I’ve posted here before about my low tolerance for cameras without some kind of eye-level viewfinder. I’ve occasionally wondered if it was just me, but when I recently posted something on the same lines on Facebook, I got a strong response, showing that a lot of people are not happy being forced to use the screen.
As a result, I thought it would be interesting, and I hope helpful, to try and pull together a list of cameras which do have viewfinders. This obviously excludes DSLRs, and I’m also excluding ‘medium format’ and ‘large format’ kit, which is expensive and highly specialised.
This leaves me with a list of just 31 cameras, and that’s stretching it a bit; it includes both the Nikon 1 V1, which is probably discontinued (see end of page) and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1, which hasn’t really arrived yet. However, the Nikon is a camera that I use and like, and the Panasonic is one I’ll be very interested in seeing and evaluating as soon as possible.
The cameras are split into four main categories; I’ll discuss each one as I get to it. Before that, however, l’ll just outline the different types of viewfinder.
Optical: Sometimes called a ‘tunnel’ finder, this is essentially a simple window or porthole which shows you approximately the scene the lens will see. They have two big advantages – they’re easy to use in bright sunlight and they don’t drain the battery – and one big drawback: when I used the word ‘approximately’, I wasn’t kidding. Here’s what I wrote in my Expanded Guide to the (now discontinued) Nikon Coolpix P7100:
Electronic: Like the LCD screen which – all too often – is all that users have, an electronic viewfinder (EVF) shows you the image as seen by the camera’s sensor. This suggests that ‘what you see is what you get’ and most EVFs do indeed show you 100% of the image area (but it’s always worth checking before a purchase). They may also give you a better preview in relation to depth of field, and perhaps other image qualities, than an optical finder and even an SLR. They’re also much more usable in bright sunlight than LCD screens, but they do draw power from the battery.
Hybrid: Unique to Fuji, the hybrid finder lets you switch from an optical to an electronic finder image. It’s well-implemented, too, arguably giving the best of both worlds – but they’re among the most expensive cameras here, apart from the Leicas.
Rangefinder: Always strongly associated with Leica and in this list unique to that brand, rangefinder focusing works by aligning two images of the subject. It takes a little practice but is extremely accurate. The image area is indicated by a bright-line frame within the finder. In other respects it’s an optical finder. It doesn’t drain the battery and is extremely usable in bright sunlight. And the Leica rangefinders are, far and away, the most expensive cameras in this review.
Accessory finders. It’s worth mentioning that you can attach an accessory viewfinder to many cameras not listed here. Some, like the Sigma Merrill DP-1 and DP-2 which I reviewed recently, have optical accessory finders while others, like the Olympus Pen range, are fully-coupled electronic finders. These are welcome but they do add bulk, cost and a bit of faff, none of which are ideal when you’re looking for a simple camera that will slip into your pocket. I’d need a very compelling reason to opt for a camera+accessory finder over one that has a viewfinder built in.
Note on prices: these are based on ‘street’ prices and are as current and accurate as I can make them. For cameras with interchangeable lenses, to aid comparison, the price includes a standard zoom lens. Prices on the Leicas are somewhat more notional but then Leica is one of those brands where ‘if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it’.
This is a familiar category that hardly needs description. What's striking (I think the word I really want is ‘appalling’) is that out of – literally – hundreds of compact cameras available, I could only find six boasting a viewfinder. It’s reported that the compact category is showing a sharp decline in market share. I’m not saying the lack of viewfinders is a major cause, but having one would be one way to differentiate a compact from a smartphone.
If you’re just looking for a simple, inexpensive compact with a viewfinder, then Canon’s Powershot A1400 seems to be the only option. The other five are all aimed at relatively advanced users. Canon’s G15 has a solid pedigree while the G1X has by far the largest sensor in this group, but having handled it briefly I wasn’t blown away by the build quality and it only has an optical finder. To me, it’s the two EVF cameras that are most interesting. I’d probably go for the Fuji if only because it has a slightly larger sensor, but the Panasonic is very new and I will be interested to see how it fares in reviews.
I’ve tended to be rather dismissive of this category – also known as ‘long zoom’ or ‘superzoom’ cameras – but they are numerically the largest group here. I still think the massive zoom range is a marketing tool rather than a feature that’s of great value to most users. 1200mm-plus lenses are impossible to handhold, even with excellent image stabilisation. If you're, say, a birder, you may value the zoom reach, but you'll need a tripod.
These are not pocketable cameras either; some of them approach or exceed SLRs in bulk. The Fujifilm XS-1, for example, weighs 920 grams: a NIkon D3200 with 18–55mm lens is 150 grams lighter and has a sensor over six times larger by area. Most Compact System cameras are even smaller and lighter, but knock spots off bridge cameras in terms of sensor size and system flexibility. Some bridge cameras are very cheap, but possibly at the expense of build quality.
Compact System cameras
Alternative names include ‘mirrorless’ and ‘EVIL’ (electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens); shame that one didn’t stick, as it’s a snappy definition as well as yielding a great acronym. Some look much like compacts with a larger lens, others more like mini-SLRs, but all have the advantages of large sensors: APS-C is the same size as used in the majority of SLRs. The larger sensors don’t necessarily translate into massively larger bodies, but they do mean that lenses have to be larger.
Unsurprisingly, this is the category that has seen the strongest growth in recent years. All the cameras here have a lot to recommend them; the Nikon 1 series score by being the smallest, the Olympus OM-D as the most professionally specified.
I suppose I could have listed the Fujifilm X100S, with its fixed prime lens, as a compact, and the X-E1 and X-Pro1 as Compact System cameras; it’s a moot point. These cameras do seem to stand apart by virtue of their traditional styling and – to a greater or lesser extent – the way they embody a traditional approach to photography. The Fujis are beautifully made and to me are some of the most appealing cameras on the market. I can’t afford to even think about the Leicas.
Note: Nikon 1 V1
I’m unclear about the status of this camera as it has disappeared from many dealers’ listings but is still shown on Nikon’s own website. I’ve noticed discontinued kit hanging around on the Nikon site before, but as it has just had a major revamp you would expect it to be up to date.
Whatever the official story, this camera is still available to buy new from some dealers and is now at a knockdown price – it should be possible to get one for under £300. This makes it not just the cheapest Compact System camera in this review, but the cheapest camera of any type other than the very much more basic Canon PowerShot A1400. Looks like a real bargain to me.
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