Why I Love And Hate DSLR Viewfinders In Equal Measure

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

Immersion

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.

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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).

Manual focus

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.

Eye fatigue

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).

Thanks for looking.

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21 thoughts on “Why I Love And Hate DSLR Viewfinders In Equal Measure”

  1. I have a hard time with screens, and so prefer the finder image. I have to say I’ve noticed the optical VF of my Canon is significantly brighter than the EVF of my Nikon and Kodak.
    That Canon just fell right into place as a substitute for the old film SLRs its no longer practical for me to use. But the Nikon has the advantage in taking varied shots on a moments notice, thanks to its zoom capacity. Oddly it has a few other features that exceed the Canon as well.
    I also found I can slip my Pentax ‘chimney finder’ on the Canon. 😀

      1. The biggest problem by far is the image being impossible to see in bright daylight; it’s like all cameras these days are designed to be used indoors, not out. I also have trouble finding a focus distance holding the camera away from me, not to mention the additional unsteadiness of doing that. Frankly I don’t stand that still anymore.
        I’d prefer an eye-level optical finder to the LCD screen.

        1. Yes that is a fundamental flaw, although some are better than others. Even when reviewing a photo on screen (with a DSLR) that was taken using the VF, it can be tricky at times. I’m loathed to increase the screen brightness because then I think it would give me an inaccurate idea of the exposure level.

          I must say with compact digitals, I generally still hold the camera pretty close to my face, just far enough away to be able to focus on it. Otherwise holding at arm’s length it feels really odd and unwieldy.

          1. Ah, there’s the rub; ‘far enough to focus on it’ for me is nearly arm’s length. I’d estimate it at about 2 feet, which compounds the problem of making the screen image small to look at detail. I’ve have this problem seeing other things, like print, as well.

          2. If I wear the close-up glasses I can see at about 1 foot, but not beyond. I also have distance glasses. I’m in the realm of the trifocal, which means nothing is in focus anywhere most of the time.

  2. Like you I have mixed feelings about them Dan. The one on my 40D is pretty good, but for me manual focusing is right out. I finely coughed up the cash for the EVF for my Panasonic’s, and that is a must for me if I am shooting in anywhere near bright light. I love the rear screens, but Mostly outside I’m just “guess framing”, not good. Heading into my later 50’s I think I’m going to have to stick to Rangefinders for film, or TLR’s, and AF for digital. I’ve realized that a viewfinder is a must for me to use any camera at all effectively.

    1. Yes that is probably the biggest downfall of screens, they’re not much use in brighter conditions!

      For me, even if you’re relying on AF for accurate focusing, I still like a decent screen or VF to compose with, so I don’t have to crop afterwards.

  3. Hello, even though my Nikon boasts a 2000+k dot tilting screen with touch focus point functionality, it still is not useable in bright conditions.I seldom use it . It has been useful for fine tuning focus when on a tripod when taking a landscape or doing macro.
    As I wear glasses I can use both eyes equally well for hours using a VF , which as you rightly point out allows total immersion in your subject. Is this not something camera manufacturers should give some attention to?

    1. That’s kind of ironic – and in many ways typically of modern tech – that the Nikon screen has all that functionality that’s mostly unnecessary, but for the absolute basic requirement of a screen – that you can see it – it falls down on!

      I completely agree that camera makers should give more attention to viewfinders, and perhaps some do, I haven’t used many very modern cameras. I think when AF lenses became the mainstream with 35mm film SLRs, the manufacturers thought they could cut corners on the viewfinder size and brightness because there was less reliance on them for critical (manual) focusing. And that followed through to DSLRs, though as most have a cropped sensor, the relative size of the VF is much reduced anyway. I don’t know why physical the image coming through the lens can’t be magnified into a bigger VF to compensate, so with a 1.5x crop sensor, you have a magnification factor of 1.5x so the image is the same as on 35mm SLR. Is it technical limitations, or simply cost and lack of demand from AF users?

      I would be interested in trying a high end full frame body from Pentax or Sony and seeing how good the VF is. But I don’t have the thousands of pounds spare to do that!

  4. Forget seeing a LCD in bright sunlight, I can’t even see it clearly in the dark! Once I hit my mid-forties and needed reading glasses, composing on LCDs wen’t right out the window unless I’m closer than an arm’s length from my subject (in which case I don’t have to remove my glasses). The logistics of looking over, then through my reading glasses takes too much joy from the process otherwise. Viewfinders are a must for me anymore.

    I definitely agree with about modern viewfinders and the lack of split prisms for manual focus, although I have the same issue with some of my vintage film cameras that have microprism screens.

    1. Hi Rob, yes anything that breaks the flow too much starts to spoil the whole photography experience doesn’t it?

      I can’t see that making a split microprism screen would be that much more costly, espeically for cameras sold in their thousands or more. Perhaps it is more that the majority of users just use an AF lens (and probably most of those, the kit lens the camera came with) so the need for manual focus just doesn’t exist, and a VF with a strange shimmering circle in the centre might confuse things!

      I believe some DSLRs for example have replaceable focus screens – I changed the standard screen for an aftermarket spilt prism one in both my Pentax K10D and Samsung GX-1s as they shared exactly the same screen. Which did help, but it was still significantly smaller and harder to focus with than, say, a Pentax ME Super or Super A film SLR.

      I had a Contax 167MT which had interchangeable focus screens. I bought the completely plain one, and despite the lack of focusing aids it was amazingly good to focus with. Plus the complete absence of anything on the screen other than the scene before made it a very pure and immersive experience.

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