Facebook Pixel Optical Versus Electronic Viewfinders: Which Is Best in 2021?

Optical Versus Electronic Viewfinders: Which Is Best in 2021?

optical vs electronic viewfinders which is best

Which is better for photography, optical vs electronic viewfinders? It’s a tough question, one that’s been argued about for years, even as EVF technology was introduced, upgraded, and upgraded some more.

In this article, I aim to give a thorough overview of OVFs vs EVFs. I’ll cover the pros and cons of both viewfinder options, and I’ll explain why you might prefer to use one over the other.

By the time I’ve finished, you’ll hopefully know which viewfinder technology you prefer, and you’ll be able to confidently decide whether EVFs or OVFs are the way forward.

Let’s dive right in.

low angle sunset shot

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 screen, especially higher-level models designed for serious enthusiasts and professionals.

Why is a viewfinder useful?

Since most cameras these days include some sort of LCD display, you may be wondering: Why do we even need viewfinders in the first place? Can’t I just compose using the rear LCD?

Well, even in today’s fast-paced, tech-centric world, there is a myriad of reasons why you might prefer to compose your shots with the viewfinder instead of the rear LCD screen. Here are a couple of major ones:

  1. 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.
  2. Pressing and holding your camera against your face makes things more stabilized.
  3. Following a moving subject with a viewfinder is (relatively) easy; following a moving subject with an LCD often feels impossible.

Optical Versus Electronic Viewfinders - inside the camera view

Ultimately, it’s generally worth purchasing a camera with a viewfinder, especially if you take your photography seriously.

Which brings me to the two types of viewfinders popular today: optical viewfinders and electronic viewfinders. Let’s take a look at each option in turn.

Optical viewfinders: the good

Optical viewfinders (OVFs) use decades-old technology, yet still have many staunch supporters. Their most important benefit, and the reason many photographers prefer OVFs over EVFs, is that they present an unfiltered and unaltered view of the scene as you compose your shot.

Looking through an optical viewfinder is no different than looking through a window: nothing is changed in any way, shape, or form. 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, plus it shows you a world that’s clear and contrasty and real.

In fact, 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.

Optical Versus Electronic Viewfinders - crowd watching a speech outdoors

Most optical viewfinders also have information along the bottom of the screen, such as an exposure bar, key camera settings, etc. OVFs also provide indicators for focus points as well as framing guides.

Optical viewfinders: the bad

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.

dog with a frisbee

Viewfinder blackout isn’t very noticeable when using fast shutter speeds, but if you are 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 on 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.

flowers with shallow DoF - Optical Versus Electronic Viewfinders

Electronic viewfinders: the good

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?

Well, an EVF is a tiny, high-resolution screen that you hold less than an inch from your eye. Since it is entirely digital, it 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.

bike panning shot - Optical Versus Electronic Viewfinders

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. Therefore, electronic viewfinders will let you see instantly, in real-time, whether your shot is exposed correctly. That way, you can make adjustments on the fly and fix exposure mistakes before they manifest.

Here’s another cool benefit of EVFs: They let you preview the scene in different modes, including black and white. Set your camera to its Monochrome mode, and the world through the EVF will instantly become black and white.

All in all, EVFs remove much of the guesswork inherent in OVFs. In many ways, this makes the act of taking pictures much easier, especially for new photographers.

pink flowers - Optical Versus Electronic Viewfinders

Getting the exposure right was easy, thanks to my electronic viewfinder!

Electronic viewfinders: the bad

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.

train in black and white

Also, though electronic viewfinders show you a good representation of what your final image will look like, they’re not perfect. In low light, EVFs can get pretty grainy, which is problematic for frequent night shooters. And while EVF clarity is decent (and getting better all the time), there’s an obvious difference between EVFs and OVFs in every situation.

low camera angle of a long passageway

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!

Optical Versus Electronic Viewfinders - pink flower

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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