Recently I started to self-learn photography the hard way, that is, by using film cameras. I wonder if there are some tools that may help me visualize a photography without using film up.

In his textbook, Ansel Adams suggests to use the paper with rectangular hole with film proportions and to examine the scene by looking through it.

I wonder if you have any experience or advices concerning this issue, especially if there are more sophisticated equipment for this problem. Sometimes I see photos of directors, for instance here http://kinomuzeum.pl/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/plakat-1024x781.jpg with some kind of separate lens and naturally I suppose that its purpose is to do exactly what I outlined above. Please, confirm or deny my hypothesis.

  • If using an SLR, TLR, or view camera - it's pretty much WYSIWYG. If using a rangefinder, you'll run into issues with some focal lengths without an accessory viewfinder to sort it out...but that's almost a fringe case now-a-days. So, why not use the camera itself to help you visualize the scene? It's got the added bonus of not needing to recompose when you like the scene - simply hit the button :-)
    – OnBreak.
    May 10, 2018 at 19:38
  • You are of course right, I forgot to mention that using camera's viewfinder is not ideal in my case, because I am using glasses (and my camera has manual focus). I was looking for easier way to train yourself, test composition ideas without even taking camera out of the bag. But I understand, that ultimately you have to start making photos and there is no shortcut to it. Thanks anyway 😊 May 10, 2018 at 21:31
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    Ah, that makes more sense now. (I was so confused!) I know that my F-1 has replaceable diopters and my Pentax 645N has a diopter adjustment knob. Your best bet, outside of what @AlanMarcus has suggested, would be to get a camera with adjustable diopter so that you can view through the camera without your glasses. I'm still a few years away from needing full time glasses - so the diopters actually help me see quite a bit!
    – OnBreak.
    May 10, 2018 at 21:42
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    If you find the limitations of film are causing problems, why not start with a phone, a tablet or a DSLR and go back to film at a later date?
    – dav1dsm1th
    May 10, 2018 at 22:19
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    @Corey, those diopter adjustments don't go far enough for everyone, and don't handle astigmatism. May 10, 2018 at 23:45

2 Answers 2


This device is a director’s viewfinder. You can buy one, they are used on movie sets. Directors use such a device, which is a zoom monocular with rectangular mask. Directors gaze at a scene, adjust the zoom to obtain the mood / expression that they are seeking, then pass that information to the cameraman.

The handheld viewfinder of the movie set is handy compared to using the big and heavy cine cameras. Still photographers likely have little need because their cameras are petite / light weight.

However, my advice is to go to the library and art museums and truly study the works of the great masters, be they oils on canvas or photographs. As you are going this, procure some books on composition and learn.

  • When someone shows up on set with a "director's viewfinder," we know we're working with a rank beginner. You can hear the crew's eyes rolling as if in a bowling alley.
    – Stan
    May 11, 2018 at 13:26

I wonder if there are some tools that may help me visualize a photography without using film up.

In 2018 that device is called a digital camera.

Many of us grizzled old-timers like to boast about how we started with film in the era before autofocus existed and how it forced us to learn how to be real photographers. (The ranks of those who learned in the era before auto exposure are much thinner than they were just a decade or so ago.) But the reason we did so was because it was the only way to start back then.

Now that you have a choice, though, starting with film is probably not the best way to get where you want to go.

  • The overwhelming advantage of digital is that it allows one to experiment and learn without the per-shot expense of film. Your initial cost to start is less with film, but by the time you've shot your first 1,000 frames the cost of film and developing will have overtaken the cost of an entry level DSLR. By the time you've shot your first 10,000 frames just the film and processing could have bought a nice lower end pro-level digital system.
  • There's also much to be said about the instant feedback of viewing a histogram on the back of the camera immediately following the shot. In the film era some of the best photographers in the world would use a polaroid back to test their lighting setup before loading the film and shooting.
  • Digital allows you to set the ISO and white balance of each shot individually, just as a century ago with the use of sheet negatives. Roll film, on the other hand, locks you into a specific sensitivity and color balance for an entire roll of film. The zone system is actually easier to use with digital because the camera can be set up differently for each individual shot.
  • While there is much to be said about the lessons learned from processing your own B&W film in the darkroom there are just as many lessons that can be learned from developing your raw digital files on the desktop. You can also learn a lot about exposure, contrast, white balance and color, composition, etc. by processing your photos critically with the digital equivalent of a darkroom - your computer.
  • Digital cameras record information with each frame that tells you what aperture, shutter speed, ISO, metering pattern, AF point, etc. you used. This is extremely helpful when reviewing your images to see what did and, perhaps more importantly, what did not work. In the film days a student would need to stop and write all of those things down for each shot.

If your budget is extremely limited you have other options besides a new DSLR or a used film camera. You can also find used digital cameras that are 2-3 generations older than the current models for very modest prices. You don't need an SLR or DSLR to start learning, either. A good used bridge camera or compact that has the ability to manually control shutter speed, aperture, and sensitivity (ISO) will allow you to get started learning the basics of exposure, composition, and post-processing.

  • I completely agree with you. The problem with me is that I really like the idea of shooting film, even with today' advance of digital camera. My reasoning is that medium and bigger format cameras still can give superior quality of the picture. I just really want to work it out and try myself in film photography, at least while there is still equipment available on the market. For instance, I saw exposure from large-format reversal film and I found its quality beyond anything I have seen before. For me, that is something worth trying. May 11, 2018 at 9:18
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    @MaciejWasilewski, I don't think Michael is saying that you shouldn't shoot film. If you take a digital camera as well as your film camera, you can take digital shots to check the composition before taking the film shot. May 11, 2018 at 10:01
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    You can learn much faster and cheaper with digital and then apply what you learn to film. Light is light, regardless of the medium used to capture it.
    – Michael C
    May 11, 2018 at 12:41
  • Thank you gentlemen, I see the whole process in different light now. May 11, 2018 at 15:59

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