Seven Things That Are Good to Know When Your Camera Has an Electronic Viewfinder

Seven Things That Are Good to Know When Your Camera Has an Electronic Viewfinder

With an optical viewfinder, you are literally looking through the lens, so you see exactly what will be in the frame. Now, we have reached the realm of the electronic viewfinder, the EVF. But there are some things you need to be aware of.

An EVF is nothing more than a very small digital screen (LCD or OLED) that has replaced the optical viewfinder. It does not make a camera better; you still look at the frame through the lens, but it comes with a few advantages. The most important advantage is a simpler construction of the camera. It does not require a mirror and pentaprism and thus makes it possible to reduce the size and weight. There are more advantages, but I won’t address those in this article. I would like to focus more on the issues that come with an electronic viewfinder.

The Fujifilm GFX shows a part of the possibilities of the EVF.

You may think it is an article that is against the electronic viewfinder, but trust me, it is not. I do like the evolution of camera design and technique. It is a good thing. Nevertheless, I also believe an optical viewfinder may be more suitable on some occasions. The last thing I want is to rattle up the tiresome discussion about the supposed death of the DSLR, or the future of mirrorless cameras, or how good or how bad the one or the other is. I just want to point out seven issues with electronic viewfinders and a possible solution to work around these issues.

On the side of this Nikon Z 7, there is a small button to switch between the EVF and the LCD screen or turn the monitor in the viewfinder completely off.

1. What You See Is not Always What You Get 

One of the benefits of an electronic viewfinder is the possibility to see the exposure. You will have a dark image in the viewfinder in case of underexposure, and the image will be too bright in case of overexposure. It makes it possible to correct the exposure settings before you take the picture.

What you see is what you get... but not always. The brightness of the LCD screen can influence the way you perceive the image. If the ambient light is too bright, you may think this one is underexposed. This also applies to the EVF.

But be careful when judging the exposure in the viewfinder. Most cameras have the possibility to adjust screen settings. Brightness, contrast, color, picture styles — a lot of adjustments are possible. If you have the incorrect settings, it will influence the judgment of the exposure. A screen that is set too dark can result in overexposed images. A screen that is set too bright can result in the opposite. Ambient brightness can also influence your judgment of the image as seen through the viewfinder.

The only way to judge the exposure is by looking at the histogram. That won’t be influenced by any screen setting. The electronic viewfinder makes it possible to show the histogram in realtime, which is a large benefit. Make sure you keep an eye on it.

Always check the histogram and don't rely on what the image on the LCD screen or the EVF tells you. The histogram is not influenced by the ambient light.

2. The Sensor Is Always Exposed to Light

Because the sensor is used to collect the light for the image on the electronic viewfinder, it will always be exposed to light. Blocking the sensor is not possible. Constantly being exposed to light is no problem, but it can be an issue when a laser is nearby.

Mirrorless cameras are very sensitive to laser beams, because the sensor is always exposed. There is no mirror or shutter to protect the sensor when looking through for a composition.

Lasers are dangerous to sensors, which I found out the hard way. Long exposures in a place where lasers are present can result in burn marks or even a destroyed sensor. A DSLR the sensor is blocked or protected when using the viewfinder, but the mirrorless camera is constantly exposed to those dangerous light beams.

It is not only for people who are photographing at concerts or festivities, but also in the vicinity of self-driving cars that make use of laser beams. So, just be careful when using mirrorless cameras around lasers.

The sensor of the Canon EOS R is protected when you turn off the camera. Unfortunately, you need to turn the camera on again to use the viewfinder. With a DSLR, you can always use the viewfinder.

3. Electronics Use Energy

The electronic viewfinder is a digital screen. It needs power to run, although the battery life of the modern mirrorless camera has increased significantly over the last few years, making this less of an issue over time. An eye sensor not only detects if the viewfinder is being used, but if activated, it can prevent the camera from shutting down into sleep mode. Especially when the camera is hanging around your neck or over your shoulder, the sensor can be activated constantly, thus draining the battery much more quickly. Turning off the camera manually can prevent this, although in that case, you need to be aware it wil take longer before the camera is ready.

