Which is better for photography, optical or electronic viewfinders? It’s a tough question, one that’s been argued about for years, even as EVF technology has been introduced, upgraded, and upgraded some more.
In this article, I aim to give a thorough overview of OVFs vs EVFs. I cover the pros and cons of both viewfinder options, and I explain why you might prefer one over the other. The truth is that neither EVFs nor OVFs are obviously superior; instead, it’s about determining what will work best given your particular photographic interests and needs.
By the time I’ve finished, you’ll understand the key differences between these two technologies, and you’ll be able to confidently decide whether EVFs or OVFs are the way forward.
What is a viewfinder?
A viewfinder is one of the most basic elements of any camera; it’s what you use to look at the scene you plan to capture. When you hold your camera up to your eye, whether you’re photographing with a DSLR, mirrorless, film camera, or point-and-shoot device, the tiny little hole you look through is known as the viewfinder.
Now, not all cameras offer viewfinders. Some forego it altogether and just have a giant LCD screen on the back (in fact, you almost certainly own one of these models – a smartphone!). But it’s common for cameras to include a viewfinder along with the rear LCD screen, especially higher-level models designed for serious enthusiasts and professionals.
As you’re likely aware, most modern viewfinder-sporting cameras feature one of two viewfinder types:
- Optical viewfinders
- Electronic viewfinders
Let’s take a look at each in turn:
Optical viewfinders: the basics
Optical viewfinders (OVFs) use decades-old technology that allows you to view a scene directly through the lens. (Or, well, through mirrors that reflect the light directly from the lens.) When you look through an OVF, you see the scene as your lens sees it, just the same as if you were looking through a window; nothing is changed in any way, shape, or form.
Therefore, an OVF 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. OVFs work even when your camera is turned off! Note that optical viewfinders generally come on DSLRs and not mirrorless cameras.
Electronic viewfinders: the basics
An electronic viewfinder (EVF) is a tiny, high-resolution screen that you hold less than an inch from your eye, which shows data captured by the camera sensor. When you look through an EVF, you see the scene as the camera sees it. It’s similar to Live View mode, except the screen is designed to be viewed up close so it more closely mimics the experience of optical-viewfinder shooting.
Since EVFs are entirely digital, they can show you a wealth of information and data – in addition to a representation of the scene you’re photographing. You can see things like a live histogram and a digital level, highlighted in-focus areas (i.e., focus peaking), focus guides, and more.
Also – and perhaps most important of all – electronic viewfinders show exactly what your scene will look like when photographed, not what the world in front of the lens looks like. The data is captured by the camera sensor so you can view accurate exposure information in real time. If your shutter speed is too fast and you’re therefore underexposing the scene, the EVF preview will look dark. And if your aperture is too wide and you’re therefore overexposing the scene, the EVF preview will look bright.
Note that EVFs aren’t offered by DSLRs, only mirrorless cameras. Unfortunately, not all mirrorless cameras possess EVF technology; it’s one of the first features that gets sacrificed to keep product prices down, so some beginner mirrorless models include only a rear LCD.
Why is a viewfinder useful?
Since most cameras these days include some sort of LCD display – even if they also offer an optical viewfinder or an electronic viewfinder – you may be wondering: Why do we even need viewfinders in the first place? Can’t you just compose using the rear LCD?
Well, even in today’s fast-paced, tech-centric world, there are plenty of reasons why you might prefer to compose your shots with the viewfinder instead of the rear LCD screen. Here are a few of the major ones:
- The scene appears much larger in a viewfinder compared to an LCD, which gives you a better sense of how your picture will look, improves your ability to compose, etc.
- Pressing and holding your camera against your face keeps your setup more stable.
- Following a moving subject with a viewfinder is (relatively) easy; following a moving subject with an LCD often feels impossible.
- Looking through the viewfinder can help you connect with your subject, especially if you’re shooting portraits.
Ultimately, it’s generally worth purchasing a camera with a viewfinder, especially if you take your photography seriously.
Reasons to use an optical viewfinder
Optical viewfinders may be old, but they’re certainly useful. In this section, I share several key reasons why you should go with an OVF:
1. Optical viewfinders show the real scene
The most important benefit of OVFs, and the reason many photographers prefer them over EVFs, is that they present an unfiltered and unaltered view of the scene as you compose your shot.
As I mentioned above, 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 can be done without a battery.
Consequently, OVFs have no issue with accurate color rendition or screen refresh rates, nor do they struggle in low light; they’re windows, and your eye is simply peering through the glass.
Because you’re looking at the scene through a (hopefully sharp) camera lens, the OVF image tends to look crisp. EVF images, on the other hand, don’t always look especially sharp – and in certain scenarios using certain cameras, they can even look unpleasantly grainy.
2. Optical viewfinders are great for action photography
When you look through an OVF, you see the real, unfiltered scene with essentially zero lag. And when photographing action subjects – such as sports or birds in flight – this can be a huge deal.
