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Meet The Viewfinder In The Sony a77

This is not a review of the new Sony a77. The a77 is a superb camera, about which plenty has been written online and elsewhere. Just google "a77" and you’ll find more reviews than you’ll have time to read. Most detail things like the cameras excellent specs (24 megapixel sensor, 12 frames per second, HD video, etc) and the design of the body (dual-hinged adjustable rear LCD panel, weather sealing, customizable controls) and so on and so forth.

Just about every review I've seen for the Sony a77 online and in magazines entirely misses the point. They write about the a77 as if it’s just another excellent camera body, or they write about how the mirror in the a77 doesn’t slap (more on that later) as if that makes it worth buying.

I’m going to take a different approach here and write about one aspect of this camera: the viewfinder... but before I begin, a disclaimer. None of the pictures seen here were taken with my a77. Obviously. I'd have to own two of them to use one to take pictures of one. Instead, what you're seeing here are pictures taken with my iPhone, in most cases, pressed against the viewfinder. Thus, the blur is from the iPhone, not the actual viewfinder.

And while we're at it, let's meet our model.

Note that he's holding the key to happiness :)


So, What's The Point?

The a77 is not just another great new camera body. Nikon makes those. So does Canon. And Pentax, Olympus, Sigma, and everybody else. Sony has done something simple yet revolutionary here. Rather than using an optical viewfinder like every other camera maker, they’ve given the a77 an electronic viewfinder. They began doing this in 2010 with the entry level a33 and a55, but the new a77 has the 2nd generation of the technology, and it is astounding.

The electronic viewfinder alone is reason enough to consider this camera a step up from a traditional DSLR, even if the DSLR you’d compare an a77 with has identical specs. I'd say the a77's viewfinder is a pleasure to use (and it is), but even that is missing the point.

The a77 viewfinder will change the way you use a camera. It'll be a change for the better because the viewfinder in the Sony a77 will give you greater control over the camera than you've ever had before.

When you look into the a77 viewfinder, you're looking at an OLED video screen in the eyepiece instead of seeing a typical piece of glass. It’s an electronic viewfinder (EVF) rather than an optical viewfinder (OVF).

An optical viewfinder shows you what the lens is seeing. An electronic viewfinder shows you what the camera is doing. Think about that for a moment. With an optical viewfinder and a 50mm lens, you see the view at 50mm. With an electronic viewfinder, you see the view at 50mm as well as any changes you’ve told the camera to make, such as exposure compensation, adjustments to white balance, and so on.

Let's say you own a Nikon D7000 and you lower exposure compensation. Do you see any change in the viewfinder? Of course not. You'll see an indicator, but you won’t see an actual change in darkness of the shot you’re framing until after you take it. That's how it’s always been with SLRs. But with the electronic viewfinder in a Sony a77, when you lower exposure compensation, you'll see the image in the viewfinder become darker, just as the shot you’d take would be darker.

Now, with exposure compensation lowered (again noting that my iPhone is out of focus, not to mention the iPhone is way off with its white balance here, darnit!)

Likewise, if you change ISO or white balance in the a77, you’ll see the scene in the viewfinder change accordingly.

Here’s an even simpler example: Set your camera to Spot Metering. Look through the viewfinder of your DSLR and choose an exposure point. Pick a dark spot. Nothing changes in your viewfinder, right? Now, pick a bright spot. Do you see any change in the viewfinder? Of course not. You’ll see the effect of the metering in the shot you take. But in the a77 viewfinder, you will see the exposure change because the viewfinder is showing you what the camera is doing rather than only showing you what the lens is seeing.

Again, think about that for a moment. If you do, you’ll begin to realize just how limiting an optical viewfinder is.


A Better Workflow

Here's how most of us probably used our DSLRs: You pick the camera up to your eye. You look through the viewfinder. You frame your shot and make a few adjustments. Finally, you take the shot. Then, you pull the camera away from your eye so you can review the shot you just took, using the LCD screen on the back of your camera, and perhaps you notice something isn’t right. "Ah, shoot. I see blown highlights." You dial down exposure compensation a bit, pick the camera back up to put the viewfinder to your eye, and you frame the shot again so you can take it again. Then you take the viewfinder away from your eye so you can check the shot again using the LCD screen on the back of the camera. Again. "Ah, crud. This time, it’s too dark." So, you adjust exposure compensation a little, raise the camera back up to your eye to look through the viewfinder again, and you start the process over. Again.

