Live View Explained: what you need to know about your alternative viewfinder

Live View Explained: what you need to know about your alternative viewfinder

Your camera’s Live View feature is an invaluable alternative to the viewfinder, especially when focusing manually or using strange camera angles. In this tutorial we explain what goes on within your camera to make Live View work, the benefits of using it – and when to use it maximise its advantages.

Live View Explained: what you need to know about your alternative viewfinder

Options and controls for using Live View. This is a Nikon D4, but the controls are similar on most cameras. Click to see the larger image.

Digital SLRs are based on an optical system using mirrors and prisms that shows you the scene you’re photographing in the viewfinder.

But today’s cameras can also give you a big-screen view on the LCD display using a live video feed straight from the sensor. It’s a way of framing your pictures that compact camera and mobile phone users take for granted.

For the DSLR user, the introduction of Live View was revolutionary. Much more than a gimmick, this feature is now found on every single body in most current DSLR ranges.

For many subjects, using this alternative viewing system brings some significant advantages to your photography.

In the cheat sheets below we’ve illustrated what goes on within your camera to power this important functionality. Click on the graphic to see the larger version, or drag and drop it to your desktop.

Live View Explained: what you need to know about your alternative viewfinder

The benefits of Live View
The most obvious of these is concerned with framing the subject. The bigger image, and the fact that you can see it without having to put your eye up to the viewfinder, means that Live View can help you be more adventurous with camera angles.

Live View makes it easier to frame pictures with the camera at ground level or above your head. It enables you to retain eye contact with your subjects (great for portraits).

An unexpected advantage of Live View is that you see 100% of the image (most eye-level viewfinders crop off the edges of your shot). You can also place a grid over the image to ensure lines are parallel to your picture edges and to aid your photo composition.

Your camera’s Live View feature also offers very precise focus adjustments. Instead of using the camera’s main autofocus sensor, it switches to a ‘contrast’ autofocus system which uses the image captured by the sensor. It’s slower than the camera’s regular ‘phase-detection’ autofocus, but it’s very precise and accurate.

For a start, you’re not restricted to the focus points of the camera’s main autofocus system. Instead, you can use the multi-selector on the back of the camera to move the focus square to any part of the picture, right up to the edges.

You can then zoom in on the Live View image using the magnifying glass button on the back of the camera to check that your subject is perfectly sharp in the picture.

This makes Live View especially useful when you’re using manual focus. Manual focusing is not usually easy with a DSLR, because the viewfinder doesn’t have the detail needed for assessing focus visually. But in Live View mode, you can fine-tune the focus with certainty.

DSLRs usually offer a number of different focus modes in Live View. Typically these will be a wide-area AF mode that uses a comparatively large focus square, which you can move to any point in the frame.

A normal-area AF mode uses a smaller focus rectangle, which makes it easier to pinpoint a precise area to focus on.

Some cameras have a face-priority mode that uses face-recognition technology. With this mode, the camera will automatically find your subject’s face and highlight it with a focus rectangle.

In subject-tracking AF mode, you first identify the subject you want to ‘track’, and the camera’s autofocus will then follow it around the frame if it moves.

Some DSLRs go further, with a horizon display that can show you if the camera isn’t quite level as you compose the shot, while some pro DSLRs also have an exposure preview mode, which shows the effect of exposure adjustments on the image – you also get a histogram display that can help you avoid shadow or highlight clipping and match the exposure to the subject more effectively.

Using Live View on articulated screens

Using Live View on articulated screens
The LCD displays on most DSLRs are fixed, but some cameras like the Nikon D5100 or Canon EOS 700D have articulating displays that flip out and rotate to any angle.

This is where Live View mode really proves its worth, because it makes it easy to compose pictures at ground level, above head height and in tight corners where it’s impossible to get directly behind the camera yourself.


Live View: camera tips for Canon users
What is Live View telling you: free photography cheat sheet
Live View: how to use it on any camera
10 reasons why your photos aren’t sharp (and how to fix them)