The question Why do the focus points leds in my viewfinder appear shadowed? raises another question for me. How are these indicator lights implemented in typical DSLRs? Are they actually small LEDs etched into the focusing screen, and if so, how do they get their power? Or are they projected/reflected from somewhere?

The new Fujifilm X100 has a "hybrid viewfinder" which can show arbitrary heads-up information, including completely switching to electronic viewfinder mode. Is this a much-further-along extension of the same approach taken in DSLRs, or is it different?

In their review of the Nikon D3S, DPReview says:

The AF points are not etched onto the focusing screen, but are displayed on the LCD layer sandwiched inside it.

Is this correct for this model, and do other models and brands follow the same approach? Are there advantages and disadvantages to different designs?

  • Just FYI, Nikon DSLRs don't use the red light system - a black bracket appears around the selected focus point. I don't think they can make LEDs small enough to have them actually fixed to the focus screen, I would imagine they are reflected onto it. May 19, 2011 at 13:27
  • 1
    @ElendilTheTall - LEDs are P-N junctions like any other diode, or transistor to that matter. As such I don't see why you can't nake them as tiny as a lithographed transistor.
    – ysap
    May 19, 2011 at 13:53
  • @ysap: Interesting. @MattDM: The black brackets in my Nikon D5000 viewfinder certainly look like liquid crystal 'images'. May 19, 2011 at 14:03
  • @ysap: There are a couple of reasons. First of all, a red LED will normally be gallium aluminium arsenide. At least TTBOMK, nobody knows how to fab it at nearly as fine if feature sizes as typical silicon CMOS processes do. Second, a smaller feature size means lower power dissipation capability (and therefore lower brightness). A typical LED produces 8-9 lumens/watt. The new higher-power LEDs are quite a bit different, but probably not applicable here. May 19, 2011 at 14:35
  • 1
    Also, the X100's hybrid viewfinder uses a beam splitter and a backlit LCD off to the side.
    – Evan Krall
    May 20, 2011 at 3:11

3 Answers 3


There are a variety of ways to display highlighted focus point indicators in the viewfinder.

One of the earliest (yet still common) methods is to direct light back through the pentaprism to reflect off the rear-surface of reticles etched on the focusing screen or dedicated "superimpose plate". Displayed information is limited to highlighting the etched indicators.

Rough example of reflective etched-focus points

A relatively recent method has been to place a monochromatic transmissive LCD just above the focusing screen. This allows more information to be displayed (a choice of framing guides and myriad focus points) as required, however the LCD becomes less responsive in cold weather and significantly dims the viewfinder when unpowered.

Canon 7D viewfinder system (Canon EOS 7D)

Another way is to use dichroic prisms between the pentaprism and viewfinder eyepiece lens to reflect an illuminated superimposition display (SI) LCD without affecting the brightness of the viewfinder.

Canon 1D MkIII cutaway Canon 1D MkIII viewfinder system (Canon EOS 1D MkIII)

And finally, the new hybrid viewfinders superimpose a colour LCD display using a half-mirror - however the mirror will darken the optical image.

Fujifilm X100 hybrid viewfinder system (Fujifilm FinePix X100)

  • Very informative. It makes me wonder, though, where did you find the first diagram, with the Photo.SE screenshot reflected?
    – ysap
    May 23, 2011 at 7:21
  • I didn't find a decent manufacturer's cutaway showing the simple reflective system, despite it being used on many Nikons and Canons (even "higher-spec" models like the Canon 5D MkII), so created a rough one.
    – Leorex
    May 23, 2011 at 8:11
  • 1
    Well, it's definitely professionally looks (except for the perspective distortion of the image in the eyepiece...). What did you use to create it?
    – ysap
    May 23, 2011 at 13:58
  • For the images you didn't create, are we sure they don't violate the imgur TOS?
    – Evan Krall
    May 24, 2011 at 4:23
  • 1
    The images come from manufacturer press releases and whitepapers intended for republication. For example, a Canon one I have at hand states, "Excerpts from this material may be quoted in published product reviews and articles." I shall edit the answer and identify the products.
    – Leorex
    May 26, 2011 at 7:19

To get the definitive answer you can try to find and study the service or repair manuals for some cameras. For the stupid secrecy of the camera makers they are usually removed from the public access, but can be found elsewhere. This is a page from the Pentax K10D service manual; I don't know if you can figure from it how the LEDs themselves are positioned.

Pentax K10D Service Manual: adjust positioning SI-LED (p.26)

  • Wow. As far as I can tell, the LEDs are mounted on the elastic PCB strip, mounted in front of a small prism and reflected from the focusing screen, which is in line with @ElendilTheTall speculation. (at least for this specific camera)
    – ysap
    May 19, 2011 at 14:34
  • 1
    What I don't really understand is how, from what looks to be 7 LEDs they produce 11 focus points?
    – ysap
    May 19, 2011 at 14:35
  • @ysap: Why do you think there are 7 LEDs? May 19, 2011 at 15:31
  • 2
    Note that at least Pentax and Canon share different methods. You lose the ability to light up focus points when switching screens on Canon, but not Pentax.
    – eruditass
    May 20, 2011 at 0:11
  • 1
    @Evan Krall: I am not sure, but I think it is the case where Fair use is applicable. The purpose of this image here is only research, commentary and self-learning (it's not for repairing DSLRs, for instance); it doesn't affect marketability nor reduce the value of the original work (which is not for sale, BTW) nor it doesn't substitute the original work as a whole, and the scope of this citation is limited only to the question we discuss. Here is a backup image: s003.radikal.ru/i204/1105/07/a824c2627b6a.png
    – sastanin
    May 24, 2011 at 18:14

Perhaps a closeup of one of these tiny surface-mount LEDs would be interesting:

enter image description here

That's magnified quite a bit -- the package is actually 1.6 mm long. The LED itself is the small square at the center with the gold wire connected to the top. I can't (of course) guarantee that this is exactly the same LED package used in the particular camera in question, but it's probably at least pretty close -- and if there is a difference, it's probably just an even smaller package (which makes little difference since, as I already pointed out, this is already magnified quite a bit).

[FWIW: Alpha 700, Minolta 100mm/f2.8 macro @1:1+68mm of extension tubes, 1 second @ f/8]

  • Are you sure the image doesn't violate the imgur TOS?
    – Evan Krall
    May 24, 2011 at 4:25
  • 1
    @Evan: Which term of service did you have in mind? Does somebody find it pornographic? May 24, 2011 at 15:17
  • Ah, I didn't see the exposure info at the bottom, so I assumed that you got the picture from somewhere else.
    – Evan Krall
    May 25, 2011 at 6:22
  • 3
    @Evan: I did. I did the posting in the office, but took the picture out in the breakfast nook -- the light's better there. :-) May 25, 2011 at 13:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.