A Demo of Split Screen and Microprism Ring Focusing in Old SLRs

If you’ve never shot with an old manual focus film SLR, you’ve probably never experienced the joys (and pains) of focusing with a split screen and microprism ring. YouTube user ttcalan created this short video that demonstrates how the system looks and works. He writes,

Just a demonstration of how manual focus works on a Minolta X-700. It’s shot through the viewfinder and shows how the split prism and microprism ring help the photographer focus. I also show how stopping down the lens causes the split prism to go dark.


Here’s what Wikipedia says about the system:

The most common type of focusing screen in non-autofocus 35 mm SLR cameras is the split screen and microprism ring variation that aids focusing and became standard in the 1980s. The microprism ring blurs the image unless the lens setting is in focus, the split screen shows part of the image split in two pieces. When both pieces are aligned the setting is in focus. The drawback is that the prisms have considerable light loss, making low-light focusing almost impossible.

When autofocus crashed the photography party, these focusing screens were replaced with simple screens and AF points.

(via YouTube via Reddit)

  • Cochese

    I seriously miss the split-ring/ microprism focusing of older cameras. I really wish my camera had such a thing in it. :/

  • Nate Matos

    You can buy cheap ones on eBay for just about any dSLR that allows focusing screen changes.

  • Daire

    Using the splitscreen to focus in low level light is never really a problem with anything f/2.8 or faster. Trying to focus with anything slower than about f/4.5 though is difficult even in good light, careful head wiggling is a must. It’s no coincidence that slow zooms really started to get popular round about the time that AF kicked off in a big way.

    On my spotmatics there’s no splitscreen, just the microprisms. They’re great in bright light and fast lenses, things ‘snap’ into focus really visibly. Anything less than ideal conditions though and you end focusing back and forth and back and forth trying to nail the point where it looks best.

  • jason

    you can get prisms for some newer dslrs I’ve heard. I haven’t had the guts to do it yet.

  • Dave Polak

    You can buy replacement focusing screens for most DLSRs. I replaced the stock one in my Pentax with a split prism one and it works great. Over half of my lenses are manual focus so it is a true lifesaver.

  • Gregg Le Blanc

    I bought a architecture + Split Screen focusing screen for my Canon 50D that was custom made so I could use manual focus lenses on it. They made it a diagonal split, which was cool! The light loss, luckily, was compensated by the body settings (they manufactured it so it would use the same light settings as the Eg-D focus screen).

    The 5D mk II can use replacement screens with no surgery, but the mk III has a new design, so it isn’t intended to use replacement focusing screens. But even Rebels can get replacements!

  • Burnin Biomass

    I have a screen for my F3 that is all microprism. Its a weird thing to use, so I didn’t put it on very often. It did do ok in low light situations.

    Mostly I used the grid screen with no microprisms or split screen, so I really didn’t miss them when I went digital.

  • ennuipoet

    Yes, youngin’s back in those days we had an onion on our belt, because that was the style and we had to focus on things ourselves! And we had to understand things like reciprocity failure, uphill with the in dark, snowing, both ways!

  • brandon

    holy cow, i must be older than i realize!

  • Philip Han

    I just turned 21, I’ve dealt with reciprocity failure on over half a dozen rolls of Tri-X until I finally figured it out. Now I shoot with Fuji Acros if I do anything that requires long exposures at night.

    I’m currently saving up to get a proper Split Screen Focusing Screen for my 7D, I used a cheap Fotodiox one which I sent back because it wasn’t aligned and didn’t focus properly past 2 meters. I always manual focus with a tripod or if I can brace myself, I still don’t trust AF most of the time.

    Do I win a good-example award in day and age of run-and-gun AF noobs? Hahaha

  • Philip Han

    Do not buy cheap ones, I used a Fotodiox screen and it was off-center and didn’t focus properly past 2 meters.

    Get a custom one from places like! I still need to save up a bit more before I buy one, but from what I’ve heard and seen they’re amazing.

  • Ken

    Alright, this ain’t helping. I’m already having a mid-life crisis with the person who stares back at me from the bathroom mirror. Now, some dude is throwing a focusing system out there that I used back when I first started in the hobby as some sort of lost archaic and arcane magic dug out of the relics of a long dead era.


    Of course, I also know what “dailing” a number means. Oh, and “rolling” down a window. Have you tried twirling your finger at someone in a car to get them to “roll down” their window? So many young people are clueless. Heck, “having one’s tit in a wringer” isn’t TOO much before my time.

    Man, do I feel old right now.

  • Paul

    Is this the same as the focusing system on the Leica M9?

  • MJJ

    Same thoughts here ;-) Used to fiddle around with the old Asahi Pentax of my father

  • W van de Kletersteeg

    Great way of manual focusing. Unless you want the focus to NOT be in the center of the frame. Then there is no way of checking focus 100%…

  • CGP

    So just focus on what you want then recompose before hitting the shutter.
    I still do it using a DSLR; I think it’s more accurate to focus and recompose than let the camera focus on what it thinks I want in focus.

  • CGP

    No, rangefinders like the Leica use an image from two sources, neither of them the main lens, which are overlaid. As you turn the focus ring the two images sync up when you’re in focus. I’m sure there’ll be a youtube video showing this.

  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    I am a young photographer but I’ve used and am still using film cameras with split screen and microprism. And I can’t understand for all my life why I pay over thousands and thousands of dollars on a professional fullframe camera – and it is painfully awful at manual focus just because they won’t bother putting in a split screen or microprism in that fancy viewfinder. I used to have a cheap one when I owned a 7D, and the red focus points still worked and everything, so that’s not the issue.

  • Rabi Abonour

    I love the focusing system in my X-700. If you’ve never shot a film SLR, you can’t quite understand what a fool’s errand it is to try to focus manually on a DSLR.

  • NancyP

    I liked these screens back in the day – but my slowest lens was f/3.5, and the camera had the new feature of auto-stopdown (connected to metering). Now 50% of my shots are with a 400mm f/5.6 lens and any screen tuned to fast lenses is likely to be a PITA. Focusing with manual focus f/1.2 and f/1.4 lenses has also proven to be a PITA.

  • Jonathan Welch

    You are wrong about everything you said. New SLRs use an infra red beam to measure the distance to a focal area, and the reason you can focus a new SLR with the F-stop iris closed is because it does not actually close until you make the shot, so you cannot judge focus with the view finder in a new SLR because it will not be what you see. This defeats the whole point of the SLR. What you see, is no longer what you get.