The power supply of the Hasselblad X1D. The large battery is enough for a normal shooting day. Just looking through the viewfinder is using energy from the battery. Fortunately, the capacity of modern batteries is increasing.

4. You Need Power Just to Look Through the Camera

I often look through the viewfinder to see if there is a good composition. I place the viewfinder to my eye and start looking around. With a DSLR, you can do this without activating the camera or even with the camera turned off. But not if you have an electronic viewfinder. In that case, the camera needs to be activated, otherwise you won’t be able to use the viewfinder at all. If you have turned the camera off, you need to turn it on again, thus reducing battery life.

You need to turn on the mirrorless camera just for finding a composition. This takes power from the battery. In this image, you see a Fujifilm X-Pro2 that can switch between an optical viewfinder and an electronic viewfinder. But with the filter holder installed, you need the digital one.

5. The Viewfinder Is a Small Light Source

The electronic viewfinder is a screen, and screens produce light. This is no problem is most cases, unless you are doing night photography in really dark locations. If shooting a night sky or Milky Way, you eyes benefit from night sight. It takes about 20 minutes to gain night sight. But the light of an electronic viewfinder can ruin this within a second.

6. Exposure Simulation Has Its Limits

Exposure simulation shows the exact exposure on screen. But that has a limit. When shooting at dark locations, that limit of enhancing the image on the digital screen can be reached. The result is a dark screen with mostly noise, thus rendering it useless. A optical viewfinder may still show enough to be able to make a composition on sight, but for the electronic viewfinder, you will need a different approach.

Finding a composition with an EVF is nearly impossible under these conditions. You might even be blinded by the light generated by the EVF. The electronics cannot enhance the image on screen enough to make it usable.

If you cannot use the electronic viewfinder, there is no need to look through it, which solves point five. By the way, night in the city is not a dark environment. In those locations, you can use the electronic viewfinder without problems.

Night in the city is no problem for an electronic viewfinder. There is enough light to make it usable.

7. Exposure Simulations and Flash

When photographing in a studio environment, the use of the flash exposure sync speed is common. As a reminder, it is the fastest shutter speed where the sensor is completely exposed for flash light. Since the exposure is not set for ambient light, the electronic viewfinder will be almost completely dark, thus rendering it useless for making a composition. In those situations you need to turn off the exposure simulation.

When working in a studio with flash lights, the flash sync will render a dark EVF in combination with the exposure simulation. You need to turn exposure simulation off in order to use the EVF. Don't forget to turn it back on again.

The photographer that always works inside studios can set the camera accordingly. 

Even in this situation, where the ambient light was mixed with an off-camera flash, the EVF was struggling to generate a usable image.

One Last Word

I want to mention again that I don’t want a fight about what is best. I don’t think there is a best, only two different sorts of viewfinders. Each has its own benefits and its own downsides Regardless which camera or viewfinder, you use, it is very important to know the ins and outs of your camera, and knowing any weaknesses makes you able to have a workaround. I hope these seven issues of the electronic viewfinder can help you use the camera the way you want to or the way you need to, bringing lots of fun.

The most important message is to know your camera. Be aware of the shortcomings of your camera. There is almost always a solution available if you run into issues.

I would like to know what kind of viewfinder you use and if you have run into issues that I haven’t mentioned. Please share your experience below in the comments.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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My Z7 automatically turns off the exposure simulation when I activate the wireless trigger in the hotshoe and automatically turns it back on when it's deactivated. It makes it quite useful for balancing ambient and flash.

I haven't seen that when I tested the Z 7 but it is very good when this happens

As someone who needs reading glasses to see the rear LCD. The EVF of the Z7 is a total winner. Simulation or not, I think most of us can judge settings even before shooting.
The biggest bonus is I can review the shot in the EVF without even removing the camera from my eye. Fast, efficent and from the aircraft gig last week, sunshine, blue sky and white fuselages. The D850 stayed in the bag. Z7 and the excellent EVF all the way.

It is pretty nice seeing the histogram and the overexposed blinkies via the eye piece LCD when composing a shot. So far so good with the lighter X-T3, but I still love my (heavy) D750.

