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Live View for Easier and Better Nature Photos

Live view is invaluable for focusing on the face of this bison in heavy snowfall in Yellowstone. The autofocus continually jumps back and forth as it "sees" the falling snow, and seldom focuses on the bison. Here I use manual focus with live view, magnify the bison's face by 10x in the live image, manually focus on the hair between the small horns, and shoot away with sharp focus.

Canon USA asked me to review the new Canon 6D Mark II during the summer of 2017. Always one to try a new camera, I eagerly spent the two weeks Canon loaned the camera to me to shoot thousands of images near Munising, Michigan. I attempted to try every feature the camera offers to see how it might improve my nature photos and be able to write a worthy review. To be honest, two weeks is not enough time to fully master a camera, but I did learn a great deal and really liked the camera. Since the price for the full-frame Canon 6D Mark II is affordable, that is appealing to many.

Little did I expect that two weeks with a consumer level full-frame camera would profoundly change how I shoot most nature images going forward, but it certainly did. And was I surprised the articulating LCD was so incredibly useful as this is the first camera I used that offered it. The articulating LCD made viewing the LCD so much easier at the odd angles I so often use. I still wonder how this highly desirable feature was left off my top-of-the-line Canon 5D Mark IV and 1DX Mark II. I really miss the articulating LCD and I will be sure to look for it in my next camera.

Now that two years has passed since I first used live view when I tested the camera, I must say I use it whenever possible for many reasons. Two of the most significant reasons are better image quality and the camera is much easier to use. Since testing the Canon 6D Mark II, I now use live view in both of my two main cameras - 5D Mark IV and the 1DX Mark II - and my photo results are better than ever! Here’s why live view is so helpful.

Painted trilliums are a joy to photograph and here is one in the Smoky Mountains where I do spring and autumn photo workshops. Using a tripod, I compose the flower while looking through my camera's viewfinder. Once done and the tripod is locked up keeping the camera still, I turn on live view, select an aperture such as f/13, turn my shutter speed dial to move the live histogram that I see in my live image until the rightmost data just touches the histogram's right wall, and shoot an image. I shoot without even making the image perfectly in focus because I want to view the image on my camera's playback to check the highlight alert for flashing "blinkies." If I don't have any, I add another 1/3-stop of light and shoot another image. When the first blinkies appear in the image, I consider the exposure "most suitable" for the RAW files I shoot. Then I use a magnified live image to manually focus on the stamens in the center of this flower, touch my LCD gently to use the Touch Shutter to fire the camera. Of course, to avoid any camera vibrations, I also set the camera to 2-second self-timer so any slight camera vibrations I might have created by touching the LCD have time to go away.

Live RGB Histogram

In the live view mode on my Canon 5D Mark IV, I always set the display to show a live RGB histogram that shows a separate histogram for the red, green, and blue color channel. Be careful with this, as so often photographers lose their histogram and wonder where it may have run off to. By pushing the INFO button on my camera, when in the live view mode, I can toggle through a series of four different screens, and only one shows the RGB histogram. So, if you lose your favorite LCD view, you probably must select it again. The histogram that appears makes it simple to achieve an optimum exposure where the rightmost data is close to clipping, but not yet overexposed. In practice, I manually move one of the three exposure controls (ISO, aperture, or shutter speed) to make the rightmost data of one of the color channels (red, green, or blue) touch the right wall of the histogram. Then I shoot the image and immediately check the highlight alert to see if any “blinkies” appear. If a lot of blinkies appear, then I reduce the exposure and shoot again to check the highlight alert. If no blinkies appear, then I add a little light and check for blinkies again. My goal is to adjust the exposure to make the first blinkies appear, usually. Since I shoot only large RAW files, I know the first blinkies that appear do not mean highlights are overexposed. Always remember the histogram and highlight alert are based on an embedded JPEG in the RAW file, and not on the RAW data that covers a wider contrast range than a smaller JPEG.

The one exception to letting the rightmost data of one of the color channels hit, and even climb the right wall of the histogram, occurs when one color truly dominates the scene, and often this is red. Apparently, it takes more than one color channel to have data maxed out to generate blinkies. When one color dominates the scene, I don’t go by the blinkies but in that case let the color channel with data furthest to the right touch the right wall, and use that for the exposure, even though no blinkies yet appear.

