The mirrorless versus SLR debate is the most hotly discussed topic in photography circles. One of the main reasons given for sticking to the SLR system is the superiority of the optical viewfinder (OVF). Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to question this point. In this article, I explore the areas where an electronic viewfinder (EVF) offers an advantage over on OVF.
I started photography at a time when the SLR system was the undisputed king. If you had told me then that 12 years later we’d be composing images using “the photo preview screen,” I would have laughed at you.
After a year of using the Sony, due to a client requirement, I switched back to the SLR system with the Canon 1DX Mark II. I discovered that after a year of using the EVF of the Sony, I preferred using the EVF of the Canon. I now find myself in the position of only having SLRs, but hardly ever using the viewfinders. This is not a mirrorless versus SLR discussion, rather, it is why I prefer an electronic viewfinder regardless of the system that I’m using.
1. Accurate Composition
One of the great challenges we face as photographers is how to represent a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional medium. We have a compositional guidelines, such as the use of leading lines, to help represent a three-dimensional world, but all too often, I would make compositions that were less than ideal when composing the OVF. One of the reasons for this is that the world is still three dimensional when looking through the OVF. In a single glance, I see my primary subject, but there are areas in the frame that are in my peripheral view.
When looking at the EVF, you’re looking at a flat image, effectively seeing the same two-dimensional view that the final image will show. This helps show up problem areas which can be fixed before taking the photograph.
Similarly, although the OVF on modern cameras show almost 100 percent of the frame, it is difficult to see the entire frame in a single glance while looking through the viewfinder. This meant that sometimes I would get unwanted elements cutting into the borders of my images. I’ve found the being able to see the entire composition in one quick view helps me to eliminate border distractions.
2. Composition for Long Exposures
When using a 10-stop ND filter, it is impossible to see through the OVF. When I first started doing long exposures, I would compose without the filter, lock the composition and focus, and then drop in the filter to create the final image. This process got tedious very quickly, so I was elated to discover a better way.
My discovery happened completely by accident. With the 10-stop filter on, I accidentally pressed the live view button. To my surprise, a perfectly clear image appeared on the back of the camera, enabling me to compose and focus without having to remove the filter.
This extends to using graduated ND filters. As you drop the graduated filter down, the live view provides real-time feedback for when your exposure is perfectly balanced. This makes it easier to be accurate with the placement of the graduated filter.
3. Accurate Autofocus
I have a problem lens, a Canon 24mm f/1.4 that back-focuses. This means that the focal point is always slightly off, making the lens unusable at wide open apertures. I recently did a shoot where 90 percent of the images I shot were unusable.
You may be wondering what happened with the other 10 percent; How did a lens that back-focuses get anything correctly focused? On analysis, I discovered that for the images that were correctly focussed, I had used Live View.
This seemed too good to be true, so on my next shoot, I tested this. The results were conclusive. This problem lens was able to focus accurately 100 percent of the time when using Live View.
The reason for this is that Live View focuses by getting a reading off the sensor. "Normal" autofocus uses a special set of sensors placed in the light path between mirror and the eye piece. Therefore, it is subject to calibration issues like my back-focusing 24mm. Ryan Cooper explains in more detail in this article.
Live view is slower to focus than using the OVF, but it is more accurate. It also means that lenses do not need to be calibrated for perfect focus.
Better for Me
If you’re a photo journalist or sports photographer, I imagine you might be feeling frustrated with the content of this article. With the speed and fluidity that you’re working at, none of the reasons why I prefer the EVF are relevant. As a photographer primarily covering architecture and travel, I can afford to deliberate over my compositions. I’m mostly on a tripod, which makes working with an EVF even more suitable. For what I do, an EVF is almost always superior to an OVF. I would love to hear which situations you prefer using an OVF. Right now, having an SLR with an excellent Live View system gives me the best of both worlds, but if there are only few situations that call for the use of an OVF, one wonders if there is a future for the SLR system.