In this article, Photo Review technical editor Margaret Brown offers practical tips and advice on how to use both monitor and viewfinder to frame and evaluate the photos you intend to capture. Margaret uses a compact system camera for illustration in this article, and most of the tips and advice apply also to DSLR cameras.

Although most entry-level CSCs require their LCD monitors to do double duty for framing shots, higher-featured cameras almost always include dedicated viewfinders. (Also see advice on  viewfinders in  Compact system camera accessories  article)

Live View Shooting

Using the monitor for shot composition (live view shooting) has some significant advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side live view shooting provides:

1. Communication with subjects. For portraiture, live view shooting allows you to maintain eye contact with your subject. This can be useful when photographing babies and young children.

2. You are more aware of activities happening outside of the camera’s field of view and can predict the direction and speed of moving subjects.

3. Accurate previews. The larger screen of the monitor makes it easier to assess the exposure levels, colours and sharpness in the scene, as the camera will record it. You can see quickly when corrections are required and make adjustments before capturing the shot.

4. Touch-screen monitors make it quick and easy to focus on a specific part of the scene.

5. Icons showing camera settings can be superimposed on the live view screen to make it easy to check shooting parameters.


When composing shots with the monitor screen, being able to see current camera settings at the same time lets you check shooting parameters quickly and make any adjustments required. (Source: Olympus.)


The Colour Creator function in Olympus’s latest OM-D cameras gives users the ability to adjust saturation in a scene, shift the colour cast of an image, and control highlights and shadows.

The downsides of live view are as follows:

1. LCD monitor screens are difficult to use in bright sunlight ““ even if they provide brightness adjustments.  

2. LCDs consume more battery power than EVFs. (Optical viewfinders use no power).

Using the Viewfinder

Viewfinders make it easy to compose shots because they isolate the subject from the background; you see only the view recorded by the image sensor. This is particularly important when shooting movies outdoors, when it can be impossible to frame shots with the monitor screen.

It’s much easier to see the scene in bright outdoor lighting if you use a viewfinder and a generous eye cup can exclude the ambient glare. It’s also easier to hold the camera steady when it’s close to your face and your elbows are pressed to your sides. This can be a real advantage when shooting with telephoto lenses.

EVFs show you exactly what the camera’s sensor sees and provide a continuous, uninterrupted view. In contrast the optical viewfinders in DSLRs are momentarily blocked when the mirror is raised to let light pass to the sensor. EVFs can also display all the data shown on monitor screens and many include focusing aids, colour adjustments and automatic boosting of brightness when shooting in dim lighting.

EVFs with eye sensors detect when the camera is raised to your eye and switch seamlessly between the LCD and EVF. Unfortunately, some just detect when light is blocked and will switch if your finger, the camera strap or any other object covers the sensor.

The viewfinder’s magnification (as shown in the camera specifications list) allows you to see how large the subject will appear, relative to how it looks to your naked eye. It’s usually expressed as a multiplier, relative to the naked eye size, based on a lens that provides a similar perspective to human vision.

For example, a magnification of 0.92x displays the scene to make it appear almost as large as it appears to the naked eye. A viewfinder with a magnification of 0.6x shows it at only 60% of the naked eye view.

Field of view (FOV) coverage compares what you can see in the viewfinder (or on the monitor) with what will be recorded by the sensor. Almost all cameras with EVFs provide 100% coverage; which means they show the scene as it will be recorded. Only the best optical viewfinders cover the full image frame.


The above images illustrate how FOV coverage affects photography. The top image shows the subject as framed by an optical viewfinder with coverage of roughly 90%. The lower image shows the subject as recorded by the camera’s sensor.

The eyepoint (or eye relief) refers to how far away from the eyepiece your eye can be while still being able to see the entire viewfinder image. It’s usually specified in millimetres and is an important consideration for photographers who wear glasses (including sunglasses) because glasses create a physical barrier between your eye and the eyepiece. An 18mm eyepoint is adequate for glasses wearers.  

