You and Your LCD: A Matter of Trust - Digital Photography School
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You and Your LCD: A Matter of Trust

It glows on the back of your camera like a homing beacon– drawing you to its display like a moth to a flame. You protect it. You rely on it (perhaps a bit too much?). But can you trust it? That question has been the subject of debate for quite some time, and the unfortunate answer you hear most often is, “It depends.” I suppose you could say that there are levels of trust. Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with my LCD. Think about it. The thing is practically useless on a sunny day. The times when I need it most– outside the controlled environment of the studio– are the same times that it almost always lets me down. The questions of whether to trust your LCD screen, and how much– if at all– can only be made based on personal experience. In order to answer these questions, it helps to understand what’s happening with your screen while you’re shooting.

What am I Looking At?

stan-lee-copyThere is a very common misconception that the image you see on the back of your camera is the actual image file. It’s not. If you shoot JPEG, what you are actually looking at is merely a preview of the image. It’s pretty close to what the shot will look like in Photoshop or Lightroom, but not exactly. So, if we are looking at a preview of the JPEG when we’re shooting in that mode, we must be looking at a preview of the RAW file if we’re shooting RAW, right? Not so fast. This is where the trust factor begins to erode. Even though your camera may be set to RAW capture, your LCD screen is still displaying a JPEG preview.

Taking things a step further, if you’re someone who regularly shoots RAW, then you already know that a JPEG– even just a preview– is going to look better than an unedited RAW file prior to processing. In generating the preview, your camera has sharpened the image, as well as tweaked the saturation, color, and contrast. I’m not commenting on the merits, virtues, or advantages of one shooting mode over the other. Each has a place in my workflow. You need to know this stuff, however, if you are just learning to shoot and process RAW files. I once had a student come to class, put his camera down on the desk in front of me, and declare, “I swear there’s something wrong with this camera!” There was nothing wrong with his camera. He was learning his way around RAW and couldn’t figure out why there was such a big difference between how his camera and computer displayed the RAW images.

Sometimes You Gotta Zoom

How big is the monitor where you view and edit your photos? Regardless of whether you are working on a 15″ laptop or a 27″ desktop, it’s still a whole lot bigger than those three inches on the back of your camera. Your LCD screen is way more forgiving than your editing screen. Beside the fact that you are only looking at a preview on the camera itself, it is common for even significant blur to not show up until you’re looking at the image full-size. And this is where the zoom button becomes your friend. At least until you have a solid grasp on just how much your LCD is out to get you, I suggest zooming in nice and tight on your image to make sure it really is as good as you think it is. I am not talking about going overboard with the chimping (checking the LCD after every single shot). But if you wrap the shoot, send the client on their way, and wait until you get back to the office to discover that the image is soft, you’re going to have a whole lot of explaining to do, and quite possibly some money to refund.

There is no denying that the LCD screen is a valuable tool and has become an integral component of digital photography. But just like it’s important to know what your cameras, lenses, and lights can and can’t do, it’s also important to know your LCD’s limitations.  Understanding what you’re looking at and whether you can trust it can make a huge difference in the success of your images.

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Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class ("Digital Photo Challenges") three years ago. You can check out more of his work at Guyer Photography, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Note: dPS has been alerted that some of Jeff's articles on other sites may not be entirely original - we take this very seriously and are looking into it. If you have any concerns over any of Jeff's content here on dPS please use the contact form to let us know so we can investigate (please provide links).Thank you, dPS Management

  • Jake

    Is that Stan Lee?

  • http://www.jeffguyerphotography.com Jeff Guyer

    Indeed it is, Jake.

  • Pete Zerria

    After about my second year in the digital world I found it very refreshing to turn my post-viewing screen off. (I began in 2004 with digital, prior to that I shot only film since I began shooting many moons ago) It was a challenge at first but coming from a strong film background I was used to not having a screen to fall back on. The cool thing is that it forces me to think as well as compose, focus and expose carefully, a method that I affectionately call ICE or In Camera Editing. A great side benefit is that it saves me a lot of battery power and a ton of post process time unless I’m digging deep into my creative toolbox to alter the image.

