Live View vs. Viewfinder

Many D-SLR’s have an electronic viewfinder option – typically called Live View. This feature is the default on Point & Shoots.

Live View offers some advantages over the the normal D-SLR viewfinder. Note – different D-SLR’s implement Live View differently. As a result, the specific features & advantages may differ from camera to camera.

Some Focus Advantages

  • Easier to see your scene (large & bright) than through a viewfinder (small & dark)
  • Focus is possible literally anywhere in in frame (including right to the edge, as compared to the usual fixed number of discrete focus points clustered about the frame center)
  • 100% view of your image frame, many viewfinders are 95% or less
  • Ability to zoom in 10X, or more, for precise focus
    • Use manual focus, just as you would with the viewfinder, to ensure the focal point is where you want it & not where the camera wants it – especially for closeups & macros
    • See the example at the end
  • Possible focus errors due to optical misalignments (lens, mirror, viewfinder) are eliminated
  • Mirror-up is a typical D-SLR feature to reduce camera vibration which can cause blurred images. This feature, if available on your camera, can be used independently of  Live View. However,
    • For Live View to work the camera automatically puts the mirror up as the initial live view step
    • For Canons the mirror stays up throughout the entire Live View image capture process – a plus
    • For Nikons, the mirror comes back down after Live View focus and then functions normally (up & down) for the shutter release – a minus
      • This can be offset by using the Nikon menu 1 second exposure delay after the mirror goes up with Live View (search the menu, d9 for D300)
      • Because of this Nikon behavior (with or without the 1 sec. delay) it is important that you cover the viewfinder in order to prevent stray light from ruining the exposure

Some Depth of Field (DOF) Advantages

  • If your camera has a Live View DOF preview  you can choose/examine/compare alternate focal points precisely for both selective focus and finding the focal point for hyperfocal distance
    • Canon Live View has this feature; current Nikons do not
    • Even without DOF preview, using the Live View pan & magnify features provides a clearer idea of DOF than the viewfinder

Some Composition Advantages, as noted in focus advantages

  • Easier to see your scene (large & bright) than through a viewfinder (small & dark)
  • 100% view of your image frame, many viewfinders are 95% or less (no surprises at the frame edge)

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If your camera offers Live View, take the opportunity to try it now. Experiment with its features which will depend on make & model. Using Live View regularly in conjunction with your tripod, will allow significant improvements in your image making ability – both technically & compositionally.

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Here’s an example of  magnification beginning with none and ending with maximum. I’ve panned to the area highlighted in the image by a red box. It’s easy to see how being able to focus with this level of details is a great benefit when making closeups & macros. Note the f/2.8 aperture setting intentionally set to provide a very narrow DOF that should be easily visible as we zoom. Focal point was KNEP at the right side of the red box.

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Here are examples of using Live View for a macro of a pansy –

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This next image is a Live View image ( same as seen through the viewfinder, except several times larger & brighter)

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Depending on the subject and/or your eyes, you may want things larger in order to focus precisely at the point of the pansy just to the left of the first upper left grid intersection. Let’s pan from the center (current location of the red box) up and to the left to the desired focal point and enlarge this a bit as shown in the next image. You can see that the red box is now near the desired focal point and a new box has appeared near the bottom right. The dark box depicts the overall image, and the lighter area in the upper left shows where, within the overall image, we are now zoomed.

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OK – that’s pretty cool, but let’s get in even closer by zooming some more. The next image is zoomed in farther. The dark box shows that we’re zoomed a bit more than 4X. How about one more zoom.

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This final image is where I wanted to be in order to get the exact spot on this pansy in the sharpest focus. The small dark box shows that we’ve zoomed in to a very small piece of the total image (and could get closer still if we wanted). Take the time to compare your own focus accuracy between the viewfinder and Live View.

  • First, focus as accurately as you can via the viewfinder (manual focus & tripod)
  • Then, without changing/moving anything,  switch to Live View
  • Zoom in on your focal point as set in the viewfinder
    • If you didn’t change/move anything, you should see your focal point, focused (with the same sharpness) as you left it after the viewfinder focus step
  • Try to improve the focus by making manual focus adjustments in Live View
    • Were you able to improve on the sharpness using Live View – as compared to your viewfinder focused starting point?
    • No? You’ve got good eyes – and a good well adjusted viewfinder.

optimize focus, composition, depth-of-field, and even exposure