Dioptre adjustment lets users adjust the viewing system to cater for different users’ vision requirements. Most cameras provide corrections between -2 and +1 dioptres, with more sophisticated models covering a wider range. Effective dioptre correction enables people who normally wear glasses to dial in a correction that shows the scene in sharp focus. The adjustments may be made with a slider or rotating knob.

Aspect Ratio Settings

The aspect ratio of a photograph is simply the width of the image area divided by the height. The higher the aspect ratio, the greater the difference between height and width. Most photographers have become accustomed to different aspect ratio settings in their cameras. It’s common for CSCs to offer at least three.


The illustration on this page shows the most popular aspect ratio settings and how they are achieved by cropping the largest image produced by the sensor.

The 3:2 aspect ratio is based on 35mm film cameras, which is also ideal for making snapshot-sized prints. This is the default aspect ratio for cameras with APS-C sensors as well as the CX sensor in Nikon 1 cameras.

The 4:3 aspect ratio is derived from the original TV screens, which is also the default aspect ratio for the M4/3 sensors and the Pentax Q cameras.

The 16:9 aspect ratio is used for widescreen TV sets and movie recording.  

Some cameras provide additional settings for 1:1 (square), 4:5 or 5:4 aspect ratios, usually to match specific paper formats for printed images.

Problems occur when there is a mismatch between the captured image and the output format. For example, if you try to display an image recorded with a 4:3 aspect ratio on a widescreen TV screen. The borders in this case usually become black, and are, therefore, less intrusive.


The original 4:3 aspect ratio image.


Scenario 1: Fit the image within the frame.


Scenario 2: Distort the image by stretching. This is the least acceptable choice because it changes the subject’s proportions.


Scenario 3: Crop the image to size. This means losing a little off the top and bottom of the image. Too bad if these areas contain important parts of the subject.

Aids to Composition

Many CSCs provide compositional
 aids in the form of grids that can be overlaid on the view displayed on the monitor and/or EVF to help with shot composition. These grids are never recorded in the photograph.

The most popular grid patterns are the Rule of Thirds grid, which breaks the image into 3×3 blocks, the square grid and the square grid with diagonals. They all contain horizontal lines that can be used to help you keep horizons level and ensure vertical lines in subjects remain parallel.


The most common grid patterns are the Rule of Thirds grid (top), the square grid (centre) and the square grid with diagonals (bottom).


An example of the use of the Rule of Thirds grid. Points of interest are usually positioned where the grid lines intersect.

Another popular pattern is the Golden Mean, which is based on a ratio of 1:1.618. The mathematical formula for this pattern is complex but it is easily visualised when shown as a diagram and it can be used in any orientation as a guide to the placement of elements in the scene to create a harmonious whole.

Leading lines are often used by visual artists to direct viewers’ attention to certain parts of the subject or draw them into a scene. Converging lines also give a strong sense of perspective and three-dimensional depth.


In the Golden Mean pattern, the relationship between adjacent rectangles is a ratio of 1:1.618. The curved spiral drawn over the grid is often used in picture composition to add dynamism to the composition.  


An example showing how the Golden Mean pattern can be used in shot composition. Having the spiral extending outwards from the eye of the subject nearest the camera draws the viewer’s eye into and around the picture.

Leading lines can be obvious items like fences, roads, buildings and wires, or implied by the direction in which an off-centre subject is looking. Diagonal lines, in particular, can introduce a feeling of movement, drama or uncertainty, which can be emphasised by tilting the camera up or down.

While these ‘rules’ can help you to produce pictures that look appealing, they don’t necessarily create interesting images. Sometimes you need to step outside the rules to achieve the result you want. If you find a great composition that contradicts popular conception, go ahead and shoot. You never know whether an idea will work until you try it.


This picture contains a lot of leading lines, from the regular rows of the crop stubble through the curved lines of the vehicular tracks to the jagged patterns of the clouds. Grid lines overlaid on the viewfinder image were used to keep the horizon straight. One rule has been broken; there is no vertical element to interrupt the horizon. But that would make a less interesting picture.


Excerpt from  Compact System Camera Guide.