Z-Finder; the missing view…

Oct 14, 2009 2 Comments by

Being in the middle of post production of a film which seems to be adding up to a 3 hour rough-cut, doesn’t leave me much time to enjoy my recently acquired 5D MKII. Now on a short break in Portugal, I’m catching up on lost time…

Not long ago I wrote an article on the “5D hidden fees…” where I focused on one of the main flaws of the 5D; the lack of a proper monitoring system.

After exhaustingly reading many articles from many sources, a lot of thinking, “ifs” and “buts”, my dilemma ended at the DV Expo, where I got to try both the Hoodman Loupe and the Z-Finder myself.

The big question I think most of us have, is what am I getting for an extra $300+ with the Z-Finder that I couldn’t get with Hoodman?!

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Like most stuff in our camera gear world, a “little more” quality and/or increased productivity tends to be translated into a lot more money… therefore we usually propose our selves to go the extra dollar, that if nothing else, offers us some peace of mind.

The Z-Finder definitely fits in the “little more” for a lot more category, but it’s definitely a fat “little more” and it also brings the so desired piece of mind. Is it’s price justified?! It really depends on what you do and how you look at it… Am I happy with it? Hell yeah! Could I do without it now that I have tried it? Hell no!!!

It’s been a hard part to find a way to offer you, my readers, a clearer view on the matter (pun intended), but first we need to get something out of the way; The 5D does not have a good way to be monitored when in video mode! There, I said it… and there’s no device that solves this problem entirely, but the Z-Finder is definitely one of the best solutions out there that can help you overcome part of this shortcoming. You can also use an onboard monitor, which not only will set you back twice as much, it still won’t offer you a perfect solution… and depending on how serious your work is and/or how fat your budget is, you will most likely end up with both…

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The latest update of the Magic Lantern Software addresses this issue and allows for continuous 1080i output (even while recording), which with some monitors that have a focusing aid feature, can be really valuable. I haven’t tried Magic Lantern yet, but I’m more and more tempted to give it a try… I haven’t heard any reports of unhappy endings, so far…

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If you also take photography seriously and use the optical view finder on a regular basis, your heart will be broken when you realize that you’ll never be able to have the same clarity while shooting HD, which is when you would need it most, really… and the more you use the video mode, the more you’ll hate it every time you’ll take a picture in the traditional way…

Enter the Z-Finder:
The quality of construction, design and high grade Century Optics glass used on the Z-Finder does an amazing job trying to compensate for Canon’s lack of vision (pun absolutely intended), but unfortunately it does not come with a better LCD to replace the one in the back of your beloved 5D… but it does take that 3” “bastard” beyond it’s maximum usability!!!

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Despite all its virtues, the Z-Finder does not alter the bad design of the 5D; but it does make it a lot more usable, specially in conditions where it is barely functional, like in bright light and/or run and gun, hand held situations!

First impressions:
As you open your package and finally get your hands on your $400 investment, your heart will gradually stabilize  as you see where part of it went… The Z-Finder feels as solid and well built as it can be! There are no flimsy parts or “Chinese” lightness to it… it feels like the real deal, even before you get it out of the box!

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Pre-heat and cook for 24 hours:
If you have been reading any reviews on the Z-Finder, you know that you won’t be able to use it right out of the box… you’ll have to wait 24 hours after applying the frame on your camera… unless you are a P. Bloom of the world and don’t care, cause you’ll probably get a free bag of replacement frames when or if it falls off…

So if you’re like me, you should rapidly pull the instructions out of the box, pretend you read them, glue the bloody thing as fast as you can, find a heavy enough object to press it down against the camera, push your iPhone’s timer to the 23:59 limit and hit start… then you can start killing the first few minutes by actually reading the instructions, just to make sure you did it right… I also suggest planning a busy day when this happens, or you might find yourself involuntarily coming back to the weights on your camera, stare at the contraption for a few seconds and use the “force” to speed up time…

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The frame mounts very easily and it’s incredibly sturdy after you let it sit for the forsaken 24 hours… Design wise, it’s simple and very light, but it feels like it could have been slightly better integrated with the design of the camera… it doesn’t feel wrong or impair functionality in anyway, but if the left side of the frame would follow the side buttons indentation, not only would it look better, it could also be used as a mounting guide. Although straight forward to mount,  you might find yourself wondering if you’re doing it right, as your only guide will be the LCD screen, which you want to have on, displaying a bright picture.

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Another concern I have about the frame, is that it kind of impairs you from using one of those protective screens over the LCD… I broke 2 of those on my previous 5D and I think I would have broken the screen itself, on both occasions, if I didn’t have them on… so although you kind of get a protection to your screen by adding the frame alone, maybe this is something Zacuto could offer in the future; a frame with built in screen protector?!