With an optical viewfinder, photography is a game of shooting with the viewfinder and then checking with the LCD. Back and forth, viewfinder to LCD, viewfinder to LCD. Raise, lower. Raise, lower. Rinse, lather, repeat.

With the electronic viewfinder in the Sony a77, you don't have to do that anymore. You literally see the changes you're making in the viewfinder.


More Abilities And Tools

Since the a77 viewfinder is electronic rather than just a piece of glass, it has the ability to do some amazing things.

Is the shot level? Don’t bother checking your horizon after the fact. Put a level in your viewfinder.

Is the shot in focus? Click a button and the viewfinder will show you a super-zoomed in view so you can check the precision of your focus.

The red/orange box here shows where the viewfinder will zoom in so you can better judge the focus.

It's hard to tell in this iPhone shot, but it's easy to see in the viewfinder that the focus is on the ball entering his claw, and the rest is way off. I could zoom further in, but I'm taking iPhone shots here, and my iPhone is struggling with this already.... but you get the idea.

In that second picture, the red box shows where and how far I'm zoomed in. I can easily move around the shot to check other parts if I choose.

There is absolutely no way this sort of thing can be done with an optical viewfinder.

Speaking of zoom... there's an excellent tele/crop feature in the a77 that crops the shot, more or less multiplying the length of your lens' reach. Thus, a 50mm lens more or less becomes a 100mm lens, and you're seeing this change perfectly in the electronic viewfinder. I say more or less because this isn’t a trick of digitally zooming or doubling your image. Instead, the camera is simply cropping the shot, and the viewfinder fills with the cropped view at a factor of 1.4x or 2x. Thus, a 2x tele/crop will result in an image cropped down to 12 megapixels, which is still a heck of a lot.

You can also lay all sorts of information over the viewfinder, such as a histogram, level, gridlines and various indicators. Better still, you can have different settings for what information you see in the viewfinder versus what you see on the LCD.

Everything you’re used to being able to see in a rear LCD panel, you can see in an electronic viewfinder. You can surf menus, change settings, even review shots you’ve taken. Of course, that stuff is still available on the LCD panel, but it’s all instantly accessible in the viewfinder too.


Check It

By far, my favorite viewfinder option is the auto review. If you enable this feature, each time you take a photo, you’ll be given a brief review of the shot you just took (adjustable at none, 2, 5 or 10 seconds) without even removing your eye from the viewfinder. During the review, you can click the Enlarge button (it's also the AF/MF button) to zoom in and check the shot’s focus in detail. Zooming in also cancels the end of the review period, thus keeping the image in the viewfinder for a longer review. Spinning the rear command dial zooms further in or out. When you’re done reviewing, a half-tap of the shutter ends the image review and you’re ready to shoot again. On the other hand, if you DON'T click the Enlarge button during the auto review, the shot will simply stay in the viewfinder for a brief period (I’ve set mine to 2 seconds) and then the a77 will ready to shoot again.

Whoever at Sony designed the way Auto Review works in the EVF should be commended because it's excellent.

How many times have you seen someone ask a group of people to pose for a shot ("Say cheese!") and then watched that person check the shot in the LCD only to have them pose again ("Hang on everybody. Get back into position. We’re going to try that again." With an auto review in the viewfinder, you take the shot and instantly see it in your viewfinder, meaning that if something’s wrong, you’re already in position to try again. It’s faster. It’s smarter. And it’ll make you a better photographer because it’ll enable you to do what you do without having to fiddle with the camera so much.


Specs, Shmecs

Specs tell you what a camera is capable of, technically, but as we all know, photography isn't about cameras. It isn’t about frames per second or X number of cross-type focus points, which is why I haven’t even mentioned those things. Photography is about the photo taken by the photographer. The viewfinder in this camera will give you, as a photographer, more control over your photos before you even take them than you've ever known. The a77 buttons and dials are customizable to give you control over the camera, but the electronic viewfinder literally puts you inside the camera. It's an amazing experience.

I suspect that, ten years from now, most DSLRs will have electronic viewfinders. This is the future.

