Focusing in bright sunlight has always been a challenge. When you're shooting a ceremony or event where you only have one shot to nail your focus and exposure, it's very important to be able to see your LCD clearly. With the introduction of HD-DSLRs, this problem has become even more apparent as the glossy screen is highly reflective and does not do well when sunlight is directly shining on it.
There are many ways to solve this issue, from using your hand to block the sun to even employing a towel as a shroud. But let's face it, putting a towel over your head during a high-end event isn't very chic. Enter the loupe/LCD hood market. In this article, I'm going to talk about two manufacturers, one that got out of the gate first with a product that's become the standard for LCD viewfinders, and another key provider of DSLR accessories and support products that introduced its entry to the LCD hood market a few short months ago. I'll also be talking about the lightweight rigs from these manufacturers that give you more versatility when you're shooting with these LCD viewfinders. The hoods/viewfinders in question are the Zacuto Z-Finder, the current leader in the DSLR hood market, and Cinevate, Inc.'s new contender, the Cyclops. The rigs are the Zacuto Striker and the Cinevate Proteus Simplis Pro.
When comparing these products, this review is going to consider a few key factors:
Let's get started.
First and foremost, if a tool doesn't feel comfortable in my hands or is too much of a hassle to deploy, I tend not to use it as often. The Zacuto Z-Finder (below) is one of those products that is both very comfortable to use and easy to mount and dismount. Mounting and dismounting it is as simple as popping the Z-Finder on and off the frame attached to the camera. It has a rubber eyepiece that surrounds the LCD hood and doesn't cause any discomfort while in use for short periods of time. However, over time on lengthy shoots, I've found that putting my eye up to the Z-Finder does give me a bit of neck strain. When I used to shoot with normal camcorders, I rarely used the viewfinder and always used the LCD. So if you're a viewfinder-oriented shooter, feel free to take this as a personal preference rather than a knock on the design.
The Cinevate Cyclops (below) is a marvel of an LCD hood, but the downside is that it is quite large. Compared to the Z-Finder, the Cyclops takes a few more seconds to get on and off of the camera as you have to loosen the kip screws and then tighten them back up, while adjusting the angle at which the Cyclops sits on the LCD. While this isn't a total deal breaker, shooters who are space-conscious in their gear bags may find this to be a cause for concern. The Cyclops has two great saving graces: One is that you do not have to put your eye directly to the Cyclops to shoot with it as you do with the Z-Finder.
The Cyclops' other saving grace is a large plastic shroud that allows you to use both eyes to see the LCD screen. I've found that when I do have to push my eyes up against the plastic portion, it wasn't overly uncomfortable. But since it's made of hard plastic that has been smoothed out, it will cause discomfort over time. This isn't too much of a big deal as you don't have to be right up against the Cyclops in order to accurately judge focus. You can actually stand a few feet away from the LCD hood. This is due to the amazing clarity provided by the Cinevate achromat, which was used in the company's Brevis 35mm adapters and adapted for use in the Cyclops.
The sharpness achieved with the achromat puts the Cyclops at the top of the LCD hood market in terms of image quality. It's a noticeable difference between the Cyclops and the Z-Finder. The Z-Finder's glass is also high-quality, which means you can still judge the focus well, but if you look through the Z-Finder and then through the Cyclops, you can tell the difference immediately. I find that the Z-Finder almost looks as though you are looking at the pixels of the screen rather than the overall image. With the Cyclops, I've found that I'm able to discern the details more as they appear sharper. This is a significant enough advantage for the Cyclops that it's a worthwhile trade-off for the size disadvantage.
When I was on location during a corporate shoot, my producer was able to review the footage quite easily using the Cyclops in bright sunlight without my having to hand him the camera. This makes it attractive to use on set and productions as more people can view the image during review. It's more of a hassle to shoot with the Cyclops attached at all times, so I limit its use to lockdown tripods or corporate shoots where I don't have to run around as much. I still prefer the bare LCD during run-and-gun shooting; it leaves me free to stand away from the camera without having to press my eye against it as I have to do with the Z-Finder attached. Likewise, I'm more agile when I only work with the LCD than when I have the large Cyclops attached. I've shot events using both, and I've found that the size of the Cyclops and the IQ from the Z-Finder cause me to just run a bare LCD when I'm on-the-move.
On to the rigs. The Zacuto Striker is made up of a series of grip rods, dog-bone collars, a handgrip, and a shoulder stock. From my testing and overall use, I can say that the Zacuto components are very well made, and the locking mechanism can withstand a high amount of torque at the same time. My only dislike is the color scheme. But that is just my opinion; I've read that others have been fond of it.
The Cinevate Proteus Simplis Pro rig, which I will shorten to just Simplis Pro for the remainder of the review, consists of the Proteus Simplis base plate, four ball-joint adjusters, two grip handles, and a shoulder stock. Its base component is the Proteus Simplis plate, which has a quick release built in for the Manfrotto 501-style plates. It has a number of holes in which Cinevate incorporated its unique system of urethane balls, which then attach to its various accessories. This does allow for more angles and greater adjustability, but, at the same time, it does add to the overall busyness of the product.
If you don't have the kip handles tightened well, you will experience some slippage if your rig is heavy. I've found myself frustrated sometimes trying to adjust the different handgrips and shoulder stock while the ball joints rotated independently, which causes me to have to set the rig down to properly adjust. It uses kip handles as opposed to the Zacuto Striker's knobs, which are more convenient because you can rotate them out of the way without affecting the grip of the dog bone. They are a bit long, which causes them to hit or rub up against other parts of the rig as opposed to Zacuto's shorter knobs.
All of the parts are anodized or coated black, which gives the product a very professional look and feel. Touching back on the comfort level of using both the products, I find the Zacuto Striker rig easier to handle as it has fewer components. The Simplis Pro is much more robust in its design, and, as a result, it is slightly heavier. The gorilla plate, the base of the Zacuto rig, is much thinner and simpler than the Proteus Simplis plate. Therefore it is lighter, but it doesn't offer as many different mounting options.
The Proteus Simplis has one hazard that is important to remember: It does not have the locking mechanism that is a standard component of the Manfrotto tripod heads. If you don't make sure that the quick-release plate is properly tightened down, you risk the camera sliding off the plate and causing damage. This is the trade-off for being able to quickly remove and mount the camera to the Proteus Simplis. The gorilla plate from Zacuto is attached to the camera via a screw, so no such risk exists with the Striker.
The Zacuto setup is lighter and more conducive to travel. The Cinevate setup has quite a few more pieces to it, coupled with the large size of the Cyclops. This surely doesn't make it the most portable rig, but I usually only pack the Proteus Simplis plate and Cyclops to use during the ceremony for outdoor weddings. I usually shoot monopod for the majority of the day and leave the handheld rig components behind. I prefer the look of footage shot with a monopod to the handheld look of the shoulder- or gunstock-style rigs. But when circumstances call for the handheld-rig look, these setups are more compact and better suited for documentary-style filming situations.
As with any product comparison, there are a few trade-offs that make it difficult to recommend one unequivocally over the other. The Zacuto Z-Finder + Striker is a very light, simple system and a great value. But when overall image quality and exact focus are primary concerns, my choice for an LCD hood/viewfinder is the Cinevate Cyclops, which provides a much sharper reference image.
Randy Panado (randy at colourcraftmedia .com), in his short career in wedding filmmaking, has worked with and shot alongside the greatest studios in the world. Not only running his own company, Hawaii-based Colour Craft Media, but also being a highly sought second shooter, he has traveled the world filming for some of the coolest couples at breathtaking locations.