Why I like DSLR Live View Shooting

(Notes: Article slightly updated in February 2015. Original article title was “Canon EOS 5D Mark II: Why I like ‘live view’.” These days the Canon 5DII is no longer my primary camera, but the points remain much the same.)

It took me a while, but I eventually came to rely on live view a lot in my photography.

Back when I acquired a Canon EOS 5D Mark II I assumed that the main improvement over my previous camera would come from the 21 megapixel sensor — the previous camera had only 12 MP. Other features of the updated version of the Canon 5D series seemed like they would either be minor improvements or perhaps not be of any use to me at all. I lumped the “live view” feature of the camera into the latter category. I understood that it would permit me to view the scene “live” on the rear screen, but I failed to see any big advantage over looking through the viewfinder, and much of what I had heard suggested that there would be serious downsides to the feature.

Consequently, it wasn’t until after I had the camera for some time that I actually thought to try out live view, which locks up the mirror and shows a video version of the live image on the rear display. At first the feature seemed very counterintuitive, since I was completely used to looking at the traditional kind of “live” view – the one seen through the viewfinder. On top of this, with live view enabled the normal autofocus system is turned off – or, more correctly, works in a very different way. However, once I did start to use live view I realized that it is one of the most significant and useful features of the Canon 5D Mark II for certain types of photography. How is it useful? Here is a list:

  1. Live histogram – You can display a live histogram on the rear screen in live view. This histogram display updates instantaneously as the scene changes or as you make exposure adjustments. Rather than making an exposure, checking the histogram, making adjustments, and then shooting again – you can simply get it right the first time.
  2. Manual focus – In many cases live view provides the very best method for achieving accurate manual focus. While you can manually focus on the ground glass of the normal viewfinder, really critical manual focus is very difficult using that approach. However, with live view you can zoom in to 5X or 10X or higher magnification and focus precisely on any point in the frame by moving the portion of the image shown in the magnified view. This is like having a 10x loupe built into the camera. There are more advantages related to manual focusing, but I’ll break them out separately below.
  3. Accurate Depth of Field – Determining what will and will not be sharp enough at a given aperture has always involved a bit of guesswork on a DSLR. You can press the Depth of Field (DOF) Preview button and try to check this visually, but this is even more difficult than trying to achieve accurate manual focus via the viewfinder. When you press the DOF Preview button the optical viewfinder becomes dark, making it difficult or impossible to accurately assess DOF. However, live view automatically adjusts the display brightness when you press the DOF preview button – so you can see the image as well at f/16 as you can at f/1.4. Not only that, but you can again use the 5X or 10X or higher magnification on any part of the scene to check focus of any area of the composition with great accuracy.
  4. Night photography – It was while doing night photography that I first gave live view a serious try. I was shooting some industrial subjects under full moon and artificial light and trying to focus on the side of a dimly lit building without much luck. AF could not acquire focus, and in the darkness I couldn’t see enough detail to focus manually through the viewfinder. However, with live view — keeping in mind that the camera adjusts the image brightness on the screen — my very dark subject was light enough that I could manage to focus manually and get a sharp image.
  5. Neutral density filters – I sometimes use a 9-stop neutral density (ND) filter in order to make rather long daytime exposures. The 9-stop ND is so dark that you cannot really even see your scene through it and composing and focusing are impossible. My previous method of operation was to compose the scene and focus first, switch off the AF feature, attach the ND, and then shoot “blind.” However, if I needed to change the composition or adjust focus I would need to remove the ND filter again and repeat the laborious process. I quickly discovered that the live view can display a useful image even with this filter attached, permitting changes in composition, manual focus, and even depth of field checks while the filter remains in place.
  6. Optional display grid – Several different electronic grids may optionally be superimposed on the live view display. I often switch on the  3 x 3 (three horizontal and three vertical lines) grid to check that the horizon is level or that vertical lines are actually vertical.
  7. Awkward camera positions – As long as you can still see the LCD, you can place your camera in positions that would not work if you had to compose through the viewfinder and would otherwise have to “shoot blind” or miss the shot. I’ve found it useful for some wildflower shots where the camera had to be down low among the plants. In addition, I can shoot with the camera on the tripod raised well above eye height with live view – this has allowed me to, for example, shoot over the tops of tall fences or simply get a higher perspective.
  8. Tilt/Shift lenses – Although I’m not a tilt/shift lens user, several photographers (see below for the link to the first of them) pointed out that live view greatly improves the usability of T/S lenses and makes it easier to achieve critical focus.
  9. Shooting in windy conditions – Here’s a new and unexpected use of live view that I discovered in January 2011 when shooting with a 400mm lens in windy conditions. In such conditions I’ll often wait until  the wind have briefly calms enough to get a sharp image, but it can still be a bit of a guess. However, if I activate live view and use the 10x magnification I can directly see the effect of the wind on the image and then simply hit the remote release button when I see the vibration stop in the display.
  10. Elimination of mirror and shutter vibration – Because today we push small original images from cropped sensor or full frame sensor DSLRs to greater and greater print sizes, all factors that affect potential image sharpness become more critical. When it comes to minimizing mechanical vibration within the camera, live view is the current best solution. Because the mirror is already raised so that the image from the sensor is visible while focusing and composing, “mirror slap” vibration is completely eliminated. In addition, by selected an electronic first curtain option, the shot can be initiated without motion from the shutter curtain. According to tests I’ve seen and judging by my own experiments, when you are doing critical work from the tripod this can materially help when it comes to eliminating blur from camera motion.
  11. Camera Sound – In some situations the sound of a DSLR is objectionably loud, both from the slap of the mirror rising and falling and from the physical motion of the shutter curtain. On at least some cameras with live view, there is a first and second electronic curtain setting – called mode 2 on my Canon DSLR – that starts and ends the exposure electronically rather than flapping the shutter curtain across the sensor. It also leaves the camera in live view mode at the end of the exposure, rather than flipping the mirror back down. This significantly reduced – though doesn’t eliminate – the volume of sound from the camera, so it can be useful in certain situations where the shutter/mirror sound might otherwise be too loud.

