Optical Versus Electronic: Three Strong Cases for EVFs

Optical Versus Electronic: Three Strong Cases for EVFs

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.

I stuck faithfully to the SLR system until the release of the Sony a7R II. At that point, I switched to using the Sony as my primary workhorse camera with my Canon 5DS serving as a backup.

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.

OVF Composition

When we can see in three dimensions, we perceive depth. When viewing the image in two dimensions, it flattens the depth, meaning that the second stumps from the left appear to be one mishaped stump.

EVF Composition

This was from a video shoot, meaning that I was using the EVF. As I could see the entire scene as a two-dimensional image, I could see the problem and recomposed the image.

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.

Long Exposure

When photographing any scene with water, I love doing long exposures to flatten out the texture of the water, simplying the composition. Using the EVF, I've been able to make the process of long exposures far more enjoyable.

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.

Focus Accuracy

The top scene shows the example of back-focusing. Notice I have sharp brick work and an unsharp face. Using the EVF for the scene below, the autofocus proved to be accurate.

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.

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38 Comments

William Howell's picture

I didn’t even read the article, yet, but I can’t wait to EVF! Right now I shoot with the D500, which has an optical viewer. The issue for me, is my eyes are now 55 years old, so I’m thinking the EVF is going to be a boon for people like me. And also I think I will not have to tether as much, the electronic view finder will show me if I’m focused, right?

Just read the article, yep, this is why I can’t wait to move into mirrorless! Although the tip about focusing in live view is new to me. It is a pain to focus in live view on my camera, but if it means 100% accuracy, I’m doing it.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I’d love to hear how it goes for you William. Personally, I find it easier to see through the OVF, but then again, my cameras are quite old and EVF tech is always improving.

William Howell's picture

I will let you know, because I’m going to use that trick you stumbled upon! It was good on you to recognize what happened, you know, cause sometimes little happy accidents like that, go unnoticed.

Michael Holst's picture

Focus peaking is amazing for fast manual focusing.

William Howell's picture

Let me ask you a question. I am getting ready to move into to full frame, I have almost 4 Gs saved, would you purchase the D850 or the Z7? My original intent was to go the D850 route, but reading this article and coupled with your comment, I am rethinking that. Now four thousand dollars is a lot of money, to me, so this purchase will have to last at least five years.

Michael Holst's picture

If i had to pick between the two I'd get the Z because as I see it, there's a higher ceiling for how that camera can be updated as new firmware updates come out that can add features to the EVF. With a traditional DLSR what you see is what you get.

But I'm probably not the best person to ask since I'm about ready to jump to a Fuji X system and don't find myself needing a complicated camera anymore. But I LOVE EVF.

I would just say that an EVF offers a lot of great tricks that could help. I have not experienced a moment where I missed an optical viewfinder but that's just me. I totally understand some people not seeing it as an advantage if they don't have a need for the new tricks.

William Howell's picture

Thank you very much! Yeah I’m gonna make the jump to mirrorless.

Rob Mitchell's picture

For me, the absolute winning bonus of the EVF on my Z7 is due to my need for reading glasses to review the image on the back LCD of my D850. Without removing the camera from my eye, I can do a quick check on the shot image. No need for glasses, and no issues with sunlight glare on the LCD.
In fact, going back to the D850, I catch myself trying to do an image preview in the viewfinder. Doh.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I had something similar when I went from my Sony A7RII to my Canon 1DX Mark II. I kept trying to flip open the lcd on the Canon

Rob Mitchell's picture

I can't exist without a flip-LCD! Well, exaggerating a tad but you get my drift. Beats trying to squash yourself into the floor to get that low level shot you desire so badly.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I totally get you. I have to now back my camera into a corner and then wing it without seeing the composition.

William Howell's picture

I can’t even see the lcd screen, with the thickest of reading glasses it’s passable.

Toney Smith's picture

Rob, having the ability of playing back images in the EVF is huge for us who wear reading glasses.

For me the reasons are, histogram on screen, rule of thirds grid, level meter, live exposure preview and even styles/film simulations if you use them, the ability to use focus peaking to get the image super sharp, and the general ability to customise the screen to show all info you require.

Oh and the EVF on the X-T2 is huge

Rob Mitchell's picture

Had the X-T2, sold it when I retired as Fuji X ambassador ;)
The Z7 is a huge step up from the X-T2, which was good.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I thought I’d mention, I did a shoot after writing this article using both an OVF and EVF. I found using the OVF, that I was far more in the moment, somehow everything felt bigger and closer. That said, I used my dodgy 24mm which meant going to only EVF.

Spy Black's picture

I use both, I don't think one is better than the other. They both have their pluses and minuses. I just roll with the tools at hand.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I’m the same - makes a good case to continue production of the SLR. It’s nice to have the OVF as an option

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Same - I jump back and forth between OVF and EVF and it's just fine. The only time I ever notice is if I pick up one of my super-retro mirrorless cameras like the Panasonic G1, but anything 2014-ish or newer is pretty good.

Marius Pettersen's picture

I've been negative towards EVFs for a long time, as I adore the idea of looking through the lens, but recent developments in EVFs do show a lot of benefits - and I can understand why people prefer it. Give me a hybrid!

In the latest newsletter from Canon, you'll read the following paragraph: "With the EOS R, you can set the [electronic] viewfinder to black and white, which to me is a total game-changer," says Canon Ambassador and self-made professional photographer Helen Bartlett.

And that is something I'd really like to try out, and something that I didn't think about before.

Jonathan Reid's picture

For sure, I hadn’t thought of that, but I imagine if you do a lot of black and white, something like this will help you see scenes you could have previously overlooked.

Michael Holst's picture

Well.. With EVF you ARE looking through the lens it's just as the sensor looks through it and not reflected up through a prism. I bought into it since it take makes finding the right global exposure super easy without having to take the camera away from my eye.

Sony has had the Black and White EVF option for a while.

Marius Pettersen's picture

"With EVF you ARE looking through the lens"
Sure, that's the effect, but it's not the same.

The newer EVFs are great. I have a camera with one, and I love using it.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Personally, I haven't shot with any of the latest EVFs but the previous generation still was making me a bit queasy and the lag drove me insane. The features are phenomenal, as soon as I can look through an EVF and not get nauseous, I'm sold. (Though, I also need to be sold on swapping out thousands of dollars in Nikon glass ;) )

Edgar Moskopp's picture

why swap the glass? just use the FTZ Adapter?!

Ryan Cooper's picture

Based on how things are, right now, Id change brands if I was going to move to an EVF

Edgar Moskopp's picture

curious to read where you would switch to. I still have the feeling that if you look BESIDES spec sheets that the Nikon Zs are excellent cameras with way higher usability / more fun than the Sonys.
A switch is always super expensive and I have the feeling that the benefits you might get are marginal but the cost is so high.

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