Finding Views

The previous post reviewing the GF1’s EVF sparked quite a long discussion on DPreview.com and inspired a few talking points for me, notably that I need to write more clearly. Today’s post is going to be especially nerdy but bear with me. It’s about the various tools available to visualize your photograph. There are currently FOUR choices available for today’s enthusiast photographer:

  1. The Electronic View Finder (EVF), i.e. a small LCD with some magnification optics mounted in a little viewfinder enclosure that displays the sensor’s image + various information overlays.
  2. The rear LCD, i.e. a large LCD that displays the sensor’s image + various information overlays.
  3. The through-the-lens mirror or prism viewfinder, i.e. what you get on SLRs and DSLRs. Using a mirror or prism inside the camera, you get to look through the lens which is close to what you will see in your final image.
  4. The fixed optical viewfinder, i.e. a very simple lens with frame lines drawn in the glass that you look through. It shows what the view should roughly look like for a certain focal length.
  5. (quasi 5) The rangefinder viewfinder, which is somewhat similar to 4 but with a triangulating rangefinder mechanism.

I’ve used all of them and they all have their Pros and Cons (if anyone likes, I can list them some other day). When someone considers buying a camera, their viewfinder preferences are often make-or-break.

GF1’s EVF Revisited

To be clear, in this section when I say EVF, I am referring to the GF1’s EVF, not any other camera’s EVF.
What is the EVF useful for? In its current state, the EVF is useful in the following situations:

  1. When you need to use its tilting ability i.e. when the camera needs to be quite near a surface and you can’t angle yourself to see the LCD.
  2. Bright sunlight i.e. the LCD has too much glare.
  3. You just prefer to use a viewfinder.

In all other situations, the LCD seems to me a superior option.

In the interest of full disclosure, I also used to own a GX100 with the removable EVF two years ago. Given the (lack of) difference in performance between the two EVFs, it seems time moves very slowly in EVF-land. However, I have handled the G1 as well and that EVF is pretty good so the GF1 got the short end of the stick on this one.

LCD vs the World

I feel sorry for the LCD, I really do. There is an unfortunate stigma against using an LCD as your primary way of composing photographs because of its association with point & shoots, cellphone cameras and being some sort of hapless amateur. I actually used to hate it, too. Standing there, arms outstretched as if expecting a hug while balancing a small camera at your fingertips and feeling a bit daft. But after a while, I got used to it. For the last two years, I have mostly been using the Ricoh GRD II and recently the E-P1 and GF1 and I still got the results I wanted with minimal public ridicule. So why the hate?

In many ways the LCD is an incredibly elegant solution. You have a huge 3 inches to see your masterpiece on. You get all your exposure and histogram information overlaid. You get controllable guidelines. You get a level balance. The major downsides are it’s difficult to use in bright sunlight if you have a lot of glare and it can be quite disturbing to those around you if it’s dark. Other than that though. … why the hate?

There is a very distinct difference in the “feeling” you get when using any tunnel-like viewfinders vs the LCD. When you look through a viewfinder, you close one eye, press your other eye up against viewfinder cup and you are enveloped into a tiny black gallery admiring your postage stamp masterpieces. It’s a nice, heady feeling and sometimes a bit too nice. How many times has a photographer looked through the viewfinder, thought “holy wow, this is my greatest picture ever” and when later reviewing it on the computer or in print form, thinking “o, maybe not”. I find the LCD a little more honest. In the bright harsh glare of the sun, feeling like a hapless amateur, my crappy photo is displayed on the washed out electrified crystal and plastic and remains what it is, a crappy photo.

I’m not advocating the LCD as the be-all, end-all solution for all your photographic needs. After all, a big part of photography is the process and often times, using a nice viewfinder just makes taking photos a lot more pleasurable. However, I would like everyone to try and consider the LCD as a serious tool and spare a thought for the tool behind the LCD. The GF1’s EVF may not be as essential as I originally thought it was.

The Future!

Since my primary interest is in small cameras, the SLR viewfinder is out of the question, the mechanism takes up too much space. The Pentax K7 with a pancake lens is a wonderful combination but I consider the E-P1 and GF1 about the limit in size for this blog and really, my own uses. That leaves the EVF, LCD and optical viewfinder. I’m excited to see what will come next in EVF technology. If they can significantly improve resolution and up the size more, it could be the last word for tunnel-like viewfinders. For LCDs, maybe there will be some magical anti-glare coating to come along or at the very least, a stick-on sunshade. As for the optical viewfinder, well … it’s such an anachronistic device, I don’t think anyone wants it to change anyways.

[ all photos shot with an LCD ]


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5 Comments

  1. Hi, interesting reading, how would you compare it to Ricoh’s EVF?

  2. Nice insights here, very objective.

    I personally prefer the E-P1, and the EVF that will be coming with the E-P2 will be miles apart from the GF1’s .

  3. My primary reason for considering the EVF is that I often want to take pictures in low light situations where having a bright LCD screen turn on would draw attention. The other strike against the LCD for me is that it’s more difficult to steady the camera when you’re just holding it out in front of you vs. holding it up to your face. I’m still leaning towards getting the GF1 but those things give me pause, especially since my desired lens, the 20mm, doesn’t have OIS.

  4. I’m with you on the underrating of LCDs. I’m totally happy with the GF1 with the LCD. There is something refreshing about NOT having your face pressed against the camera when you want to interact with the subject a bit or see what is going on around you. One thing an LCD or EVF has going for them is the ability to actually ’see’ in black and white prior to taking the photo.

    Is that top shot the KL airport?

  5. Yes, the photo is KL airport. Well spotted!

    I guess if you need small cameras, then becoming more reliant on rear LCDs is inevitable. It would be nice if the 4/3 cameras gave a focusing distance scale as well, then you could shoot blind!

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