EVF vs OVF. Electronic viewfinder versus optical viewfinder.
It’s a tough question, and one that photographers have spent many years debating. Some photographers swear by their optical viewfinders, and refuse to work with an electronic viewfinder; other photographers claim that optical viewfinders are obsolete and that electronic viewfinders are the future.
So who is right?
And, more importantly, which type of viewfinder should you be using?
That’s what this article is all about.
I’m going to give you the advantages and disadvantages of both these viewfinder types.
And by the time you’ve finished, you’ll know which viewfinder is better for you–and which viewfinder will help improve your photos, fast.
Let’s dive right in.
Table of contents
- What Is an OVF?
- What Is an EVF?
- EVF vs OVF: Camera Selection
- EVF vs OVF: Resolution and Clarity
- EVF vs OVF: Exposure Preview
- EVF vs OVF: Low-Light Photography
- EVF vs OVF: Shooting With Filters
- EVF vs OVF: Shooting into the Sun
- EVF vs OVF: Manual Focus
- EVF vs OVF: Depth of Field Preview
- EVF vs OVF: Viewfinder Lag
- EVF vs OVF: Artistic Simulations
- EVF vs OVF: Image Review
- Who Should Use an Optical Viewfinder?
- Who Should Use an Electronic Viewfinder?
- EVF vs OVF: The Next Step
What Is an OVF?
An OVF is an optical viewfinder.
It gives you a preview of the scene that you’re shooting, and it does this optically. When you look through an optical viewfinder, you’re viewing the actual scene before you, simply reflected by mirrors inside your camera.
In other words, optical viewfinders give you a true image (or something very close to it).
Note that this does not mean that optical viewfinders show the image of your scene and nothing else.
In fact, most optical viewfinders include a number of helpful overlays on top of the image, such as a rule of thirds grid, your active (and sometimes inactive) autofocus points, and your exposure information.
What Is an EVF?
An EVF is an electronic viewfinder.
As the name suggests, it’s purely electronic.
When you look through an EVF, you’re not seeing the actual scene. Instead, you’re seeing a digital version of the scene, displayed at a very high frame rate.
(It’s a video feed, taken straight from your camera sensor.)
Electronic viewfinders also display autofocus points and exposure data, same as optical viewfinders, though they sometimes come with helpful extras (such as focus peaking features, as I explain below).
Now let’s take a look at EVFs versus OVFs, and which option is right for your needs, starting with:
EVF vs OVF: Camera Selection
Different cameras offer different viewfinder types.
Which means that your choice of viewfinder will seriously limit your choice of camera (and vice versa).
Here’s what you need to know:
DSLRs (i.e., digital single-lens reflex cameras, which offer interchangeable lenses and pack an internal mirror system) use optical viewfinders.
In fact, every DSLR includes an optical viewfinder, from hobbyist DSLR models to ultra-professional DSLR models.
Whereas some mirrorless cameras (i.e., cameras that use interchangeable lenses but don’t include a mirror) use electronic viewfinders.
High-end mirrorless models such as the Nikon Z6, the Sony a7 III, and the Canon EOS R5 contain electronic viewfinders.
And while electronic viewfinders are becoming more and more present in mirrorless camera lineups, there are still hobbyist mirrorless models, such as the Canon EOS M100, which doesn’t include any viewfinder at all; instead, it only offers a Live View screen for previewing (and reviewing) images.
(Note that there are also mirrorless cameras that offer optional viewfinders that mount onto the camera, but these are pretty rare. And there are other mirrorless cameras that include both an electronic viewfinder and an optical viewfinder, though these are even rarer.)
Now, are DSLRs better than mirrorless cameras, or are mirrorless cameras better than DSLRs?
That’s really a whole other can of worms, but the truth is that both camera types have their place at present. DSLRs offer a robustness and lens selection currently not available in most mirrorless lineups, whereas mirrorless cameras offer a compact, travel-ready form and blazing-fast autofocus.
However, mirrorless cameras do seem to be the future, and camera manufacturers are turning their engineering divisions away from DSLR systems, so if you’re looking to future-proof your camera gear, then a mirrorless camera is probably the better option.
Here’s the bottom line:
If you go for an optical viewfinder, then you’re basically going to have to accept a DSLR (with all its benefits and drawbacks).
And if you go for an electronic viewfinder, then you’re going to have to accept a mirrorless camera.
So just bear that in mind!
EVF vs OVF: Resolution and Clarity
Here’s something you should know, right from the beginning:
Electronic viewfinders just don’t offer the resolution and clarity that you get from an optical viewfinder.
