Using an LCD Viewfinder on your DSLR
Updated: Aug 8
I have to admit that this is an item I never thought I’d own. Why in the world would you want to cover up your camera LCD screen? Number one: the sun. Number two: video. Number three: no concerns about focus calibration fine-tuning.
I am a total infrared enthusiast. I use some IR filters that make exposures extend to a few minutes, so the only way I know what I’ve captured out in the field is by reviewing the shot on my LCD screen. Infrared only works well in bright sun, and I swear I can see next to nothing on the LCD screen on a sunny day. This gets totally infuriating. Enter the LCD viewfinder. It’s like being inside a movie theater, and the viewer magnification means you can actually see the individual pixels on the LCD. If you mess up the manual focus (infrared focus is very different from visible-light focus) then you’ll know right away, even if you’re standing in sunshine.
Since I thought that I’d probably rarely use it once I bought it, I got a really, really cheap screen viewfinder called “Xit”. It was love a first sight. This thing comes with a couple of little metal frames that you can “permanently” attach to the camera LCD via sticky tape, and then connect to the viewfinder with its built-in magnets. Personally, I’m not interested in using these metal frames. The LCD viewfinder also comes with a lanyard to carry around your neck, which is how I use it about half of the time. There’s also a little neoprene case to hold everything on your belt or via a little clip.
Probably the best-known LCD viewfinder brand is Hoodman. These viewfinders fall into the “Cadillac” category, and are priced accordingly.
If you’re into video, an LCD viewfinder is just the ticket. You hold the camera up to your eye, and the eyepiece lets you look at the LCD screen without any distractions or interference from ambient light. You also get the steadiness that you have become accustomed to with still photography, since the camera can be pressed against your face via the soft rubber eyecup. If I did lots of video, then I might go ahead and add one of those metal frames to the LCD and keep the eyepiece attached with its magnets, but most likely I'd stick with what describe below for attachment.
Nothing’s stopping you from trying stills with Live View and the viewfinder, either. At least you won’t have any concerns about focus fine-tune. This might be a great option when using lenses like the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 AF-S that have that annoying focus shift whenever the aperture changes (due to excessive spherical aberration). My Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 AF-S E ED VR irritatingly needs different focus calibration at different focal lengths; Live View and its contrast-based focus would cure this problem, too. This viewfinder clips a tiny bit off of the vertical dimension in Live View, so I scoot it a little bit up and down if the edges are important, such as seeing the exposure information.
An LCD viewfinder is largely incompatible with action photography, due to slow refresh rates on the LCD and sluggish contrast-based autofocus. If you’re into landscapes or macro photography, though, I’d highly recommend you explore this option.
Some LCD viewfinders (including some Xit models) come with attachments to connect the viewfinder to the camera via the tripod socket, but these only work if you don’t use a battery grip. I always use battery grips, so I avoided this style of viewfinder.
For some specifics on this particular model, here goes. The inside measurements of the viewfinder are 65.5 mm by 39.0 mm. The little metal frame outside measurements are 73.0 mm by 47.0 mm. It’s specified as a “3-inch LCD Viewfinder”. The magnification is 2.0X. The viewfinder body is heavy plastic; only time will tell how durable it is, but they claim a 5-year warranty. You can buy other LCD viewfinders (again, including Xit) that have more magnification, but personally I find that 2.0X is plenty. The viewfinder is fixed-focus, but the focus was perfect for my copy.
The viewing aspect ratio is a bit off for my Nikon screens, which means that I can’t read the screen text above/below the image. This doesn’t bother me, but you might want to explore other brands/models that are a bit larger in the vertical dimension. I believe that this model is more tailored to the Canon screen aspect ratio.
Xit Viewfinder and Nikon D610 LCD
I tried viewing the LCD screen both with and without the camera protective plastic LCD cover. In both cases, the Xit viewfinder focus was fine. You can see above how the viewfinder aspect ratio is a bit wider than necessary and a bit shorter than the Nikon’s LCD. You can see the whole image at once, but not the data below the image.
Viewable area with metal attachment frame
In the shot above, I laid one of the included metal frames over the LCD screen. It barely avoids interfering with the rear controls, and partially obscures the button labels. The frame aspect ratio makes it a little wider than it needs to be, and it cuts off some screen text. I quickly decided that I’d forego sticking this frame onto my camera.
You can see why they offer viewfinders that attach via a bracket to the tripod socket. I refuse to give up my battery grips, so this style of viewfinder won’t work for me. So what can I do if I want hands-free operation for my viewfinder?
A little bungee cord to temporarily attach it to the camera
For the times that I don’t want to just hand-hold the viewfinder against the LCD screen, I use a little black bungee cord to hold it in place. The bungee cord came with a spring-loaded clip to adjust the cord tension. The cord presses the unit against the LCD in 4 spots, and I can adjust it to get the exact tension that I want. A little bit goofy, but it works. At least the cord isn’t colored red or orange.
Bungee cord attachment, top view
I was luckily able to position the bungee cord so that it doesn’t interfere with any camera controls.
Bungee cord attachment, bottom view
Xit kit with neoprene carrying pouch
The photo shows what the carrying pouch looks like. It’s a snug fit for the viewfinder. I also keep the pair of metal attachment frames in the bottom of the pouch, in case I decide to use them later.
Mirrorless camera users with an electronic viewfinder probably snicker when they read an article like this. They’ve had the ability to effortlessly observe their viewfinder in daylight since day one. But for DSLR users, properly viewing the LCD screen under any conditions has been a point of frustration since day one.
I have no financial stake in Xit viewfinder sales or any other hardware, for that matter. I just thought you might find it useful to gain an awareness about the benefits of LCD viewfinders, especially when they can be had so inexpensively. Even if you don’t use one very often, you’re not out much money to give it a try. For me, owning an LCD viewfinder has become a no-brainer.