Since I can view the histogram in real time while shooting in live view, but not when shooting using the viewfinder, live view greatly speeds up achieving a suitable exposure. And keep in mind both my shutter speed dial and the aperture dial are reversed to make rotating either dial clockwise (or to the right) as viewed from camera rear. Turning the dial to the right adds light and moves the histogram data to the right as well. Most cameras are set to work the opposite way for reasons I cannot understand. Does it really make any sense to turn a dial left to make histogram data move right? I have many clients who refuse to reverse their dial direction to make it more logical because they insist they remember to do things backwards. But, when I observe them, they are just as likely to turn the dial the wrong direction as the right direction – something I never do.

For this sunrise in Indiana, I watch the red color channel while setting my exposure. I let the red color channel touch the right histogram wall, but not let it climb up it very much. I admit there is not much detail in the red areas anyway. And since everything in this scene is at infinity focus, I use f/8 because it is one of the sharpest apertures on my 24-70mm lens, and use a magnified live view to manually focus on the treeline where it meets the sky. I do this because I can see the contrast between the tops of the trees and the sky easily when that area is magnified in live view.

Tilting the LCD Screen

I am the first to admit that the two high-end Canon cameras I use are lacking the highly desirable tilting LCD. And I know many photography friends who will not upgrade their cameras for this reason alone. I have already sent word to Canon that they should provide a fully articulating LCD on all future models as it is enormously helpful, especially to outdoor photographers who use a tripod. The articulating screen lets you work the camera so much easier when shooting high or close to the ground, or in any unusual position. After I used the wonderful articulating screen on the much less expensive Canon 6D Mark II, I realized what a blessing it was and can’t wait to upgrade my 1DX Mark II and 5D Mark IV if the new versions have the articulating LCD (hopefully – as I have no prior knowledge Canon will do this). It is a game-changer!!!!


Live view is by far the best way to achieve precise focus for still objects. I realize most use autofocus in some way to achieve focus, but from long experience with autofocus, examining and using all the autofocus options over the years, and AF microadjusting all my lenses, autofocus continues to be less reliable than I would like. Manual focus is reliable and precise, even with my old eyes that will soon be tweaked with a little surgery. It is so easy to use live view, magnify a portion of the image where the sharpest focus is desired by 10x, and manually focus on that spot. It works well in dim light where the LCD is easy to see. However, I do admit when I was shooting thousands of landscapes in southern Utah where bright sun is typical, it is much more difficult to view the LCD. But I solve this problem of too bright ambient light by placing a Hoodman Hood loupe over the LCD to allow easy focusing!

Live view focus is tremendous in dim ambient light, or even at night. My camera gives me a bright image to focus on, even when I can barely see the subject in the dim light. Often at night, I shine a small flashlight at the spot where I want precise focus, and the bright image of it appearing in the live view makes it easy to precisely focus the lens! It is so helpful! Also note I have my LCD set to Exposure Simulation Enable.

Still, for action shots, live view is not the best choice for me. I prefer to use the camera’s viewfinder with my autofocus parameters set to:

Tracking sensitivity +2

Accel. /decal. Tracking 0

AF point auto switching +1

I usually keep these autofocus parameters at these settings, but when I am photographing a rapidly moving target that has a background behind it the focus mechanism can detect – such as an albatross flying against an ocean background – then I set Tracking sensitivity to -2 to prevent the focus from jumping quickly from the bird to the background.

I also AF microadjust all my lenses if I plan to use them with autofocus. This is crucial! Every Canon lens I own benefits from some AF microadjustment setting. The default has never been the best option yet. I realize many, if not most, photographers believe their autofocus is accurate and consistent. But, what one believes, and the truth are often two different things. Unless you run precise tests, and do it properly, most photographers don’t realize their lenses are not focusing as precisely as they could unless some AF microadjustment value is set.

Cameras allow you to use autofocus in live view, too, often by merely touching the LCD where you want the focus to be best. Since focus is directly on the sensor, and does not depend on the pentaprism, autofocus is likely more accurate this way. Indeed, for simple scenes where a few AF points will cover the depth for focus stacking, using the AF in live view is a viable way to cover the scene. But, be aware your camera must be set to allow autofocus by touching the LCD in live view. In my case, I must have the autofocus control assigned to the shutter button, and not to back-button focusing to make it work on the Canon 5D Mark IV. Since back-button focusing is now popular, make sure having it set does not interfere with your live view AF ability.

