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Are there any particular advantages to using the viewfinder for focusing instead of the LCD?

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Besides all of the great tangible benefits outlined by Matt Grum, it has a great intangible benefit of just feeling more "real" and better, because, it is. Would you rather watch football from the 50yard line front row, or on TV? Kind of like that. There is nothing like the real thing. –  dpollitt Dec 7 '11 at 4:01
    
@dpollitt: would you rather watch football from the nosebleed section using a pair of cheap binoculars, or see the game on a high-def 60" TV? Maybe you'd still prefer to be there, but I don't think the comparison is so obvious. –  mattdm Dec 17 '11 at 3:36
    
@mattdm - And that is why I used the 50yrd line/front row for the illustration and not the nosebleeds! –  dpollitt Dec 17 '11 at 4:44
    
@dpollitt: I know it, but on many cameras it is more like the nosebleeds. –  mattdm Dec 17 '11 at 13:21

3 Answers 3

up vote 21 down vote accepted

In general there are the following advantages of manual focussing via the optical viewfinder instead of the LCD:

  • The viewfinder image is almost certainly sharper than the LCD, when viewing the entire image. This makes it easier to judge when something is in focus for the times when you need to be able to see the whole image at once (e.g. for a scene that may change without warning)

  • The viewfinder image updates in realtime whereas the LCD has a small lag due to the need to read and process the sensor image, as well as the finite refresh rate of the LCD screen. This could have affect focusing speed as you can turn the focus ring faster using the viewfinder as you can see the changes in focus more immediately.

  • A viewfinder is easier to use in direct sunlight (though you can get a loupe/shades that make LCD viewing easier).

  • Viewfinders in SLRs have the option of using a split prism focussing screen which allows easy manual focussing on subjects with sufficient detail.

  • DSLRs with live view limit the amount of time you can view the image live on the LCD as it can heat up the sensor. The time is quite long, however for all day shoots in hot conditions sensor overheating may be become a disadvantage of using the LCD screen compared to the viewfinder.

  • Similarly the shutter is open the whole time you are using the LCD so if you inadvertently point the camera at the sun (or worse put the camera down pointing at the sun) you can damage the sensor.

There are also many advantages of using the LCD instead of the viewfinder to manually focus:

  • The flipside of the last point, if you point the camera at the sun using the LCD you'll only damage the camera, not your eyes!

  • If you don't need to monitor the whole image you can zoom the LCD image into the area of interest to see more detail than you can through the viewfinder.

  • The LCD image you see is always has the exact DOF you will get in the final image if you focus stopped down. Most laser etched focus screens in SLRs cut of light after about f/2.5 meaning the DOF will appear greater in the viewfinder when using fast lenses wide open.

  • For compact cameras with optical viewfinders there is a paralax error meaning you see a slightly different image than you capture. Again DOF may be different. The LCD shows you the correct image.

  • Most SLR viewfinders only cover 95% of the image. If for some reason you need to focus on the extreme edges you need to use the LCD screen.

  • The LCD screen is more visible in the dark due to the ability to brighten the picture by increasing ISO.

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Great list. I think that most DSLR's won't let you change the focusing screen to a split screen type. More often when talking about the entry level ones, but sometimes the pro level ones are limited with this respect. I wish my EOS 7D would have that option. –  ysap Dec 27 '10 at 17:06
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There are many third party focus screens made for mid range Canons, check out katzeyeoptics.com/item--Canon-7D-Focusing-Screen--prod_7D.html –  Matt Grum Dec 27 '10 at 17:58
    
There are cameras that use full aperture while focusing and set the real f-number just prior to finally taking the photo. So the statement about the LCD showing the real DOF does not hold true for all cameras. (I have two different Olympus that behave like that) –  Jahaziel Dec 7 '11 at 15:09

And on top of Matt Grum's almost exhaustive list, viewfinders won't eat up your batteries.

(Except if the viewfinder is electronic, but that's luckily quite rare)

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Good point! (I knew I'd miss something obvious). –  Matt Grum Dec 27 '10 at 10:22
    
Agreed, though electronic viewfinders are not rare on the mirrorless cameras and they are becoming quite common. –  John Cavan Dec 27 '10 at 13:45
    
I should have stated that when I use the term viewfinder in my answer I am referring to optical viewfinders. EVFs convey the same advantages and disadvantes of LCD screens except for viewing in direct sunlight where they are much better than LCD screens. –  Matt Grum Dec 27 '10 at 14:25

And to top it all: using the viewfinder almost forces you to hold the camera in such a way that it will be the most stable platform possible without resorting to a tripod. Thus you'll suffer a lot less from motion blur, composition errors, camera shake, etc. etc.

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This is actually a huge increase in stabilization if done right. However, it still doesn't beat a monopod, if used correctly. –  Eruditass Dec 7 '11 at 7:24
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a monopod also relies on holding the camera to the eye for stability, holding it at arm's length and using the viewfinder compromises a monopod greatly. –  jwenting Dec 7 '11 at 8:30

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