Maximizing Live View on Your Digital SLR

In recent years, digital SLR manufacturers began to introduce Live View onto both their "prosumer" and professional models. At first, many professionals balked at the idea of having live view as an option, since it has long been relegated to point and shoot cameras. Even today, I encounter photographers who fail to realize the fantastic benefits that using live view offers. I will not say that this is a feature used all the time, but it is a tool that can make our jobs easier and our images better.

I will preface by saying that 99% of the situations in which live view is a valuable asset, the camera should be in a fixed position, such as on a tripod, the ground, table, etc. What a lot of photographers fail to realize is that often, the viewfinder of the camera does not show 100% of the frame. This means that what you see is not always what you get. Shooting a lot of landscape work, I found that little bits of leaves or grass would creep up into the bottoms of my images, and I was sure that they did not show up in the viewfinder. What I realized is that since the viewfinder was showing about 95% of the frame, that extra 5% I was not able to see accounted for those pesky distractions. By engaging the live view on my Canon 1D Mark III, I was able to frame my shots perfectly, and avoid that issue.

One of the most beneficial uses for live view is getting the absolute sharpest focus possible. I find that when I use wide angle lenses, I frequently am not confident in my focus. Live view allows me to zoom into the image and adjust my focus precisely using the manual focus ring of the lens, and I can see the changes as they happen. This is a highly underrated feature of live view. When focusing with live view, you are seeing the image directly off of the sensor, instead of projected off the focusing screen and through the viewfinder.

What this means is that, by precisely tuning the focus of the lens, the sharpest focus possible will be obtained. I find this extremely useful when shooting at a shallow depth of field, or when doing critical-focus macro photography. I recall a time when I met gentleman whose job is to test the sharpness of lenses. I asked him how he has benefited from live view, since focusing through the viewfinder is highly dependent on the operators' eyesight. He estimated a 30% improvement in their measurements, now that the operator is able to focus the camera precisely by zooming in with live view.

When I see a picture with a crooked horizon, it is almost impossible for me to think about anything else. I will crane my neck ever so slightly in an effort to keep the palm trees from sliding off the beach, or whatever the subject matter is. Thankfully, many cameras offer a live "grid" when shooting in live view. What this means is that I can align my horizons with this grid, and avoid permanent neck injury in the process.

As digital photographers, we are all aware of how important it is to check histograms after a shot is taken, but thanks to live view, many cameras offer the ability to have a live histogram. Why settle for taking another picture with a corrected exposure, when you can nail it right the first time? Is that sky going to blow out? Thanks to live view, these questions can be easily answered.

A feature that point and shoots do not have is the ability to stop down the lens before the shot is taken; this is known as "depth of field preview." Most cameras have a dedicated button for this, in the past; I could squint through a darkened viewfinder and check my depth of field. By combining live view with depth of field preview, I can use the "auto-gain" of the LCD (this means that the camera automatically brightens the LCD to compensate for the lens stopping down) to stop my lens down, and get an excellent, full-screen preview of my depth of field. This is great for times when there might be a distracting element in the background I want to be sure is out of focus, or when those pesky leaves return in the foreground, but will not show up until I stop down my aperture.

One of the ways I push myself creatively is to put my camera in unusual places, or shoot from unusual angles. This could mean putting my camera under a bench, or on top of a tree branch. Often times I am not able to see through the viewfinder in these situations. I could just shoot and hope for the best, or I can activate my trusty live view. With a big 3 inch screen, it is easy to judge composition from almost any position where the back of the camera is visible.

While using live view is great, there are absolutely some pitfalls. Since the speedy autofocus of a digital SLR is done by passing light through the focusing screen, this cannot be used while live view is active. Many cameras have no autofocus at all during live view, and some use what is known as "contrast detection" autofocus, which is the same system used in point and shoot cameras. While this works, it is extremely slow. In very low light, the camera might not be able to gain up the screen any more, and the preview can become grainy and useless. And to reiterate, live view is rarely useable when shooting hand held, especially when using it to achieve extremely precise focus.

By adding live view to your tool belt as a photographer, there is yet another way to improve the quality of your work, regardless of how many "old school" photographers bemoan this feature. The benefits of live view far outweigh the pitfalls, and when used properly, can offer features once exclusive to the point and shoot crowd.

Joshua Lehrer
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Josh is a recent graduate of the Advertising Photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His career started in the NJ/NYC area where he worked as a freelance photographer, writer, and consultant. He also worked as marketing coordinator for a large photography retailer. He currently resides in South Florida, where he continues to be heavily involved in the photography industry.