Using Live View for Better Still Images

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

Some Older Comments

  • Caro June 24, 2013 07:06 am

    Hi Paul , How can I verify if this feature exists in camera's specifications? Thanks!

  • Paul Burwell August 16, 2012 09:13 am

    @michele I was referring to the ability to zoom into the image displayed on the back of the camera. Doing this allows you to really fine-tune the focus (manually). Because you are adjusting the focus manually and just zooming into the Live View image, when you zoom back out (if you choose to, you don't need to) when you take the image, the place the lens is focussed at doesn't change.

    I hope that helps you out.


  • Paul Burwell August 16, 2012 09:11 am

    @mmx thanks for the clarification on the Nikon D3100's Live View functionality.


  • Paul Burwell August 16, 2012 09:10 am

    @George Maciver, Thanks, glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Paul Burwell August 16, 2012 09:08 am

    @Jean-Pierre, sorry for the late reply (I just found that this article was posted).

    I took a look at your macro photography and was really impressed with your work. Keep it up!

    Best regards,


  • Lucian June 3, 2012 07:02 pm

    Learning something new every day, thx !

  • mmx June 3, 2012 06:09 am

    he meant zoom the live view display, not zoom the lens.

    @Aaron Myers
    Don't know what's wrong for you - I find focusing with LV on nikon (a d3100) very easy to do. Also it's not limited to focus points - in fact they are not used at all since when LV is active the D3100 does contrast detect AF, not phase detect. Don't know if that is limited to D300/D700.

    The only two downsides I have with LV are: much higher shutter lag and much slower and inaccurate AF. But for "prepared" shots with MF, it rocks.

  • drue June 2, 2012 01:19 am

    Nikon 7000 live view with old manual macro lens worked perfect with live view.. zoomed in and mirror locked up, checked white balance.. great article..

  • Rob June 1, 2012 02:49 pm

    Being a Sony A77 shooter I am spoilt for Live View features. We see what the sensor does and no Mirror Lockup needed...8-)

  • Justin June 1, 2012 09:29 am

    I personally have been using live view mode for the past 7 years or so, and wouldn't go back for anything. The consistency of results and satisfaction with the outcome is much higher for me using live view, but I know it also depends on how live view works on your particular type of camera. Not all live views are created equal. Look around and find one that fits your shooting style. I think you'll find your learning curve improves a great deal when you do.

  • Arturomar June 1, 2012 03:24 am


    In my Canon 40D when using Live View there is a button where I can do 5x and 10x magnification in order to get a more accurate focus.

    There is no other use of this magnification button.

  • Michele May 31, 2012 02:33 am

    I enjoyed this article, but I am confused about one piece of it. You said: "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."

    Does this mean that I can zoom in on where I want to focus, and then zoom back out, and the focus stays in place? Or where you saying that I can zoom in and focus, and then take the shot?


  • gerry May 30, 2012 06:21 am

    Aaron Meyers - i agree with almost anything you say apart from one small thing:
    I'm not sure what is the reason nikon makes thire liveview so usesless, but I can tell it's not because cannon has a patent on it.

    Almost every Point and shoot camera has exposure simulation on it's liveview.
    Even my old Panasonic FZ-40 can do this.

    It's very frustrating to think about it.
    Hopefully they'll get it fixed in the not so far future.

    Or when I go FF I'll go to cannon? :)

  • Aaron Meyers May 29, 2012 05:32 pm

    I just wanted to point out that Exposure Simulation is restricted to CANON ONLY. The only thing that Nikon Live View will simulate is white balance. Trying to use DoF Preview button or changing shutter speed, or aperture does nothing when in LiveView on a Nikon dSLR. I tried finding more info on the web about this but nothing comes up. I can only assume that Canon holds a patent on this, because my buddy's canon LiveView with exposure simulation absolutely ROCKS. I find Nikon LiveView to be pretty useless. They're trying to do it in more "real time" than Canon, so when ends up happening is you get very grainy, very detail-less views on the Nikon LiveView .... almost to the point where manually focusing with it is impossible. Bummer that Nikon did it this way.

