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Viewfinder camera

The direct vision camera

Many point and shoot cameras are viewfinder models.
Many point and shoot cameras are viewfinder models.

The viewing system in a viewfinder camera is separate from the lens used in taking the picture, and can often be just a hole or frame the photographer looks through that approximates the scene that the lens will capture. (Because you look directly at the subject rather than through the lens, this camera is sometimes called a Direct Vision camera.) Better-designed viewfinder cameras usually have a separate viewing lens to assist the photographer in seeing the scene that the main lens will capture.

A simple point-and-shoot disposable camera is an example of a viewfinder camera, but not all viewfinder cameras are simple, by any means. Some classic viewfinder models are considered to be among the best cameras made, and many new models produce superb images. Sophisticated rangefinder models have fully-adjustable focusing, with sharp lenses, convenient features and advanced controls that can be used to take excellent pictures. The best models will accept interchangeable lenses. Most of today's popular 35mm compact cameras are viewfinder types.


The scene viewed by the photographer through the camera’s viewing frame is different from the scene the lens will capture because the viewing frame is offset from the lens. This difference is barely perceptible for normal scenes where the subject is several feet away from the camera, generally ten feet or more, but has a greater effect as the subject becomes closer to the camera.

To better understand this, imagine a wooden fence around a baseball field with two little viewing holes in it a few feet apart. No matter which hole you peek through, the scene will look the same. You’ll see the baseball diamond and the players equally well regardless of which hole you use. So, you could conceivably take a picture through either hole and not see a difference.

But if a baseball is hit directly towards you and lands up against the fence right in front of one of the holes, you will be able to see the player who runs up to retrieve the ball through the other hole until he or she gets really close. Then, the player will disappear from your view as he or she approaches close to the fence, unless you are looking through the hole closest to where the ball landed. So, a picture taken through the other hole will not show the player at all.

This is known as “parallax error” or "parallax effect," and is the viewfinder camera’s main disadvantage, making it almost useless for careful composition of close-up subjects, and may lead to a part of the image that you see through the viewing frame being cut off when the picture is taken through the lens.

The picture-taking lens and the viewing frame are separate in the viewfinder camera.
The picture-taking lens and the viewing frame are separate in the viewfinder camera.

Some high-quality viewfinder cameras, however, have a parallax error compensation feature for close-up work. Most compact camera makers get around the problem by marking the viewfinder eyepiece to indicate the area that will be included in a close-up.


When the flash head and the lens are very close to each other, as they are with most viewfinder cameras that have built-in flash, and you use flash to photograph a person who is looking directly at the camera, you will often get "red-eye" in your picture. Visit our section on red-eye to learn more about this phenomenon.


Because the photographer does not view the scene through the lens, it is important to remember to remove the lens cap when taking pictures. Often, a compact camera's lens is protected by a sliding cover that automatically opens when the camera is turned on, or that must be opened manually.


One of the disadvantages of this type of camera is that the lens in the separate viewing window shows the whole image as being sharp, regardless of how the lens is focused. Of course, there may be no lens at all in the viewing window of the simplest cameras of this type. The window's primary function is for image framing, and typically contains lines or marks etched or printed on the glass to show the margins of a scene that delineate what will appear on the film or the digital sensor.


Focusing of a viewfinder camera is generally accomplished by rotating the lens to extend or retract it so that it is further or closer to the sensor (or the film). This is performed automatically by many compact cameras. Some rudimentary viewfinder cameras are equipped with fixed focus lenses - i.e. fixed in one position so that selective focusing cannot be accomplished - and rely upon predetermined hyperfocal distance for sharpness. The original Kodak "Brownie" invented in 1900 by George Eastman was a camera of this type. At the other end of the scale, more advanced viewfinder cameras can be focused with tremendous accuracy via a coupled rangefinder that produces a double or split image in the viewfinder until the lens is adjusted for correct focus, and then the images coincide.

Certain compact models have become quite sophisticated, with automatic focus, a zoom lens, auto-exposure, built-in flash and many other advanced features, while still retaining their simplicity of operation.


The viewfinder camera has its advantages, too. Price is one, due to its simpler construction. And because it has fewer moving parts than its single lens reflex counterparts, there is less to break down, the camera can be operated more quietly, and it is generally lighter and more compact than a comparable single-lens reflex camera. High-quality viewfinder cameras equipped with rangefinder focusing systems can be manually focused very quickly, and can often be accurately focused more easily in low light conditions than cameras with other viewing systems.