Live View, Hype Or Benefit?

D-SLRs now can see what the lens sees directly at the sensor rather than only through the viewfinder

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Live View
Because both of the flowers shown in this article were very close to ground level, the articulating LCD monitor on the Olympus E3 allowed for accurate composition of the shots.

When digital cameras entered the market, Sony had one of the first cameras with a rotating lens assembly, so you could see the LCD at different angles compared to the way the lens could see the world. I shot with it up high, down low, and I loved not being restricted to shooting right at my eye level. I could actually see what the lens was seeing when the camera was on the ground without lying on the ground myself.

I reviewed this little camera (just over one megapixel) for PCPhoto Magazine and later ran into a Sony PR person at a trade show. He told me that he had seen my review and was surprised. He thought the rotating lens was just a gimmick and wouldn’t be used for anything!

That was my first exposure to the creative use of a live LCD. Live View is simply the ability to see on your LCD exactly what your sensor is seeing in your camera. This is the way that point-and-shoot and compact digital cameras always have worked ever since they got LCDs. This wasn’t possible in the technology in D-SLRs in the past because the mirror blocked the sensor from any view through the lens.

As I began working with digital cameras, I couldn’t afford the D-SLRs of the time, so I bought advanced digital compacts such as the Canon PowerShot G series of compact digital cameras. These had a live LCD, of course, because they weren’t SLR designs.

What I liked about the G series was that it had an LCD that both tilted and rotated. I’d put one of these little cameras on my tripod, tilt the LCD for convenient viewing and suddenly I felt like I had a miniature view camera. I wasn’t simply looking through the lens at a subject; I was seeing a little photograph framed in the LCD. For me, this changed how I interacted with my subject and my photograph.

Even more, the swiveling LCD allowed me to use my tripod at a low height, and I could see what the camera was seeing without contorting myself to look through a low viewfinder. I also could set the tripod up higher than normal in order to see through the viewfinder. I tilted the LCD down, and there was my image, ready for me to make a composition. And I could put the camera down on the ground, tilt the LCD so I could see what the lens was seeing, and take new low-angle pictures without having to lay down and squash my head against the ground.

This worked well for awhile. I got some quality images this way, which ended up in OP and in my books, but there were limitations. While the Canon G series of digital cameras had accessory lenses, which I used, and I used achromatic close-up lenses for some very high-quality close-up work, focal length still was a limiting factor.

The other problem was that these little digital cameras had small sensors that were very susceptible to noise. At ISO settings of 100, the cameras gave high-quality results. Above that, and the results were real iffy if you wanted low noise. For me, results at ISO 400 were unusable except for special purposes.

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When Olympus came out with its EVOLT E-330, I saw the opportunity to expand what I was doing with this type of work. This camera was the first true digital SLR, with a full range of interchangeable lenses and standard SLR accessories that included a live LCD (and it tilted, too). It dealt with the challenge of having a live LCD in a digital SLR in an interesting way by having a separate, dedicated sensor in the viewfinder to simulate what the actual sensor is seeing.

I don’t know how many of you have worked with a medium-format camera, either an SLR or twins lens reflex, but one thing that I loved about them was looking down at their waist-level viewfinder and seeing a little image in a little ground glass (though upside down). There’s something very direct and appealing about this ground-glass image in how you see your subject.

With the E-330 and the LCD tilted up, I felt a similar experience. But this image wasn’t upside down, and it actually looked more like a little picture than what you saw on ground glass. This made it easy to shoot low-angle pictures without going into body contortions to see through a viewfinder. In addition, it truly did give a different experience compared to a traditional viewfinder.

Now we’re seeing Live View in D-SLRs from Canon, Nikon and more from Olympus. I expect we’ll see even more in cameras announced at the PMA trade show in January (I’m writing this before the show).

All of the Live View cameras now use the image sensor itself. This has the advantage that you can truly see what the sensor is seeing, including white balance and exposure. The disadvantage is speed. When the camera has to use the sensor for the Live View and for the actual picture-taking, there are technological challenges in focus and exposure that cause a delay when taking the picture.

The Live View in all the cameras works great when you use a tripod. If you’re shooting a landscape, a slight delay usually doesn’t matter all that much. The disadvantage of most of the Live Views, however, is that they’re part of a fixed LCD on the back of the camera. You still can gain some of the benefits of the Live View with such an LCD, such as being able to see the image very differently than looking through the viewfinder. In fact, with some of the big LCDs, this is almost like using a miniature view camera.


One aside to all of this is depth of field. For many photographers, using depth-of-field preview gave a view through the viewfinder that was very dark and hard to understand. This totally changes with live LCD. Now you can see what’s sharp and what isn’t in the photograph, and how sharpness will look in your final image. You don’t have to guess how depth of field compares from one ƒ-stop to another. The LCD will show you a properly exposed image so you can see depth of field and you don’t just get a dark viewfinder.

One exception to the flat LCD as I write is the Olympus E-3, which has a versatile rotating and swiveling LCD. You can use the camera like a traditional, high-quality digital SLR, and it works just fine that way, or you can turn on the Live View and see what the sensor is viewing through the lens. I’ve taken this camera and laid it on the ground and have been able to get vertical and horizontal low-angle close-ups. I’ve been able to put it on my tripod at a higher height than I could normally see through the viewfinder and still be able to make my composition because I can tilt the LCD down to see it better.

True, there’s a delay in the time from when you press the shutter release and the shutter goes off, just like in all the other cameras with this type of live LCD. For me, however, the advantages are great, and this camera gives me new opportunities for nature photography.

I expect that we’ll see tilting, swiveling LCDs like this from other manufacturers very soon. The benefits of such a Live View LCD compared to the locked-down LCD on the back of the camera are huge.

This technology may mean we’ll see the SLR type of camera change. Perhaps someday we’ll have a digital camera that’s like a little view camera. This camera would have a lens and a sensor, but no viewfinder. You’d only see what’s coming through the lens on the sensor on a live LCD.

There are advantages to this type of camera, including lower price, smaller size and a very direct view on what your lens is seeing. It will affect how pictures are taken just as the view camera changes the way pictures are taken compared to a 35mm-style camera. It will be interesting to see the evolution of Live View and the digital camera.