4 Tips for Using for Live View to Get Sharper and More Creative Images

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Live View versus optical viewfinder on your DSLR, pros and cons?

Pascal

By Pascal

If you shoot with a DSLR you probably use the same method for taking pictures that most people do, holding the camera up to your eye and looking through the viewfinder before snapping the shutter button.

This tried-and-true method has several benefits, including letting you see precisely what you are going to take a picture of before you click the button. Also, allowing you to track fast-moving subjects without any lag time, and even stabilizing the camera due to the fact that it’s being held up against your face instead of away from your body.

Getting this shot using the optical viewfinder wouldn't have been impossible, but it would have been much more difficult.

Getting this shot using the optical viewfinder wouldn’t have been impossible, but it would have been much more difficult.

However, the Live View function that is built into most DSLR cameras has a few tricks up its sleeve that can greatly benefit you as well. While not useful in ever single photographic situation, Live View certainly is worth a second look if you are the type of person who normally casts it aside in favor of the traditional viewfinder.

#1 Make sure your subject is perfectly focused

When you look through the optical viewfinder on your camera, you will see an array of rectangles or dots which each represent points on which your camera can focus. This is a result of your camera’s phase detect focusing system which is present in nearly every DSLR. While it usually works just fine, there are situations in which it can present a bit of a problem.

For one, the subject on which you are focusing can sometimes be outside the boundary of your focusing points, which makes it quite difficult to get it tack sharp even with something like the focus-and-recompose technique. Also, even with using the built-in focusing points it’s not always a guarantee that your subject will be completely in focus, especially if it is very far away like when shooting landscapes or scenic vistas.

Live View helped me get this flower focused just how I wanted, and instead of laying in the mud I used the flip-out screen to help me compose the picture.

Live View helped me get this flower focused just how I wanted, and instead of laying in the mud I used the flip-out screen to help me compose the picture.

Zoom-in on Live View

Live View is the magic bullet in these situations, as you can use it not just to frame your shot, but to zoom in close on a specific area to make sure it is focused. Think of this as though you were holding a magnifying glass up to your camera’s viewfinder when focusing on your subject, and using that as the basis for judging whether it is tack sharp or just a bit fuzzy. This obviously works best if your camera is firmly attached to a tripod, but even if you just set it on a solid surface such as a shelf, rock, post, or other object, you should be fine.

Live View can be a good way to make sure your subjects are tack sharp and perfectly focused.

Live View can be a good way to make sure your subjects are tack sharp and perfectly focused.

Each camera handles the zoom-in function a bit differently, but for most DSLRs there will be an option in one of the menus to enable a button on your camera to zoom in during Live View, and even set the percentage of zoom which tells you how much it will magnify the image. If your subject is not moving, and neither is your camera, this technique is one of the best possible ways to make sure everything is tack sharp precisely how you want it to be (using manual focus in this instance can be helpful also).

#2 See previews of camera effects in realtime

One fun trick that many DSLR manufacturers have added to their cameras is the ability to do various types of effects like selective coloring, miniature, and black-and-white, among many others. Think of them as though you are adding Instagram filters, but in realtime, as you are taking your pictures instead of on your phone afterwards.

Using Live View as you activate various scene modes is a fun way to experiment with different types of creative image effects. It also has the added bonus of allowing you to play around and see how the options affect your photography before you even click the shutter.

A common camera effect is "miniature," which mimics a tilt-shift lens. It's fun to play around with these built-in effects using Live View which shows you a preview of what the final image will look like as you compose it.

A common camera effect is “miniature,” which mimics a tilt-shift lens. It’s fun to play around with these built-in effects using Live View, which shows you a preview of what the final image will look like as you compose it.

Some photographers frown on this type of creative expression, and prefer to leave these effects and scene modes to Photoshop, where things can be endlessly controlled, changed, and tweaked to perfection (often ad nauseam). But, my own personal stance is, if you’re making pictures you enjoy by using simple in-camera effects, then why not keep doing it?

Some of the built-in modes are a little cheesier than others, and you usually can’t shoot in RAW format. But using Live View to preview the different sorts of photography effects you can explore, is a great way to try something new and add a little spark back to your creative juices at the same time.

#3 Depth of Field preview

This one piggybacks pretty well off of the previous item, but I wanted to list it separately because it is so useful on its own. When you change the aperture and focal length of your lens, you are also changing the depth of field, or area that is in focus. It’s a difficult concept to understand since it involves several different variables, including how close you are to your subject and how far away is the background.

This confusion can be compounded by the fact that your optical viewfinder doesn’t really show you what to expect when you click the shutter button. Some DSLR cameras have a Depth of Field Preview button that allows you to close down the aperture and see what it will look like when you take a photo (it also gets dark if you use a small aperture), but another way to do this is by using Live View.

It really helped to see a preview of the depth of field by using Live View when composing this image.

It really helped to see a preview of the depth of field by using Live View when composing this image.

How it works

When you look through the viewfinder on a DSLR camera you are seeing through the lens while it is opened to its widest possible value. But, when you click over into Live View the aperture blades close down to the value you’ve specified, or that which the camera thinks is appropriate, depending on the shooting mode you are using.

This makes it possible to see precisely what the picture will look like when you press the shutter button. So, if you focus on an object while in Live View, you will see a more accurate representation of the depth of field than looking through the viewfinder. This is incredibly useful when shooting macro photos, because it’s difficult to understand just what is in focus and what is not unless you can see it yourself using Live View.

Depth of field can be extraordinarily thin when shooting macro pictures, and using Live View to see a preview of the final result is a good way to get the photo to show up just how you want.

Depth of field can be extraordinarily thin when shooting macro pictures, and using Live View to see a preview of the final result is a good way to get the photo to show up just how you want.

#4 Tap to focus

One final trick that Live View offers, is the ability to actually use it for the act of focusing itself. As more cameras start implementing touch screens, manufacturers like Canon have started allowing users to tap on the screen itself to actually focus the camera, much in the same way you do on your mobile phone.

While this feature is not available on all DSLR cameras, and though some with touch screens don’t have focusing enabled, if you do have a camera that allows you to tap-to-focus you might find it incredibly useful and well-worth your time. This won’t do you any good if you are shooting sports, action, or wedding photos, since the touch-based focusing isn’t as quick. But if you are out shooting casually it’s something you might really enjoy trying.

It even has some advantages over traditional viewfinder-based focusing if you are shooting at extreme angles, such as very low to the ground. More and more cameras are offering flip-out screens so you can swivel it, instead of crouching down, and then tap it to lock focus.

If you have a touchscreen, using Live View can be a great way to make sure your subject is focused exactly how you want by simply tapping the area you want to be in focus.

If you have a touchscreen, using Live View can be a great way to make sure your subject is focused exactly how you want by simply tapping the area you want to be in focus.

Summary

These are just a few of the options available to you if you use Live View on a DSLR. If you are more of a traditional shooter who prefers the optical viewfinder I hope you at least give Live View a chance. It’s not going to be the best option in every situation, but you may find it to be more compelling and useful than you realize.

If you do like shooting in Live View and have your own tips to share, please leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him at sringsmuth.

  • Michael

    Simon, my personal take on the Live View is it’s mostly used for movie recording using my DSLR. The focusing is much slower using the most accurate Quick Mode as the mirror must go down to use phase detection and up again to activate live view. The FlexiZone and Face Detection are not really precise methods of AF. I see some benefits of using Live view as you can see as how your image will look like. However, Live View mode eats your battery power very fast plus you have to be careful to prevent overheating the sensor. I guess you can’t change the habit of old fashion photography type and all the cheap point-and-shoot cameras actually are using live view including all the smart phones and tablets.

  • Pete Mueller

    Magic Lantern (Canon) anyone? I find it an amazing addition to my camera’s toolbox, and to my workflow.

