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Introductory camera guide and beginners guide on film camera and digital camera for still photography

STsite's Guide to Still Photography Camera





LCD Monitor and Optical Viewfinder

Minox III tiny 8mm Spy camera All our previous discussions are centred on the main components that are directly involved in the creation of a technically good image. The next item is the LCD Monitor and optical viewfinder. Though they are not directly involved in creating a technically good image but they are the most important component for creating a perfectly framed photograph. This component takes care of the artistic side of a photograph, is the canvas of the photographer or the window to the photographer's eye. It allows us to peep inside the camera's eye. We will start with the Optical viewfinder and progress to LCD Monitor at the second half of this page.

In SLR cameras and some older viewfinder cameras the viewfinder is also the instrument for focusing. With today's compact and auto-everything cameras the focusing function is no longer required as the camera focuses automatically. In SLR the viewfinder not only allows you to see and judge the focusing of the images, it also allows you to check the depth of field of the images to see what images in your picture are sharp and what are out of focus. This is one advantage of SLR that outweighs most other features of the compact camera or viewfinder camera.

View through SLR
Cross section of SLR camera showing the film and the human eye viewing the scene through the same lens

Creative photography uses a technique called Selective-Focus normally performed with SLR cameras. The result will be exactly the way the photographer visions it in the SLR viewfinder. With non-SLR compact film cameras you can still experiment with selective focus technique but it will be a hit-and-miss situation. You can get reasonably good result trying selective focus technique with most digital cameras using the LCD Monitor.

Compact camera is actually a viewfinder camera. We don't call it viewfinder camera now since the main feature is in compactness. The viewfinder in compact cameras is actually an optical window that allows you to frame and view the picture before taking it. The view you see from the viewfinder is in fact different from what the camera sees because the viewfinder sits about an inch away from the camera lens. What you see is an inch higher than what the camera lens sees and this creates an error called parallax error. This error is not significant when your subject is far, such as landscape but when you are taking close-ups this becomes a major problem with compact cameras. This explains why in your picture the top of the mountain comes out OK whereas the heads of subjects sometimes get chopped off in your photographs!

Parallex error of viewfinder camera
Cross section of a viewfinder camera. Parallax error of viewfinder camera occurs because the human eye and the film see through different devices

Parallax error doesn't affect SLR because in SLR the viewfinder sees through the camera lens so what the camera sees is exactly what you see. Better high-end compact cameras have automatic parallax correction but even this is not foolproof. When using a compact camera on close-up subject use the bright line frame marked inside your viewfinder to frame the subject. Don't frame your subject with the full viewfinder view as you are likely to cut some part of your subject off at the edge.

High-end viewfinder cameras with all the parallax correction and focusing system built-in to the viewfinder is called a rangefinder camera. High-end rangefinder cameras can sometimes be more expensive than a high-end SLR camera. The rangefinder in these high-end rangefinder cameras have actually become a precision optical instrument in itself that we can consider them as two separate cameras in one camera body - one camera is the rangefinder for focusing and framing the picture, another for taking the picture with the film inside. They also have a range of interchangeable lens and other accessories. Rangefinder cameras are light, quiet, unobtrusive, reliable and can be used in low light condition. One example of this type of camera is the Laica M series, -- a dream camera for many photographers.

The Dream machine - Laica M6

Almost all digital cameras now have a LCD monitor sometimes also called LCD display or LCD viewfinder. This LCD monitor lets you see exactly what the finished digital image looks like. However many of these LCD monitors on the low-end digital camera are only postage "stamp" size and framing and viewing on this size is very different from viewing through the bright and big optical viewfinder of some 35mm film cameras. Due to cost and budget constraint manufacturers do not design low-end budget digital camera with an optical viewfinder. An optical viewfinder that zooms and synchronises with the camera's lens can increase the cost of a budget camera considerably. The mid and high-end digital compact cameras now come with a 2.5-in or bigger LCD monitor. This is much better than those 1.5-in postage "stamp" size LCD monitors but at a much higher price tag.

The LCD monitor works great in dim light condition compared to optical viewfinder and no parallax errors too! However, many colour LCD monitors perform badly under bright sunlight. You can hardly view the images in the LCD display in that condition. The colour LCD monitor is a major battery hog due to the LCD needing backlight to operate; some digital cameras can drain a fully charged battery by just turning the colour LCD monitor on for an hour. Use the optical viewfinder if you are concerned with battery drain on your digital camera and turn off the LCD whenever you don't need it. However this is only applicable to the high-end digital cameras with such features built-in.

OLED viewfinder on a Kodak LS633 digital camera offers brighter, more vibrant colors and exceptionally wide viewing angle.

A new technology that might replace the LCD monitor in the future is called OLED display. OLED - Organic Light-Emitting Diode is a technology pioneered and patented by Kodak. The first consumer digital camera that uses this OLED monitor is the Kodak EASYSHARE LS633 digital camera. This Kodak OLED camera has a short production run and is no longer in production. However Canon is currently testing OLED monitor for their high end digital cameras and portable printers.

The backlighting required by LCD monitor is the major power hog for digital cameras. OLED display is self-illuminating, does not require backlight and cameras with OLED monitors are more power efficient. Getting rid of this backlighting lamp also makes the camera thinner and dissipates less heat. OLED monitor has other advantages over LCD monitor in that it has a wider viewing angle, higher level of brightness and sharpness, faster response time, operates over a wider temperature range and believed to be more durable.

Faced with the new challenge from OLED the LCD camp is not sitting still. New improvements to LCD technology now surface on the latest digital camera LCD monitor. These include LCD display with better contrast, higher brightness and wider view angle. The HyperCrsytal LCD monitor on some Olympus digital camera is one example of this new LCD display. The problem with response time, the backlight and battery hog are still there though many manufacturers claimed improvement in these area as well. Kodak 3D stereo cameraNevertheless TFT LCD display is competing very well with larger display technology that doesn't require battery such as television and computer monitors.

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