Photography Glossary

What is a Viewfinder in Photography?

Photo of author
Written By Jon Ross

You’re holding a camera, squinting at the screen on the back as you try to compose the perfect shot.

You can’t quite seem to get the angle right, and the glare on the screen makes it difficult to see the details clearly. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

Enter the viewfinder.

This simple but powerful tool has been a staple of photography for generations, allowing photographers to frame their shots with precision and accuracy. But what exactly is a viewfinder, and how does it work?

In this article, we’ll explore the ins and outs of viewfinders in photography, from the basic mechanics to the different types available and how to use them effectively.

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, understanding the power of the viewfinder can take your photography to the next level. So let’s dive in and see what this simple yet powerful tool can do.

What is a Viewfinder?

The viewfinder quite simply helps you find the view that the picture should be of. Only if it does that, can it be called a Viewfinder. Because it helps you find the view of an image.

Did you know that there are several ways of framing a shot with your camera? Look more closely, and you will see that there are 2 main camera viewfinder technologies.

The first is optical viewfinder technology – this has been around since the early days of photography, while most cameras that have emerged today use an electronic viewfinder. Both of these technologies have advantages and disadvantages.

But before we go on, let’s talk about how it started first.

what is a viewfinder
the viewfinder

How is a Viewfinder Used in Photography?

By providing a clear and focused view of the subject, a viewfinder allows photographers to make informed decisions about composition, depth of field, and other important elements of the shot.

Whether you’re using a traditional optical viewfinder or a more modern electronic viewfinder, mastering this tool is key to capturing great photos.

How to Use the Viewfinder Like a Pro

While using a viewfinder may seem straightforward, there are some techniques and tricks that can help you get the most out of this essential photography tool.

1. Grid Lines

One important aspect is learning to use the grid lines or other focusing aids available in your viewfinder to ensure that your shots are properly composed and balanced.

2. Adjust Focus

Additionally, understanding how to adjust the diopter or focus of your viewfinder can help you achieve sharper and clearer images.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Start by placing your camera on a stable surface or tripod.
  2. Look through the viewfinder and locate the small wheel or lever near the eyepiece. This is the diopter adjustment knob.
  3. Adjust the knob until the image you see in the viewfinder appears sharp and clear. If you wear glasses, make sure to adjust the diopter with your glasses on.
  4. Once you’ve adjusted the diopter, double-check that your camera settings are correct, including your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
  5. Take a test shot and review it to ensure that the image is properly focused and composed.

3. Trust Instincts

Finally, learning to trust your instincts and use your viewfinder to capture decisive moments in your photography can take your skills to the next level. In this article, we’ll explore these and other tips and tricks for using a viewfinder like a pro.

Why is it Called a Viewfinder?

It is called the viewfinder because it shows the photographer the area/view that will be included in the photograph — it “finds” the “view” and shows it to you.

You will rarely find film cameras that are not equipped with a viewfinder by their manufacturer, like those repro cameras.

Digital cameras however have a viewfinder on the LCD display, there is also a provisional viewfinder that is found on the camera’s back.

This display is usually non-existent on big plate cameras. Those types of cameras are exclusively used with ground glass focusing/previewing.

Currently, the optical zoom viewfinder is the newest release and is now commonly used on modern cameras. You will usually find them on compact cameras with zoom lenses.

what is a viewfinder example

Behind the Viewfinder

In the 20th century, the waist-level viewfinders that were inside those box-shaped cameras were growing more common.

It was then followed by larger viewfinders that made “Through the Viewfinder” (TTV) photography more popular and appropriate in the late 1920 and 1930s.

Then there was the clear square type of viewfinder. They were quite popular during the mid-1960s, the viewfinder type can be easily found in TLRs and pseudo-TLRs.

Unfortunately, they became less popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The reason behind this was the sudden emergence of compact cameras and the 35mm SLRs.

Back in the day, people still felt weird with the sole idea of taking an image while looking through their new viewfinders. The idea itself was quite new and revolutionary.

Compared to the photography folks, TTV photography and Filmography were quick to adapt and learn digital cameras and those EyeTap Devices.

