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So you’ve got a DSLR and it has this great feature called Live View. Have you ever really got to know how to use your DSLR Live View?

That’s what we’re looking at today.

The benefits and disadvantages of DSLR Live View

I’ll be honest, Live View is something that I completely overlooked for a long time. I was used to looking through the optical viewfinder of my camera, so couldn’t see the benefits of using Live View.

But then there were a few occasions where using Live View was the better option. The first example was in low light when my camera was struggling to lock focus when composing through the viewfinder. I changed to Live View and boom, it locked focus no problem!

Live view contrast detection good for low light focusing

Contrast detection focus of Live View makes it ideal for using in low light situations.

So after that I decided to get to know how to use my DSLR Live View better. I figured if it worked better in low light, there must be other things that Live View could do better than the standard way of shooting with a DSLR.

I’m not saying Live View is the only way to go. Far from it and I cover the disadvantages of Live View below, after we’ve gone through the benefits.

Sometimes Live View is not the right choice. More on that later.

What is Live View on a DSLR?

Live View is the alternative (electronic) viewfinder to using the (optical) viewfinder on a DSLR camera you would normally use.

Even though Live View is different, you can still do what you would normally do when using your optical viewfinder. Using Live View you can:

  • alter exposure settings,
  • compose an image,
  • then take the photo.

The difference is that you do it by viewing the LCD screen on the back of a DSLR, the electronic viewfinder, versus the optical viewfinder you’d usually use. So, with Live View, you can also:

  • preview the image to see what it will look like BEFORE you take the photo.

Sounds good? Well there are pros and cons to using a DSLR’s electronic viewfinder vs optical viewfinder, so let’s take a closer look.

BENEFITS of using DSLR Live View

The benefits of the electronic viewfinder of a DSLR can be split into two categories:

  1. Focus
  2. Image preview

Let’s look at them in detail. When and why would you use an electronic viewfinder vs optical viewfinder?

1. Focus in Live View

This is the main reason why Live View can sometimes be better.

DSLR cameras with Live View have two ways of focusing. Without getting all technical (I’ll save that for another article on focus), they are:

  • Phase detection – how your DSLR focuses when you shoot using the viewfinder
  • Contrast detection – how your DSLR focuses in Live View

I mentioned earlier about switching to Live View in low light to lock focus. That’s because contrast detection literally is that – the camera detects contrast between light and dark and uses that to focus.

Further reading: 8 tricks for sharp photos in low light – focusing in the dark

There are 6 benefits of focusing in Live View:

a) Zooming
b) Tap to focus
c) Focus anywhere
d) Sharp focus
e) Capture unusual angles
f) You’re not hidden behind the camera

Benefits of DSLR live view for macro photography

Macro photography with a DSLR is made much easier with Live View, because you can zoom right in to make sure that your focus is sharp and where you want it.

a) Zooming in to part of the image

Live View is great for being able to zoom in on a part of the scene to ensure that it is in sharp focus. 

On DSLRs with touch screen capability it is really easy as it works just like it would on your phone.

On others you can use the menu to set a button to enable zooming right in in one click during Live View, or you can zoom in incrementally the usual way you would.

What type of photography benefits from zooming in close in Live View?

Macro – you can use 5x or 10x zoom easily to get in close and make sure that your subject is sharp and the focus is where you want it.

b) Tap to focus

Speaking of touch screens, on DSLRs with touch screens you can simply tap the screen to focus where you want.

If you don’t have a touch screen DSLR, you can still move the focus point around the same way you would if you were using the viewfinder to compose a shot.

c) Focus anywhere

A huge benefit of using Live View is that you’re not restricted to where in the image you can focus. In Live View you can place your focus point right at the edge of the screen!

d) Sharp focus

Because the mirror is locked up, there’s less vibration when you push the shutter. 

To help further, on some DSLRs you can set an exposure delay and also electronic front curtain shutter to completely eliminate the possibility of any camera movement when taking a photo with your DSLR mounted on a tripod. You can adjust both these settings via the menu.

What type of photography is this best for?

Landscapes – these Live View features in particular make it easy to achieve sharp focus without the need for a remote release.

Further reading: The ultimate guide to taking sharp photos you can be proud of

Electronic viewfinder for landscape photography DSLR live view

Mounting a DSLR camera on a tripod and using Live View with exposure delay and electronic front curtain shutter set removes the chance of any vibrations caused by mirror slap, which you would have when using the optical viewfinder. This makes Live View ideal for long shutter exposures and landscapes.

e) Capture unusual angles

Using Live View will enable you to shoot from really low down while still being able to see the screen. Even lower if you have a flip screen. 

In fact, if you have a flip screen you can use Live View to get shots from all kinds of angles that wouldn’t be possible if shooting through the viewfinder (without just shooting and praying that you get a good shot).

Further reading: 4 of the best viewpoints for impressive composition

f) You’re not hidden behind the camera

If you use Live View you can get out from behind the camera, which is great for maintaining a connection with your subject. Or even if you just need to see what’s going on around you while you photograph.

What type of photography is this ideal for?

Portraiture (especially headshots) – with face detection turned on in matrix metering mode (Nikon) or evaluative metering mode (Canon).

Obviously, if this is the case, you’d need to mount your camera on a tripod to keep it in position.

2. Image preview in Live View

Aside from focus, the ability to preview your image is a huge benefit of using Live View on a DSLR. There are 7 image preview benefits:

a) Depth of field is easy to see
b) Composition preview
c) Exposure preview
d) Exposure compensation visible
e) Black and white photography view
f) White balance settings are visible
g) Crop ratio is visible

a) Depth of field is easy to see

So much better than using the depth of field preview button when using the viewfinder. In Live View mode you can actually see if your depth of field is as narrow or deep as you’d want.

