After I thought about switching from my DSLR to a mirrorless camera I read a lot of reviews to try and figure out how big the change really is. In forums and other platforms, a lot of photographers were complaining that electronic viewfinders (EVF) would be a real discomfort in comparison to classic optical viewfinders. That there would be a lot of problems and they never got used to them and eventually swapped back to DSLRs although, mirrorless cameras performed better for them.
This opinion is a few years old and technology is advancing very quickly. Is the electronic viewfinder still at a disadvantage and such a big change, or does it feel more natural now and actually offers more features, that optical viewfinders can’t bring to the table?
What is an Electronic Viewfinder
First off, let me introduce You to the technology of the electronic viewfinder and how it differs compared to the optical viewfinders of DSLRs.
In short, the Electronic Viewfinder is nothing else than a small LCD or OLED-screen that You are looking at. Instead of seeing an image, that is projected by mirrors or other optical means, You are viewing directly the image that is captured by the image sensor.
Because the EVF is a complete screen, there are a lot more information that can be displayed and features that can be used. Think about the options that You can use while using the LCD-Screen on a regular DSLR.
On the other hand, there might also be disadvantages because You are not able to see the “real” optical image, but only an artificial electronic one.
In DSLRs, the viewfinder displays the image that is also captured by the lens. Through a system of prism and mirror, the image is then projected to the optical viewfinder. Although the optical viewfinder isn’t a frame-filling LCD-screen it does display some basic information at the bottom, like the battery life or exposure.
The electronic viewfinder does offer better preview options. Since You are able to see the digital image as it is captured on the image sensor, You see the very same image that is then saved after pressing the shutter button.
Especially when looking at the exposure, the electronic viewfinder has a clear advantage at showing the exact same brightness as the final image. You are able to see overexposed areas and can tune down the exposure in real-time, whereas in optical systems You would have to take pictures first and look at the result or trust the status bars.
Apart from the Exposure, You also have a more detailed preview of the depth of field. You are able to view in real-time which subject is focused and whether the depth of field might be too shallow to get everyone in focus. Again, You don’t have to take test shots first, like with a DSLR, but are able to see the focus live through the electronic viewfinder.
Overlays on the Electronic Viewfinder
Since the Electronic Viewfinder is just a screen that records what the sensor is capturing, You are able to overlay any kind of information You like on the screen. Whereas optical viewfinders have only very basic information in the bottom like the battery status or amount of pictures, the Electronic Viewfinder can show anything on the screen to help You get the picture right.
You are able to display the histogram right into the viewfinder to see, whether there are areas that are too dark and have to adjust the exposure. But the real advantage comes when You are using vintage lenses that You have to focus manually.
Manual Focus on DSLRs with basic optic Viewfinders can be a real hassle. You rarely know when the subject is in-focus and even through chimping on the LCD-Screen often, You might still miss the focus by an inch, which doesn’t show on the spot, but only later after You review Your photographs at home and on a bigger screen.
Focus peaking systems can display where the focus lies directly in the EVF by highlighting the areas that are in-focus. This makes it a lot easier to get the focus spot on with manual lenses. Alternatively, You can also use the manual focus assist, where the camera zooms in on a small area and You are able to control the focus up-close.
Camera manufacturers have realized that the EVF can drain the battery life very quickly. The electronic viewfinder is a screen that needs energy to stay alive and have any function, contrary to the optical viewfinder which works through mirrors and doesn’t need any electronic energy.
To combat the quick draining of the battery, modern mirrorless cameras often have an eye sensor near the electronic viewfinder, which senses when You are actually looking through the viewfinder and when not.
When You are not near the EVF, the screen shuts off, reducing the usage of battery life.
I will admit, that sometimes there is a delay between getting near the EVF and the sensor correctly recognizing that You are looking through the viewfinder, but most of the time it works very reliably.
Resolution of EVFs
Looking at an electronic screen is not the same experience as viewing at the scene with Your eyes. Many Years ago when I first thought about buying a mirrorless camera for street photography, LCD-screens weren’t that advanced and there was a visible disadvantage in terms of quality.
When looking through an optical viewfinder, there isn’t any decrease in quality. You have a clear view of the scene that You are photographing and have only the prism and mirror in-between, which present the original scene.
An EVF works differently. The scene is captured through the lens onto the image sensor, then processed and showed by the LCD-screen. The original picture undergoes different stages that can reduce the quality from the original real-life scene onto the electronic viewfinder.
In the early stages of the EVF, they often came with a resolution of 800*600 which isn’t really much but was already praised as equal to the optical viewfinder. Of course, there was a reduction in quality and the electronic viewfinder wasn’t equal to the optical viewfinder.
Nowadays, the LCD-screen has advanced so far, that the resolution is so detailed, that there isn’t any difference in terms of quality. With resolutions up to 5 Megapixels, there won’t be any single pixel visible on such small screens.
So far, the EVF had only advantages compared to classic optical viewfinders. The quality is great and the image quality of the LCD-screens is so high, that it can be easily compared to the images projected by the optical viewfinder.
One characteristic that is still noticeable from time to time is the lag when moving the camera very fast.
I am a Street Photographer and sometimes I need to change scenes very quickly when I notice something interesting. Unfortunately, sometimes when moving the camera very, the EVF has problems with the framerate and needs a few milliseconds before displaying a lag-free picture again.
It shouldn’t matter under normal circumstances since You aren’t taking the pictures while moving the camera so quickly, that the EVF isn’t able to hold up, but if You are moving Your camera very quickly often and find this behaviour to be too frustrating, You should try different mirrorless camera models that deal with the lag the best.
Depleting Battery Life
I have mentioned the battery life before and the EVF is one of the main reasons, that mirrorless cameras are depleting much quicker than DSLRs.
Without going into too many technical details, from my experience I feel comfortable with 3 spare batteries to get me through a full day of shooting. Those batteries should be definitely added to the initial investment of the compact camera. To save some money, You don’t have to buy the original batteries. So far the only batteries that broke down were the original ones and third party batteries have worked far better, while only costing less than half.
Changing the batteries is also not a huge problem and takes only a few seconds. Therefore the battery life isn’t really an issue for me. Carrying a few extra batteries negates this disadvantage.
Are Electronic Viewfinders still inferior?
When looking at the discussion a few years ago, I would have agreed that electronic viewfinders are not an ideal alternative to optical viewfinders. The resolution was too low, the lag too noticeable and I wouldn’t have the patience to adapt to the new viewing experience.
The optical viewfinder was the way better solution to look at the world and take photographs.
Today the situation is different. I can speak mainly for the Fuji X100F and its EVF and I can say that without a doubt, I would never go back to a full optical system.
I appreciate that I am able to view the exposure in real-time and can adjust the settings accordingly. With the electronic viewfinder, I have a way better overview of how the end result will look like and don’t have to chimp at the picture and guess how the settings would have to change.
When looking for a new camera, the electronic viewfinder is a huge benefit of mirrorless cameras and will only improve in future years.