This is because optical viewfinders show you the actual scene, which is crisp and clear and lifelike, thanks to the fact that you’re seeing reality.
Whereas electronic viewfinders are giving you a digital preview of the scene, one that’s limited by the resolution and frame rate of your mirrorless camera.
Now, some electronic viewfinders look really, really good. At the time of writing, the highest resolution electronic viewfinder available in a mirrorless camera is over nine million dots (found in the Sony a7S III), followed by several 5.76M-dot EVFs (found in the Canon EOS R5 and the Sony a7R IV, to name just two).
But these cameras are extremely expensive, in part because you’re paying for such a high-end electronic viewfinder.
Much more common in mirrorless cameras is a 2.36M-dot EVF, which looks good but not great, while cheaper mirrorless models use even lower resolutions, many of which just don’t come across as crisp at all.
(Note that electronic viewfinder clarity does vary depending on the technology used; it’s not all about resolution, though resolution matters a lot.)
Personally, I struggle to use electronic viewfinders with resolutions below the 2.36M-dot mark, because they aren’t clear enough.
Whereas electronic viewfinders with 3.69M-dot resolutions and above feel very real to me, to the point that I often forget that I’m looking at a digital, rather than optical, display.
All in all, if you’re after the best possible resolution, an optical viewfinder is the way to go. But if you can afford to purchase a camera with a higher-end viewfinder, you may not notice much of a difference!
EVF vs OVF: Exposure Preview
This one’s a big deal.
For me (and many other photographers), it’s the biggest selling point of electronic viewfinders.
You see, optical viewfinders show you the scene, unaffected by your camera settings.
Whereas electronic viewfinders are digital, which allows for some cool effects–including exposure simulation/preview.
What does this mean?
It means that, when you dial camera settings into a mirrorless camera, you’ll get a preview of the resulting image in your EVF, a preview that includes exposure simulation.
So when you boost your shutter speed, the display inside your EVF will get darker, to mimic your final image.
And when you widen your aperture, the display inside your EVF will get brighter, as will the final image.
As you can imagine, this is extremely useful. You no longer have to rely on your meter display to determine whether you’ve nailed the exposure, nor do you have to worry about coming home and finding that all your photos are dark. Instead, what you see is what you get. It’s a far more intuitive, more engaging method of shooting, one that prevents you from making egregious errors and keeps your images looking all-around better.
Now, you’re probably wondering:
How accurate is the exposure preview offered by EVFs?
In my experience:
Very, very accurate.
In fact, I’d say that EVF exposure previews are perfect, with the exception of shooting long exposures (where things can get slightly messed up).
It’s worth noting that you can view the same type of exposure simulation via the Live View option on most DSLRs. But this isn’t nearly as convenient, and you’ll struggle to evaluate it properly when working in bright light.
EVF vs OVF: Low-Light Photography
Electronic viewfinders don’t do well in low light.
This is because they use a digital display, one that has to deal with the effects of a boosted ISO (which is required in low light).
So the lower the light, the noisier and more unpleasant electronic viewfinders get.
This is in contrast to optical viewfinders, which work perfectly well in low light.
Now, EVFs tend to be okay in relatively low light (e.g., shade). And on many EVFs, indoor lighting doesn’t look especially bad, even if it’s not as crisp as when working with outdoor lighting.
But if you frequently shoot long exposures at night, you may find yourself getting frustrated at the high noise levels.
EVF vs OVF: Shooting With Filters
If you’re shooting with a strong neutral density filter, you’re going to struggle to focus with an optical viewfinder.
This is because a 10-stop ND filter will turn the OVF completely dark, so you can see literally nothing.
So if you want to nail focus while using a 10-stop ND filter, you’ll need to focus in advance, then add the filter, then take the shot.
And if you want to refocus after you’ve captured a frame, you’ll need to take off the 10-stop ND filter, focus again, and so on.
It’s impractical and it’s annoying, especially when you’re shooting in difficult conditions and you don’t want to keep taking your filter on and off your lens.
Electronic viewfinders, on the other hand, offer exposure simulation (as I’ve explained above).
Which means that they compensate for the 10-stop ND filter, and give you a (relatively) accurate preview of your shot through the viewfinder.
This allows you to see the scene through your EVF, even if you’re working with a 10-stop ND filter.
Will the EVF get a bit noisy?
Without a doubt; working with a 10-stop ND filter is like working in near darkness.
But you’ll still be able to focus pretty well.
Note that some mirrorless cameras are limited in terms of their ability to focus in near darkness, so you may have to focus manually.
But focusing manually is certainly more convenient than not focusing at all!
EVF vs OVF: Shooting into the Sun
Shooting into the sun is one of the easiest ways to capture stunning photos.
