LCD vs. Viewfinder

Choosing the right one can improve your digital photography

Taking a photo using the LCD screen on a camera

Frank Leung / Getty Images

LCD screens are great, and their quality seems to improve with each new generation of DSLR cameras appearing on the market. But, many professional photographers still prefer a camera's viewfinder. We explain the benefits and disadvantages of each.

Viewfinder
  • Only shows 90-95% of an image.

  • A more accurate representation of what the human eye sees.

LCD
  • Displays the entire frame sensors will capture.

  • More convenient than a viewfinder.

  • Not available in all DSLRs.

LCD screens have their advantages, but so do optical viewfinders. When it's time to frame a photo with your DSLR camera, you need to decide which side of the viewfinder vs. LCD debate you come down on. Unlike the optical viewfinder, the LCD screen displays the entire frame sensors will capture. Optical viewfinders, even on a professional level DSLR, only display 90-95% of the image. You will lose a small percentage on the very edges of the image.

Viewfinder Pros and Cons

Advantages
  • Lets you hold the camera steadier.

  • Doesn't drain the battery as much.

  • Offers a more precise view.

Disadvantages
  • Can be very small.

  • No instant playback of photos.

  • More difficult to see through if you wear glasses.

Digital SLRs are not the lightest of beasts, and it's far easier to produce a crisp, sharp image when you're holding the camera up to your eye to use the viewfinder. That way you can support and steady the camera and lens with your hands. But, viewfinders are generally smaller than LCD screens. They're also less convenient to use, especially if you wear glasses.

At the end of the day, though, as clever as digital cameras are, the human eye is able to resolve more detail than an LCD screen. Argue all you like about this point, but you will end up with a sharper and more precise view of your image by using the viewfinder.

LCD Pros and Cons

Advantages
  • More convenient than a viewfinder.

  • Bigger viewing area.

  • Can instantly playback a shot.

Disadvantages
  • Drains battery.

  • Can overexpose the image.

  • Harder to view in bright sunlight.

The biggest drawback with LCD screens is probably shooting in sunlight. Depending on the quality of the screen, you likely cannot use it in bright sunshine because of problems with glare. All you will see are reflections off of the screen. In addition, the crystals contained within LCD screens have a tendency to "flare" in bright sunlight, making the situation even worse.

Holding the camera out at arms-length while looking at the LCD screen—and then keeping the camera steady while trying to zoom in on a subject—takes a lot of effort. By using the LCD screen in this way, you will often end up with a blurry image.

Another big issue is battery life. Using the LCD screen to compose your shots drains the batteries in your camera much more quickly than using the viewfinder.

Which Should You Choose?

No matter how good your LCD screen is, it's unlikely to give you a completely accurate overview of the image you just took. Most tend to overexpose an image by as much as one full stop. It's best to acquire the technical knowledge about photography to give you the confidence your settings are correct and your images are properly exposed, rather than relying on the LCD screen to determine image quality. So, in most cases, it's probably best to use the viewfinder. But, if you like the convenience of an LCD, or you wear glasses, by all means use it. It's largely a matter of personal preference.