Mirrorless Camera Viewfinders

On the page of this site that describes what a mirrorless camera is, I talk about the fact that mirrorless cameras don't have the system of mirrors that true DSLRs do that allow you to compose your photos by looking through the viewfinder.

This means that on many mirrorless cameras, you'll compose your photos by using the LCD screen that's on the back of the camera.

When it comes to viewfinders for mirrorless cameras, there are three options:

  1. No Viewfinder - some cameras don't include any kind of a viewfinder nor do they provide a viewfinder accessory
  2. Optional Viewfinder - some cameras provide the ability to attach either an optical or electronic viewfinder to the top of the camera (typically where you'd attach an external flash)
  3. Included Viewfinder - a few cameras have a built-in electronic viewfinder

So some cameras have no viewfinder...so what? What's the problem - after all, you've got that big LCD on the back of the camera to compose photos so why would you use a dinky viewfinder instead?

Viewfinder Use

The reason that you might need a viewfinder is when you're taking pictures on very sunny days.

When the LCD screen is being hit with direct sunlight, the glare and the contrast can make it hard to see. While you can try to shade it with one hand while taking pictures with the other, this can be tricky.

A viewfinder provides you with an alternative way of composing your photos that's not affected by the amount of available light.

Electronic vs. Optical

There are two types of viewfinders: electronic (the more common one) and optical.

An optical viewfinder is just a hole that you can peer through instead of using the LCD. This hole gives you a sense of the picture you're about to take but it does not show you what the camera really sees.

With an optical viewfinder, the picture you take may not match what you saw in the viewfinder.

Electronic viewfinders (also called EVFs) do show you the exact picture you're about to take, since they feed the image being captured by the camera's sensor up to a small LCD screen in the viewfinder.

Like the large LCDs on the backs of the cameras, the quality of an electronic viewfinder is measured in dots: more dots means a better image.

Image Latency

The only drawback to using an electronic viewfinder is an issue called image latency.

Essentially, this is the inability of an electronic device to keep up with very fast motion.

Let's say you're using your electronic viewfinder to capture photos at a sporting event. As you move the camera from side to side to capture the players, you'll notice that the image blurs each time you move the camera.

Once you hold the camera steady, the image becomes clear.

This latency can make it challenging to take a lot of action and sports photos using an electronic viewfinder. Since the same latency applies to the LCD screen on the back of the camera, it means that any mirrorless camera is not the ideal option if you take a lot of sports photos.

If you're really into action photography, then you should get a true digital SLR instead.

Bottom Line

Viewfinders are most useful on very sunny days when you find it hard to see the image on the camera's large LCD screen.

They come in two versions - optical and electronic - where the electronic version is just like a small LCD stuck on the inside of the camera.

Electronic viewfinders are great for static subjects but are less ideal for subjects in motion since the blur caused by image latency makes it harder to compose your shots.

Camera Comparison

No ViewfinderOptional ViewfinderBuilt-in Viewfinder