Purpose of a Viewfinder: Practice, Practice, Practice

By STEVE WELDON

In the world of modern photography we have many more camera types than ever before from which to choose. For the purpose of this article I’m going to focus on modern DSLR cameras and the viewfinder we all know and love, the pentaprism optical viewfinder. Perched high atop the body, its hard to miss. Supported by a complex arrangement of mirrors, gears, springs and ground glass with the better bodies boasting specifications like “100% viewfinder coverage” and “0.71x magnification,“ you’re left with little doubt that the manufacturers put a great deal of thought, expense and never ending research into that one specific feature. The viewfinder.

So you ask, “Is it really as important as they make it out to be?” In a word, yes. Even more so. It’s through this viewfinder that you not only “see” and compose your compositions, but you also monitor and change your cameras settings. Every new generation of DSLR’s wouldn’t be complete without the newest viewfinder functions promising to revolutionize photography and rock your world.

As even each new photography student is armed with the latest in DSLR technology, I’d impress upon them the two most important functions of a viewfinder. To “see” and compose their compositions, and to “control” their camera. That’s it, to see and control. This is all it takes to be the most awesome photographer. Seeing and controlling.

See the car on the right and all other undesirable elements? There are many more to each side. By shifting to my left a few paces and refining my angle and bending down I was able to crate the second image in this article and no settle for this one. | Canon 5D Mark II, 16-35mm F2.8L @ F8 1/200 16mm ISO 100

Let’s talk about controlling first. Among seasoned photographers there’s a running observation we often joke about. An old Leica camera manual had but 16 pages of fairly large print which described every control and feature of the camera and how to use them. At the very end in big block letters there is the final instruction:

Practice until you can operate the camera with your eyes closed.

And yes, they were absolutely serious. Compare that to the modern DSLR manual of several hundred pages in small print, and they recommend you carry it with you.

This isolated view doesn’t show the old car on the right, the bright scene to the left, and so much more. | Canon 5D Mark II, 16-35mm F2.8L @ F8 1/250 35mm ISO 100

Any competent photographer should be able to at least control their basic settings (exposure mode, AF mode, AF point movement/activation, ISO, shutter speed, aperture) with the viewfinder at their eye. A good photographer will be able to control every function used in their style of photography with the camera at their eye. When experienced photographers take outings with each other, it’s well known they’re watching each other’s control of the camera and subsequently judging each other through the process. There is no denying you can the camera much faster AND track your shots at the same time ONLY by controlling your camera through the viewfinder.

If you’re reading this article and cannot yet do this, then I’d recommend putting your camera manual and camera on the table in front of you and practicing 10 to 15 minutes at a time until you can. This is a non-negotiable vital skill every experienced photographer must have. Before every shoot spend 5 to 10 minutes with the camera to your eye manipulating the controls you know you’ll be using that day.

Camera control aside, it’s probably 100 times more important to be able to ”see” through your viewfinder than control. And without a doubt it’s the single most important thing for me.

There were many scenes which would include this colorful shipping vessel, but this was the only angle which let it loom to the forefront and cut out a pile of garbage to the right. | Canon 5D Mark II, Sigma 12-24mm F2.8L @ F8 1/400 24mm ISO 100

Remember, one of the most difficult things for new photographers to do is… to slow down and really “see” what’s around them. The viewfinder is there to help you see.

Viewfinders also accomplish another function seldom thought about. They isolate you from the entire scene except for the part you can see. They become like a directors loupe in that they frame your composition on all four sides allowing you to concentrate only on that portion of the skyline, the room, a church, or whatever. As you move your viewfinder, you’ll start to notice compositions you hadn’t previously considered. Isolating a portion of a scene (framing) that you will subsequently capture as an image is the entire creative purpose of the viewfinder.

With practice you’ll learn to use your eyes alone to isolate compositions, but it’s always helpful to use the viewfinder to see the composition you’re considering.