By the way, I did test live view autofocus and manual focus using the magnified LCD view and both were equally sharp. Since AF focus works differently in live view, it doesn’t require the need to AF microadjust the camera and lens.

The Grand Tetons focused stacked with three images. Using f/8, I used autofocus and live view to shoot this simple 3-shot focus stack. My Canon 5D Mark IV is set so autofocus is active in live view. That means I had to turn it on, and also remove autofocus from the back-button focus control and put it back on the shutter button. Once I compose and set the exposure, I take a shot of my hand in front of the lens to mark the beginning of the stack. Then I touch the LCD at the bottom where the foreground rocks are and shoot the first image. Then I touch the green vegetation on the LCD, the camera refocuses on the middle ground and shoots that image. Finally, I touch the mountains and the camera refocuses at that distance and shoots the third image. I combine all three images later with Helicon Focus software on my computer. It is all so easy!

Firing the Camera

While my more expensive, but older technology Canon 1DX Mark II does not offer the Touch Shutter, my Canon 5D Mark IV does and it is wonderful. I had to go into the camera menus and Enable the Touch Shutter and I also changed it from Standard to Sensitive. This allows me to shoot my camera by gently touching the LCD. I no longer must use the shutter button which requires a heavier push, or a cable or remote trigger release that gets in my way when operating camera controls. For most of my career, when shooting on a tripod, I fired the camera with a cable release, but now I seldom use it, though, I always have one with me. With the Touch Shutter set to Sensitive, I barely need to touch the LCD (I mean I can hardly feel it) and the camera fires. And just to be sure my very slight touching does not cause any camera vibration during the exposure, I also set my 5D Mark IV to the two-second self-timer. I gently touch the LCD, pull my hand back, and the camera takes the exposure two-seconds later. This works for all still subjects. The cable or remote release, though, remains the best way to fire the camera when you must fire the camera at the peak of the action (wave crashing into a rock), or the moment of complete stillness (wildflower that finally holds still during a momentary pause in a slight breeze). And now I sometimes use a wireless camera trigger. With two PocketWizard PlusX devices, one wired to the camera with a special cable from PocketWizard made for my camera, and a second one that triggers the one attached to the camera from a distance, I can shoot my camera from quite a distance wirelessly!

While photographing the Grand Tetons one brutally cold morning where my fingers became so stiff I could barely tell when I was touching my camera, I tried to press the shutter button to take my shot after the 2-second self-timer ran out. Half the time I failed to trip the camera as I could not really tell when I was pressing the shutter button as I could not feel it. I soon learned to barely touch the LCD and that was easy to do, even with gloves on, and the camera fired every time when the 2-second delay ran out. It is an awesome way to fire the camera when you can’t feel the shutter button.

I focus stack most close-up and landscape images I make today. Using live view while gently touching the LCD set up as described earlier speeds up the stacking process for me. I merely rotate the focus ring manually, touch the LCD, two-seconds later the camera fires, rotate the focus ring a little more, touch the LCD to fire the shot, and keep that sequence up until I cover the complete depth of field. I have thought about using a cable release here, as then I don’t have to wait for the two-second self-timer but touching the lens to change the focus also causes vibrations and speeding up the process even more with the cable might cause me to shoot the exposure when the camera is still slightly vibrating due to the manual focus change.

I always level my images in the camera before I shoot them. Both my LCD and the viewfinder in my camera have a way to turn a level on to view it. I once used the level in my LCD most of the time, but now that it is offered on my Canon 5D Mark IV and 1DX Mark II, I greatly prefer the level in my viewfinder. I simple prefer to compose my images by looking through the viewfinder, rather than the live view image on the LCD. I realize the background is sloping down to the left, but that is the natural slope. The hoodoo is upright and that is what I wanted. I do admit there are subjects where a little tilt is beneficial.

Level the Camera

If I activate the grid display, I can view the grid in all four different LCD views offered by my camera. That makes it much easier to keep landscapes level when you shoot them, rather than having to level them later in processing. However, I don’t use the grid display. The LCD view I prefer to use shows the RGB histogram I set and gives me a level, so I use that instead. The level in the viewfinder works for me because I detest trying to compose in live view. I am so much better at composition when I look through the viewfinder. Once I have composed my shot, then I turn on live view and go from there.

