both focus and composition in older cameras, newer ones designed specifically for comparatively inflexible rollfilm were forced to find workable alternatives. Advanced rollfilm cameras like the Leica II rangefinder, the Rolleiflex TLR, and the Auto Graflex SLR solved this focusing/composition problem with expensive cutting-edge technology but manufacturers had to get creative when it came to other models.

Camera companies decided to divide and conquer by divorcing focus from composition in order to address each function separately. The simplest way to deal with focusing was to design a lens able to simultaneously focus on everything from a certain distance (one meter, for example) to infinity and then lock it into place. However, these lenses were typically not very sharp and fitted only to lower end models. Cameras with these fixed-focus lenses were then given primitive composition aides like the wire frame finder on the Kodak Hawkeye or a simple tube like the one atop the Herco Imperial 620 Snap Shot. Folding cameras like the Kodak No. 2A and Ernemann Heag II, which used more advanced lenses, could be focused by determining the distance from the subject and then shifting the lens standard forwards or backwards on the camera’s rails accordingly. The small brilliant finders used for composition could be neatly tucked away when the camera was collapsed.

Notable viewfinder cameras include the groundbreaking Leica I Model A, the Argus A which almost single-handedly popularized the use of 35mm film in the United States, and the ubiquitous Kodak Brownie series which brought affordable photography to the masses. Unusual ones include the Houghton Ticka pocket watch camera which had a removable viewfinder, the pistol-shaped Mamiya Speed Shot Special and Doryu 2-16 which were used to train Japanese policemen, and the lizard skin-clad Hunter Gilbert with a rotatable brilliant finder.

Interested in starting or growing your own collection of viewfinder cameras?
Check eBay to see what’s available.

McKeown, James M. and Joan C. McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras, 2001-2002. (Grantsburg, USA: Centennial Photo Service, 2001), 180, 255, 281, 416-417, 449, 579-582.