As you isolate the scene with the viewfinder, if you watch carefully, you’ll also see instances when you’re isolating the direction of the light as well.

A wider view in this case isn’t as intimate of a scene, but the view is nevertheless quite compelling. | Canon 5D Mark II, 16-35mm F2.8L @ F8 1/400 20mm ISO 100

There are times when you come upon a scene, throw the camera to your eye, and then snap a picture and this works. Never underestimate shots that come upon you quickly. But if you use your viewfinder to break down an area, whether it be certain locations for street shooting, different areas in the room for portraits (where the furniture, door openings, etc. in the room work for you), and especially for landscapes… then you’re practically guaranteed to see more and better compositions. And of course, the more you practice these methods, the faster you’ll be able to accomplish them in real-time while in the field.

To summarize: Using the viewfinder to isolate the scene will allow you to see different subjects, colors, light, scenes, moods, textures and much more. Every possible compositional element comes into play including anticipated post processing and even anticipated movement within the scene.

This has become one of my classic shots from the boatyard. When a ship is being winched onto the tracks you can see the cables, the pulleys, the W forming the cable runs, and the ship centered in the frame looms powerful even though it’s far away. If the light is right, sunlight will gleam off the pulleys and parts of the cable. I love these compositions. | Canon 5D Mark II, 16-35mm F2.8L @ F8 1/250 22mm ISO 100

Taking the time to carefully analyze the scene through your viewfinder will allow compositions you’d otherwise never see. It’s all about practice and training yourself to see. It’s commonly called “having the eye.” But eyes can be developed and for most part they are developed. They’re developed through practice and repetition.

As you come upon a shooting location, try to arrive far enough in advance so you can sit there for a 5 to 10 minutes period studying the scene through your viewfinder. Study in an organized manner which is really material for another article. Have a mental list of the common things you’ll be looking for, but leave your mind open for the uncommon. And all the while keep track of the light going on around you, are there clouds and if so are they moving and in what direction, time of day, and whatever else affects the light in your scene.

The viewfinder is a powerful tool. Professionals are long accustomed to certain types of viewfinders and focusing screens and don’t really care for much else. A good bright viewfinder such as those found in full-frame DSLR’s are a joy to work with, while the tunnel vision like extra small versions found in crop-framed DSLR’s become irritating and slow in comparison. Once you grow accustomed to seeing certain information in certain locations in your viewfinder, nothing else will do.

A viewfinder is like a magic tool which allows you to see things others can’t. They’re either small and irritating, or large and bright. They contain vital information. With patience viewfinders will talk to you. They’ll share secrets. They’ll be the difference between an ordinary common image or a beautiful well planned landscape.

Make your viewfinder your best friend, and you won’t be sorry you did.

Addendum by THEME: Right you are Steve, practice, practice, practice! I might add that while shooting I try to see with both eyes, that’s with the right eye glued to the viewfinder — and with the free left eye. That enlarges the frame and gives better overall vision. You see what’s moving into the frame from the left, from the right. Less surprises, more control.

Steve Weldon is the publisher of the photography website Bangkok Images. He lived in Asia in excess of a quarter century, more than ten of those years Thailand. Retired from the military and currently residing near Chicago, he has made photography his second career.



