When qualifying a photograph as being good, amazing, strong, or merely so-so, one of the main criteria for giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to a photo has to do with the composition of the picture and how well the subject fills the frame. That being the case, it’s well worth noting that when you peer through the viewfinders of most consumer and prosumer cameras, you seldom see 100% of the live viewing area of the frame.
With the exception of the top-of-the-line DSLRs from Canon (EOS 1Ds Mk III, 1D Mk IV, 7D), Nikon (D3X, D3S, D300S, D7000), Sony (Alpha a900), Olympus (E5) and Pentax (K7), the viewfinders in a majority of DSLRs only display about 95% of the total live area, give or take a degree or two. Rangefinder cameras are often more conservative, with some cameras displaying as little as 85% of the total live area through the camera’s ocular.
The optical viewfinders found on high end point-and-shoot digicams are even more conservative. Depending on which end of the zoom range you’re shooting at and how close you are to your subject, the optical finders found on “pro” point-and-shoot digicams such as Nikon’s P500 and Canon’s G12 only display about 77 to 79% of the total live area. So if you’ve been wondering why the picture that opens up on your computer screen seems to lack the tightly-composed impact of the picture you remember composing in the camera’s viewfinder, it’s probably because it isn’t the same picture you originally composed in the camera’s finder.
The reason for this “border patrolling” has to do with the cropping that inevitably occurs when you order prints from a lab where automated printing machines crop into the pictures’ frame lines in order to fit the picture into the aspect ratio of the print size you ordered. So, to minimize lopping off the top of Uncle Harry’s head or Tanta Faigy’s sensible shoes, manufacturers intentionally mask off the edges of the viewfinder as a means of preventing awkwardly cropped 8x10s, 5x7s, and wallet-size prints, which have inherently different aspect ratios.
Conservative viewfinder frame lines aren’t the end of the world, but if you take image composition seriously (as I do) it can be jarring to open up an image file on your computer screen only to find distracting, formally unseen details along the perimeter of the image that you know weren’t there when you pressed the shutter button. Can these details be cropped out of the image in order to match the image to what you saw in your mind’s eye? Sure you can, but that’s not the point.
For videographers who pride themselves on shooting tight to the edge, this is a greater issue because cropping video, while possible, is more of a squirrely undertaking compared to cropping single, individual still images. In the case of video capture using DSLRs with Live View, or any digital camera with an LCD screen, this isn’t a pressing issue because with few exceptions, LCDs always display 100% of the total image area. Cameras with electronic viewfinders, which includes almost all FourThird-format cameras as well as Sony’s Alpha a33 and a55-series DSLRs, invariably display 100% of the live image area, which depending on your particular needs and shooting style, might make them worth additional consideration next time you’re shopping for a new camera.
Before you head out on your next photo safari, check the specs for your camera to see how much (if any) of your live area is being masked off by your camera’s viewing system. The best way to do this is to mount your camera on a tripod, carefully compose and snap a picture, and compare the parameter details of image you see on the camera’s LCD to the parameter details you see in the camera’s viewfinder. Depending on the camera you’re using, this might very well prove to be a real “Ah-Ha!” moment for you.