This is something that keeps popping up all over the place and it’s not just one camera that attracts this comment. Many do, from the FS5 to the FS7 to the F55, plus cameras from other manufacturers too.
One common factor is that very often this relates to the newer super35mm cameras. Cameras designed to give a more rounded, film like look, often cameras with 4K or higher resolution sensors.
I think many people perceive there is an issue with their viewfinder because they come to these new high resolution, more rounded and film like cameras from traditional television centric camcorders that use detail correction, coring and aperture correction to boost the image sharpness.
SD and even HD television broadcasting relies heavily on image sharpening so that viewers perceive a crisp, sharp image at any viewing distance and with any screen size (although on really big screens this can really ruin the image).
This works by enhancing and boosting the contrast around edges. This is standard practice on all normal HD and SD broadcast cameras. Especially camera that use a 3 chip design with a prism as the prism will often reduce the images edge contrast.
As most people will prefer a very slightly sharpened HD image or a heavily sharpened SD image over an unsharpened one, it’s sharpened by default. This means that the images those cameras produce will tend to look sharp even on screens that have a lower resolution than that of the camera because the edges remain high contrast even when the viewing resolution is reduced and as a result look sharp.
Most current manufacturer supplied LCD EVF’s run at 1/4″ HD with 940 x 560 pixels (each pixel made up of an RGB 3 dot matrix). In addition many of the 3rd party VF’s such as the very popular Alphatron are the same because they all use the same mass produced, relatively low cost panels – panels that are also used for mobile phones and many other devices.
The problem then is that when you move to a camera that doesn’t add any image sharpening, if you view the cameras image on a lower resolution screen the image looks soft because — it is. There is no detail correction to compensate. Incidentally this is why often these same cameras can look a bit soft in HD and very soft in SD compared to other traditional or detail corrected cameras. But, that slightly softer, less processed look helps contribute to their more film like look. This softness and lack of sharpening/processing is particularly noticeable if you use the focus mag function as you are then looking at an enlarged but completely un-sharpened image.
It could be argued that the viewfinder should sharpen the image to compensate. Some of the more expensive viewfinders can do this using their own sharpening processes. But the image that you are then seeing is not the picture that is being recorded and this isn’t always ideal. If it is over done then it can make the entire image look sharp even when it isn’t fully in focus. Really you want to be looking at exactly the image that the camera is recording so that you can spot any potential problems. But that then makes focussing tricky.
There are a few 3rd party viewfinders such as the Gratical that have higher resolutions. The Gratical and Eye have screens that are 1280×1024, but in normal use you only use 1280×720 for the image area. This certainly helps, but even the 1:1 pixel zoom on these can look soft and blurry as you loose the viewfinders peaking function when you crop in.
Sony’s Venice and the F55/F5 can use Sony’s new DVF-EL200 OLED viewfinder. This costs around £4.5K ($6K) and has a 1920×1080 screen. It’s a beautiful image, but even this needs a fairly good dose of peaking to artificially sharpen the image to be able to see that last critical bit of focus. Again when you zoom in the image looks soft and a bit blurry (even on a Venice) as the camera itself is not adding any sharpening. The peaking function on the DVF-EL200 is quite sophisticated as it only enhances the highest frequency parts of the image, so only sharp edges and fine details are boosted.
Go back to the days of black and white tube viewfinders and these used tons of peaking to make them useable. Traditional SD and HD cameras add sharpening to their pictures, but most of our modern large sensor 4K camera do not and as a result often the viewfinder images appear soft compared to what we used to see on older cameras or still see today on cameras that do sharpen the pictures.
All of this makes it hard to nail your focus, especially if shooting 4K. Even with a DVF-EL200 on a Venice I struggle at times and rely heavily on image mag (which is still difficult) or better still a much larger monitor with a good sun shade and if necessary some reading glasses to allow you to focus on it up close.
So before you get too critical of your viewfinders performance do also consider all of the above. Try to see how another similar viewfinder looks on your camera (for example an Alphatron on an FS7). Perhaps try a higher resolution viewfinder such as a Gratical, but don’t expect miracles from a small, relatively low resolution screen on a modern digital cinema camera. This really is one of those areas where you can’t beat a big, high resolution screen.