What You Must Know About Optical Viewfinders for Compact APS Digital Cameras

Eye-Level Viewing Is A Necessity For New Serious Compacts

A new generations of pocket-size APS sensor compact digital cameras is here. Here's the one gadget that will complete the picture.


In the last few months, world of compact digital camera photography was turned on its head. The Nikon Coolpix A, Ricoh GR, and three Sigma DP models—all featuring APS sensors promising DSLR-quality images instead of dinky point-and-shoot quality—were introduced, and are now available at Adorama. These cameras are revolutionary because they they bring a vast improvement in image quality to compact digital cameras. But they are all missing one feature that I feel is essential: An optical, eye-level viewfinder.

Related reading at the Adorama Learning Center






The Problem

All of these cameras offer a built-in LCD monitor with high resolution, but ergonomically an LCD monitor is not an ideal way to hold a camera while composing and shooting. When you hold a camera at arm's length, you are more likely to shake it, even factoring in the best image stabilization system. It is better to hold the camera up to your eye and compose through an eye-level viewfinder for better camera stability. And in direct sunlight, it is impossible to clearly see the image in the LCD monitor.


Great camera, but something's missing that would make viewing and street shooting easier...an eye-level viewfinder!


In fact, I've always felt that the lack of an eye-level viewfinder (optical or digital) on a compact camera is a design defect, and that is one reason why smart phones are killing the compact camera category. If you don't have an eye-level finder anyway, you might as well be able to make calls with your camera and do other cool stuff.

But these new APS sensor cameras deliver image quality that, according to our field tests and DxOMark lab tests, equal that of many current DSLRs. That's a compelling argument to use your smart phone for phone calls and start doing real photography again. But they still, frustratingly, are missing eye-level viewfinders!

The Solution

Fortunately, all of these cameras have hot shoes which can accomodate an external viewfinder, and there are several choices available. The Nikon Coolpix A, Ricoh GR, and Sigma DP-1 Merril all have 28mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8 lenses, so for them a finder that covers a 28mm field of view. The APS-sensored Leica X2, and 35mm sensor Sony SC-RX1 require a 35mm FOV finder, the Sigma DP-2 Merril has a 45mm lens, and the Sigma DP-3 Merril will need a 75mm FOV finder. (Fear not: I list appropriate finders for each of these cameras at the end of this article.)


Sony RX1 with matched 35mm optical finder. Since this sensor uses a standard shoe mount, it can be used on other cameras that have lenses with 35mm fields of view.


Typically, optical viewfinders have bright line borders that mark off the outer edges of the image and are very useful for framing and composing images. However, keep in mind that what you see in the finder won't exactly match up with the image you capture, thanks to parallax compensation. (If you're new to this concept, continue reading. If not, skip to the next paragraph.) Parallax is the difference between what you see in a viewfinder and the actual image, and the difference becomes more obvious the closer you are to your subject. You can train yourself to make the mental adjustment (parallax compensation) by looking through the finder and comparing it to the live view image. The differences will usually be minor.

Helpful For Posh Small Sensor Compacts, Too

Optical viewfinders can also come in handy with posh small-sensor compacts when shooting at the zoom lens's widest (or almost-widest) settings for easier (if not as accurate) framing. For instance, if you're using a camera with a zoom that starts at a 35mm equivalent of 24mm and your finder covers 28mm, you can zoom your lens out slightly and doublecheck the LCD image with the viewfinder until they match, then shoot away.

Whether you are using one of the new generation of high-quality, large-sensor fixed-lens compact digital cameras or want to jerry-rig something with a posh zoom compact camera that lacks an eye-level finder, there are plenty of choices, although thanks to the increasing demand, availability may be spotty. If the finder you're interested in isn't in stock now, you can pre-order it now through Adorama and as soon as it comes in, we'll fullfil orders on a first-come, first-served basis. We don't charge credit cards until orders ship but this way you can at get on the waiting list.

Buying Guide: Choosing An Optical Viewfinder

This may sound obvious, but optical finders are for reference only and don't affect image quality, so a less expensive one will probably do fine. Consider build quality; metal body and shoe mount are essential. Optical elements should be glass. A small viewfinder is fine as long as the eyepiece itself is big enough for comfortable viewing.

Here's a look at optical viewfinders for most current compact digital cameras, based on 35mm equivalent angle of view:

(Panasonic LX series cameras with lens zoomed to widest setting)

(Nikon Coolpix A, Ricoh GR, Sigma  DP-1 Merrill)

(Sony SC-RX1, Leica X2)

(Sigma DP-2, Pentax Q)

(Sigma DP-3 Merrill)

Too pricey? You might have some luck buying an old Voigtlander finder that's matched to a rangefinder lens, the classic Nikon RF 28mm finder, or the Koni-Omega 58mm lens finder, which is originally designed for larger format but offers an equivalent angle of coverage of 28mm. These lenses are relatively rare but do pop up occasionally. Check the Adorama Used department for availability.

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