Before digital photography descended and became used worldwide, photographers would often use “extension tubes.”

These tubes were used to take photographs of close-up objects and as you might predict, it was pretty challenging to judge focus using them.

On the other hand, compact digital cameras and DSLRs can easily focus on objects that are up close.

The need for extension tubes became non-existent, with the technology the recent generation of cameras could easily focus, judge framing, and judge exposure.

What Does a Viewfinder Do?

In photography, a Viewfinder is the one thing that a photographic artist glances through to form, and much of the time, to center their imagined image.

So, it is the tiny box that is neatly placed at the top of the camera that we use to shoot photos.

Most viewfinders are discrete, and endure parallax, while the single-focal point reflex camera allows the viewfinder to use the primary optical framework.

In cinematography, the viewfinder is used to pre-visualize the framing of a motion picture camera.

The light and portable director’s viewfinder allow for faster and easier planning of camera movement and position without repositioning heavy equipment.

Do All DSLR Cameras Have a Viewfinder?

In modern cameras, the viewfinders are most often found on DSLR cameras right in the center of the camera.

You will notice a rubber eyepiece that protects your eye from rigid plastic and metal. Other single-lens reflex cameras use a viewfinder that works as a rangefinder.

Yes, the big screen where you can see what you are taking. DSLRs use an optical viewfinder (OVF) and mirrorless cameras use an electronic viewfinder (EVF).

This is accomplished by light passing through the lens (TTL) and reflecting off a reflex or relay mirror, then passing through a pentaprism or pentamirror, and ultimately passing through the viewfinder into the photographer’s eye.

dslr vs mirrorless camera
DSLR vs. mirrorless camera

The most profound benefit of an optical viewfinder is its ability to see through your camera.

Your viewfinder does this by using the light that goes through your lens, thus reaching your eyes and allowing you to easily frame the image.

Additionally, your optical viewfinder will also display essential information. One of them is the focal point that is shown in the image finder.

This neat feature will come in handy when you autofocus the image on the spot.

Various camera models will also display their camera settings in the viewfinder, this includes the infamous exposure triangle too.

The aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are displayed to help you capture the best image.

Another underrated and less-known advantage of looking through the viewfinder is having the camera against your body.

This may sound weird, but by bringing in your arms and pressing your camera, you easily stabilize the camera and effectively reduce shaking from your hands.

Ultimately, this will lead to sharper images.

photographing through the viewfinder
looking through the viewfinder

Do Any Point-and-Shoot Cameras Have Viewfinders?

Yes. Both the point-and-shoot cameras and many digital cameras do use a viewfinder. It is a must-have feature in cameras.

You can easily differentiate a point-and-shoot camera from looking at single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs) in some respects.

In point-and-shoot cameras, the photographers do not see the exact same image that goes through the primary lens of the camera.

Instead, the image that is in the viewfinder goes through a separate lens and not the primary lens.

In comparison, the SLRs will only have one lens and a single mirror that flips the image from the lens and into the viewfinder.

This mirror will automatically retract after you take a picture. The mechanism allows the image to be recorded on the sensor or film.

The mechanism prevents the picture from being previewed on the LCD screens of most DSLRs.

viewfinder on point and shoot camera
point and shoot camera with a viewfinder

Optical Viewfinder vs Electronic Viewfinder

As you know, there are two types of viewfinders on a camera, and this depends if you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

One is the electronic viewfinder (also called LCD) and the Optical viewfinder. Each type has its own fan base defending and encouraging more people to join each side.

Let’s start with the classic optical viewfinder.

Optical Viewfinder

Almost every DSLR camera uses an optical viewfinder. Inside your handy camera, lies a mechanical glass mirror that moves up and down.

This mirror is referred to as the reflex mirror. Surprisingly, the image that you see in the viewfinder is different from the image you saw while taking the image.

This phase requires you to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to produce the image in your vision. You may want your photo to have a thorough focus, then use a small aperture.

exposure triangle

Are you planning to capture a brighter still image? Consider using a slow shutter speed and bring a tripod for good anti-blur measures.

