In this article, we’ll take a look at optical versus electronic viewfinders so you can get a better understanding of the differences and strengths and weaknesses of each.
Coke versus Pepsi, Star Wars versus Star Trek, football versus futbol. The world is full of great rivalries, and photography is no exception. Aside from simple brand loyalty and lens preference, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other tools, features, and options that photographers to argue about. One of the most recent but most pronounced has to do with how you see the world in front of your lens.
Some cameras have optical viewfinders while others sport more technologically advanced versions called electronic viewfinders. Other cameras even have hybrid options that attempt to combine the best of both worlds. So which is better? Just like most rivalries, that question is impossible to answer, but it is worth exploring some of their individual strengths and weaknesses to help you know which one might be right for you.
Seeing the scene
A viewfinder is one of the most basic elements of any camera; it’s what you use to look at what you will be photographing. When you hold your camera up to your eye, whether you’re shooting DSLR or mirrorless, the tiny little hole you look through is what’s known as the viewfinder. This is what you use to compose your shots.
Some cameras forego the viewfinder altogether and just have a giant LCD screen on the back, which is how all mobile phones work. But it’s not uncommon for many cameras to include a viewfinder along with the rear screen.
It’s not just a holdover from days gone by, and even in today’s fast-paced tech-centric world, there is a myriad of reasons why many photographers prefer to compose their shots with the viewfinder instead of the rear LCD screen.
- The scene appears much larger when held up to your eye which gives you a better sense of how your picture will look.
- Holding your camera up to your face also has the rather practical benefit of making things more stabilized.
- Viewfinders in DSLR (and more mirrorless) cameras often contain a row of numbers and indicators at the bottom showing you things like your aperture, shutter speed, metering mode, shots remaining, and more.
Despite being decades-old technology, optical viewfinders still have many staunch supporters in photography today, with good reason. Their most important benefit, and the reason many photographers prefer them, is that they present an unfiltered and unaltered view of the scene in front of you as you are composing your shot.
Looking through an optical viewfinder, or OVF, is no different than looking through a window: nothing is changed in any way, shape, or form. This lets you see exactly what your shot will look like, and the view is not dependent on any type of fancy technology in order to function.
Optical viewfinders work even if your camera is turned off, in much the same way that looking through binoculars, a telescope, or even a paper towel roll does not require a battery. OVFs have no issue with accurate color rendition or screen refresh rates, and they work the same in bright light as they do in low light.
Most optical viewfinders also have indicators to show things like focus points and framing guides. When you half-press the shutter button to focus your camera, a small dot or square will show up in your camera’s OVF to let you know where the point of focus will be, and you can use a dial or knob on your camera to change this if you prefer.
Limitations of OVFs
However, not everything is sunshine and roses in the land of optical viewfinders. They do have some significant limitations that could be a factor depending on the type of photographs you take.
One of the most important is that you can’t see your image when you take a picture – a phenomenon known as viewfinder blackout. When you press the shutter button the mirror in a DSLR camera flips up and out of the way to let light pass through to the image sensor, which means the OVF goes completely dark.
This is not very noticeable when using fast shutter speeds but if you are shooting at about 1/30th of second or slower you will see a big blank box of nothing for a brief moment whenever you take a picture. In most situations, this blackout period is not going to make or break the photograph but it can cause issues if you are shooting fast-moving subjects. In those cases, the short amount of time that the OVF is blank is enough for the object you are photographing to move around quite a bit and it can take some practice to get used to this type of shooting.
Another disadvantage of optical viewfinders is that they show you the world around you as it really is, not as it will appear in your digital photograph. The OVF sees what your eyes see, which is not necessarily the same as what your camera’s image sensor sees.
Unless you have a solid grasp on metering modes and how they affect your exposure, you might end up with pictures that are too bright or too dark, especially if there is a great deal of light and shadow in the scene itself. Looking through the OVF you might think your pictures are going to be just fine only to realize later that they are under or overexposed. Unless you shoot in RAW there might not be much you can do about it.