EVF's are amazing, full stop.

I've had no problems using the S-OVF on my E-M1 or M1X in the studio or in the dark and using bounce flash. Just bound it to one of the function keys so I can just toggle it on or off.

And maybe it's just progress, but I feel that because of the EVF and the AF being on the same plane as the sensor, my AF accuracy has improved 10-fold over my old D4, not to mention having the histogram in the viewfinder means it's impossible to screw up an exposure.

«…having the histogram in the viewfinder means it's impossible to screw up an exposure.»

Don´t underestimate the stupidity of people. If there is a way…. ;-) :-D

Indeed... the possibility to see the histogram does not mean people also use it :)

I am currently using a hybrid setup, one DSLR and one mirrorless camera. While for travel and landscape I’d prefer to use the mirrorless system for its more compact size, I often don’t, because I am wearing photochromic glasses all the time, and in bright light the optical viewfinder turns out to be vastly superior. This may not be relevant for other users, but for me it makes a huge difference.

Why now? Do we have a choice or will camera manufacturer revert back and start developing new DSLRs? I agree with the author that is essential to know your camera and that is what I pick up from this article.

Great article. I recently bought my first mirrorless (Nikon Z 6) and did in particular discover number 4 on the list. Shooting wildlife I spend a fair amount of time looking though the viewfinder without much happening. On my D750 that is no problem, on the Z 6 there are more frequent battery changes.

Getting used to the electronic viewfinder went surprisingly fast, but I also have no problem going back to optical viewfinders. I keep switching between my Z 6 and D750 all the time and it works surprisingly well. Prefer the OVF for wildlife and astophotography, but for many other genres the EVF is fantastic.

As for number 1 on the list, the EVF may be misleading for exposure sometimes, but having the histogram directly in the viewfinder is just amazing and more than makes up for it.

In regards to self-driving cars, I believe that most LIDAR systems aren't powerful enough to damage a sensor. The A7Sii that was fried at CES last year was due to a prototype LIDAR array that's much more powerful than what's currently in production. So I don't think this is an issue yet but may be in the future.

Times simply change, and it's useless to expect everything to be the same. I've progressed from optical rangefinders to twin-lens reflexes (the image is moving to the left--move the camera to the right) to SLRs without instant return mirrors, to SLRs with instant return mirrors, to view cameras.

Yes, I find the mirrorless camera to be a different beast, and this article does point out those differences.

But it's not the first time the landscape has changed.

What about lag?
What about flicker for people who are sensitive to even very high frequencies? Are we bound to quit photography when we can't buy a camera with optical viewfinder?

A good point.
Although the recent EVF perform good concerning lag. Nevertheless, it is there. Should have mentioned it. Thanks

Yes, flicker!... this shows up a lot in interiors. LED lighting and fluorescent tubes. Imagine having to preview it for the whole evening while shooting. This is the dealbreaker for me IMHO.

It shows up when previewing above 1/100s on the Z6. There is some tricks to avoid recording it in video but if you are shooting stills at 1/100s and above you can't avoid previewing it unless you are going to keep turning the shutter speed dial back and forth!

Nice article. My only comment would be to lose the sentences”i am not against...”, “...don’t want to fight”. It drives me nuts when people preface their comments. State your opinions proudly and console yourself that others will disagree and you won’t be able to stop them.

Ah well... a certain group of people take these articles as a personal attack and feel the need to do a counter attack. I was hoping it would help

Another downside I discovered last week when I was shooting a concert with lots of pyro and flames. I set my exposure to get the shot when the flames were lit, I could follow the artists when the flames weren’t lit because I use an OVF, if I had used an EVF the viewfinder would have been dark when the flames weren’t lit.

Indeed... it is similar as the flash sync time issue. Good point. Thanks

Great article, useful, no click-bait and with good points for us to keep in mind when choosing which camera to take with us when we are prepping to leave. And NO VIDEO to have to grind through for 10 minutes to get to one minute of the actual point! Please, keep it up with articles like this!

Thanks :)

Good article! Facts stated in a calmly manner.

Thank you

Not mentioned? OLED EVF's CAN and DO experience burn-in.