Viewfinders, Optical vs Electronic
last updated Tuesday, June 23, 2015
All cameras these days have an LCD (or OLED) screen on the back for framing and viewing photos. Some cameras also include an eye-level viewfinder, which allows you to frame a photo in bright light and reduce the power drain of a larger LCD screen.
Optical vs Electronic Viewfinders
There are two types of viewfinders: optical (OVF) and electronic (EVF). Electronic viewfinders use a tiny electronic display much like the larger LCD screen on the back of all cameras, whereas optical viewfinders use mirrors and prisms to represent the view of a scene.
The advantage of electronic viewfinders is you get to see exactly what the camera's sensor sees and your view of a scene is never obstructed when taking a photo (your view is momentarily blocked when taking photos on DSLR cameras). Some cameras also augment the EVF display in various ways, such as by highlighting areas in focus ('peaking' autofocus), simulating the motion blur you'll see if you take a photo and automatically boosting brightness when shooting very dark scenes.
Since the image in an optical viewfinder relies on the actual light passing through a camera rather than a digital representation, they offer a few unique benefits. Optical viewfinders provide much better clarity, better dynamic range (roughly, ability to resolve scenes with extreme differences in brightness) and an instantanteous view of the action lacking the delay found in some EVF systems.
How to choose?
With some exceptions, you'll only find optical viewfinders on SLRs, while viewfinders on compact and mirrorless cameras are of the EVF variety. The type of viewfinder is a major difference between these types of cameras, but only one of a number of factors to consider. You can see all cameras with viewfinders, mirrorless cameras with viewfinders and point-and-shoot cameras with viewfinders.
We've treated all optical viewfinders as identical, explaining their functionality as they would work on SLRs. In fact, the single-lens reflex viewfinder system on SLRs is one of several optical viewfinder types. The other main type is the direct optical viewfinder found on rangefinders from Leica and the cameras in Fuji's intriguing line of X-series mirrorless cameras. Want to read more about the advantages of optical viewfinders? Check out our article Why Using an Optical Viewfinder with Your Camera Can Improve Your Photography