Live view is here to stay.
What are the good and bad aspects of this technology? Should we be using it? What does it offer the DSLR user over the time honoured viewfinder system? In this post we look at the pros and cons.
The DSLR mirror system
If you are not familiar with the inner workings of the DSLR you can read more about it in this post: DSLR; Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera.
The essence of the mirror system is simple. The photographer peers through the viewfinder (see the diagram above) and the eye receives light directly from the main lens. Light reaching the eye has been redirected by the mirror up through the camera to the viewfinder eyepiece. When the photograph is taken the mirror flips up. Then the shutter opens allowing the digital image sensor to be exposed to light entering through the lens. While the mirror is up the photographer is unable to see through.
When using live view the mirror is flipped up. You cannot see through the viewfinder. The view detected by the image sensor is instead created electronically on the camera screen on the back of the camera. In the most up to date mirrorless cameras the view is projected electronically into the viewfinder so you can use that instead of the screen-view on the camera.
The screens on the back of the DSLR, bridge cameras and point-and-shoot cameras provide a good, clear image on the screen. The displays offer a pretty good representation of the image seen through the lens. Reviews of the new mirrorless cameras suggest that electronic viewfinders are apparently not as good as those using mirrors. However, the technology is young and significant advances have been made recently. I think eventually electronic viewfinders will provide as good a view as the back screen.
Why do we need a viewfinder?
One of the problems of a back-screen is holding the camera steady. When you have a big lens on a camera the sheer unbalanced weight-in-hand makes it difficult to steady the camera with two hands held out in front of you. For a professional, or the keen amateur, the extra softness this induces is intolerable.
This is less important with light point-and-shoot cameras which can be held steady with one hand. Mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than DSLR counterparts. Bigger lenses still make them relatively heavy. Pressing a camera-lens combo to your eye while also held in both hands gives a third point of stabilisation to your camera – a steady position. So, a practical consideration for more substantial combinations of large camera and lens.
Retaining a viewfinder also ensures the “eye-view” is actually available to the photographer. By this I mean that the camera can be placed where the eye actually is on the body. Then the photographer sees through the camera in the same plane and level as the eye. I find this leads to better composition. We are more used to using eye-level views in our everyday vision. I acknowledge that the free-roaming screen composition may provide a more unusual point of view. However, artistic considerations aside, when composing an image I find close scrutiny of the scene leads to cleaner images and a rigorous composition. OK, this is not for everyone. It is a point to bear in mind for the more discerning photographer.
In my experience doing a back-screen composition is difficult because the eye is distracted from the screen. This leads to limited, incomplete composition, or missed details. I have been guilty of this sort of sloppy composition and have seen it in the images of others. Personally, I think the viewfinder helps me to compose accurately and cleanly allowing proper examination of detail.
What live view can offer…
Despite the shortcomings of back-screen composition and lack of steadiness there are good reasons to use live view.
On a tripod… While using a tripod to compose for landscapes, macros, wide angle and fish-eye shots do a quick check in live view before the shot. I suggest you do your initial composition using a viewfinder on the tripod. Once composed quickly check the live view simultaneously scanning your scene by eye. This enables comparison of the lens-distorted view against the scene as the eye sees it. This cross-checks your composition against your vision for the final outcome of the shot.
Mirror lock-up… When using a tripod use mirror lock-up to help sharpness. This mode sets the camera to flip-up the mirror ahead of the shot. The vibration from the ‘mirror-flip-up’ then passes before the exposure takes place. This reduces vibration enabling a sharper shot. Most DSLRs offer the mode which is found in the menu screens. Live view also performs a mirror lock-up action on many cameras. If you have a “live-view” button, do your composition, perform a live view check and take a mirror lock-up shot in the same sequence.
Access to the viewfinder is restricted… Yes, sometimes I simply cannot get to the viewfinder. When doing macro work, complex close-ups suspended under a tripod and when holding the camera high all create situations when the eye cannot easily get to the viewfinder. In this case the live view mode is a definite advantage and enable otherwise impossible shots.
Depth of field… The viewfinder has its own optical characteristics additional to the main photographic lens. Normally viewfinder lenses are pretty faithful and do not affect the view through the main lens. When using a fast lens, say f1.2 wide open aperture, the depth of field may be distorted by the viewfinder. It’s said live view helps you better see the areas of bokeh. I am sceptical. I have not seen this effect accurately on my Canon 5D MkII to make any difference. I am prepared to accept it works on other cameras. Try it and see.
Horizons, converging verticals and straight lines… Live view offers a set of lines dividing the screen up into thirds (nine segments). This “rule of thirds” grid is helpful in composition. I find it most useful when checking converging verticals when lining the camera up. However, a good electronic display of focus points laid out in your viewfinder is excellent for most compositions. The focus points usually allow for rule of thirds composition and more. So, live view offers an option, but no better than the viewfinder. Other cameras may differ on this, make your own choice.
Live view histogram… Some cameras allow the display of a live view histogram. This enables you to check your colour and light intensity prior to the shot. This saves later examination of lots of frames online. However, I prefer “Chimping”. The post-shot histogram review is the best way to tell if you have a good shot or not. If you do use the live view histogram beware of poor composition. The histogram takes up screen space I prefer to use for composition. So, not to my taste, but the opportunity is there on some cameras.
Live view can be useful
More cameras are providing good live view mode and offering more facilities with it. I think there are some good reasons to use this mode especially with a tripod. It certainly provides some useful functions. There are some severe shortcomings with live view composition and personal stance when using it. The good old viewfinder still wins the day for me. However, a lot depends on your camera. I hope these points have opened your eyes. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)
Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)
Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’