Does Having Four Right-Angle Finders Mean I'm Going in Circles?
OK, I guess four right angles would make a square, not a circle, but I really do have four right-angle viewfinder attachments, having bought a different new one every couple of years based on the camera I'm shooting with and what is available in the marketplace at the time. Here's the whole sordid saga.
For those unfamiliar with these gadgets, a right-angle finder is a small device that attaches to your camera's viewfinder. It contains a prism or mirror to reflect what the camera sees ninety degrees and an eyepiece on the end so you can look into it rather than directly into the camera. They work somewhat along the lines of a periscope, allowing you to see around corners to view what otherwise would be impossible or impractical.
Right-angle finders are commonly used for macro photography where you frequently find yourself working a ground level. With camera alone, your head would need to be almost on the ground to see through the viewfinder. While I often go to extremes to get the shot I'm after, I'd rather not get mud on my face if I don't have to, and using a right-angle finder makes for a much better option. Instead of lying on the ground, I can sit comfortably cross-legged looking down into the right angle finder.
But in addition to shooting down low, a right-angle finder can also be quite useful for shooting up high. Whether you need to see over the top of an obstruction or just need a higher vantage point to gain better perspective on a scene, sometimes a particular image cries out for the tallest tripod perch you can muster. And if your camera ends up much over your eye level you won't be able to see through the viewfinder even on your tippy toes. Unless you have a right-angle finder, that is. With one, you can attach it to your camera and rotate it so that you can look up into it rather than down. While you may end up with a crick in your neck, you'll also be able to get the shot you were trying for.
You can also use a right-angle finder when shooting straight up. Attach it to your viewfinder and go out into the forest with your camera mounted on a tripod and a wide angle lens mounted on your camera. With the lens pointed straight up, you'll be able to compose the perfect shot while looking straight ahead into the camera via the right-angle finder.
I've also used a right-angle finder when positioning my camera in awkward situations such as near the edge of a cliff. If the change of viewing orientation will allow me to get what I am after, then I'm a happy guy. A right-angle finder can be rotated 360 degrees around its axis and often this is just what is needed for a given shot.
Back in the days of film, my favorite right-angle finder was the Minolta Angle Finder VN. I'm not a Minolta shooter and never have been, but they made the best right-angle finder available at the time. The optics were good and it featured a switch to toggle between a full frame view and a 2x power magnified view of the central portion of the image useful for critical focusing. It was valued so much by those in the know that Kirk Enterprises even machined a product they dubbed the FA-1 that allowed users to mount the Minolta on a Nikon body. One side of the FA-1 would mate with the Angle Finder VN and the other side had screw threads that let you screw it onto the round viewfinder used in most Nikon bodies at the time and still used on top of the line models such as the F6 and D3.
But when bought my first Nikon digital SLR, the D100 had the rectangular eyepiece style used on quite a few Nikon consumer SLR bodies at the time. While it is convenient to just slip accessories on the rectangular viewfinders rather than screwing them on the round ones, Nikon didn't offer a right-angle finder for it and instead forced users to use an extremely cheaply made plastic adapter known as a #2370 (now also known as a DK-22) to mount screw-on accessories on the slip-on rectangular viewfinder. The Nikon DR-3 right-angle finder was initially built to screw onto a smaller diameter round eyepiece format used on older film bodies such as the F3 and FM2. To mount one on the round eyepieces found on the N8008s, F4, F100 and later bodies, you had to use the Nikon DK-12 adapter. The subsequent DR-4 finder was basically a slightly updated DR-3 but did come with a DK-12 adapter since the larger diameter viewfinder was then the norm for Nikon bodies. Unfortunately, the Kirk FA-1 fit the larger diameter threads and no adapter I ever found allowed you to screw it onto the #2370 (DK-22) or allowed you to replace both FA-1 and #2370 with a single adapter that went from the Angle Finder VN to the rectangular eyepiece on the D100. As such, I was forced to get the Nikon DR-4 even though it really wasn't as good as the Minolta was. But at least it fit. I kept the Minolta in case I later upgraded to a camera with a round eyepiece since Nikon can't make up their mind which style eyepiece they want to use when designing new bodies.
That worked reasonably well for a while, but the #2370 (DK-22) adapter was made so cheaply that they often broke in the field. They only cost $3.95 apiece so I used to buy spares and carry several with me. Thankfully, when I bought the D2x I could dispense with the endless array of #2370 adapters and switch to the DK-12 adapter that came with the DR-4 since it screwed directly onto the D2x eyepiece. I still have several #2370's but hope I'm never forced to use them again.
Then Nikon finally introduced two new right-angle finder models, one to fit their current rectangular eyepiece cameras, and one for their round eyepiece models. You would think it would be around this point that Nikon would realize they could benefit their users by standardizing on one eyepiece format or the other, but instead they just introduced two right-angle models. Both featured excellent optics and added a 1x to 2x switch to magnify the view just as Minolta had had for years. I bought the DR-5 when it came out as it was the one that fit my D2x. The DR-5 works well, but it has a built-in adapter ring that does have an odd way of not coming off the camera when removing the finder if you aren't careful when mounting it. Nikon even includes a small wrench with the DR-5 designed to allow you to remove this ring if yours gets stuck. Of course I would have preferred they fix this design defect rather than just including a tool to get you unstuck if you had a problem with yours, but the problem was rare once you learned the DR-5's quirks.
And then came the release of the D3 and D300 cameras. I chose to go with the D300, in part because its lighter weight fit better with my shooting style, but unfortunately that means I'm back to shooting with a rectangular eyepiece camera. And so I bought a DR-6 which is identical to the DR-5 but attaches directly to the D300 eyepiece without need of an adapter of any kind. Nikon engineers seem to have learned their lesson from the #2370 mess since the DR-6 goes on much more easily yet more solidly than the #2370 ever did. Indeed, the DR-6 is the best right-angle finder I've owned yet. It fits well, works well, and comes back off without any quirks. No adapters, no problems. Finally.
If I later decide to get a D3 though, I'll be back in the world of round viewfinders instead of rectangular ones. And there's no telling what sort of viewfinder future Nikon cameras will have, so for now I keep my collection of right-angle finders. If I get any more, maybe I can open a right-angle viewfinder museum and charge an admission fee.
By the way, using a right-angle finder hand held is not recommended unless you are fond of getting disoriented. These are for tripod use only in my opinion.
One final note: The D3 and D300 both feature Live View mode which lets you compose using the LCD display on the back of the camera without needing to look through the viewfinder at all. This works reasonably well for some situations, but doesn't seem to eliminate the need for a right-angle finder since you must still look at the camera in basically the same direction. I'll be writing more about Live View in the future once I gain more experience with it.
My collection of four right-angle finders.
Clockwise from the lower-left: Minolta Angle Finder VN with Kirk FA-1 adapter,
Nikon DR-4 with DK-12 adapter, Nikon DR-5, and Nikon DR-6.