Viewfinders and Parallax Error in Point and Shoot Digital Cameras

What is “parallax error”? Hold a pen out in front of you at arms length and align it with some stationary object in front of you. Now close one eye, then the other. If your vision is normal, you should see the object in your hand shift away from where it was pointed when both eyes are open. This is caused because you are viewing the object in your hand from a different vantage point. If you align it with an object that is some distance away, say 6 feet or so, you will notice a pronounced shift to the left or right. If aligned with something closer, the shift will be less.

What does this have to do with photography? If you’ve taken pictures of people up close and end up with half a head, or with part of something left out, you have just answered the question. Parallax error also called “viewfinder error” has probably confounded many amateur photographers. Back in the day of film cameras, this phenomenon led to many disappointments. Today, with the advent of digital cameras, you can see the shot you took immediately, which allows you to make corrections.

Parallax error can be a problem when taking photos with many types of cameras.
People using twin lens reflex cameras and those with viewfinders (rangefinder cameras) are prone to this error. These cameras allow you to view the subject through different optics than the one taking the picture. Since the viewfinder on most cameras is found above the lens, the trend is to have the top of your subject cut off. The closer you get to the subject the more pronounced it is. An easy way to see this for yourself is to center a close object through the viewfinder of your digital camera. Now, without moving the camera, pull your eye from the viewfinder and look at what is on your digital display.
The image on the screen will be off center either up or down, or side-to-side, depending on where the viewfinder is located in relation to the lens. This little experiment can also solve the problem. Always check your digital display before taking your shots. In fact most people use the digital display exclusively when taking photos.

Digital Single Lens Reflex (dSLR) cameras solve this problem by using a mirror that allows the photographer to look directly through the lens. In so doing, the image seen is what is recorded. Basically, what you see is what you get. Even with this, it is a good idea to check the edges of the shot to see that nothing is left out (or included) in the shot.

If you own a point and shoot camera, you can overcome parallax error very easily by following the suggestions above. If you own a dSLR the problem doesn’t exist. You can concentrate on all the other little things that make photography so interesting.