Do you remember the first time you ever sent a text message from your phone? Or the first time you checked your email from a phone? It was the dawn of a new era. Suddenly, those keys weren't just for dialing anymore, and the little screen on your phone wasn't just for scrolling through contacts and missed calls. Remember the first time you used visual voicemail, where you could click individual messages and even scroll to the end of them?
I will remember the first time I looked into a DSLR viewfinder and saw not a glass eyepiece, but a video screen instead. It was big and bright and unlike anything I'd ever seen in a camera before, except that it was also the same.
It was the same, in that I was seeing what I was about to take a picture of, except that I didn't see what was coming through the lens. Instead, I saw what would be recorded by the sensor. Or, to put it another way, I wasn't getting the lens' point of view. I was getting the sensor's point of view.
Think about that for a moment. It's a completely different way of using a camera, but it actually makes more sense.
Let's say you step out of a dark room into the bright sun and you see something that would make for a great photo. You grab your camera and take a quick shot. Then, as you look at the monitor on the rear of your camera to view the shot you just took, you see all kinds of blown highlights. Ah, crud. You forgot that you'd adjusted exposure compensation when you were inside.
And that's the difference between an optical viewfinder and an electronic viewfinder.
In an optical viewfinder, you see through the camera lens. In an electronic viewfinder, you see what the sensor sees. An optical viewfinder shows you the scene. An electronic viewfinder shows you how you're going to capture the scene. Thus, in the previous example, an optical viewfinder would show you a bright sunny day. An electronic viewfinder would show you a washed out scene that's mostly white due to blown highlights (because you'd forgotten that your exposure compensation was still adjusted to compensate for a dark room).
That's only one example of the difference between an optical viewfinder and an electronic viewfinder. But there are many.
An electronic viewfinder can display anything that you'd otherwise have to switch to the rear screen for. Menus. Data. Viewing photos you've taken.
Want grid lines? Most cameras can do that, but how about a level laid on top of the shot you're about to take? No problem. It's available in the viewfinder.
And, let's talk about viewing photos for a moment. One of my favorite things about the electronic viewfinder in the Sony a77 is such a simple thing that it'd be easy to overlook: checking the shot you just took. "Ah, crap! Did I move as I took that?" I suck at standing completely still, so I have my a77 set up to put the shot I just took in the viewfinder for two seconds. I take a picture and, while I'm still in place with my eye in the viewfinder, I get a quick glance at the shot I just took so I can see if I got it right. Most photographers constantly switch from the viewfinder to the LCD screen, viewfinder to LCD, viewfinder to LCD. We do it so often it becomes a habit. Viewfinder to LCD. It's practically part of the act of shooting with a digital camera. But not anymore. Not for me, anyway.
Of course, my Sony a77 has a gorgeous rear LCD panel too. And I use it. But the electronic viewfinders Sony is using really are a revolution in terms of photography.
It's the biggest change in camera technology since the dawn of digital.
I think a lot of photographers will be resistant to the idea of using an electronic viewfinder, mostly because it's different. I think the majority of newcomers who choose one of the new Sonys as a first digital camera will wonder why it hasn't always been this way. And, I think that ten years from now, electronic viewfinders will be the norm. The advantages are simply too great to be ignored.
I have no doubt that when the first digital cameras came out, plenty of photographers rolled their eyes. I have no doubt that plenty of digital photographers will see what Sony is doing with electronic viewfinders and they'll roll their eyes. It's change.
One thing hasn't changed: Photography isn't about the camera. It's about the photographer. An electronic viewfinder gets a photographer closer to seeing the final shot before it's even been shot. If that ain't progress, I don't know what is.
Here's something I do know: after using an electronic viewfinder, it's hard to go back to using an optical viewfinder. The old glass version just feels so... so... primitive And limiting.
After a few hours with my Sony a77, I'm hooked.