It’s how you can achieve effects like this:
As well as dramatic silhouettes:
But if you’re anything like me, shooting into the sun with an optical viewfinder is physically painful. Sometimes, I come away with spots in front of my eye as well as a headache.
And other times, I completely avoid shooting into the sun; it’s just that uncomfortable!
On the other hand, electronic viewfinders allow you to shoot into the sun with zero issues.
Since you’re not getting a true look through the lens, you don’t get the level of brightness provided by the sun. Instead, the sun simply looks blown out (and if you decrease the exposure enough, the sun will simply be a grayish ball).
This is far easier to work with, and it’ll allow you to keep shooting into the sun and capture those high-level images!
EVF vs OVF: Manual Focus
Earlier, I talked about the ease of focusing using an electronic viewfinder with an ND filter, compared to an optical viewfinder with an ND filter.
But that’s not the only focusing benefit offered by EVFs.
You see, electronic viewfinders offer a number of useful manual focus aids, especially on higher-end cameras.
Some EVFs include focus peaking, which highlights the edges in-focus areas with an (often customizable) color. This is very useful if you frequently find yourself capturing images that are nearly–but not completely–in focus.
And most EVFs offer some form of magnification, where you can zoom in on your image to focus at 10X, allowing you to fine-tune your focus for maximum sharpness.
Unfortunately, none of these features are offered on optical viewfinders, because you don’t have a digital display to work with.
EVF vs OVF: Depth of Field Preview
On electronic viewfinders, you can preview your exposure before taking the shot. On optical viewfinders, you can’t.
But what about depth of field? Is that something you can preview?
Honestly, this is a bit of a tricky one.
You see, technically speaking, you can preview depth of field through optical viewfinders. Most DSLRs offer a depth of field preview button; when you press this, it closes down the aperture and lets you view the expected depth of field for the image.
The problem is that the DSLR depth of field preview button makes the viewfinder far darker–to the point that I find it truly unusable. It’s difficult to evaluate whether parts of your image are sharp when they’re dim, and that’s why I almost never use the depth of field preview on my DSLRs.
As for electronic viewfinders…
Some EVFs offer you an instant depth of field preview.
In other words:
Whenever you change the aperture, you get immediate feedback in your EVF, so that you can view aperture adjustments in real time.
And that’s extremely useful.
But this only works when you’re using a lens with a manual aperture ring (which you twist to change the aperture).
Otherwise, the aperture doesn’t close until you fire the shutter button, which means that the depth of field won’t be reflected in the electronic viewfinder.
Note that this is also true for some lenses that mount on OVF cameras, but the viewfinder brightness will darken, as with the depth of field preview button.
Fujifilm lenses, for instance, offer manual apertures, which is why you get a highly accurate depth of field preview when looking through a Fujifilm viewfinder.
But most other camera manufacturers (e.g., Nikon, Canon, and Sony) don’t include a manual aperture ring. In such cases, the camera sometimes offers a depth of field preview button, which works like the DOF preview on a DSLR, except without the light loss in the viewfinder.
In other cases, the camera won’t offer any form of DOF preview at all.
EVF vs OVF: Viewfinder Lag
As I keep emphasizing:
Optical viewfinders show you a true image.
Which means that there’s no lag; you’re simply looking at a scene through a lens.
Cameras using electronic viewfinders, on the other hand, have to convert the light into a digital image and then display it via the EVF. And that can take time, which manifests as viewfinder lag.
These days, high-end viewfinders have very little lag, but it’s still there, and can be a problem for action shooters.
And lower-end viewfinders, or viewfinders in older mirrorless cameras, are much worse. You’ll often end up with significant, noticeable lag–which isn’t a big deal if you’re a landscape or portrait shooter, but can become a huge issue if you shoot sports, birds in flight, or street images.
If you think you might want an electronic viewfinder but you’re concerned about lag, I’d recommend that you read reviews of the particular camera you’re after. Most will discuss the electronic viewfinder, and should give you a sense of whether the EVF is plagued by lag, or whether you’ll be able to shoot comfortably in fast-paced scenarios.
EVF vs OVF: Artistic Simulations
Optical viewfinders show you what’s there.
And while electronic viewfinders aren’t as high-resolution as optical viewfinders, they offer a fantastic shooting aid:
What do I mean by this?
Pretty much all electronic viewfinders include a group of “filters,” ranging from sepia overlays to black and white overlays to color film simulations.
For those who shoot in black and white, I’d say that the black and white overlay alone makes electronic viewfinders better than optical viewfinders. Because it allows you to see the world in black and white, which is far easier than trying to mentally convert between color and black and white through an EVF.
