What is a Camera Viewfinder? (Optical VS Electronic)

The viewfinder on a camera is the small window that the photographer looks through to compose, focus and “frame” the scene.

Viewfinder

It’s one of the most important tools for helping photographers to capture a correctly exposed image. But we often take it for granted. In fact, people rarely consider the importance of the viewfinder when choosing which camera to buy.

But this can have a BIG impact on your photography.

There are 2 main types of viewfinders. Optical and Electronic. Like many things in life, there are pros and cons to both.

Almost all DSLR’s have optical viewfinders. While mirrorless cameras have electronic viewfinders. And both cameras will usually have an LCD screen with Live View. Which is essentially a bigger version of what you see in the viewfinder.

Many people find this easier than looking through the small window at the back of the camera. Although both have their benefits. Holding your eye up against the smaller viewfinder forces you to pull your elbows in and hold the camera closer to your body. Which makes for a more stable pose and reduces the chance of camera shake.

There are also rare instances where a camera offers both an optical AND electronic viewfinder, like in the case of the Fujifilm X100 series.

But what’s the difference between an optical viewfinder (OVF) and an electronic viewfinder (EVF)? Let’s find out…

Optical Viewfinder vs Electronic Viewfinder

In an optical viewfinder, the light passes through the lens, hits a mirror, and then is reflected up through a prism (which flips the image) so that you can see the image exactly as your camera does, via the viewfinder.

You’re seeing an “optical” view of what the lens is capturing.

In an electronic viewfinder, you’re getting a digital preview of what the camera is seeing. Light passes through the lens, onto the camera sensor, which then shows you a preview of the image via the electronic viewfinder. It’s essentially a tiny little tv screen because the image is produced digitally.

The optical viewfinder shows you what the lens is capturing. The electronic viewfinder shows you what the sensor is capturing. Which is then digitally projected onto a tiny TV-like screen.

Each has their own pros and cons.

The optical viewfinder has no time lag or resolution limits. Although with the advancement of technology, EVFs have caught up quickly. So you probably won’t see much noticeable difference.

But one thing to note about optical viewfinders is that they won’t drain your battery. In fact, they require no power at all. EVFs require a lot more battery power. Which is one of the biggest reasons that DSLRs tend to have a longer battery life.

The optical viewfinder is also a bit easier to use in bright sunlight, as the eye-level viewfinder isn’t affected by reflections.

Another thing to note is that OVFs can work even when the camera is off. The electronic viewfinder takes 1 or 2 seconds to wake up when the camera is turned on. For most people, this won’t be an issue. But it’s something to consider if you find yourself needing to react quickly to new photo opportunities.

Now for the cons…

The optical viewfinder requires an additional mirror and prism to be able to work. This takes up extra space, making for a heavier camera. For some, this really isn’t an issue. But something to keep in mind.

Your mirrorless cameras are always going to be quite a bit lighter (and less bulky) than their DSLR counterparts.

So what about the electronic viewfinder? Which can be found on most mirrorless cameras.

One of the big benefits of the EVF is that you get a real-time preview of the camera’s exposure. As you change your camera settings, you will get a “preview” of what the final image will look like. This makes it a lot easier to turn your creative vision into a reality.

So as you change your camera settings, you’ll get to preview how those changes affect the final photo. This is an excellent tool for those just starting out in photography. In fact, it’s quite helpful for the beginner and pro alike.

Electronic viewfinders also tend to be brighter and have more magnification. They also allow you to view 100% of the frame. While many optical viewfinders have some slight cropping.

The brighter EVF can certainly be beneficial in low-light situations. But the slight cropping that you may get on a DSLR probably isn’t going to be noticeable.

Mirrorless EVFs can also show more information in the viewfinder, just like the live preview screen (on the LCD). It’s overlaid with a row of information such as the histogram, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, metering mode, battery charge, etc…

The optical viewfinder often displays similar information as well. But the electronic viewfinders are more customizable because the EVF is essentially a small LCD screen. So the information can be customized to your liking.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the benefits of each…

Optical Viewfinder:
  • Shows you exactly what the lens is seeing.
  • Tends to be quite clear and sharp, as you’re seeing the light as the camera sees it.
  • Works well in bright sunlight.
  • Uses less power than the EVF. (Contributes to a longer battery life.)
  • Often includes a row of information that displays your current camera settings and other info.
Electronic Viewfinder:
  • Allows you to preview how different camera settings will affect the final image.
  • Allows you to view 100% of the frame.
  • Has a brighter display during low-light situations.
  • Can also be used in video mode (which is not possible in the OVF).
  • Includes an overlay of your current camera settings and a variety of other info.
  • Because the EVF is entirely digital, you can customize and display a variety of information in the viewfinder (just like on the LCD).

At the end of the day, it often comes down to personal preference. There are people who swear by optical viewfinders and others who praise the many benefits of an electronic viewfinder.

There’s really no wrong or right answer. Just what’s right for you.

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