Reasons to Love Live View

One thing that differentiates newer digital cameras from older models is one that most photographers know about, image quality. But what you may not be aware of is that newer models have many additional features that help you take better photos. One of those is Live View.  You may be familiar with how digital SLRs work. Light passes through the lens, hits a mirror in the camera body, and is reflected up through the pentaprism and out through the viewfinder. The benefit of this is that you can see precisely what the camera is seeing, no matter what the focal length of the lens.  When you take a photo, the mirror flips up and the light passes through to the camera’s sensor instead of up through the pentaprism. The viewfinder blacks out momentarily while the mirror is raised and the sensor records the scene. Then the mirror drops back into place and your can see through the viewfinder again.

In Live View, the mirror stays in the flipped up position, the sensor acts more like a video camera and you can look at the scene on the camera’s LCD screen. Given that a viewfinder is easier to look through, and is one of the features that separate SLR cameras from most compacts, you may be wondering what use Live View is. Someone even once told me that Live View was the ‘most useless feature ever included in a camera’. Ironically, she was a photography instructor, and her words made me realize just how useful Live View actually is.

Here are a few situations where I find Live View useful:

Live View helps you focus accurately in low light. I use Live View a lot to confirm focus when I’m taking landscape photos at dusk. I prefer to mount the camera on a tripod and focus manually. As the light fades, the view through the viewfinder gets harder to see. It’s much easier to enter Live View and use the zoom button to magnify the area I want to focus on. Then it’s a simple matter of turning the focus ring until that point is sharp.

Live View helps me compose the image in long exposure photography. Sometimes I use a nine stop neutral density filter to take long exposure photos with shutter speeds of a minute or more. This filter blocks over 98% of the light and when it’s fitted to my lens I can’t see anything through the viewfinder. In Live View though the camera can still display the live feed; it means I can compose the image and verify the focus without removing the neutral density filter.

Live View helps me see the depth-of-field at wide apertures with prime lenses. My fastest lens has a maximum aperture of f1.4. But the camera’s viewfinder, thanks to a cunning arrangement of micro-lenses in the ground glass screen, displays the image as it would appear at an aperture of f2.8. In Live View, as long as the camera is tripod mounted I can assess the true depth-of-field.

Live View helps me take photos when I’m physically unable to look through the viewfinder. This may happen if I have the camera close to the ground or have to hold it above my head to look over something like a hedge; which is what I did for the photo above. It also helps me out when the sun is in the frame, and I don’t want to look at it directly through the viewfinder as it can damage your eyesight.

The live histogram helps me assess exposure before I take a photo. I always check the histogram after taking a photo to make sure the exposure is correct. In Live View, on many cameras you can see a live histogram that lets you check exposure before you take a photo; another feature that comes in useful in landscape photography.

Live View shows a feed using the selected white balance and Picture Style settings. When you look at a scene through the viewfinder, you see it as it actually is. When you look at the Live View feed, you are seeing the scene with the camera’s white balance and Picture Styles applied. This helps you see the effect of those settings. I like doing this when I am taking black and white photos as it helps me judge how the image will come out in monochrome.

Live View helps me see if the entire scene is sharp when using small apertures. This is essential for landscape photography, when I want the entire scene to be in focus from the front to the back. I use the zoom button to magnify the image by five or ten times and verify the focus. When you look through the viewfinder, you are seeing how the scene looks at an aperture setting of f2.8 or the maximum aperture of the lens, whichever is smallest. Many cameras have a depth-of-field preview button but the viewfinder image is usually not bright enough to make assess the scene accurately. Live View is the easiest way to assess depth-of-field.

Live View helps me obtain straight horizons. It does so by displaying a grid that I can use to see if the horizon is level. It also comes in useful when photographing buildings to ensure they don’t look as if they are falling backwards.

Live View enables movie mode. I have to admit I haven’t shot much movie footage on my camera, but it’s kind of cool to know that the video quality from my SLR camera matches that of broadcast cameras that cost ten times as much.

If you have a camera with Live View, and you’ve never used it much, maybe now is the time to try it out and see how useful it is for you. It is an invaluable tool if you are into landscape photography in particular.

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