    It is easy to get “Rapture of the View Screen” The screen is a nice tool and I do use it on occasion but taking it out of the workflow is much more challenging and I might add liberating.

    Pete Zerria

  • http://www.jeffguyerphotography.com Jeff Guyer

    Thanks, Pete. I do an exercise with the kids in my photography class where I make them cover their LCD’s with gaffer’s tape, shoot 24 frames, and take the card to the drug store for prints. Learning to be comfortable without the screen is a great asset.

  • Countervail

    Something I’m going to experiment with is shooting jpeg+RAW but with the jpeg set to monochrome so that I can see a B&W with histogram values together. I’m hoping it will give me a much better idea of my exposure.

  • Sven

    I usually shoot RAW – not because I want to “develop” the photo from start to end, but rather to be able to do more extensive editing if necessary. So, shooting RAW but importing into your computer while applying the “JPG-edits” would be best for me. Unfortunately, I have not yet found a way to do so.

  • JSM

    I’ve discovered that using a camera with an Electronic View Finder gives you the best of both worlds.

  • Edmund

    If you are taking a landscape shot with a sturdy tripod then there may be a case for zooming in to see whether you have the exposure / focus correct but I still doubt it. You can bracket the exposure and manual focus if you have any doubts so zooming into a tiny LCD screen is not likely to help and do you really have two minutes to spare after every shot instead of getting on and shooting another? When we used film we used to take fine photos without being able to see them until we had developed them. Knowing your camera (my default setting on AE is plus 1/3 stop as it was with film), and now we have the advantage of a histogram in the viewfinder so why would you ever chimp?

  • Marco

    I learned on digital, so I don’t know any other way. However, I have found that with wildlife shooting and my sixty year old eyes that I cannot trust the LCD very much. I do set it to show the histogram and details of the photo along with a smaller preview. This lets me take a really quick glance at the histogram and look for “blinkies” on the preview. If these leave me with doubts I can then zoom all the way in and check my main focal area (usually the eyes) and also see how bad the blinkies are. I don’t waste a lot of time on these but a quick check usually helps me catch problems in the field that I can adjust for and helps avoid a wasted trip as almost any trip afield cost me over $50 US in gas and road food on local trips and possibly up to $1000 US when I have to do hotels. That may sound cheap to some of you, but living on a fixed income it is hard for me to waste a trip.

  • http://www.smashingcamera.com Tarrum

    One should also remember that the histograms are there for a reason! Whenever you’re worried about proper lighting it really helps to check it especially on a bright day or if your LCD is for some reason super dark/bright.

  • http://www.facebook.com/potzphotography Alain Corpuz

    Yup this is true, specially when you’re shooting wide open apertures and fast lenses. I regret to not have those split focusing screens on Digital SLR’s nowadays. I think it would be really beneficial specially for those who use wide apertures prime lenses to have it installed and know that you are darn right in focus. Relying also to digital focus might not always give you accurate focus, though one technique I use to make sure my focus is sharp is to shoot at Live preview, make my lens into manual focus and zoom my LCD preview to the part I want my focus to be, zoom out, frame…. then wallah! there’s the sharp focus I need.

  • http://jslartphoto.com Jeffrey

    @Alain
    Great tip on zooming in live view! I am trying it today, I did not know that was possible.
    Thanks

  • http://rbBDLdLpKoynMq0y4Z.edu rbBD

    465767 20520Hi! Do you know if they make any plugins to safeguard against hackers? I?m kinda paranoid about losing everything I?ve worked hard on. Any ideas? 60134

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYvKfIDPoXY their explanation

    157606 888527This is really interesting, I?ll check out your other posts! 115643

Some older comments

  • their explanation

    September 26, 2013 02:08 pm

    157606 888527This is really interesting, I?ll check out your other posts! 115643

  • rbBD

    September 26, 2013 06:30 am

    465767 20520Hi! Do you know if they make any plugins to safeguard against hackers? I?m kinda paranoid about losing everything I?ve worked hard on. Any ideas? 60134

  • Jeffrey

    September 21, 2013 12:21 am

    @Alain
    Great tip on zooming in live view! I am trying it today, I did not know that was possible.
    Thanks

