What is a Camera Viewfinder and How Does it Work?

In Photography Equipment by Stefano Caioni Leave a Comment

Let’s talk about the viewfinder. If you have any experience working with DSLR cameras, you’ve probably seen it.

A camera viewfinder is the little display unit on top of a camera through which a photographer views the subject she is shooting. The viewfinder is an essential component of a DSLR camera since it is the “eye” through which a photographer composes the photographs.


Whatever one sees through the camera viewfinder is precisely the image that will be produced once the photograph has been taken. Furthermore, it also enables you to focus more accurately when shooting. 

In order to become an excellent photographer, therefore, it is absolutely vital that you learn how to use the viewfinder when taking photos. Learning the proper techniques and tips will allow you to capture sharper images, regardless of the type of camera you are using.

Viewfinders typically vary from camera to camera. From point and shoot cameras with viewfinder to DSLRs, while these components are built differently, they essentially serve the same purpose. Once you understand how to use one, you can easily apply the same knowledge to any type of camera!

Before we start, if you don’t like reading too much, you can just scroll to the bottom of this page and find the bonus video I included for you!

So let’s have a look at the various types available and how they work.

Viewfinder Types and Characteristics

Here are some of the common types of viewfinders:

A Bit of History: Optical Real Image Viewfinder

This was a type of viewfinder today not very common. It worked like a mini telescope.

The photographic lens and the viewfinder were separate from each other.

The downside of it was that it created a parallax effect with subjects particularly close to the camera.

Optical Viewfinder (OVF)

In this type of viewfinder, the image of the subject being shot is passed through the photographic lens, hits a mirror and reflected into the viewfinder via a prism.

The image you see through an OVF tends to be sharp and bright since it’s the same image seen by the lens.

Some of the advantages of an OVF include:

  • It allows for easy tracking of moving objects
  • No parallax when subjects are close to the camera
  • It does not consume electricity

Electronic or Digital Viewfinder (EVF)

Here, the light comes in and it passes through the photographic lens onto the sensor and processed before being displayed on the viewfinder LCD as a digital image.

The EVF has several advantages: 

  • It has a high coverage 
  • Does not create a parallax when shooting close range
  • Works well in high-powered zoom lenses
  • It is easy to use in outdoor environments with harsh sunlight

Unlike all other viewfinders we’ve discussed so far, the digital viewfinder consumes power, albeit in very minimal amounts.

LCD Monitor

The LCD monitor uses a mechanism that is similar to the EVF. The image is transmitted via the lens, processed through the sensor and finally displayed on the monitor as a digital image. 

Some of the advantages of this viewfinder include:

  • The image displayed on the monitor is very similar in appearance to the actual subject. This makes the process of composition very easy
  • It has high coverage, with no parallax
  • It works well in high-powered zoom lenses

The Electronic LCD Monitor also has several disadvantages, including:

  • It consumes a lot of power
  • It is not very convenient for use in bright conditions because of flares which appear the LCD screen 


I think that it’s important to highlight the main difference between optical and digital viewfinder.

You may be wondering, however, just what exactly makes them different. Let us briefly look with more attention to the characteristics of these different viewfinders:

Optical Viewfinder

They are quite popular among photographers, mainly because they are able to present the image exactly as it is without any filters or alterations. They can also be used even when the camera has been switched off, in the same way as binoculars. 

Also, OVFs have been around for a very long time and even though you see a sharp and clear image when you look through it, you also see a limited amount of information regarding your photo.

You see the aperture, your shutter speed, your ISO, the light meter and little more depending on the camera brand.

The OVF also has one main disadvantage you’ll have an image blackout while shooting since the mirror of your camera is flipping.

Electronic Viewfinder

In principle, EVFs work by producing a digital representation of the image on the LCD display. Unlike optical viewfinders, EVFs consume power, and can therefore not work when the camera is switched off.

The image can be less sharp and clear compared to an optical viewfinder but with improvement in technology, in newer and in higher-end cameras the image is really sharp.

In addition, in an EVF, you see all the information you see in the OVF and much more. You can see your histogram, for example, you can see your focus settings, focus peaking, audio levels (if you’re shooting a video).

Most importantly, you can easily fine-tune your focus and customize the electronic viewfinder. Something you can’t do with an OVF.

Bonus Video

If you’re interested in learning more you can watch this video.

Or if you’re interested in more technicalities you can also read this article.

So Which One Should I Choose?

Well, both optical and electronic viewfinders have their sets of advantages and downsides. You should, therefore, choose one that suits you better.

While optical viewfinders offer greater precision when shooting, electronic viewfinders are superb for shooting in lower-lit conditions, and they also come with extra features that you may find useful.

I think it mainly depends on the camera you’re going to buy.

Try experimenting with both types to see which one works best for you.

As always, feel free to ask me questions in the comments below and before you go, remember to share this article with your friends right now.

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