This list could be even longer, but I’ll stop here for now. Are there any downsides to using live view? In some situations there are, so live view is not called for in every photograph.

  1. Battery life – The use of live view significantly reduces the number of frames you can expose before your battery runs out of power. I have made 400-500+ photographs on one battery with the 5D II without live view and not run the battery down to the point that I would think about switching. However, with heavy live view use on a few occasions I got only a few more than 200 shots. I limit my use of live view in situations where battery life is an issue, such as when I go on long backpacking trips. (Hint: Rather than leaving the camera in this battery-draining mode, sometimes it pays to focus and compose in live view, then switch back to the “normal” mode with mirror lock-up enabled to wait for the right moment to make the exposure.)
  2. Active subjects – While live view is great for relatively static subjects (such as architecture and landscapes, for example) it is far less suited to shooting active subjects. For those I’ll stick to using the through-the-lens viewfinder.
  3. Portraits – While you certainly could shoot portraits in live view, I think that it is sometimes better to either peer through the pentaprism viewfinder at the almost-real view seen there or, better yet in some cases, step back from the viewfinder/camera and just look right at your subjects. (Update: Someone with far more portrait experience than I have recently made a very good a point about getting away from the viewfinder and communicating directly with your subject – though you could do that independent of Live View.)
  4. Autofocus – Autofocus is possible in live view, but either of the options for AF are a bit clunky. (They are improving as of this most recent update.) I virtually never use live view with AF, but almost always use it with manual focus.

When I first wrote this article, soon after beginning to use live view, I wrote, “In the end, although I shoot more often without live view than with it, for certain types of photography I now find it indispensable , including much urban and natural landscape work, night photography, and when working with neutral density filters.” Much of that sentence still stands, but the truth is that in my photography I now use live view most of the time.


Todd Klassy points out that live view is very powerful for those who shoot with tilt/shift lenses.

Regarding my point about portraits, someone with far more portrait experience than I have recently made a very good a point about getting away from the viewfinder and communicating directly with your subject – though you could do that independent of Live View.

A “thank you” to 1001 Noisy Cameras 5DMKII blog for the link.

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© Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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26 thoughts on “Why I like DSLR Live View Shooting”

  1. Hi, Dan! Great reading here! I am also a big user of live view and very into the points you came up with here.
    Fact Is I recently upgraded from a 40d to a 6d and it seems there is something strange. When batteries run out while in live view the mirror is not flipping down as it did in my 40d… Does this happens to you? I dont know if its a problem or a regular behavior of this camera.

    Anyone has experienced this?

    Its not good, because the sensor stays exposed, if I decide to change lenses for exemple. Also, with the mirror up I loose the view finder, wich I could use to recompose a frame while an assistent gets me another battery.

    I am really worried about it, since there is the waranty and all.

    Thanks for sharing this!
    Any note here will help since I am not finding answers about this anywhere else.

    All the best!

    1. Hi: I think I have exhausted a battery while using live view, but I’m afraid I don’t recall this happening. You might try. Asking in one of the online Canon discussion forums.

      I don’t want the battery to die during a shot, so I generally change within an exposure or two of seeing the low battery warning.


  2. Dan,

    I’ve been a long term lurker around your web site and a daily email subscriber – I’m pretty late to the party with this but thought I’d add my two cents since folks are likely to continue to read your articles.

    I recently purchased a Carl Zeiss 35 mm f/2 Distagon T* ZE lens for my Canon EOS 5D Mark II body. It’s obviously a manual focus lens, but has the focus confirmation circuitry so that the beep/focus dot lights confirm when the image is in focus. Rather amazingly, it isn’t too difficult to get respectable hand held images despite the lack of image stabilization.

    Germane to your topic is that LiveView really makes this lens shine. In tripod mode, IS should be turned off anyways. MLU is not an issue since LiveView puts it into this mode anyways, and manual focus is simple since zoom mode lets you position the focus window to the point of interest and allows tack sharp focus. The Zeiss lenses have a firm, but creamy smooth focus ring. I’ve gotten some wonderful images using this method. And while f/2 doesn’t have that razor thin DOF that an f/1.4 lens would sport, it is fairly narrow and easily assessed using LiveView.

