The Universal Viewfinder

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Imagine you're a Leica photographer in the middle of the 1930's, and you just bought one of those presentation suitcases filled with Leica lenses. You take to the street with your new set, but what do you notice? That working with your purportedly street smart camera is cumbersome. To change film, you need to undo the whole camera, you need to keep the baseplate somewhere, you need to fiddle with the film really smoothly and diplomatically, and you need to do the thing with the take up spool. Then you need to close the camera back up again, stick it back in its ever ready case, et cetera. To focus, you need to use a small rangefinder window that doesn't work for framing. To change a lens, you have to unscrew the one on the camera, reach in the suitcase, open a new one, screw it in, and swap the viewfinders. When Leica heard of all this, they thought, OMFG, we can't let those people swap viewfinders! Imagine our camera gets dissed on account of its handling! Let's invent Universal Viewfinders! And thus proceeded.

Okay, maybe not. But fact is that photographers had other worries than changing viewfinders whenever they changed lenses, especially when all viewfinders looked alike.


For about as long as photography exists, what photographers have wanted is a way to know up front what their pictures are going to look like. It saves a lot of hassle and frustration if you can be sure of the results while you're taking pictures, instead of when you get them back from the lab.

Although reflex cameras have been around since before the turn of the twentieth century, it wasn't until the 1960's that they became commonplace. And even they didn't attain the ideal, because even though you could see what the lens saw, you never saw the exact image you were capturing on film, and ofcourse you never saw what the print was going to look like (underexposed, say). Only with digital cameras do you get an instant replay.

Anyway, boring introduction aside, the viewfinder problem was one of the many things bugging the early Leica photographers. One was placing film. Another was changing lenses. A third was winding film. And there you have the viewfinder problem. If you had five lenses, you needed to haul along five viewfinders. Carrying five lenses is one thing, but carrying five small and almost identical viewfinders, and then exchanging them each time you changed a lens, was a bit too much for the average fast working press photographer.

To overcome the problem, Zeiss Ikon and Leica independently (?) came up with the concept of universal viewfinders. The idea being, that you mounted one semi-permanent viewfinder to suit multiple lenses. That way, after you've changed a lens, you just adjust the viewfinder to the correct posiution and you're done. No more hassle.

The Leica viewfinder, the VIOOH, worked on the "static lens, interchangeable cadre" principle, while the Zeiss Ikon Universal Viewfinder for the Contax worked on the "interchangeable lens, static cadre" principle. The VIOOH's advantage was that it was cheaper for Leica to manufacture, the Zeiss Ikon's that it was much more useful. The 135mm setting isn't a minute stamp, but a full-frame enlargement.

The next step was to build Universal Viewfinders into cameras, and to couple them with lenses. Leica did that in its M series, for example, and GOMZ in its Leningrad.

After World War II, the Soviets hauled a lot of Zeiss Ikon equipment back to the homeland. The story of how and when is a bit complicated, but it ends up with Arsenal getting the mother load of Zeiss tooling. Arsenal then starts building Contax clones named Kiev, in collaboration with KMZ, that starts reproducing Zeiss optics for the Kiev. But that's not the only thing KMZ copies. They also copy the Zeiss Ikon Universal Viewfinder. First for the Kiev-Contax, but pretty soon for their own Zorki rangefinder series. For the Kiev they made a straight copy, but for the Zorki they mirrored it so that it didn't obstruct access to the speed dial. KMZ started manufacturing them in 1948, and probably stopped somewhere around 1980, when the Zorki-4K went out of production. History doesn't say.

Without the Universal Viewfinder, Zorki photographers were limited, as Leica photographers in the interbellum, to the camera's standard 50mm viewfinder. That was a pain to use because it didn't have framelines of any kind. Though you could reasonably use tele focals by guessing their angle of view, problems started when you mounted a wideangle. FED marketed a 28mm slide-on frame, but it wasn't ideal.

The solution was the Universal Viewfinder. With its five physically different focals (in contrast to the "virtual" focals in the Leica-M and the VIOOH) and large field of view, it gave photographers a very clear and very pleasing view of what was going to appear in the final picture. No more guessing. Certainty! (um, almost.)

In that sense the Universal Viewfinder was a godsend. It not only showed physically different focals in a large clear frame, but also the surroundings of the frame, so that you could easily anticipate on coming events.

The Universal Viewfinder has a very simple parallax correction system. On the side of the viewfinder are two distance marks for every focal: one for infinity, and one for 1 meter. (The turret only clicks in at infinity.) Setting the lens to one meter is actually a shift operation (in the technical camera sense) because you misalign the lens with the viewfinder's optical axis to get more of the foreground in the frame. It's unelegant because you also have a slight rotation (though that might compensate for the parallax), but it works.

Starting with the big one, these are the five focals (and lenses) in clockwise direction:

Ronald Spillman on the universal viewfinder in his 1971 book:

Universal viewfinder

This clips into the accessory show and gives the correct field framing for each of the lenses in the range. Five focal lengths from 28mm to 135mm are covered. The turret-head type viewfinder operates on the telescope principle. One rotates the head, bringing a new viewfinder lens into place for each desired focal length. The frame size remains the same, but the image is magnified accordingly. Needless to say, the image is far easier to relate to the effect the camera lens will have on the film. Provision is made for parallax compensation at closer distances.

These specifications are taken from the manual:

Universal viewfinder specifications
Lens focal length, cmField of view
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