Viewfinder Showdown: Optical Rangefinders vs EVFs

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Until recently, electronic viewfinders (EVFs) weren’t taken seriously, especially in professional photography circles. Even though they have always offered some clear advantages over optical viewfinders (OVFs), like WYSIWYG exposure preview, for instance, early EVFs were also characterized by pixelated and laggy image quality that was a turnoff to many shooters. This was one reason, among others, that DSLR technology remained dominant for quite some time after the introduction of the mirrorless camera.

In recent years, however, EVFs have really improved. Higher resolutions and improved refresh rates have made EVFs sharper, with less lag than ever, leveling the playing field to some degree. Over the past several weeks, thanks to the good folks at Leica, I’ve gotten to spend some time with the Leica M10-R rangefinder. While this camera is best known for its OVF and rangefinder focusing system, it also came fitted with the Visoflex (Typ 020) Electronic Viewfinder, which connects by way of the hot shoe. This gave me the unusual opportunity to appreciate the pros and cons of electronic and optical viewfinder varieties at the same time, with the same camera.

Leica M10-R Digital Rangefinder Camera

Since the M10-R is a manual-focus-only system, the experience of using a viewfinder, be it optical or electronic, is crucial to taking a sharp picture. In my previous experience shooting with a Leica M, when I started to get comfortable focusing with the rangefinder, I grew to enjoy how the all-manual focusing seemed to force me to stay present with the frame and the subject. The design is elegant and simple—you simply turn the focus ring until the double-image of your subject merges into one, and you’re in focus. As effective as the rangefinder is for achieving focus manually, it still suffers from the same drawbacks as all OVFs, including the inability to preview your exposure. This drawback always seems to make itself known in low-light conditions.

Given the choice, I prefer to focus manually using an optical finder and a rangefinder as opposed to an EVF with focus peaking. Focus peaking shows you the range that’s in focus, which is great, but I sometimes have a hard time quickly seeing which part of the frame is the very sharpest, especially when using shallow depth of field. But if you get your subject lined up in the rangefinder, that’s definitive confirmation that you're in focus, and you can snap away with confidence. However, this is only the case if there’s enough light to see your subject in the rangefinder. Here is where the Visoflex (Typ 020) EVF really saves the day.

Leica Visoflex (Typ 020) Electronic Viewfinder

I never would have been able to shoot this fun little composite image of my daughter catching fireflies in our backyard without the EVF, for a few reasons. First, it was pretty dark, and I couldn’t see much in the rangefinder at all, let alone focus with it. But, using the real-time exposure preview and focusing peaking offered by the EVF, I was able to achieve the focus I wanted, even in these low-light conditions.

Second, as I was finishing the series of shots that I would later composite together, I decided that the purple flowers in the bottom left-hand corner of the frame were too out of focus for my taste, and since I was shooting on a tripod, I thought it would be an appropriate time to “focus stack.” Focus stacking is simply shooting an image with several different focal points, and blending them in Photoshop after the fact, for greater depth of field.

Using the EVF, it was easy to change my focal point to get the close flowers nice and sharp, even though they were nowhere near the center of the frame. This is because the EVF can show the focal point throughout the entire frame, not just the center. I just turned the focus ring until the flowers were highlighted with focus peaking, snapped the picture, and that was that. The rangefinder, on the other hand, can only give focus confirmation in the center of the frame, so to focus on the purple flowers I would have needed to point the camera at them and focus the camera, effectively recomposing the shot. Since I was shooting a composited image of several frames, moving the camera was not an option.

Thanks for reading this quick take on the pros and cons of OVFs and EVFs in practice. I encourage you to leave any questions you may have on any of the ideas or items discussed in the Comments section, below.

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