Returning to using a DSLR for July, one of the main reasons was to enjoy composing and focusing with a viewfinder (VF) again, after almost two years of predominantly using digital cameras with Live View (LV) screens.
It’s reminded me why I love – and hate – using a VF!
Here are the reasons –
Why I love using a viewfinder
Using a VF, all you see is what’s there in that rectangle, all else is blocked out.
Which makes it easier to immerse yourself fully in the composition, not only to ensure you get exactly the shot you want, but to eliminate all outside distractions too.
This also enhances the connection with the composition, and heightens the escape from all else.
This is without doubt the single most important reason I value using VFs.
Depth of field preview
Using a DSLR with a relative large APS-C sensor (compared with a digital compact), there’s the opportunity for more shallow depths of field.
Which is something I enjoy exploiting – it’s one of those magical aspects of photography for me, that we can control the amount of blur in the background in a way our eyes don’t see in reality.
Having depth of field preview, so you can see exactly how much of the image before and behind the subject in focus is blurred, and to what extent, gives much greater control than a screen that shows just the composition as the eyes see it.
Consistent in a range of conditions
Using a screen in bright sunny conditions can be very challenging, if not impossible, especially if you’re trying to focus manually too.
With a VF, even in dazzling sunshine it’s still fairly easy to compose and focus as the surrounding light doesn’t enter the VF.
It just feels right
Raising a camera to your eye to compose and focus just feels right, and connects you better with the camera.
I remember the scent of certain cameras (especially old film ones!) that I wouldn’t have noticed if they hadn’t spent so much time pressed against my face.
That doesn’t really go the same for cameras with a screen, often held at arms length.
Why I hate (ok, maybe just dislike!) using a viewfinder
The confusing relative specs
Even with a camera with a great viewfinder like the Pentax K10D, because it’s an APS-C sensor camera, the actual VF image is far smaller than in a 35mm SLR.
It took me ages to understand why I was so disappointed with the K10D’s VF, even though on paper its spec of 0.95x magnification and 95% field of view sounds fantastic.
This page on DSLR viewfinder sizes is useful and gives translations to show the effective size of the VF compared with a 35mm SLR.
In short, the K10D – close to as good as a VF gets with an APS-C sensor DSLR – is only 0.63x the effective size of the equivalent VF on a 35mm film camera (ie 0.95x magnification / 1.5x crop factor).
Because of the smaller VF, and the fact that most are of course optimised for using Auto Focus (AF) lenses, so they don’t have focusing aids like a split microprism, they are much harder to focus manual lenses with.
Using a Pentax DSLR, and knowing that there are nearly 45 years’ worth of K mount lenses and decades’ more M42 lenses (via an adapter) at my disposal, it’s hard to just stick with modern plastic AF ones.
So it’s meant that far more often than not I’ve been struggling to focus a manual focus lens on a DSLR body.
The need for maximum aperture (and a fast one)
Again, because of the smaller size and lack of focusing aids, to give yourself the best chance of focusing manually (or indeed seeing where an AF lens has focused), it’s almost essential to focus with the lens at its widest aperture, to let the maximum amount of light in.
This means, with older lenses that don’t automatically stop down the moment you release the shutter, constant opening and closing of the aperture blades, and finding ways to do this efficiently.
Worse, with some slower lenses (say f/3.5 or f/4), even at maximum aperture, they’re difficult to focus.
Even with the best DSLR VFs I’ve used, my eyes tire pretty quickly. An hour of focusing, or perhaps longer if I’m wandering more than photographing, and my eyes have had enough.
Using a screen, I hardly ever notice any eye fatigue, so it’s because of the additional work our eyes have to do when squinting into a VF.
As you can see, I have very mixed views about using DSLR viewfinders!
They are unparalleled in the immersive experience they give though, so despite all the shortcomings, I expect I’ll continue to use them, if perhaps only intermittently, in the months and years to come.
How about you? Do you more often use a VF than a screen, and what are the pros and cons for you?
Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
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