Types of Camera Viewfinders

Find the Best Camera Viewfinder to Meet Your Needs

Looking through a camera’s viewfinder.
Looking through a camera’s viewfinder. Huchen Lu/Getty Images

The viewfinder of a camera is what allows you to see the image that you are going to take. There are different types of viewfinders used on the various digital cameras available today. When buying a new camera, it is important to know what kind of viewfinder you want.

What is a Viewfinder?

The viewfinder is located at the top of the back of digital cameras, and you look through it to compose a scene.

Keep in mind that not all digital cameras have a viewfinder. Some point and shoot, compact cameras do not include a viewfinder, meaning you must use the LCD screen to frame a photo.

With cameras that include a viewfinder, you almost always have the option of using the viewfinder or the LCD to frame your photos. On some DSLR cameras this is not an option.

Using the viewfinder rather than the LCD screen has a few advantages:

  • The viewfinder drains less power from the battery.
  • The viewfinder allows for better stability because you hold the camera closer to your body.
  • The viewfinder makes you feel like a real photographer!

Once you get used to using your camera's viewfinder you can often change camera controls instinctively without looking away.

There are three different types of camera viewfinders.

Optical Viewfinder (on a digital compact camera)

This is a relatively simple system where the optical viewfinder zooms at the same time as the main lens.

Its optical path runs parallel to the lens though it is not showing you exactly what is in the image frame.

Viewfinders on compact, point and shoot cameras tend to be quite small, and they often only display around 90% of what the sensor will actually capture. This is known as the "parallax error," and it is most obvious when subjects are close to the camera.

In many situations, it is more accurate to use the LCD screen.

Optical Viewfinder (on a DSLR camera)

DSLRs use a mirror and a prism and that means that there is no parallax error. The optical viewfinder (OVF) displays what will be projected onto the sensor. This is called "through the lens" technology, or TTL.

The viewfinder also displays a status bar along the bottom, which shows exposure and camera setting information. In most DSLR cameras you will also see and be able to choose from various autofocus points, which appear as small square boxes with the chosen one highlighted.

Electronic Viewfinder (on a digital compact camera)

The electronic viewfinder, often shortened to EVF, is also a TTL technology.

It functions in a similar fashion to the LCD screen on a compact camera, and it shows the image being projected onto the sensor by the lens. This is shown in real time though there can be some delays.

Technically, the EVF is a small LCD, but it replicates the effect of the viewfinders found on DSLRs. An EVF also does not suffer from parallax errors.

Some EVF viewfinders will also give you insight into various functions or corrections that the camera is going to take. You may see highlighted areas that determine the point the camera will focus on or it may simulate the motion blur that will be captured.

The EVF may also boost the brightness automatically in dark scenes and show that on the screen.

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