Types of Camera Viewfinders: Optical and Electronic

Should you get a camera with an optical or electronic viewfinder?

Looking through a camera’s viewfinder.

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A camera's viewfinder is located at the top of a digital camera, and you look through it to compose a scene. Viewfinders are typically either optical or electronic in design. Not all digital cameras have one, such as some point and shoot compact cameras. They use an LCD screen to frame a photo instead. When buying a new camera, it's important to know which kind of viewfinder you should get.

With cameras that include a viewfinder, you almost always have the option of using it or an LCD screen to frame your photos. But, on some DSLR cameras this isn't an option.

Advantages of Using Viewfinders to Frame Shots

A viewfinder provide a few advantages over using LCD screens when composing images:

  • It drains less power from the battery.
  • It allows for better stability because you hold the camera closer to your body.
  • It 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.

Optical Viewfinders on Digital Compact Cameras

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's not showing you exactly what's 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's most obvious when subjects are close to the camera. In many situations, it's more accurate to use the LCD screen.

Optical Viewfinders on DSLR Cameras

DSLRs use a mirror and a prism, and that means 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 also see and choose from various auto focus points appearing as small square boxes with the chosen one highlighted.

Electronic Viewfinders

The electronic viewfinder, often shortened to EVF, is also a TTL technology. Technically, it's a small LCD, but it replicates the effect of viewfinders found on DSLRs. It functions in a fashion similar to the LCD screen on a compact camera, displaying the image being projected onto the sensor by the lens. This is shown in real time, though there can be some delays.

An EVF also doesn't suffer from parallax errors. Some EVF viewfinders also give you insight into various functions or corrections the camera is going to make. 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 display that on the viewfinder screen.