  • Bengt Nyman

    Hi Steve,

    Maybe I should walk around more, looking through my DSLR viewfinder. And I probably should imprint the buttons on all my cameras to instinctively change ISO without lowering the camera. But I must admit that the scenes that I want to capture more often come to my naked eye than through a pentaprism. When I raise a camera to frame I usually already have a target.
    You say: “DSLR’s wouldn’t be complete without the newest viewfinder functions promising to revolutionize photography and rock your world.”
    Strong talk, but a bit late. I would have agreed wholeheartedly ten years ago. Today it sounds as if you own shares of stock that you should have sold already.
    I take your acclamation to exclude electronic viewfinders since you specify DSLR.
    Let me offer a counterpoint to your much appreciated but somewhat aging point of view.
    I hunt by naked eye. My weapons of choice are one full frame, high MP, mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder and a 24 f 1.4 prime lens on my left hip, and one with a 105 f 2.8 prime on my right. Both cameras are hanging comfortably and safely in a double B.M. holster.
    I cherish my peripheral vision and look back and around like a hunted man for unexpected targets. When I lift a camera I operate three dials that are whatever I want them to be. I see all I want in the viewfinder including true exposure preview and focus highlight. My cameras sport an overkill of resolution. I buy this because I plan to throw some away: I never re-frame a shot. Instead I simultaneously focus and meter on the high point of my image. I many times choose pinpoint light metering because I want no compromise to the exposure of my main target. I rely on my prime and somewhat wide lenses to purposely over-frame my targets. I throw away pixels in post processing by re-framing or offset-framing if it produces a more balanced or pleasing image. I many times get two pictures out of one shot. One overall and one more tightly framed to highlight the main target of my picture.

    I loved my DSLRs while I didn’t know better. Today I still like to look at them and reminisce about the past as they rest on top of my shelf.

  • Steve Weldon

    Hi Bengt –

    Thank you for the feedback, really constructive and to the point. Let me address a few points but before I do I was especially pleased to read your feedback because someone who thinks as you do is on the “second tier” of people I’ve aimed the article at. The first tier of course are those during their initial growth period as a photographer who havn’t yet thought much why after 40+ years the SLR/DSLR design has remained more or less the same. The viewfinder is designed for a purpose and if your photography needs dictate an DSLR then a viewfinder is likely to be as I’ve shared. The second tier, or those who have experience with several body types and have settled on a non-DSLR to give the DSLR a second look with the viewfinder being one of the better reasons to do so. I doubt I’ll re-converted you or anyone for that matter, but just mulling over the purposes will keep the design fresh in your mind.

    You mentioned that viewfinders haven’t continued to significantly evolve and you assumed right that I wasn’t thinking of the Fuji’s great hybrid viewfinder system and those of three other mirrorless cameras. But I was thinking of Sony’s new “translucent” (they’re not really) mirror technology (fixed mirror) or their XGA OLED electronic viewfinders in what Sony classifies as their new “DSLR” systems. These are truly evolved viewfinders and I encourage you to check them out. Yes, technically by the old definition written before this technology existed these aren’t DSLR’s. But, they replaced Sony’s DSLR’s, Sony calls then DSLR’s, and DSLR would be the closest fitting definition. There have been smaller more incremental improvements in the other DSLR’s which includes different types of data/functions displayed and of course “Live view” functions and different AF modes for use shooting movies. Big changes.

    I’m curious what full frame (36x24mm) mirrorless non-DSLR you’re using? The M9? The RX1 is still in its release phase, so iff I’ve missed a full frame mirrorless you would be doing me a big favor by sharing.

    “I hunt by naked eye.” Of course, we all do. And many of us have been trained to keep one eye opened while the other looks through the viewfinder like Treme mentioned. Maybe I should have made this more clear, HOW you use your viewfinder is hinged closely with the type and style of photography you enjoy. I didn’t mean we should walk around with a DSLR fastened to our foreheads with screws. So let me clarify here in the comments section: Different types and styles of photography requires different uses of the viewfinder, livefinder, angle finder, etc, etc.

    For anything fast moving we’ll want one eye open and one eye looking through the viewfinder and we won’t be spending time at all “composing.” Street shooting, much wildlife, and fast paced events being the same. But landscapes, portraits, slow paced events (the better you are, the faster the events you can compose), architecture, vehicles, vessels, and the like will all benefit from viewfinder skills, If we have ‘minutes’ to compose then great. But it’s entirely possible to “compose” in well under a second and to “frame” in milliseconds with practice. We all start “by eye” and then refine as allowed.

    You mention already employing the “control” use of the viewfinder so we have no disagreement there. But some of your other practices I think could be further discussed.