As you track a hawk through the air, for instance, you can see the hawk as it is, not with a split-second delay that might cost you a perfect shot.
Whereas EVFs, by definition, will always have some level of lag. Fortunately, the amount of lag present in many recent mirrorless cameras is minimal, but it’s still an important consideration to bear in mind, especially if you plan to purchase an older mirrorless model.
3. Optical viewfinders look great in low light
If you only shoot outside during the day, this won’t matter much to you. But if you work at night or indoors – for instance, shooting still lifes, food photography, or studio portraits – then it’ll make a huge difference.
Because optical viewfinders show the actual scene, a dimly lit room will look somewhat dark, but it will stay sharp and easy to see.
Electronic viewfinders rely on the camera sensor, which isn’t quite so effective. In dark rooms, EVFs tend to get very grainy, and this can certainly make shooting in low-light conditions far less enjoyable.
Optical viewfinder drawbacks
Optical viewfinders do have some significant limitations, and these may be deal-breakers (depending on the type of photographs you like to take).
One of the most important OVF drawbacks is that you can’t see the 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. During this process, the OVF goes completely dark.
Viewfinder blackout isn’t very noticeable when using fast shutter speeds, but if you’re shooting at about 1/30s or slower, you will see a big, blank box of nothing – just for a brief moment when 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 viewfinder blackout period can be enough for your subject to move around quite a bit.
Another disadvantage of optical viewfinders? They show you the world as it really is, not as it will appear in your final photograph. The OVF sees what your eyes see, which is not necessarily what your camera sensor sees.
Unless you have a solid grasp of metering modes, metering techniques, and how they affect your exposure, you’re at risk of creating pictures that are too bright or too dark. But peering through the OVF, your preview will look great, and it’s only after you’ve taken the photo that you’ll realize your shots are under- or overexposed.
Reasons to use an electronic viewfinder
A handful of years ago, electronic viewfinders (EVFs) couldn’t compete with optical viewfinders – but EVF technology has come a long way, and they’re now used by plenty of professionals. What makes them so valuable?
1. Electronic viewfinders do a great job of simulating the exposure
Electronic viewfinders are completely digital. You’re not merely stuck looking at the scene as your eye would see it; you can program the EVF to simulate the exposure in real time so you know precisely how an image would be exposed if you pressed the shutter button. You can make adjustments on the fly and fix exposure mistakes before they manifest.
It’s difficult to overstate how useful this is. If you’re doing a paid portrait session, for instance, you never have to worry about accidentally underexposing the entire set of files. And if you happen upon a once-in-a-lifetime bird sighting, you can essentially know that you’ve nailed the exposure before you fire the shutter. Basically, if you’ve ever encountered a scenario where you thought you got the shot but later realized it was unusably under- or overexposed, then you can understand the value of the EVF exposure-simulation feature.
(You can even program the EVF to show a real-time histogram, so you can carefully evaluate your exposures for lost highlights and shadow detail as you consider different compositions.)
2. Electronic viewfinders offer creative previews
Since the EVF feed is mediated by the camera sensor, you can adjust the picture mode – which means you can see the scene with all sorts of creative looks before you ever take a photo.
For instance, set your camera to its Monochrome mode, and the world through the EVF will turn black and white. (For a budding black-and-white photographer, this is a game-changer!)
You can also use various film-style modes on Fujifilm cameras. Depending on your camera, you may even be able to customize the EVF mode to meet your needs.
Of course, you can achieve all of these effects in post-processing. But seeing the scene in black and white, or in sepia, or with a green tint in real time makes it much easier to visualize the end result, which will in turn improve your images!
Electronic viewfinder drawbacks
As you might expect, there are some important downsides to EVFs. For one, they consume a lot of power; cameras that rely on electronic viewfinders tend to have much shorter battery lives compared to their OVF-laden counterparts, and many photographers who use EVF cameras are in the habit of carrying spare batteries.
Also, though electronic viewfinders show you a good representation of how your final image will look, they’re not perfect. As I discussed above, EVFs can get pretty grainy in low light, which is problematic for frequent night and indoor shooters.
Plus, while EVF clarity is decent (and getting better all the time) and the refresh rates are often lightning-fast, there’s a difference between EVFs and OVFs in every situation. This can be especially problematic if you shoot action and need to follow your subjects with pinpoint accuracy, or you shoot detailed landscape and cityscape images and you need to see every little detail in the viewfinder.
EVF vs OVF: Which should you choose?
Like many aspects of photography, it all comes down to what will suit you and your needs as a photographer. Some people prefer the analog precision and clarity 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 use the right tool for the job.
So now that you’re familiar with OVF vs EVF technology, ask yourself: does one option suit my shooting style better than the other? If the answer is “Yes,” then by all means, go for that one!
Now over to you:
What do you think about optical vs electronic viewfinders? Do you prefer one over the other? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!