I’m told the optical viewfinder is dead. We did that. It’s our fault

Rod Lawton using Nikon DSLR
(Image credit: Future)

The arguments for mirrorless cameras and electronic viewfinders over old-school OVFs (optical viewfinders) seem irrefutable. You get to see the image the sensor is capturing in real time, you see the effects of any white balance changes or different picture styles or even exposure adjustments. You get a histogram in your viewfinder, more image info than you ever see in a DSLR viewfinder and you don’t have a dirty great mirror clanking up and down every time you press the shutter release.

We have a whole article on DSLR vs mirrorless cameras. The best DSLRs are a dying breed; the best mirrorless cameras have taken over the world. 

But hold on. Here’s my issue…

Your eyes vs your sensor

With a mirrorless camera, what you see when you put the camera to your eye is a real-time digitized representation of what’s in front of you. 

With a DSLR, or any camera with an OVF, such as a Leica M or a Fujifilm X-Pro, when you put the camera to your eye, what you see in the viewfinder is what you saw the instant before. To me, it’s just more natural to look at a ‘naked eye’ image in a viewfinder than a digital one.

So obviously at some point your camera will capture and store the image digitally. For myself, I’m quite happy to wait half a second for it to appear on the rear screen. I can check the colors, the exposure, the rendering then.

So we got rid of those silly mirrors in DSLRs? But we also got rid of the optical viewfinders that went with them. (Image credit: Nikon)

Am I just splitting hairs?

Possibly. It wouldn’t be the first time. But after years of using both mirrorless cameras AND DSLRs I still prefer to look through an optical viewfinder.

So why this irrational preference? A couple of things, and not so very irrational either.

Most EVFs have some degree of ‘granularity’, though that’s disappearing as EVF resolutions climb ever higher. They also have some degree of lag, which usually goes unnoticed in everyday shooting but can be painful if you’re trying to follow fast-moving subjects. 

Higher-end mirrorless cameras can effectively eliminate lag with ultra-fast refresh rates, sensor readout speeds and processors, but this is at the pro end of the market.

It’s true that a DSLR’s mirror causes a flickering ‘blackout’ in burst shooting, but mirror ‘flicker’ with no lag is much better than no flicker and lag.

An EVF doesn't show you what the sensor will capture. It displays the camera's real-time JPEG preview, hopefully accurately but not always. (Image credit: Sony)

There’s one more thing. An EVF does not show you what the sensor is capturing. It’s showing you a representation of that using a small digital display which does not necessarily reflect the dynamic range or even the true color of the captured image. It’s very easy to end up correcting exposures that don’t need correcting.

So always trust your histogram more than your EVF. Oh, except when you’re shooting raw, because the histogram is generated from your camera’s on-the-fly JPEG preview, not the actual raw data.

Anyone remember the TLR? A unique and beautiful instrument for taking pictures that's now consigned to history. (Image credit: Paul Burrows)

Diminishing diversity

I don’t hate EVFs. Their advantages are clear to me. As are their faults. But what I do hate is what the current fetish for mirrorless cameras has done to the diversity of the camera ecosystem. Pundits constantly predict the demise of DSLRs and apparently can’t wait, few people understand the logic and the beauty of the Leica M system, and almost nobody has any interest in optical viewfinders these days. TLRs (twin lens reflexes) don’t exist any more, and offered a unique shooting experience that’s gone for ever.

Cameras are physical objects that we use with our hands and our eyes. And yet it’s as if no one cares about the shooting experience any more, only the relentless binary logic of marketing and tech talk. We seem to be heading for a camera market where every product is the same and whole evolutionary branches of camera development are closed off for good.


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Rod Lawton

Rod is an independent photography journalist and editor, and a long-standing Digital Camera World contributor, having previously worked as DCW's Group Reviews editor. Before that he has been technique editor on N-Photo, Head of Testing for the photography division and Camera Channel editor on TechRadar, as well as contributing to many other publications. He has been writing about photography technique, photo editing and digital cameras since they first appeared, and before that began his career writing about film photography. He has used and reviewed practically every interchangeable lens camera launched in the past 20 years, from entry-level DSLRs to medium format cameras, together with lenses, tripods, gimbals, light meters, camera bags and more. Rod has his own camera gear blog at fotovolo.com but also writes about photo-editing applications and techniques at lifeafterphotoshop.com