    “Planning to throw some away” would be one. By practical considerations we know we’ll crop to ‘some’ extent. Everyone does. But it’s sloppy and unnecessary to not refine your framing and seeing skills to reduce the amount of cropping as much as possible. I’m of the school of thought that getting the shot first and foremost is paramount. But a close secondary is maintaining image quality, lens perspective, DOF, and more.

    If we go around shooting a wide angle lens for every shot *extreme example) because a 24mp sensor will allow us to ‘crop down” to web site images and web images are all we need, then I suppose a weak argument could be made. But you’d be giving away a ton of image quality in most of those images not to mention lens perspective and Depth of Field.

    “Ideally” we should train to shoot at the highest image quality “getting the shot” allows. If we only have 1 second to take the shot, then we train to get the shot AND as much image quality in that 1 second as we can. This is what a skilled photographer does. How far we take it is up to our skill levels and our tolerance for stress.

    Most of your accomplished wedding and event photographers replace their focus screens with screens with ‘etchings’ on them to show the proper ratio for 8×10’s or 5×7’s or whatever their client has specified. I do this as well and it’s a real time saver and reduces stress. Small tricks like these are where we break out as professionals.

    You mention “pinpoint of light” for your exposure readings. I think you mean “spot metering?” Spot metering is a popular exposure mode which typically employees the center 8% of the frame for reading the light and setting exposure. This measures that 8% to a high degree of accuracy. However, you still have 92% of the frame left to consider. At one skill level you use a programmed exposure, at another skill level you’d desire a spot metering as you described to ensure your main subject is covered. And at another higher skill level you’ll want to consider and balance the entire frame, compromise in one place to get a more desired exposure in another. And of course these are all time dependent. Getting the shot first is paramount.

    Photography at the technical level is nothing more than balancing variables. The more skill we gain through practice, the more variables we can competently balance. Selecting the right camera with the right viewfinder, sensor, AF modes, etc, etc, or even the most appropriate lenses.. that’s all practice too. The more practice, the more skill. Question: We’ve all played “chopsticks” with two fingers? But how many have played chopsticks with the full keyboard? Answer: All of those who practiced until they could do so.

    As you practice and complete those skill sets you might surprise yourself by rediscovering those shoots which can really benefit from a DSLR. Enjoy your photography!

  • Bengt Nyman

    Hi Steve,
    With a high resolution mirrorless camera and the best of primes you have new options. I am not going to judge you on your personal preferences, and neither should you. By the way, Sony DSLT or SLT cameras are not considered DSLRs. Sony are quick to point this out since the SLT technology reduces moving parts, noise and mirror lag. Unfortunately it also diminishes overall light transmission which is why this technology is only an intermediate solution. With consumer and enthusiast markets relying on EVFs and the top of the market turning to tethered or radioed live view, the DSLR technology is loosing its relevance. And it should. The moving mirror flaps in the way of the kind of focusing accuracy that is needed to take full advantage of the new generation high MP sensors and the new glass matching it. Nikon learned this the hard way with the 36 MP D800(E) which became a near fiasco because of the mirror technology being unable to deliver the focusing reliability required to match a high MP sensor. There is a very clear technological direction in the industry right now. It is enabled by the new, high MP, high IQ CMOS sensors and high resolution OLED view finder technology. Just like the DSLR defined the past technological camera plateau, the mirrorless camera is defining the next. The standard will move from a 10MP 5FPS noisy DSLR to a 40MP 20FPS quiet SLE. You don’t have to like it, or use one, but I will.

    Bengt Nyman
    073 42 42 279

  • Steve Weldon

    Bengt –

    I’m sorry you felt “judged” for your preferences but I went out of my way to address your comments fairly without judging your preferences. What I did was examine how they affect and influence different styles of photography, not necessarily yours. I would encourage anyone to do the same to any of my responses. Still, I apologize for any negative feelings, they certainly were not my intention.