    I would add similar comments about some of the less expensive but still very nice Rokinon/Samyang lenses. These really shine in LV mode as well.

    Obviously, this set up works best with a sturdy tripod/head and shutter release cable, but that would be true regardless of what lens was being used.

    Thanks so much for all of your thoughtful posts, personal reviews, sharing photos, and general encouragement.

    Best wishes,
    J.M. Fisk

    1. Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your experience with live view and with the 3rd-party lenses. You make a good point that for folks who like to shoot these alternative lenses and work from the tripod, live view really lets you take full advantage of the image quality that they can offer.


  3. Hello Dan,
    When bracketing for HDR using live view,and looking at the brightness histogram, how do I adjust my + exposure, giving the fact that I’m using the AV. bracketing 3 shots -2,0,+2.
    Thank you Sir

    1. George:

      I’m not sure about that since I use live view in manual mode, typically with the camera on the tripod, and then do my brackets manually by changing the shutter speed. (Changing aperture, as you must know since you are using aV mode, would not likely be a good idea.)

      If you are on the tripod – and I assume you probably are if you are bracketing in order to combine exposures in post – I think you might just try using the M mode.


  4. Dan,
    there is an additional use of liveview which I’ve found great. Checking MA. I put a sheet of paper with print of varying size on the back of a door and focus the camera on a tripod on this with AF and then turn on liveview. The tiniest print on my sheet will be sharp in liveview x10 if perfect (this I repeat a few times of course). If not, not. Using this I was able to determine that my Sigma 300 was spot on in my 1Div and needed a MA of +17 in the 1Dsiii.

  5. Hi There

    Re: 5D Mk2

    In Live View mode when you plug into a TV is there a setting to also allow me to see the image through the view finder or LCD at the same time. I can’t find it anywhere.

    Would be really grateful for any help.

    ATB, Caroline

  6. EXCELLENT summary of the benefits of this great feature.

    We completely agree, it’s INDISPENSABLE.

    Along with it, for instance, the Zoom Level feature is amazingly useful for fine manual focus in lot of shooting situations (dim light, very wide angle, tele or super telephoto, macro, etc). That magnification level and focusing accuracy is impossible to reach through the viewfinder.

    So the Live View feature brought a VERY wide set of additional features, including video capturing (which started a “revolution” in this field), that weren’t available before on DSLR cameras.

    Clearly it is one of the most important additions in the DSLR segment, that came with huge (even unexpected) potential.

    There is no doubt that it can even be improved and more functions be implemented, but that is, as always, limited to business strategy of each manufacturer.


  7. I had read this back when you first published it but did not have a DSLR with live view. Now that I have a Canon 7D I am using live view for a lot of these purposes and love it. Live view has been especially helpful for me with wildflowers etc – so that I can zoom in and watch the screen to see when they truly stop moving in the wind.

  8. I also saw no immediate usage for the live view except for video and frankly still don’t use it a lot.
    But I did notice recently that the Tilt-Thift focusing is a lot easier as well but never realized that the DOF preview would be better with regards to the light, so thanks for pointing that out, I might use it a bit more now!

    I assume that any 5D Mk III will have a viewer that can be swiveled, as that is one thing I miss when shooting low or semi-hidden/stealth.

    Cheers, Harry

  9. how do you get the histogram with live view ? by pressing info while in live view I get a few infos but no histogram

    1. Hi:

      When you are in live view mode and press the info button you’ll see a series of screens that display different information. Each time you press “info” you should switch to the next screen. You have to press it several times to get to the display that shows the histogram.


  10. Dan
    I too live in the SF area (North Bay), so we have lots of shooting subjects in common.
    I agree totally with your live view assessment. I find even with AF lenses for landscapes I tend to use live view 5-10X as it is a type of spot focus of the most important portion of the scene. Having cut my digital chops on a Canon G1 a decade ago, I have been waiting patiently for this capability for compositional flexibility and accuracy.
    Mike K

  11. While I don’t use a Canon camera, I thought the same way about live view when I purchased my Nikon D90. Then I tried it while using a neutral density filter to capture a waterfall. Besides, helping with the low light level, live view allowed me to shoot with a remote so as not needing to touch the camera while shooting. As with other cameras the normal auto focus system is turned off, but the alternate system does a good job most of the time.

    1. Pete: Thanks for posting! On my camera the AF sort of works (it quickly switches out and in of live view mode to AF) but usually do one of two things regarding focus:

      Most often I actually use live view so that I can manually focus with a great deal of accuracy – which makes the AF ability redundant.
      Sometimes I AF first, turn of the AF system, and then switch of live view. This is rare, but I might do it when I’m shooting through a very dense ND filter, for example.

      It makes me wonder about the ultimate potential of electronic view finder systems. At this point I’m not a big fan – they don’t have the same immediacy that the SLR system has and the image quality isn’t as good. However, I can imagine a time when those issues are resolved or at least improved to the extent that EVF will become a very interesting alternative.


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