Optical Viewfinders & Electronic Viewfinders - What's the Difference? Understanding Your Digital Camera

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So you’re looking over digital cameras and trying to decide between models, and the issue of viewfinders arises- how do you decide which to go with?

The basic function of any viewfinder is to provide you with a preview of the image you want to take. There are two approaches to this - optical viewfinders and electronic viewfinders - but if you’re looking for a clear winner between the two, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Optical Viewfinders

The traditional approach, the optical viewfinder allows you to see what your camera sees (if you’re using a single lens reflex camera, or SLR), or at the very least provide you with a preview of your composed shot, before actually pressing the shutter button. The nice thing about optical viewfinders is that they don’t consume battery power; the potentially frustrating thing is that the display functions tend to be extremely limited and may force you to refer to the main display for more information. Optical viewfinders can also be something of a problem when shooting true infrared photos, since no visible light can be seen through the viewfinder even though the imaging sensor can detect it. Optical viewfinders tend to be more popular among DSLR’s, both because of heritage and tradition and because of the virtue of seeing the world through the lens you’re shooting with. (After all, optical viewfinders have no resolution limitations.) Conserving power doesn’t hurt, either!


  • Doesn’t require power
  • “Full” resolution
  • More accurate manual focusing


Electronic Viewfinders

Electronic viewfinders are a natural alternative in situations where the camera’s construction makes it difficult to add an optical viewfinder. It is also a good design compromise in non-DSLR models, since size limitations may well make it impractical to take the SLR approach and route lens light to a separate viewfinder, especially when a display is already being used for most functions. While an electronic viewfinder has the virtue of being far more versatile (many current models can indicate when and where a photograph is over or underexposed), they suffer from the same resolution limitations that all displays suffer from, a circumstance that is especially noticeable when using manual focus. In addition, the power requirements of such an arrangement are no small concern, especially if the display has to be backlit to be usable. Some digital cameras use a single display for everything, while others have a small digital display that can be viewed through an eyepiece. The eyepiece solution is generally a better one for shooting in bright conditions, but, due to its smaller size, suffers from even greater resolution problems than the main display does.


  • Can display greater amounts of information
  • Better performance in high-ISO conditions or when relying on in-camera signal processing such as noise reduction


  • Response lag
  • High power consumption
  • Limited resolution

The best of both worlds?

Traditionally, Digital SLRs have used the viewfinder for shooting and the display for review and other functions, but many manufacturers are starting to offer “live view” functionality. This option allows the photographer to pick whichever option best suits the current situation and is definitely a “nice to have”, even if it is rarely used.