As you change the settings, you will see the depth of field change.

Perfect if blurring the background is important to you. Or conversely, if you want to make sure that everything is sharp from front to back.

Further reading: 
Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition
The easy way to a beautifully blurry background

b) Composition preview

Just like when using the viewfinder to view the scene, you can have grids overplayed on the scene in Live View feed to help you with composition.

Grids are a great way of ensuring that your camera is straight too so that you don’t have a wonky horizon.

Being able to see the image in the viewfinder you often see what you might miss when looking through the optical viewfinder.

c) Exposure preview

Because you can see what your image will look like, you can judge if the exposure is right before you take the shot and make the necessary changes if needed.

d) Exposure compensation is visible

Live View is really handy if you need to use exposure compensation (for example when photographing in snow or on a sandy beach)! 

Instead of guessing how much exposure compensation you need to set, you can see it in Live View and make the necessary adjustments.

Further reading: How and when to use exposure compensation – controlling exposure part 3

e) Black and white photography view

You can actually see the scene in black and white. That makes it so much easier if you’re not used to thinking in black and white. In fact, it’s a great way to get used to seeing in black and white so that you can learn black and white photography.

Just remember to shoot in RAW if you do this so that your DSLR records all the information. This will give you the option later on the computer to use either black and white or color versions of your images.

Further reading: How to shoot black and white photography

f) White balance settings are visible

The same goes for white balance settings. Save yourself some time and see ahead of taking the shot what the image will look like.

On some cameras there may be an extra step to seeing the image in Live View as it would be recorded with your settings. For my Nikon, Live View preview is simply a matter of pressing the OK button while in Live View to switch previewing on and off.

Further reading: What is white balance and does it matter?

g) Crop ratio is visible

On some cameras you can also set the crop ratio, which is really handy if you can set it to square for example. This way you know that you’ve got the image you want, rather than shooting wide and then cropping in afterwards on the computer (and hoping that you got it right).

Basically, you’re cutting out the guesswork using Live View on a DSLR.

That’s a lot of benefits! It’s enough to make you wonder why you’re not already using Live View all the time!

DISADVANTAGES of DSLR Live View

But hold on a minute. There are some disadvantages to using Live View as well. So let’s take a look at them before you completely change how you photograph.

Admittedly, the disadvantages list shorter than the benefits list, but these 5 points are enough to significantly reduce how often I used Live View. They are:

a) Battery life is shorter
b) Capturing moving subjects is more difficult
c) Focus can be slow
d) Camera shake
e) Difficulty seeing the screen

a) Battery life is shorter

Live View will chew through batteries faster than when shooting the standard way on a DSLR. 

If you’re not planning on a long shoot, or on taking lots of photos, then this shouldn’t be a problem. Just be aware of it and make sure that your battery is fully charged before setting out.

b) Capturing moving subjects is more difficult

In Live View the mirror is locked in the up position and only drops down when you take a shot. After the shot it will lock up again and Live View resumes.

This is fine if the subject isn’t moving, but can be difficult if it is. Live View therefore makes tracking fast moving subjects tricky at best.

Further reading: Focus tips for how to capture moving objects in photography

Electronic viewfinder and moving subjects in live view

Focus tracking is a better way of photographing moving subjects, particularly fast moving subjects, with the optical viewfinder, rather than using the electronic viewfinder of Live View.

c) Focus can be slow

While Live View is great for focusing in low light and for ensuring that your image is sharp, locking focus takes longer than when composing through the optical viewfinder. 

The electronic viewfinder can sometimes hunt before locking on.

d) Camera shake

Speaking of movement, because of the way you inevitably hold a DSLR when using Live View (i.e. holding the camera with your arms stretched out) the camera is not supported. 

This could result in camera shake. It certainly would with me as I need all the help I can get to support my camera. When composing through the optical viewfinder, having your arms close to your body and the camera resting against your head as well offers much more stability.

This is the biggest reason why I don’t use Live View much. It would be impractical for me during a portrait shoot, because of how I photograph.

For a headshot session where the subject is not going to move around a lot, it would be different. In fact, Live View would be ideal with the camera mounted on a tripod.

Further reading: How to hold a camera correctly for sharp photos

e) Difficulty seeing the screen

Indoors it’s easy to see the screen. Outside in bright sunlight, however, it can be very difficult to see the display screen on a DSLR. 

In bright sunshine you lose all the benefits of Live View as you’ll struggle to see the screen clearly to make the exposure decisions required. You can, however, fix this by buying an LCD hood to fit to the back of the camera to view the screen.

How to switch to Live View

The thing about Live View is that it varies so much from brand to brand, even within brands the different models seem to function differently. Nikon Live View in particular varies hugely from camera to camera.

One thing they all have in common though, is that it is an easy switch – usually just a matter of selecting the Live View button on your DSLR.

Sometimes the Live View button is just a button. Other times it’s a button and a switch. It will either:

  • be a button or switch labelled “live view” or “Lv”
  • or have a picture of a camera and may also have a button saying “start stop” or “live view” or “Lv”.

The best thing, if you can’t see it on the back or top of your DSLR, is to look in your manual for the Live View settings for your particular camera. It’s really easy to work once you have Live View switched on. Aside from looking at the scene in a different way and being able to zoom in and maybe focus by touching the screen, operating your camera is the same as normal.

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One of the main advantages of using live view is focusing in low light. The other huge benefit of live view is the ability to see a preview of the final image before you take it! Discover the benefits and disadvantages of DSLR Live View - electronic viewfinder vs optical. Learn which is better for sharp photos and when to use Live View. #photography #lowlight #focus #liveview