What’s wrong with my viewfinder, my old camera had a much better viewfinder!

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.

10 thoughts on “What’s wrong with my viewfinder, my old camera had a much better viewfinder!”

  1. Thanks again Alister. Will your comment apply to the upcoming release of Sony PXW-Z280, Since it is a three sensor camera?: “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.”

    1. I don’t know, it will be interesting to see as this is the first 4K 3 chip camera. It should have enough resolution to avoid the need to add a lot of sharpening, but the prism will effect the image a bit. As it’s native 4K I am going to guess that it may not appear as sharp as the VF on an SD or HD camera.

  2. Hello,

    Please, what do you think of alternatives like Small HD 502 ? 5 inches, 1920*1080.

    I use a FS7 but shoot mainly in HD, not 4K. Can I expect to focus properly without peaking or focus mag ?


  3. Of course, in my previous post, I forgot to add “while using the Small HD 502”.


  4. Whilst technically, everything you’ve said is correct it ignores the fact that along the way we’ve been shackled with some really poor viewfinders or worse still a loupe for a low res LCD screen (the FS700 comes to mind). It isn’t just about sharpening – half the viewfinders out there are lo res pieces of crap.
    All camera manufacturers including Sony should do better in this area. And re: the price of the new DVF-EL200 OLED viewfinder -they are charging more for that one piece of kit than an entire low end pro camera. The only reason they can do that is because its targeted at a market that is used to paying a lot. It doesn’t surprise me – Sony has a long history of doing that for their monitors – they are all overpriced. IMO.

    1. So you think that the DVF-EL200 with is custom built OLED panel and Sony FS7 EVF with it’s off-the shelf LCD panel cost the same to develop and manufacture? The choice of panels available is extremely limited unless you go for a custom fabrication and in the volumes required for the run of a viewfinder this will be extremely expensive per unit (I have helped in the development process of a 3rd part EVF so I know this for a fact). The panels used in the Zacuto EVF’s, while high resolution are fragile, burn in extremely easily and have limited lifespan. So as they say – you get what you pay for. Why do you think that even in the 3rd party EVF market the choices are so limited? If it was so easy to produce a cheap, high resolution, long lasting and robust EVF at a bargain price don’t you think the market would be full of great, cheap, options.

  5. I have found the flip out screen on the side of the PMW-F3, with peaking on, to be far superior to the FS7 EVF. I am a little surprised that Sony can’t reproduce the very effective peaking of the F3 screen on the FS7. Of course, the F3 does not have a 4K sensor, but I don’t have detail sharpening turned on in my old F3, but it’s still much easier to get an accurate critical focus with that screen, using the built-in peaking.

    My personal choice is to use a 17 inch monitor right in front of my face. It’s getting to the point where I’m going to have to bring 2 17 inch monitors on shoots, because the director usually wants one too. They don’t understand how critical focus is in HD and 4K, especially if they are shooting 4K in order to zoom in on medium shots of interviews.

    On cinema verite scenes, I can get pretty close, but really, who knows? I’m sure there is some less than perfect focus happening; there’s no way to avoid it besides having a focus puller with a large monitor.

  6. This phenomenon has been haunting me for years. Getting older, I always doubted myself.
    Is my eyesight deteriorating or is there something else going on.
    So, being the very happy owner of a Sony FS7 and a Zacuto Gratical HD, try harder and being even more critical, should do the trick.

    Thank you for this explanation and this message.

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