So many camera reviews discuss the pros and cons of an electronic viewfinder in comparison to optical, but they fail to mention the weaknesses of an optical viewfinder. Now that I've made the switch to an EVF, I'd really hate to have to switch back. After using the viewfinder in this Sony a77 for a day or two shooting the kind of photography that you do, you'll realize just how limiting an old fashioned optical viewfinder really is.

Obviously, this is a great camera, and the reviews discussing its impressive specs compared to other cameras aren’t wrong, but the real story of the Sony a77 is the viewfinder. All I can say is wow. I certainly wouldn't want to go back to an optical viewfinder after shooting with this. No way.


The Yeahbut

There is a price to be paid in exchange for all of the power and convenience of an electronic viewfinder. No, I’m not talking about the $1400 price tag of an a77 (body only). I’m talking about a slight loss of light.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know the Sony a77 is not an SLR. Technically speaking, it’s an SLT. SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, which means the camera has a mirror that reflects light coming through the lens up into the piece of glass that is the optical viewfinder. When you take a shot with an SLR, there’s a "ka-chunk" sound as the mirror flips out of the way, enabling the light to reach the sensor. SLT stands for Single Lens Translucent, which means the camera has a translucent mirror that allows the vast majority of light to pass through it (thus, always reaching the sensor), but a sliver of that light is reflected upward, feeding the phase detect autofocus. The mirror in an SLT never moves, so there’s no risk of vibration from mirror-slap, nor is there any mirror noise.

And here’s the "Yeah, but…"

The mirror in an SLT causes a slight loss of light from reaching the sensor which has led to a lot of discussions about high ISO performance. Most of the chatter isn't about photography or even photos. It's about theoretical numbers (DXO.com) and studio test shots produced under near ideal but not perfect and thus flawed methodology (dpreview.com). I'm not knocking DXO or dpreview. They each have a job to do and they tend to provide excellent information. But their info can lead certain types of people astray. Those people end up debating numbers rather than enjoying or even judging actual photos.

I wouldn't be surprised if, under the harshest of dim lighting, A Nikon D7000 could outperform a Sony a77. But if the sort of photography you do is consistently in those conditions, you're probably not considering a D7000 or an a77. You need full frame. And then the question becomes, is it even fair to judge a $1400 camera against a $2700 camera? Or a $6,000 camera? Comparing them is actually a compliment to the $1400 camera, even if the $1400 camera loses in the comparison.


The Bottom Line

In terms of DSLRs, the electronic viewfinder marks the biggest change to photography since the dawn of digital. I couldn’t imagine wanting to give up all of the things an electronic viewfinder enables a photographer to do.

When I bought my Sony a77 a few months ago, I kept my previous camera (a Nikon D7000). I planned on shooting with both in order to compare the results. The D7000 is a fine camera, but after an hour with the Sony a77, I knew I’d hate going back to the D7000. The D7000 has one of the best, if not THE best, viewfinders in its class… but compared to the electronic viewfinder in the Sony, it’s just a piece of glass. A very limiting piece of glass.

I sold my Nikon 10 days later and I haven’t missed it even once.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the a77, but I don’t recommend going to a store to play with one. You need to use it to shoot your style of photography before you’ll really understand what the electronic viewfinder can do for you. In a store, the viewfinder may feel like a gimmick, but in real world use, it’s astounding. It’s empowering.

And it’s the future.

::::: | Thursday, Jan 12 2012 at 11:37 PM
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Comments:


Max said:

I've got a question for a specific situation: If you would use the max sync speed of the camera 1/200 or 1/250 in a studio to get rid of the ambient light and only have off camera manual flash to light up your shot. Is there an option to turn off that exposure preview? If no the picture you'd see in the evf would be completely black right?
I used evf before on a sony dsc f717. I had that problem on it but used continous lights in the studio and flashes outside for dramatic light (it could sync up to 1/1000)

::::: | January 14, 2012 3:16 AM


Xmi said:

Max: Yes, the A77 has an option that disables the preview in the EVF. It syncs at 1/250.

::::: | January 14, 2012 4:01 AM


Bruce said:

Great article, thanks! However...

"...the camera has a translucent mirror which allows the vast majority of light to pass through it (reaching the sensor), but a sliver of that light is reflected upward, into the electronic viewfinder..."

