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Albada Viewfinders

The classic Zeiss-Ikon Super Ikonta cameras were produced with two types of viewfinders. Some cameras were fitted with viewfinders with clear lenses and other examples featured an Albada viewfinder designed by the Dutch inventor L.E.W. van Albada in the 1930’s. An Albada viewfinder is a viewfinder that has a special mirrored lens that creates the illusion of projected viewfinder frame lines when you look through the eye piece. It does this by reflecting white rectangular lines that are printed on a transparent bit of “plastic” near the eye piece. (Actually it’s celluloid but you’d be surprised how many people don’t know what that is any more…) The mirror reflects the frame lines so that they are in focus when looking through the finder at an object. This creates the illusion of a white frame line floating magically around your subject.

The projected lines in the Albada finder were intended to help a photographer to become more aware of the edges of the image and work as an aid to create better composition. (The 6x9 Super Ikonta C also had two extra frame lines which also indicated a 6x4.5 since it was a dual format camera.)
There are pro’s and cons for both types of viewfinders and which you prefer is a matter of choice. Generally speaking, early cameras have a clear optical finder and later examples have an Albada finder. The clear optical finders will always give you the brightest and clearest image and is by far the easiest to work with in low light. The Albada finder on the other hand gives you frame lines to work with but does this at the expense of brightness. Even when they were new, the image seen through an Albada finder is somewhat darker than real life because contrast is required so that the frame lines are visible.

When you buy a classic Super Ikonta and prefer an Albada viewfinder, it’s a given that the view will be less than perfect. The reason for this is age related. Many of them are 50 to 60 years old and as the years rolled by most, if not all, of the mirrors have aged and faded to some extent. Most serious collectors and users don’t even give this a second thought and accept it as a given. However these less than perfect finders can come as a surprise if you haven’t had experience with them. Some people love the Albada viewfinder and its frame lines, other people prefer the clarity of the optical finders. Basically it’s a personal and subjective choice.

It may sound strange but I find that it helps if you understand the philosophy behind the general design of viewfinders on camera originally designed in the 30’s and 40’s. Photographers in those days were much more practiced in visualizing the photo they wanted to take. Prior to actually taking a photo they’d generally have a very good pre-visualized idea of the composition, the light and the angle of the shot. The viewfinder was really just a formality and it was used briefly just to frame the outlines of the composition that they had in mind.

It wasn’t really until the advent of the modern 35mm SLR in the ‘60’s and 70’s that this practice changed radically. Sure, pre-visualization was still important but more and more photographers began to depend very heavily on “playing” with the image they saw in the finder of their SLR’s. This “playing” was due in part to the many zoom lenses and focal lengths that previously had been unavailable. So instead of a photographer working with just a couple of lenses (which are much easier to pre-visualize) the 35mm SLR and accompanying lenses made photographers more dependent on looking at the world through a viewfinder. It radically changed the way photographer worked and how they’re perceived by themselves and others. So much so that now-a-days if you imagine a pro photographer at work, then you inevitably have an image of a person with a camera glued to his face, actively manipulating his lens and moving up, down and side to side in an attempt to find the “perfect” composition.

Classic viewfinders weren’t intended or designed to be used in this way. With a classic finder you move through the world with both eyes open… Personally I find that more relaxing and I feel more in touch with my surrounding but I do understand why some users complain about “squinty finders” on screw mount Leicas. The same can be applied to Albada finders. If you understand how they were intended to be used, then it’s easier to decide if it’s something that suits you.

Albada Modification

Age affects both the silver mirror coating of the lens and the transparent celluloid portion of the eyepiece (with the white frame lines printed on it) which can yellow. Replacing this celluloid part with thin modern plastic helps considerably but it will require re-creating the frame lines with thin tape or painted lines.

Alternatively you can remove the celluloid part completely and apply lines directly to the rear eyepiece lens (which is completely flat on one side). If you leave out the celluloid, you will need to create a spacer that has the same thickness as the original celluloid part so that everything fits together snuggly as intended. Any of these options are fairly straight forward for a do-it-yourselfer but if you’re all thumbs you might want to get some assistance from a friend.

On cameras we’ve serviced, we’ve always left the original finder intact in the interests of authenticity. However since this thin, flat, celluloid part is only held in place against the eyepiece lens by two small screws, it’s easy to modify the finder and undo the mod later if and when desired.

Generally it’s accepted that there’s not much you can do about the mirror itself, which also serves as the front viewfinder lens. However this is not entirely true. This mirrored lens is actually a cemented doublet with thin silvering in the center. We’ve found it’s possible to carefully remove this lens from the camera, heat it in an oven and then separate the two lens elements. Once apart it’s simply a matter of polishing off the silver coating and reassembling the lenses into the finder. What you end up with is a clean, clear, optical finder without frame lines. (We used to charge $50.00 for this service but now offer this service as an option free of charge when you purchase a freshly serviced Super Ikonta with an Albada finder from us.

There is a couple of final modifications you can also consider if you find you really dislike the Albada finder. Some collectors will find it sacrilegious to modify a classic Zeiss-Ikon camera however if you’re more pragmatic or you’re an artist and consider your camera a tool then you can permit yourself a bit more freedom.

What it boils down to is replacing the finder on a 6x9 Super Ikonta in its entirety. (Fortunately for the purists in and among us this is reversible since the finders are simply mounted with screws.) There are actually three options.

  1. Mount a clear optical finder from another Super Ikonta C. A beat up parts camera is ideal for this. The early versions of the Super Ikonta C, as well as later versions with a cheaper Novar lens often have clear optical finders.)
  2. Mount a clear optical finder from a Mockba, the Soviet Super Ikonta clone built under “license”. A beat up example is cheap and easy to find. However the finders have a slightly duller chrome finish and the soviet leather is plain ugly. If you’re sensitive, or simply enjoy fiddling with things, paint it black or replace the original leather with something decent. Only an expert collector will notice the difference… but your friends won’t.
  3. Mount an accessory shoe somewhere on the Super Ikonta and then slide in a separate finder. You’ll find that a Leitz 50mm bright-line finder (originally intended for a screw mount Leica) will work very well since it has a very similar point of view and aspect ratio. It’s a great finder and it works well on many classic 35mm and 6x9 format cameras.