  • Alain Corpuz

    September 20, 2013 02:05 pm

    Yup this is true, specially when you're shooting wide open apertures and fast lenses. I regret to not have those split focusing screens on Digital SLR's nowadays. I think it would be really beneficial specially for those who use wide apertures prime lenses to have it installed and know that you are darn right in focus. Relying also to digital focus might not always give you accurate focus, though one technique I use to make sure my focus is sharp is to shoot at Live preview, make my lens into manual focus and zoom my LCD preview to the part I want my focus to be, zoom out, frame.... then wallah! there's the sharp focus I need.

  • Tarrum

    September 20, 2013 06:50 am

    One should also remember that the histograms are there for a reason! Whenever you're worried about proper lighting it really helps to check it especially on a bright day or if your LCD is for some reason super dark/bright.

  • Marco

    September 20, 2013 05:17 am

    I learned on digital, so I don't know any other way. However, I have found that with wildlife shooting and my sixty year old eyes that I cannot trust the LCD very much. I do set it to show the histogram and details of the photo along with a smaller preview. This lets me take a really quick glance at the histogram and look for "blinkies" on the preview. If these leave me with doubts I can then zoom all the way in and check my main focal area (usually the eyes) and also see how bad the blinkies are. I don't waste a lot of time on these but a quick check usually helps me catch problems in the field that I can adjust for and helps avoid a wasted trip as almost any trip afield cost me over $50 US in gas and road food on local trips and possibly up to $1000 US when I have to do hotels. That may sound cheap to some of you, but living on a fixed income it is hard for me to waste a trip.

  • Edmund

    September 20, 2013 03:25 am

    If you are taking a landscape shot with a sturdy tripod then there may be a case for zooming in to see whether you have the exposure / focus correct but I still doubt it. You can bracket the exposure and manual focus if you have any doubts so zooming into a tiny LCD screen is not likely to help and do you really have two minutes to spare after every shot instead of getting on and shooting another? When we used film we used to take fine photos without being able to see them until we had developed them. Knowing your camera (my default setting on AE is plus 1/3 stop as it was with film), and now we have the advantage of a histogram in the viewfinder so why would you ever chimp?

  • JSM

    September 20, 2013 02:56 am

    I've discovered that using a camera with an Electronic View Finder gives you the best of both worlds.

  • Sven

    September 19, 2013 12:23 pm

    I usually shoot RAW - not because I want to "develop" the photo from start to end, but rather to be able to do more extensive editing if necessary. So, shooting RAW but importing into your computer while applying the "JPG-edits" would be best for me. Unfortunately, I have not yet found a way to do so.

  • Countervail

    September 19, 2013 08:07 am

    Something I'm going to experiment with is shooting jpeg+RAW but with the jpeg set to monochrome so that I can see a B&W with histogram values together. I'm hoping it will give me a much better idea of my exposure.

  • Jeff Guyer

    September 19, 2013 07:40 am

    Thanks, Pete. I do an exercise with the kids in my photography class where I make them cover their LCD's with gaffer's tape, shoot 24 frames, and take the card to the drug store for prints. Learning to be comfortable without the screen is a great asset.

  • Pete Zerria

    September 19, 2013 07:36 am

    After about my second year in the digital world I found it very refreshing to turn my post-viewing screen off. (I began in 2004 with digital, prior to that I shot only film since I began shooting many moons ago) It was a challenge at first but coming from a strong film background I was used to not having a screen to fall back on. The cool thing is that it forces me to think as well as compose, focus and expose carefully, a method that I affectionately call ICE or In Camera Editing. A great side benefit is that it saves me a lot of battery power and a ton of post process time unless I’m digging deep into my creative toolbox to alter the image.

    It is easy to get “Rapture of the View Screen” The screen is a nice tool and I do use it on occasion but taking it out of the workflow is much more challenging and I might add liberating.

    Pete Zerria

  • Jeff Guyer

    September 19, 2013 06:52 am

    Indeed it is, Jake.

  • Jake

    September 19, 2013 06:09 am

    Is that Stan Lee?

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