A few years ago, this discussion about optical versus electronic viewfinders would have been more of an academic exercise without a whole lot of practical value because EVFs simply couldn’t compete with their analog counterparts in practical terms. Their list of downsides was as long as a 70-200mm lens, and aside from a few key benefits, there wasn’t much reason to use an EVF compared to an OVF.
However as time marches on and technology gets better and better, electronic viewfinders have now just about reached parity with optical viewfinders. They are not just a viable option, but in some cases are a superior one for some photographers.
The most obvious difference with electronic viewfinders is that just like looking at the LCD screen on the back of your camera, you see a digital representation of the world in front of your camera instead of the actual world that your eye sees. An EVF is a tiny high-resolution screen that you hold less than an inch from your eye. Because it is entirely digital, it can show you a wealth of information and data that you simply can’t get with an optical viewfinder.
Benefits and bonuses of EVFs
While optical viewfinders have static overlays with framing guides and focus points splayed across your field of view, electronic viewfinders can show all kinds of information that is highly useful when taking photographs. You can see things like a live histogram and digital level along with the usual collection of exposure and metering information. But the ace up the sleeve of any OVF is its ability to show you exactly what your photograph will look like, not what the world in front of the lens looks like.
Electronic viewfinders will let you see instantly, in real-time, whether your shot is exposed correctly. This allows you to quickly made adjustments not based on a light meter (though you certainly can) but on the final image and how you want it to appear.
Things OVF can’t provide
If you’re shooting in a black and white mode, then that’s precisely what you will see as you look through the EVF to compose your image. You will also see the depth of field reflected exactly as the final image will appear, and you can watch it change in real-time as you adjust your focus point or aperture.
To put it simply, EVFs remove much of the guesswork inherent in OVFs. In many cases, this makes the act of taking pictures much easier, especially for new photographers.
Due to their electronic nature, EVFs gives you options that an OVF is simply incapable of doing. Many cameras with EVFs allow you to check focus by enlarging a portion of your image so it fills the screen, and you can often get visual aids like focus peaking in the EVF as well. You can use an EVF to go through menus, review pictures, and even record and review movie footage you have captured with your camera–all things that are impossible with an OVF.
Drawbacks of EVFs
There are, as you might expect, some important downsides to EVFs not the least of which is power consumption. Optical viewfinders work without any batteries at all, whereas electronic viewfinders require constant power to operate. It’s not uncommon for cameras that rely on electronic viewfinders to have much shorter battery lives than their optical counterparts, and many photographers who use these cameras are in the habit of carrying spare batteries for a day of shooting.
Electronic viewfinders also suffer from screen refresh rate issues, which means that they can be difficult to use in situations with a lot of fast-moving action. Some EVFs have a great deal of lag which means the image you see is just slightly behind what is actually happening. While they have certainly gotten much better in recent years, they are still not quite on par with optical viewfinders in this regard (in my opinion).
Finally, even though electronic viewfinders show you a good representation of what your final image will look like they don’t quite have the same color range and resolution as what you will see in your photographs. Even the best EVFs top out at 3 megapixels with most hovering around 1-2, which means you’re looking at a much lower-resolution version of what you will see in your pictures.
So which is better?
Like many aspects of photography, this issue isn’t about whether an optical versus electronic viewfinder is better, but which one will suit you and your needs as a photographer. Some people prefer the analog precision of an optical viewfinder, while others like the high-tech features offered by electronic viewfinders. At the end of the day, what really matters is that you have the right tool for the job. So if you tend to prefer one of these over the other then, by all means, go ahead and use it.
I would like to add one caveat to all this, which is if you have not used an EVF in a few years you might want to give it a try. The shortcomings of EVFs are rapidly being addressed by many camera manufacturers today, and EVFs from days gone by have been eclipsed many times over by their modern counterparts. It might be worth your time to go to your local camera store and check out one of the newer models with a built-in EVF and see what you think, just so you can make an informed decision when choosing your next camera.
What about you? Do you prefer optical or electronic viewfinders? Leave your thoughts below. I’d love to hear from the dPS community about all of this, and I’m sure other readers would like having your thoughts as a way of learning more about this whole issue.
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