Only after adjusting the aperture and shutter speed, you should adjust ISO.

At least that is how some photographers do it. Use the mode that you are most comfortable with and shoot away.

Although every photographer secretly wants you to use manual mode…

Okay back to the optical viewfinder.

One of the advantages that an optical viewfinder has, is its ability to adjust your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, which is good news for my fellow manual photographers.

Giving photographers the freedom to manipulate their exposure to their heart’s content is truly liberating.

On the other hand, the glaring weakness of an optical viewfinder is its complexity. People that have just entered the world of photography will have a tough time using it.

Sometimes they get images that are over-exposed or images that are under-exposed, unintentionally.

Regardless of that, everyone has to start somewhere, right?

Electronic Viewfinder

The electric viewfinder is the newest type of technology, readily available in almost every mirrorless camera.

Electronic viewfinders lie more on the simpler, easier, and faster side of image capturing. If you fire your shutter when you see the perfect moment, that moment is what you get.

Simply put, what you see is what you get.

Optical viewfinder vs electronic viewfinder

This advantage makes the electronic viewfinder and mirrorless cameras skyrocket in popularity. It is easy to use and takes decent images at fantastic quality.

Here’s an in-depth video by Jared Polin that dives more into the difference between the optical viewfinder (OVF) and electronic viewfinder (EVF):

Every photographer would gladly take a mirrorless camera for their day off and take pictures on the fly.

The catch to this amazing advantage is the battery usage and learning potential. Both of these problems were once debated all day and night, although not anymore.

So, let’s talk about it one by one.

1. Battery

Electronic viewfinders tend to consume a generous amount of battery (compared to optical viewfinder). This battery consumption is one of the issues that people loathe about them.

It may be easy to dismiss the battery problem and call it a day, but it is just less convenient.

People who just use their mirrorless cameras two hours a day will not complain, but photographers who travel and have limited access to electricity get the shorter end of the stick.

It is like changing a sock every 30 minutes in a marathon run. Not impossible, but just inconvenient.

Not the best analogy, but you get the point.

2. Learning Potential

Another heated topic. Photographers just love the argument that using a mirrorless camera limits a photographer’s ability and scope.

While this may be true on the surface, there is some room for debate.

Studying photography isn’t easy in any way, shape, or form. There will always be consistent progress.

It is like teaching adults some survival skills, you teach them through books, little by little until they can survive on their own in the wild.

Immediately dropping them off in the middle of a forest would do more harm than good. The same concept applies to photography.

Mirrorless cameras help amateur photographers get accustomed to the many features of a camera.

Let them learn bit by bit until they know how most functions work.

And that sums up the differences between an optical viewfinder and its electronic counterpart. I highly recommend beginners start with the electronic viewfinder to learn the ropes first.

If you already know the basics and aim to become better at taking images on multiple occasions, feel free to buy an optical viewfinder.


In this article, we discussed viewfinders and their various types. So, let’s sum it up:

  • The viewfinder definition can be boiled down to a mirror that allows you to preview images you will take. Although different types of viewfinders will have their unique process and output.
  • A Viewfinder is named as such because it is an essential component required to help you frame your image. Hence a viewfinder’s main function is to pre-visualize images before the photographer hits the shutter. This allows optical viewfinder users to adjust the image to their liking.
  • Almost every DSLR camera nowadays has a viewfinder on them, including point-and-shoot cameras.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between a viewfinder and a monitor on a camera?

A viewfinder is an optical device used to frame and compose a shot, while a monitor is a digital screen that displays the image captured by the camera’s sensor. The main difference between the two is that a viewfinder provides a direct line of sight to the subject, while a monitor requires the photographer to hold the camera at arm’s length.

Is it better to use viewfinder or screen?

There is no definitive answer to whether it’s better to use a viewfinder or a screen on a camera. Some photographers prefer the viewfinder because it provides a more stable hold on the camera and a more accurate representation of the image, while others prefer the screen because it allows for more flexibility in framing and composition. Ultimately, the choice comes down to personal preference and the specific needs of the photographer.