    If Sony advertises their own SLT models as DSLR’s then I’ll go with DSLR. So do most professionals who aren’t splitting the ultimate hairs. The SLT’s replace their more traditional DSLR’s. Go to Sony’s site (www.store.sony.com), drop the pull down for shopall/cameras/Alpha DSLR’s, and then read on how they describe them over and over again as DSLR’s and show off their new SLT’s. (nice advertising to be sure)

    Now don’t get me wrong, Sony makes great cameras and I like them a lot. But their full frame SLT-a99 just came out (is this the full frame mirrorless high-megapixel camera you’ve grown to love? Wasn’t it just recently released?) with 24.9mp’s and 10mp frame rate is still not that far off from Canon’s 1dx’s 18.9mp and 14fps or Nikon’s D800’s with 36mp and 4fps, of the NIkon D4 with 16mp and 11fps.

    As most recognize (and I’ve been saying since I bought my Canon 1ds Mark II 8-9 years ago) 12-16mp’s of sensor size is more than adequate for all but the most extreme landscape shooting. Heck, I was making a decent living selling 20×24″ and 24×30″ prints from my much older Nikon DH-4. If you’re not throwing away the best part of your image quality and expensive lenses by cropping to frame as we discussed earlier, there is very little if anything you can’t do with a solid 12mp image. The Nikon D4 (16mp/14fps), and Canon 1dx (18mp/14fps) are these manufacturers sports/wildlife/news/event ‘ultimate” cameras. Nikon takes resolution to the highest level yet with 36mp’s and no AA filter with it’s D800E, but only 4fps. This camera is meant for landscape, studio, and other static imagery and does so brilliantly.

    Canon this season is the odd-man out by finally saying (with their 1dx) what most professionals have known for years. If we have 12mp’s with very good image quality, then this is good for the vast majority of DSLR uses. So they gave us 50% more at 18mp to make sure all is covered and 14fps which is overkill.. (I remember taking a trip to Beung Boraphet with a boat full of die hard bird and wildlife enthusiasts who at the time were shooting 10fps Canon 1dIII’s with 600mm/F4 lenses. Not once all day long did anyone say “I need to shoot faster frame rates”).. So Canon is saying we only need one superb all around camera to do it all. From most reports from the field the camera is performing as expected. Marketing experts say this won’t be enough, they’ll need to compete at the high-mp end of the market.

    It seems like Sony’s SLT-A99 falls in the middle. Michael Reichmann over on the Luminance Landscape recently put up some rather complete and illuminating thoughts on the new A99 in his First Impressions you can find here: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/cameras/sony_a99_field_report.shtml He addresses everything you talked about (and much more) and towards the ending he talks about the translucent mirror technology and it’s short future and what it’s like to use the EVF of the Sony ‘overall’ compared to a quality full frame OVF (optical view finder) and he’s very fair and explains well his summary statement “Speaking as plainly as I can – I don’t care for it.” it’s a good read and highly encouraged. Especially before you decide to purchase your next DSLR.

    I won’t argue that mirrorless cameras, at least in their consumer to pro-sumer line-ups, have redefined the market and given us some great new choices. I own several. But the ones I do own (Several Sony NEX’s and the Fuji x100) are more suitable for family and outing photography, casual travel, etc. But when I go to work, or get serious about virtually any type of photography.. I turn to DSLR’s. MF backs, and I get more from range finders for street though that’s another well discussed topic.

    I’m curious about two things.

    1. Is the Sony a99 the camera you referred to owning? If so, how long have you had it? And if longer than a week or so, are you a tester? And if so, are you free to talk about the last minute firmware updates as they solved issues?

    2. What type of photography do you do.. where you need a ‘quiet’ 40mp 20fps camera? Actually you said you carry two DSLR’s?

    Again, thanks for your comments.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Hi Steve,
    You are describing the past, I am looking to the future. The future is never more right than the past, and vice versa.

  • Steve Weldon

    Bengt – I have no idea what you mean by that.. but I don’t think I’m supposed to. Thanks for answering my questions and making this such a productive conversation.