Do Electronic Viewfinders Belong in Digital SLRs?

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Electronic viewfinders in digital SLRS

According to Canon Rumors, Canon may be planning to release a digital SLR camera with an electronic viewfinder. We won’t know whether Canon will ever include an electronic viewfinder in a digital SLR until it actually happens. But it raises the interesting question: is there anything to be gained by placing an electronic viewfinder in a digital SLR camera?

I believe the answer is yes. Here’s why.

You can play back photos within the viewfinder. If you’re outside in bright light, where it’s difficult to see the LCD screen properly, you can view your photos in the viewfinder to see if you captured all the detail that you thought you did.

The camera can also display the photo you have just taken in the viewfinder afterwards for a short period (just like seeing it on the LCD screen, but in the electronic viewfinder instead). Most of the time this is annoying, so I turn it off, but there are also times when it is useful.

For example, the photos illustrating this article were all taken with slow shutter speeds. I was experimenting with intentional camera movement – moving the camera during the exposure to create patterns from the light. After each exposure the camera displayed the photo in the viewfinder. I was able to see the result, and make adjustments to the way I moved the camera based on that feedback, without taking the camera away from my eye.

Electronic viewfinders make multiple exposures much easier. With the X-T1, the camera shows the first image taken superimposed on the current view, so you can position the camera for the second exposure. I’m guessing that multiple exposures are not something that most photographers try very often, but it’s nice to have the feature there if you need it.

This photo is a multiple exposure taken with the Fujifilm X-T1:

Electronic viewfinders in digital SLRS

Electronic viewfinders can be big. The viewfinder on the X-T1 is bigger than any optical viewfinder on a digital SLR. It’s so big that there’s an option to make it smaller for people who prefer it that way.

Focus peaking helps you focus accurately when using manual focus. For those of you who haven’t used a mirrorless camera, focus peaking is where the camera displays a coloured outline around the part of the subject that it is in sharp focus at the selected aperture. It makes focusing at wide apertures, especially in low light, much easier than focusing by eye with an optical viewfinder.

An electronic viewfinder can give you a dual display. The X-T1 has one. When activated, you are presented with two views. One of the scene, and the other of part of the scene enlarged, so you can see whether you are focused accurately with a manual focus lens.

An electronic viewfinder can display a histogram in the viewfinder, telling you whether the exposure is accurate before you take the photo. I believe some cameras are also capable of showing clipped highlights in the electronic viewfinder while you are looking at the scene. This is very useful as it means you can evaluate exposure before you take a photo, not afterwards.

An electronic viewfinder gives you depth of field preview. It can show you the scene with the depth of field at the selected aperture. An optical viewfinder can’t do that without stopping the lens down, which makes the viewfinder darker.

An electronic viewfinder remains bright with a neutral density filter or polarising filter attached to the lens (but don’t put a 10 stop neutral density filter on the lens and expect the image quality in the electronic viewfinder to be unaffected, because it won’t).

The electronic viewfinder can display the scene as it appears with the selected Picture Style* and colour temperature settings. Whether you see this as an advantage or not is another thing. Some cameras, such as the Fujifilm X-T1 (with it’s latest firmware update), give you the option of a neutral view in the electronic viewfinder, replicating what you would see through an optical viewfinder.

* Picture Style is Canon’s term, look for these menu settings with other cameras: Nikon, Picture Control; Sony, Creative Style; Pentax, Custom Image; Olympus, Picture Mode; Sigma, Colour Mode; Fujifilm, Film Simulation.

Electronic viewfinders help you visualise in black and white. Following on from the previous point, if you set your camera to its monochrome mode, it displays a black and white image in the viewfinder. This helps you compose in black and white without getting distracted by the colours within the scene.

Disadvantages of electronic viewfinders

It’s clear to me that electronic viewfinders have advantages over optical viewfinders, but there are also a couple of disadvantages that I should mention.

The first is battery life. Electronic viewfinders require power and that means the camera’s battery doesn’t last as long. Whether this bothers you or not depends on how many photos you tend to take on a shoot and whether you mind carrying a spare with you in case you need it.

The second is the image quality of the viewfinder. For an electronic viewfinder to replace an optical one, it would need to have, at the very least, the quality of the electronic viewfinder in the Fujifilm X-T1. Otherwise, photographers used to optical viewfinders will see it as a step backwards, rather than an advance.

These two points make me think that a hybrid viewfinder, giving the photographer the choice between an optical and a high quality electronic viewfinder, is the way forward for digital SLRs. There’s a precedent – the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 incorporates a hybrid viewfinder into a rangefinder design.

Electronic viewfinders in digital SLRS

Conclusion

My experience using the Fujifilm X-T1 has shown me that the electronic viewfinder is a valuable tool. It helps me take better photos, and the more I use it the more I appreciate what it can do. So much so, that I’m convinced there’s a place for an electronic viewfinder in a digital SLR.

Will Canon do it? That remains to be seen. Will other manufacturers do it? Sony already have, with the SLT range (you can read DP Review’s thoughts on the Sony SLT Alpha 99, a full frame digital SLR with electronic viewfinder, if you’re curious). Will optical viewfinders become a thing of the past? Possibly, although I doubt it.

If you have any thoughts on electronic viewfinders, especially in relation to digital SLRs, then please let me know in the comments. I’m curious to hear what other photographers think.

Further resources

You can learn more about mirrorless cameras here:

Thoughts on Taking Portraits with the Fujifilm X-T1 camera. My first portrait shoot with the X-T1.

Long Exposure Photography with the Fujifilm X-Pro 1. My experiences using this camera for long exposure landscape photography.

Fleur’s Place. Some thoughts on using the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 for black and white photography.

Using Cameras with Electronic Viewfinders for Close-Up Photography. An article I wrote for Digital Photography School based on my experience with the Fujifilm X-Pro 1.

Photographer Brian Matiash will give you a copy of his ebook Moving to Mirrorless when you sign up for his newsletter. The ebook details his transition from using digital SLRs to mirrorless cameras. It contains a lot of detail about Sony mirrorless cameras as this is the brand he uses.

 

 

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4 Responses to “Do Electronic Viewfinders Belong in Digital SLRs?”

  1. Scott says:

    I graduated from point and shoot cameras over a year ago.
    I moved into cropped sensor (Canon) and onto the OM-5.
    Occasionally, I’ve had the opportunity to use a friends 70D (optical).
    Frankly, I’d be lost without the electronic view finder. I haven’t yet learned the full function of the Olympus dials and how one setting affects another.
    With the EVF I view the affect of each adjustment. Without this feature I’d still be fumbling to get a decent photo. As I do with the 70D.
    With more experience, perhaps the EVF won’t be such a crutch for me as I begin to learn more about digital photography settings?

    • A great point, Scott. I’ve never thought about the electronic viewfinder from the point of view of someone new to photography. As your skills develop you will be able to visualise what effects your settings will have on the scene before you even take the photo.

  2. Steve says:

    A high resolution EVF, perhaps based on low-power OLED tech, should be a good solution to ditching the mirror. But you couldn’t then call it an SLR. While they’re at it, they should ditch the mechanical shutter. But hang on, a camera’s lifetime would extend maybe ten-fold or more. That would never do!

    • Thanks Steve, excellent point about the name, unless they manage to fit a hybrid viewfinder, in which case they’d still need the mirror for that. Sony calls it’s range of SLR like cameras SLT (Single Lens Translucent). They use a semi-transparent mirror that directs some light to phase detection autofocus sensors and the rest to the digital sensor. Wikipedia has the details.

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