Fujifilm is known for their film simulations, and I find them to be truly inspiring. As you’re shooting, you can cycle through different film simulations and see how the world looks when ultra-saturated, when low-contrast, etc. This is beyond cool, and it’s great for coming up with new ideas for images (try shooting in only sepia for a day!).
EVF vs OVF: Image Review
Here’s the final benefit of electronic viewfinders:
They allow you to review your images in the viewfinder itself.
So even once you’ve taken a shot, you don’t have to rely on the rear LCD.
Instead, you can view your images in the EVF, which is helpful for getting an accurate understanding of colors, lighting, and exposure (since you don’t have to contend with reflections on the rear LCD, etc.).
You can also zoom in to view your point of focus and check sharpness.
While all of this is also possible on the rear LCD provided by cameras with OVFs, the problem is that rear LCDs are difficult to work with unless you’re shooting in complete darkness. They’re prone to reflections, and they’re affected by ambient light levels. Images often look well-exposed on a rear LCD viewed in bright, when in reality they’re too dark or too light.
Who Should Use an Optical Viewfinder?
Now that you’re familiar with the pros and cons of optical viewfinders versus electronic viewfinders, you should hopefully have a better idea of whether an optical viewfinder is right for you.
I’d recommend you grab a camera with an optical viewfinder if resolution and clarity are of utmost importance to you–or if you frequently shoot in low light, where EVFs can become frustratingly noisy.
If you’re an action photographer, you should also consider optical viewfinders. Because while EVF-laden mirrorless cameras will generally offer higher continuous shooting speeds than DSLRs, EVF lag is a problem, and one that some sports photographers find prohibitive.
Finally, if you need a DSLR for some other reason, then an optical viewfinder is the way to go.
Who Should Use an Electronic Viewfinder?
Electronic viewfinders are very impressive and come with a lot of benefits.
That’s why I’d recommend going for an electronic viewfinder in most situations, barring frequent low-light and action photography.
Electronic viewfinders allow you to preview exposure and (sometimes) depth of field in real time. They allow you to do manual focusing with great precision, and they offer incredibly useful artistic simulations.
So unless you see a particular reason to pick an OVF, I’d stick with an EVF.
EVF vs OVF: The Next Step
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should have a sense of whether an electronic viewfinder or an optical viewfinder makes sense for your needs.
And once you have a viewfinder that works for you…
…use it frequently! The more practice you get behind the camera, the better.
Pretty soon, you’ll be capturing photos like a pro.
An EVF is an electronic viewfinder. It’s essentially a digital display that comes straight from the camera sensor; with an EVF, you can preview images before you even press the shutter button! Note that an EVF doesn’t just show you the scene–it should also give you access to camera settings, the camera menu, image histograms, and much more.
An OVF is an optical viewfinder. OVFs let you see directly through your camera’s lens, but optically (rather than digitally). So when you look through an OVF, you’re viewing the scene as your lens sees it. OVFs also include helpful overlays, such as camera settings, but they’re more limited than EVFs in what they can display.
That depends on the type of photography you do. Electronic viewfinders offer some features that optical viewfinders can’t match, such as exposure simulation (where you see your exposure in the viewfinder before you take a shot). And electronic viewfinders include focus aids such as focus peaking, so that you can see what areas are in focus before pressing the shutter button. However, electronic viewfinders suffer from (often very slight) lag, which makes them less desirable for sports and action photographers. And optical viewfinders perform far better than electronic viewfinders in low light, where EVFs tend to get clouded by high-ISO noise.
Yes, electronic viewfinders do work in low light. However, they struggle far more than optical viewfinders, because they’re forced to boost their internal ISO for a bright video feed. So while it’s possible to use an electronic viewfinder indoors or at night (and I’ve done this quite a lot, myself), you’re not going to get the same clear image that an optical viewfinder offers.
Absolutely! Electronic viewfinders on low-end mirrorless models tend to offer very low resolutions and have other issues (such as color shifts and lag). Whereas electronic viewfinders on higher-end models tend to be quite impressive, with lots of resolution and strong capabilities overall. In fact, the difference between a low-end and a high-end electronic viewfinder is night and day, so I definitely recommend you think about this before buying.
Electronic viewfinders offer previews of your image before you ever press the shutter button, which is absolutely invaluable for many photographers. EVFs also include useful technology such as focus peaking and live histograms, which allow you to evaluate your point of focus and your exposure, respectively. EVFs aren’t perfect, however; as I talk about in the article, electronic viewfinders suffer from high-ISO noise in low light, which can be a big issue for nighttime shooters.