100% of the Image

Many camera viewfinders don’t quite reveal the entire image. Often ten per cent or less of the image is cut off. This allows distractions to appear along the margin of the image because you do not see the distractions and therefore do not compose distractions out. Naturally, distractions can be removed in processing, but the live view display shows the entire image preventing this problem. However, with my top-of-the-line Canon cameras, I still see nearly all of the image in the viewfinder.

Sharper Photos

Live view is enormously helpful for achieving the sharpest possible images. Not only does it make focus more precise, but camera vibrations that cause softer images, especially at shutter speeds below 1/30th second are greatly diminished. Why? To view the live image, the mirror must move upward and out of the way. Therefore, at the moment of exposure when shooting with ambient light only, there is no mirror movement in my Canon 5D Mark IV. Admittedly, in the past I used the mirror lock-up function to do this prior to the exposure, but it was one more thing I had to do. Live view does this automatically.

And there is another vibration creating gremlin in your camera called shutter shock on the Internet. When the shutter opens immediately before exposing the sensor, this movement causes a slight vibration too. In live view with my cameras, the shutter is already open so there are no shutter vibrations. Admittedly, the shutter moves to cover the sensor to end the exposure, but this all happens after the image is already captured, and these vibrations don’t matter! Of course, camera models vary in how they deal with the shutter and mirror during live view, so your experience may be different from mine.

Shooting with live view active helps me shoot sharper images. Naturally my camera is mounted on a tripod and that means - a solid tripod and Kirk BH-1 ballhead. Nothing wiggles! By focusing in a magnified live view, I hit sharp focus, and by shooting in live view, the shutter is open on my camera and the mirror is already in the upright position to allow live view. Eliminating both mirror-slap and shutter shock makes slightly sharper images possible.

Seeing the Live View Image

I tend to photograph most of my close-ups and landscapes while using live view when the light is dim, usually much dimmer than bright sun. In those cases, it has always been easy to see the live view image and especially use it for manual focus and seeing the histogram. But, in bright sun, I admit seeing the live view image is challenging and sometimes downright impossible to use. In that case, I place a Hoodman Hood loupe over the LCD to block the ambient light and make the live view image easy to see well. So, the problem of bright ambient light is solved with the hood loupe!

Preview the Depth of Field at the Shooting Aperture

Live view shows you several adjustments you can make to the image in real time before the image is shot. For example, changing the white balance and picture style also changes how the live view image appears as you make the changes. Many have trouble adjusting the polarizer to best effect while looking through the viewfinder, but often folks can easily see polarizer effects in the live view image. You can also stop down the lens to view the depth of field, but I rarely do this because I quickly go to focus stacking for macro and landscapes. And when photographing wildlife, normally I don't have many aperture options with the long lenses I use because I must keep the shutter speed fast enough and don't want the ISO to get to high.

Another focus stack of the Wahweep hoodoos near Page, Arizona. I use live view to set the exposure (when the first blinkies appear), focus on the near foreground, and keep changing the focus manually until I am finally focused on the most distant object in this scene. And I shoot with live view on to eliminate mirror and shutter vibrations!!

Battery Power

The big knock against live view is it uses up batteries fast, and indeed it does. But, don’t let that stop you from using the many benefits of live view because the answer is simple. I use live view most of the time when making close-up and landscape images, and never have a battery problem. First, every time I go out to shoot images, my camera battery is fully-charged. I always start with a full battery, and then run it till the battery either fails, or usually, I notice a warning that my batter is low. I remove the battery and put in another freshly charged battery and keep on going. I shoot a lot, sometimes all day long on a single hike, so I always have a minimum of three fully-charged batteries with me in addition to the one in the camera. Therefore, battery power consumption is never a problem for me, and won’t be for you either! So, let’s drop the “live view runs the battery down fast” problem because it isn’t a problem for prepared photographers.

Learn to use live view well, and photography will become easier to do and the results will be better than ever!

Live view isn't terrific for everything. When I am photographing wildlife, especially wildlife in action like this jumping coyote, I use the camera's viewfinder and autofocus as it is much quicker for reacting to "quick critters." All of my Canon lenses I use for autofocus have been AF microadjusted and I use many focus options offered by my cameras - but that is a BIG topic!!! So I will cover it in another article when I need to write one for my column in Nature Photographer magazine.

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