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No matter the print quality, if a picture is poorly seen, it will insult intelligent viewers. If it’s beautifully seen they may weep.


How many times have you looked at a proof and saw that something was cut out of a corner, or that something wasn’t centered properly, or that you didn’t see a distracting element that ruined the picture? It’s common.


See well and you’ll make good photographs. To see well you need to know exactly what you’re looking at. Over and over and ultimately, the success of any photograph always depends on your seeing: fail at that and nothing will help you later. So you’d better see the picture properly. Format viewers help you do that. (And don’t ever get a darkroom swami tell you that hours spent printing will fix anything, especially poor seeing. Atget’s prints are often pretty lousy and it doesn’t matter a bit.)


I began photographing in the 1970's. I used a Zone VI viewing filter. It helped me see the image in 2 dimensions. Soon I found it superfluous - for 2 reasons: (1) after getting used to response characteristics of B&W film, I didn't need the filter any longer; and (2) in dim light, the filter made the frame too dark to see through. I stopped using it.


Photographing at dusk with a 5x7 camera one time, I realized that I couldn’t make out the entire image on the groundglass. It was getting dark, and I was using a 300mm f9 Goertz lens - slow! I had to repeatedly stick my head out from the focusing cloth to check – without really knowing - what elements were in the picture – I found it maddening.


I cut some proportional rectangles out of black cardboard, so I could pre-view the picture with the format shape. They worked, but wore out pretty quickly. Then students wanted them too. I made some out of black plastic - highly satisfactory. They were so useful I made viewers for the all the formats I use.


Format Viewers have a few advantages over the old Zone VI viewing filters. For one, they’re simpler – no glass, no #90 gel filter; and critically, you can use them in dark conditions. If there’s enough light to see, you can use them.


Three points about these Format Viewers:


  • First, the ultimate problem for photographers is Seeing - where to stand, what to include and what to leave out. The format viewer is a quickie short cut. Before you move the camera into position, you see the picture. Especially with an 8x10 camera, this saves time;


  • Second, many opportunities for interesting work occur early or late in the day. At those times, the groundglass image is dim – it’s worse with a slow lens. You need help seeing what the picture is;
  • Third, 2 dimensional interpretation quickly becomes second nature with a format viewer. You’ll more easily judge adjacent elements. If 2 black trees become an indistinct lump, the viewer helps you sort it out. So you take 2 steps left or right, move up or back, etc - or find another subject.


Very often I’ll be focusing and ask myself, “what’s the picture here?” So I come out from under the focusing cloth, and look through the Format Viewer: More sky? Less? Include that log on the right there? When I go back under to finish framing the image, I quickly get to what the picture needs. Often what I initially thought - and what I finally end up including in the picture - are very different. Sometimes the image through the Format Viewer is exciting, but on the groundglass it’s not. I always take the picture anyway. Looking at the proof later very often shows that, yes, I did see it properly through the viewer.


I utilize these for all the formats I work with. In bad weather, I’ll leave the camera and tripod on the trail and walk a ways down to easily check for other potential pictures. I also use them to just scout an area before unpacking the car.


Format Viewers are made of Sintra, a “closed cell” polyvinyl material that’s lightweight, yet durable; scratch and chemical resistant. Each viewer measures 3” x 4” overall (8cm x 10.2 cm); and come in formats for 4x5, 8x10, and 6x7; 2-1/4 square (6x6), and 5x7 and 35mm. A neck cord is included. Specify format when ordering.


DFV . . . . . . $17.





Format Viewers

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