    In live view…

    Zebras for under/over exposed areas.
    Focus peaking for quickly checking focus.
    Magic Zoom window to fine-tune focus.
    Cropmark overlays for 16×9 bars or any custom shape.
    Overlay a ghost image in live view.
    Spotmeter in live view.
    False color for precise exposure control.
    RGB histogram with RAW support.
    Waveform for perfect green screen lighting.
    Vectorscope for color tones.

  • I really wish someone would make Magic Lantern for Nikon cameras!

  • me

    My Oly M5 MK2 does 1, 2 and 3 in the viewfinder.Far easier that the screen often, especially in bright sunlight.

  • Robin10234
  • JvW

    “Live View versus optical viewfinder on your DSLR, pros and cons?”

    Your camera has an electronic viewfinder, not an optical viewfinder, doesn’t it? It isn’t a dSLR. so this article isn’t for you.

  • All good points, Michael. For me, Live View is just another tool to use for a situation that might need it. Just yesterday I was photographing some mushrooms and needed to get down low on the ground, and was able to get the shots I was looking for only thanks to Live View. You’re right in that it has several drawbacks, but it can be useful when you really need it. Though as a general rule I probably shoot 98% of all my photos using the optical viewfinder 🙂

  • ethel.hess

    retertertre

  • ethel.hess
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  • Philnick

    With the newer DSLRs that have “Dual Pixel” phase detect sensors like the Canon 70D and 80D, Live View focusing is about as fast as viewfinder focusing – and more reliably accurate.

    Instead of the focusing sensors in the base of the camera that viewfinder focusing relies on, which are at best *approximately* the same distance from the lens as the sensor, you’re focusing *with* the sensor. No Micro-AF adjustment is needed when you’re focusing at the actual focal plane.

    If your LiveView is contrast detect, yes, it will be slower, but if it’s phase detect there’s no loss of speed.

    Live View also gives the ability to run in Manual mode since you can see what you’re doing and don’t have to fight the camera’s metering system, since it will only advise – not meddle. Set physical controls for aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, and take pictures your way.

  • Theresa

    Great information! I can’t wait to play around with this. I think it’s exactly what I need for some shots I’ve been trying to get. Thank you.

  • Glad to hear it Theresa!

  • Irene McCullagh

    I don’t have a flip out screen (Nikon D4, D810) but will use live view for holding the camera up high and pointing down over a crowd, for instance. Works well enough for that. Otherwise… never 😉

  • Narendra Bansal

    Thank you Simon for another wonderful article to enhance my photography learning. I have not tried Live View mainly because the screen glare. My Nikon D7100 does not have a tilt screen. I am so accustomed to looking into a the view finder. I wonder how difficult it will be to focus the subject in the Live view screen and adjust the exposure setting on manual mode? I definitely will give it a try. As you said in your article, Live View mode is another tool in our tool box.

  • I shot all the pictures in this article with a D7100 also, Narendra! I don’t think it would be too difficult to focus in live view and then adjust exposure settings on manual, but the D7100 does not have a power aperture function so you would not be able to change the aperture in live view. Other than that your idea would work fine.

  • Hilltop Dreamer

    and you have #4 on your screen as well.

  • Dalibor Milenkovic

    Whenever not pressed for time, I use live view to get sharp focus by turning on 10 x zoom on the focus detail – works great every time

  • OldPom

    I find live view helpful for macro fine focusing but for outdoor work in sometimes devastatingly sunny Queensland it is totally useless either for composing or for chimping. It cannot compete with the ambient light. Maybe an old fashioned black cloth over my head and camera, nineteenth century style ?

  • benkoerita

    As I have an entry-level MILC without viewfinder, I also faced this problem. (The optional EVF would cost more than the camera:-(). I solved the problem by making a sqare-based tube out of thin black cardboard that I can put around my screen.

  • JSummar

    Great tips, Simon! I had recently purchased a new Canon model specifically for the flip-out screen on the back, so I don’t always have to lie down on the ground. But I’d forgotten about the touch-to-focus feature, too! That would have helped me on a recent shoot, and I forgot all about it. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Glad to hear this was helpful!

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