The first time:
The timer’s up! You run to your 5D… you lift up the weights… the frame looks solid (hopefully)… you mount your Z-Finder (pleasantly easily) on your camera and pull it up against your eye… and the first thing you’ll notice is that you have a completely “new” camera in your hands… you have never held a camera like this before… this is now your first true experience with a hybrid camera… and if Canon, Nikon or Red have any vision, they will embrace this type of design as a standard! Don’t hold your breath for the first 2, though… you’ll most likely run out of oxygen…

It is truly a rewarding experience to feel you might actually be able to use this camera hand held, without any other add ons, simply because you’re leaning it against your eye.
Pans become organic, tilts very stable and over all, you will feel as one with the camera that has been challenging your shooting skills. I did not feel this with the Hoodman and I can’t really explain why (bigger eye piece?!)… I was tempted to buy one, just so I could compare and make sure I’m not delusional, but unfortunately, I have more important uses for $100…

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The next task you have ahead is of the utmost importance! Focusing your Z-Finder to your eye! Once again you will feel where another part of your investment went. The ring could not be more solid or precise. In fact too precise… you will probably have to rotate it several times around… you heard it right… several… actually “many several” times… the adjustments couldn’t be any finer, in fact so fine, I’m never quite sure if I’m absolutely spot on… feels like I can go 360 degrees each way and still see the onscreen information perfectly. The other disadvantage I can see in this, it’s when you have more then one shooter using the camera. It is virtually impossible to add some kind of marks to go from one person’s preference to another’s… something to think about for future versions, maybe?!

Shooting:
So now you’re ready and you hit the streets… and everyone’s staring at you, trying to figure out what the hell kind of camera you’re using (at least if you live in LA where everyone is a filmmaker, actor, screen writer, make-up artist, or something else in this vein).
One of the coolest factors of these cameras is that you can use them in places where you would not be allowed to shoot with any other camera (at least for now), but if you’re thinking about shooting shoot some HD, pretending you’re only taking pictures, I wouldn’t take the Z-Finder if I were you… but maybe that’s just me because I live in LaLa Land…

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If nothing else, for the novelty factor alone, you’re not going to look through the camera’s view finder for a while… not that you could, if you’re shooting video anyway, but you’ll find yourself taking stills with the Z-Finder as well… at least until the novelty factor runs out and you come to realize the limitations of video mode and go back, because you can’t manually focus that flying seagull and you need  more then 1/500 shutter speed to freeze it’s flapping wings… and then you’ll realize how pristine everything looks through the optical view finder…
I have to confess that the “cool factor” is still running many of my stills. It’s a great way to practice manual focusing, but I don’t think I want to use video mode for any ambitious photo shoots (if nothing else for the lack of auto-focus)… on the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever want to do a video shoot without the Z-Finder…

As I mentioned before, hand held shots become a feasible reality with the 3rd added contact point on your eye. You become faster as the whole process becomes more ergonomic and you can actually see what you’re capturing. Unfortunately the 5D does not allow you to use it’s focus aid functions while you’re recording and although the Z-Finder does provide the sharpest view of the LCD, it is not sufficient to be absolutely sure if you’re tack sharp. You can get pretty close, though, so if you’re aperture/depth of field savvy, you might be able to get away with some shots you couldn’t without it.

I have found that after long periods of use I feel some eye straining. I don’t blame this on the Z-Finder alone, the LCD on the back of these cameras was never intended to be used this way… it should, but it’s not… so there’s only so much Zacuto can do and I end up with similar eye straining, trying to guess if my shots are in focus on the 3” glaring screen without it…

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The rubber eye piece provides flawless light insulation, providing the best possible view of your view finder under direct sun light, but fogging can become an issue. I’m definitely going to give those anti-fog wipes Zacuto offers a try!
I’ve also seen some pictures of different materials eye piece covers and I wonder if any of them could help to partially prevent fogging, not to mention the added comfort… hmmm… maybe I should look into one of those myself.

Carrying your camera around with the Z-Finder mounted, can also become challenging. The camera straps were designed to let the camera fall with the back against you… well, that won’t help now… but then again, I’ve never found a comfortable way of carrying my video cameras around… wonder if someone is going to come up with a smart way of working around this?!

Final thoughts:
I find the Z-Finder and absolute must if you want to produce professional results at a professional pace with a an HD DSLR!
Yes, it is possible to use these cameras without it and still get good results, but you’ll be a lot slower and many times you will be out of focus without even knowing… only you will know if you can justify the $400 in your budget, but if you’re serious about making the 5D or 7D your job’s main tool, I would look at the Z-Finder as part of the price…

I hope you enjoyed the article and as usual your feedback is of utmost importance for me to keep improving this blog… so please leave some…

Coming soon, an article about my first real world experience shooting a short narrative comedy with the 5D. Have any pertinent questions? Please let me know and I’ll do my best to address them. Stay tuned!

T ; )~

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2 Responses to “Z-Finder; the missing view…”

  1. Brianna Pleis says:

    First-rate writing. You have gained a brand-new regular reader. Please keep up the good writings and I look forward to more of your intriguing writings.

  2. radraven says:

    Thank you for the kind words! So happy to know you like it! ; )~

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