Am I not correct in thinking that the reflected light is actually to feed the phase detect AF sensors, and that the EVF is backlit and fed from the main (and only) image sensor?

::::: | January 14, 2012 9:56 AM


Rob said:

Bruce... d'oh! I don't know what I was thinking, but it's corrected. Thanks!

::::: | January 14, 2012 11:21 AM


Studio said:

@Max

I have the A77 in my studio and shoot manual at 1/250 with studio flash.

The option to stop the EVF going black is in the menu and described on page 89 of the Sony A77 manual.

Live View Display - "Setting Effect Off" is what you want.

One thing worth mentioning is that focus peaking is absolutely fantastic in the studio. That alone makes the EVF worthwhile.

::::: | January 16, 2012 2:49 AM


Rob said:

Studio: focus peaking is pretty amazing. It's one of the things I never got around to mentioning.

I can't say enough good things about shooting with an EVF.

::::: | January 16, 2012 11:26 AM


David said:

Why does the EVF darken on bright days? I used it yesterday at the Marina and the EVF wasVERY dark and the day was very bright.The LCD was normal. D

::::: | September 9, 2012 10:12 AM


Rob said:

Hhhmmm... I'm not sure. I haven't experienced that at all. Sorry!

::::: | September 9, 2012 10:21 AM


Russ said:

I could not agree more. The EVF allows me much better control and flexability when shooting. A went from the A200 to the A55 and have my A77 on order.

::::: | December 1, 2012 12:45 PM


csirre said:

David,
Th EVF shows the way the camera see the scene. In brighter day, the metering system generally gives u an underexposure value (this is why we have to compensate the EV in a + way.), so the EVF gives u darker image.

::::: | February 22, 2013 11:47 PM


PAF said:


I cannot agree more with the benefits of the EVF and I personally wouldn´t go back to OVF for nothing in this world. One thing you forgot to mention, maybe there are a few more, is the “peaking color” function, where the focused areas are highlighted in color. I do macro photography and that is soooo useful!!!

::::: | October 23, 2013 9:44 AM


Itzalak said:

I think evf technology is great but I have only 1 problem with it. When you are shooting a moving object it is difficult to follow the target because this kind of viewfinders has delays, freezes or goes to black when you shot in continuous mode. Has the evf of the A77 solved this issues?

::::: | November 8, 2013 8:50 AM


Rob said:

The A77 has a significantly better EVF than most, in my experience. I don't get freezes or delays at all. When I first bought my A77 two years ago, there was a delay when turning on the camera, but that was fixed by a firmware update at least 18 months ago if not longer.

An EVF is basically a video feed, which means you're using a video camera as well as a still camera. Thus, you're going to see blur in the EVF in situations where your settings would produce blur in the shot you're taking - especially if you're shooting video. Low light is a perfect example. Motion shots are another. I find the blur useful because I see, for example, that I need a faster shutter.

I think that photographers have accepted the limitations if an old fashioned OVF, so there's not much complaining about them. OVFs rarely show 100% of the frame. Sometimes not even 90%. That means they cut off a lot of the shot. Ah well, right? OVFs only show you what the lens sees, not what the sensor will capture - and let's be honest here, the lens is the view but the sensor is the shot. Ah well, right?

To me, the limitations of an OVF are huge. Yes, an EVF has limitations too, but I'll take those limitations any day. My Sony A77 is two years old, but I still marvel at what it can do as much as I did the day I bought it.

The kind of people who had trouble transitioning from film to digital a decade ago are the kind of people who are going to have trouble transitioning from the old way of an OFV and a mirror showing you what the lens sees to the new way of an EVF showing you what the sensor sees. It's a different way of working, but in my opinion, it's a huge improvement.

::::: | November 8, 2013 10:57 AM


Rob said:

PAF said: "One thing you forgot to mention, maybe there are a few more, is the “peaking color” function, where the focused areas are highlighted in color. I do macro photography and that is soooo useful!!!"

You're so right. An EVF is such a functional piece of tech that different people will find they utilize it differently. I do street photography, so I have focus peaking turned off, but I can see how it'd be something others would use all the time.

I'd need to write a much longer post if I even tried to cover everything an EVF can do. I love shooting with an EVF. I just feel like it gives me so much more control over the camera along with instant feedback that's so much better.

::::: | November 8, 2013 11:18 AM




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