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How I learned to stop worrying and trust the electronic viewfinder

live view can help build confindence in photography dslr

In 2006, Olympus introduced the Evolt E-330, a Four Thirds DSLR that was most notable for being one of the first interchangeable lens camera to offer live image preview – the ability to frame a shot using the LCD. This was a technical achievement because Olympus had to figure out how to get light to the sensor with the mirror in the way (there were two modes: one using a secondary CCD sensor so that the viewfinder could be used, while the second has the mirror flipped up for light to hit the main CMOS sensor, which rendered the viewfinder useless). Fast-forward seven years later, Live View has become a standard feature found in nearly every new digital camera.

Olympus Evolt E-330
Olympus Evolt E-330

Back then, however, Live View was greeted with skepticism from many DSLR users. When asked if pros would ever use it, the photographer who was demonstrating the E-330 for us at the time quietly admitted no, he wouldn’t (but then quickly clarified his answer, after remembering he was working for Olympus). While the Live View mode in the E-330 was useful for a few things like macro or still photography, it was noisy, inaccurate, and, when the mirror was flipped up, the viewfinder couldn’t be used – a feature that most pro photographers preferred and depended on.

Despite all the reviews saying Live View was gimmicky in what was otherwise a good DSLR, the E-330 was way ahead of its time. The problem were the technical limitations of the time, but in a few years Live View has not only improved (brighter image, faster performance, less lag, faster autofocusing, etc.), it has become more desirable in higher-end cameras as consumers step up from compact cameras and smartphones – where Live View is the only option.  

“Consumers are becoming more and more accustomed to framing their photos on cameras as they would on their cell phones,” said Samsung’s Jay Kelbley, who’s the senior marketing manager for the company’s Digital Imaging division.

Consumers are becoming more and more accustomed to framing their photos on cameras as they would on their cell phones.

And, as manufacturers strengthen their mirrorless compact system cameras (CSC), the performance of Live View becomes even more important. Cameras like Samsung’s NX300 and Galaxy NX, as well as new flagship models like the Olympus OM-D EM-1 and Sony Alpha A7 and A7R, all offer cutting-edge Live View technology because they know advanced users would expect nothing less. But two Live View advantages in mirrorless cameras that are trumping many traditional DSLRs are electronic viewfinders (which is essentially a Live View LCD within an eyepiece) and the ability to preview the settings changes in real-time, and these two features could help regular consumers become better photographers.

The LCD and EVF of the new Sony Alpha A7/A7R full-frame camera. The Live View in the EVF is one of the strongest we've used in a camera.
The LCD and EVF of the new Sony Alpha A7/A7R full-frame camera. The Live View in the EVF is one of the strongest we’ve used in a camera.

When we previewed Sony’s A7 and A7R full-frame mirrorless cameras last week, we were really impressed with the EVFs. Not only was the performance equivalent to using a DSLR’s optical viewfinder (we didn’t notice any lag, and autofocusing was really fast), we could see the scene exposure alter – in real time – based on the settings we changed, which is something you can’t do with DSLRs that use optical viewfinders. You can preview what you photo would look like before you press the shutter button, and using the viewfinder allows for greater control of the camera than holding it in your hands, with arms stretched out. In his blog, photographer Gary Fong cited this EVF capability as a reason why he switched to a Sony mirrorless camera.

For consumers who are stepping up to more advanced cameras, the ability to see exposure changes in real-time – something their smartphones and compact cameras already do – could help them become more confident in their photography. Although camera manufacturers have tried to make their high-end cameras more accessible, they still pose some intimidation for users more familiar with smartphones. If a user can see how aperture, shutter speed, white balance, exposure compensation, depth of field, etc. all work together while they’re looking through the viewfinder, he/she might be more inclined to step out automatic mode and into manual. No, it may not be a substitute for properly learning camera settings, but it’s a good way for consumers to teach themselves the mechanics of a digital camera.

We know there are many DSLR-toting photographers who still approach Live View with skepticism (especially since the Live View mode in many DSLRs have limitations), seeing it more as a secondary option to an optical viewfinder. But, as mirrorless cameras become more like DSLRs in performance, mirror cameras could one day become unnecessary. That’s a story for the future, but right now Live View is becoming increasingly useful, especially in the latest electronic viewfinders, and we think that’s a good thing for step-up photographers.

“As the market evolves, camera manufacturers will continue to innovate in these second-screen experiences and extend the photography benefits beyond the traditional camera,” Kelbley said.

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