One of the cool things about the
Sigma Enigma DP1 is that when you add the optional optical viewfinder and lens hood, it looks a bit like an old 35mm rangefinder camera. And I think it will behave sort of like one too.
A true rangefinder uses optics and a beam splitter to let you accurately (and manually) focus the lens while looking through the viewfinder (but not the lens itself). This is different from SLR cameras, as they use a mirror and a prism to allow you to see directly through the camera’s lens in order to compose and focus. The main advantages of a rangefinder setup is that it is significantly smaller and quieter, making for more compact camera designs. On the other hand, the rangefinder focusing takes some getting used to. (Both types are explained rather nicely here.)
It’s that small and compact design that makes some people refer to small digital cameras with optical viewfinders as “rangefinder” cameras. However, this is incorrect, as those cameras invariably use autofocus, not rangefinder focus, so I will try to avoid using the term.
With regard to the DP1, I’m looking forward to its “rangefinder-like” design because I miss using an optical viewfinder. You can be much more discreet when taking photos if you can just slip the camera up to your eye and click the shutter, as opposed to holding it a foot or two in front of your face with two hands and composing in the LCD. This is particularly so in low light situations, where the light from the screen makes you really stand out.
But there is a drawback to this kind of removable optical viewfinder (in the case of the DP1, it slips onto the hotshoe); they generally provide no feedback about camera functions and settings, such as ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop. You could argue that those old Leicas didn’t provide that kind of information and it didn’t stop Henri Cartier-Bresson from bagging a few good shots. But HCB could just look at the camera in his hand and see right away what the settings were – because they were done manually, using dials. (And ISO was a function of the film in the camera, not an arbitrary shot-by-shot setting like it is with digital.)
Regardless, I’m really looking forward to the viewfinder; I’m tired of standing there like an idiot with the camera held at arm’s length while I compose in the LCD screen.
Speaking of the LCD screen, this whole fake rangefinder thing is only good if you can turn off the LCD. After all, there’ll be no stealthy shooting if you can’t cut off the glowing screen – which will be particularly irksome when the camera is at eye-level. I’m hoping Sigma has the foresight to add a “screen off” button for exactly that purpose. Ideally it would be a one-click, dedicated switch.