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Using Live View for Better Still Images

Do you have one of those shiny new cameras with the “live view” feature on it? You know, where you can see in real time what your camera sees through its lens? A lot of people seem to assume that it is mostly useful for recording video on your camera, and it is darn useful for that, but there are a myriad of things a still photographer can use live view for as well.

Image: Purple Finch: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 500mm F4L IS, 1.4x Extender II, 2.0x Extender II @1400m...

Purple Finch: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 500mm F4L IS, 1.4x Extender II, 2.0x Extender II @1400mm :: 1/800th of a second at F14, ISO 800 :: Live view used in place of mirror lockup function to reduce vibration during exposure

An excellent use of the live view feature on your camera is to help you focus. Many photographers rely on the autofocus feature of their camera but it’s been demonstrated that manual focus will often result in more accurate focus than the camera’s autofocus system especially under difficult conditions. Manual focus isn’t optimal if you’re photographing action, but if you’re photographing a landscape or some sort of still life or macro shot, you can often improve on the camera’s attempt at autofocus by doing it yourself. Many cameras offer the ability of zooming in on the live image 5x, 10x or more which really allows you to fine tune your focus.

Depth-of-field, or the amount of the image that is in focus in front of what you’ve focussed on and behind what you’ve focussed on, can be very difficult for photographers to imagine. And even though many cameras have a depth-of-field preview button (usually found somewhere around the lens mount) use of this feature while looking through the viewfinder leaves you with a very dark image that makes it hard to see your subject let alone what is and what isn’t in focus.

Instead, turn on live view and engage a feature called exposure simulation. Compose your image and adjust the aperture you want to use. Depth-of-field is controlled through the aperture setting along with the distance to the subject. When the depth-of-field preview feature is engaged you can watch in real time the effects that selecting different apertures has on the image’s depth-of-field on a nice bright display. This allows you to get creative by pre-visualizing how much of your scene is or is not in focus.

Image: Funnel Web spider with grasshopper prey :: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 180mm F3.5L Macro Lens @ 1...

Funnel Web spider with grasshopper prey :: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 180mm F3.5L Macro Lens @ 180mm, Canon MR-14EX Ring Flash :: 1/100th of a second at F10.0, ISO 100 :: Live view used for fine focusing

White Balance (the colour of light in a scene) is another setting that is hard to visualize ahead of time. And unfortunately, it is something the camera often has difficulty figuring out on its own. One situation that I’ve found where almost all digital cameras have difficulty calculating the proper white balance is when the subject is in the shade on a nice sunny day. Digital cameras seem to uniformly choose a white balance setting that is too cool (too much of a blue cast). Switching on live view can allow you to dynamically use the camera’s features to adjust the white balance until you verify the white balance that you’ve chosen will render the images the way you’d imagined.

I’ve heard it argued that you shouldn’t rely on the live view preview on the back of your camera for setting white balance because it isn’t a calibrated display, and that’s true, it isn’t. But in my experimentation it is darn near close enough that I am very comfortable using and relying on it.

If you’re really lucky, not only do you have a camera with live view, but you’ve got a camera that can overlay a histogram on top of that live view. Why? Because you can see at a glance if you’ve got areas of over or under exposure and make the necessary adjustments to the exposure by adjusting the ISO, aperture and/or shutter speed to make the image you want to make instead of the image your camera’s meter imagined making for you.

The final benefit I’ll mention is primarily a benefit to Canon DSLR shooters with cameras introduced from the 40D forward but strangely isn’t found in their pro line of cameras. That feature is the use of live view as a mirror lockup replacement. Mirror lockup is often used by photographers who are working with long telephoto lenses or extreme magnification macro photography. The mirror slapping up and down in the camera as it makes an exposure causes enough vibration to produce soft images.

Mirror lockup is the solution but it requires pressing two or more buttons and is inconvenient to use, especially for consecutive shots. However, shooting stills through live view mode on these cameras basically simulates mirror lockup (since the mirror is already locked up for live view to work) and a simple shutter activation is all that is required. Unfortunately other brands of cameras (and pro Canon bodies) slap the mirror back down and then do a regular exposure when an image is made in live view mode. Silly? Yes, but such is life.

Image: Oil on water :: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 180mm F3.5L Macro Lens @ 180mm :: LED illumination ::...

Oil on water :: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 180mm F3.5L Macro Lens @ 180mm :: LED illumination :: 0.4 of a second at F5.6, ISO 100 :: Live view used for fine tuning white balance

Of course, there are trade offs with live view. In most instances, you are going to want to use your camera on a support to really take advantage of it and of course it takes power to drive that fancy LCD display on your camera so your battery life will suffer. But, in my opinion, when the situation allows for it, there is no better way to get the image correct in the camera than by using live view.

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Paul Burwell
Paul Burwell

is a professional photographer, writer, educator and enthusiastic naturalist with over twenty years experience working with and educating adults. In addition to being the owner of the Burwell School of Photography, he is a contributing editor and regular columnist with Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine. Paul has been a finalist in the Veolia ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ worldwide competition in 2009, 2010 and 2013 and was named a ‘Top Wildlife Shooter’ by Popular Photography Magazine in 2010.

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