Optical Viewfinder vs. LCD Live View–Is One Better?


One of the trickiest skills photographers learn is the ability to mentally convert the world they see from three dimensions to a two-dimensional plane (such as a print). While each individual varies in their ability to visualize, I believe that this skill is greatly influenced by our camera framing technology–you know, those high tech camera features known as the optical viewfinder or the LCD monitor. Is one better than the other? Do we have a choice?

Unfortunately, one size doesn’t fit all: our choices, such as they are, are limited by the type of camera we use and the type of photography we do. But as digital cameras improve, DSLR users may have the best of both worlds.

We all know that regardless of the camera type, digital enables us to playback the image immediately after capture. Casual and serious photographers alike find that this immediate feedback aids the development of “photographic seeing.” Put another way, digital playback performs the visual 3D to 2D conversion for you, simplifying if not eliminating this mental process. If there is some compositional problem present, it’s pretty obvious on the screen. So why not use the screen for framing full-time?

Compact consumer cameras (point-and-shoots) do exactly this. They typically exclude any optical viewfinder (that’s why they’re compact!) or they come with a viewfinder of limited practical use. Compared to an optical viewfinder, compact camera LCDs display far more information about control settings and provide other useful feedback such as the histogram. In a way, consumer cameras have an advantage over DSLRs in their size, weight, and LCD screens. They combine almost all the qualities we want for general imaging purposes.

On the other hand, DSLRs are tough to beat for speed, quality, and versatility. And now with live-view capabilities appearing in several models from different manufacturers, it’s easy to expect that most DSLRs will offer this functionality in the future. Live-view LCDs are appearing on DSLRs as engineers overcome the challenge of designing such a system while maintaining the traditional optical system.

As I point out in my upcoming review of the Olympus EVOLT E-510 DSLR, live-view is very useful for tripod mounted shooting of subjects from formal portraits to landscapes to macro work. It performs the 3D to 2D conversion in real-time, making it easier for photographers to see the results of their compositional choices. Live-view on DSLRs complements the optical viewfinder for these and many other shooting situations.

However for most common photographic subjects, I still prefer the optical viewfinder. Sports, people, and candids are some general areas where seeing directly through the camera just makes more sense to me. With a good viewfinder, I can see specific facial expressions or elements of the composition moving into place. The LCD monitor seems at times limited to conveying general information about the overall composition and lighting. And practically speaking, it’s much more stable and less obtrusive to hand hold a DSLR up to your eye than at arms’ length. Live view will also consume more battery power.

Another circumstance where an optical viewfinder is more desirable than an LCD monitor is any event where photographers can distract or detract from the event itself. Weddings, conferences, and other events requiring discretion and sensitivity to the participants generally don’t benefit from a bright LCD screen held up by the photographer. There seems to be something less intrusive about a camera momentarily lifted to one’s eye, but perhaps this will change in the future.

Of course, not all optical viewfinders or live-view capabilities are built the same. Naturally, I expect future camera reviews to evaluate LCD monitors by their color, contrast, and resolution. I expect reviews to evaluate the interface design and critique how well photographic information is conveyed on screen. And I hope to find big, bright pentaprisms mounted atop DSLRs for big, bright optical viewfinder images.

For now, live-view is very likely coming to a DSLR near you, and may well become a standard feature on DSLRs of tomorrow. Wedding shooters may not benefit as much as macro shooters, and experienced photographers may not find as much to like as beginners, but try it out for yourself and perhaps you’ll discover that it opens new horizons for your photographic seeing.

By Laurence Chen  |  www.buythebestcamera.com

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  • Larry says:

    Optical is very important for a person who needs glasses for close up. I cannot deal with a LCD only camera. I find that allot of people are not happy with LCD only. Example when I am doing an activity [skiing, jogging, etc.] I have to get my reading glasses out IF I HAVE THEM ON ME to see what I am shooting. I tried to filter the choices when I look for a new camera but its been difficult.

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