    Another thing that irked me about Nikon LiveView for the longest time was that I couldn't get it to zoom into the entire screen -- it was limited to the AF points. Turns out that if you switch the LiveView mode to "tripod" than you can zoom in on any part of the image. If it's on "single" exposure mode, it will stick to the autofocus points (in the D300s/D700 case, the 51 AF points).

  • EnergizedAV May 28, 2012 11:39 pm

    Coming from a video background live view is my norm. My manual focus is set to magnify 10x, unless the shutter is held halfway down. I can then focus specifically and also the whole frame. Another help for me in real tight focus scenarios is the Focus AE lock button. This helps reduce the time it takes once the shutter release is hit. Nice post Paul, Thanks

  • mmx May 28, 2012 07:28 pm

    I usually use live view when doing macro - both for comfortable position, manual focus assistance and mirror-lock up.

    BTW the mirror-lock up suggestion is not valid only for Canon DSLRs but also for some Nikons. In particular the D3100 does not have a mirror lock-up feature, but the mirror always stays up under live-view.
    (Note: it depends on the model, the D3100 stays up during live view, other models may flip down to phase focus).

  • George Maciver May 28, 2012 06:15 pm

    Thanks Paul, I don't use live view very much at all, and this article was what I needed to get mentally geared up to start using it and get comfortable with it.

  • someone May 28, 2012 05:54 pm

    I use live view exclusively, because my NEX 5 doesn't have a viewfinder!

  • Gary J Barragan May 28, 2012 03:36 pm

    When I'm going macro I always use live view, I also found that when tethered to my tablet it keeps the camera from timing out to the view dinner. (Rebel t3i)

  • raghavendra May 28, 2012 12:15 pm

    Hope this works

  • Rick May 28, 2012 09:53 am

    I've been using LV with my 50mm f/1.4 to shoot at wider apertures and get it right the FIRST time.

  • Average Joe May 28, 2012 06:53 am

    Very well put! I usually don't use live view unless I'm trying to take a picture way down low or up high, since it sucks up the battery, but all of these reasons to use it are very valid and great to think about. Thanks!

  • steve slater May 28, 2012 06:16 am

    Live view is useful for more accurate manual focus and also sometimes it is easier to see the shot through the lcd than the viewfinder especially low angle shots:
    Used it for this one which I took from an awkward angle:

    Also iof you have a Nikon it is easy to switch to video if you are in Live View

  • Brian Parkin May 28, 2012 05:58 am

    Thanks! It never occurred to me to zoom in with live view. I have been frustrated by out of focus shoots sometimes when using manual focus, and macro shots in future will be a breeze.

  • Deron May 28, 2012 04:21 am

    Always use live view. Especially with manual focus lens. Also useful for large apertures to nail focus on eyes especially with a laptop in the mix.

  • gerry May 28, 2012 04:10 am

    I hate using live view on my D7000.
    If I auto focus it's slow and annoying.
    I have no histogram , and the DOF butten won't work in live view for some reason (some stupid decision of nikon) In short I have no use of it for now.
    The camera it self though is great!

  • Gavin May 28, 2012 03:21 am

    I use live view to focus my manual focus lenses. You can get a rough approximation through the viewfinder, but it's never accurate. Then you switch on live view to x5 and you can nail the focus more exact then the camera ever can on an auto lens.

  • Jean-Pierre May 28, 2012 02:25 am

    Great article. I use live view most of the time for Macro, and it's great using it for manual focus lenses as well for perfect focus. On my T3i there's 5x and 10x magnification, so you can get that specific bit in super sharp focus.

    Here's a sample of macro photography using the 5x magnification:

    And 10x of our sweet kitten, using a 40 year-old lens: