The hidden virtues of Live View

Nikon D3s in Live View (Tripod) mode.

Back in 2008, when Nikon announced that they were putting Live View into their DSLRs, I kind of shrugged my shoulders and thought “gimmick.” I mean, most serious shooters know that holding a 2-pound DSLR out from their body is no way to support a camera. Of course, there might be instances where a PJ may find this feature useful, such as when they are in a crowd of reporters and they can just lift their camera over their head to shoot. I don’t usually find myself in those situations, but I have found an increasing number of situations where Live View is incredibly handy.


Macro Shooting with Live View

When you put your DSLR on a tripod for macro photography, especially with wildflowers, you’ll often find yourself in awkward positions near the ground. The classic workaround for low-angle shooting has been a right-angle viewfinder adapter, like the Nikon DR-5 or DR-6 adapters. These viewfinders work ok, but they are relatively expensive and can be a pain to mount/unmount in the field. With Live View enabled, you can view your subject easily enough, even at low angles. What’s more, with most DSLRs, you get some additional bonus features when you have Live View enabled in “Tripod Mode.”

  • 100% viewfinder coverage
  • On-demand grid lines
  • Contrast-detection Auto Focus (uses imaging sensor, not AF module)
  • Virtual horizon (some cameras)
  • Live Histogram (some cameras)

Of these features, the contrast-detection AF system is by far the most useful, especially for macro shots. First, contrast-detection AF is slow. That’s because it’s using the image sensor as a focus indicator, and not the camera’s AF module. For Nikon DSLR’s you must be in “Tripod Mode” for this system to be enabled. However, once you are in this mode, you get some serious benefits (provided that your subject isn’t moving too fast).

You can move the AF point to anywhere on your screen. That means you can compose your focus point without any arbitrary constraints.

AF is significantly more accurate in Tripod Mode Live View. Since you’re actually focusing with the image sensor, the contrast-detection AF system is going to absolutely nail the focus. The normal AF module in most DSLRs is “phase-detection” based, and it compromises accuracy for speed. With macro subjects, where depth of field is very shallow, accurate AF is highly desirable. What’s more, in Live View mode you can zoom in on the focus point on your screen to get very precise AF placement.

I used Live View to focus exactly on the ladybug in this shot.

Long-lens shooting of static subjects

Another time when Live View (tripod mode) can be valuable is when you’re using a long telephoto lens with teleconverters shooting distant subjects. With extreme magnification, there are many things that can get in the way of a sharp shot, including camera shake, subject motion, and thermal distortion (heat waves). If your subject is relatively static and far away, you’ll want to get the most accurate focusing possible. More often than not, the standard phase-detection AF system just won’t quite focus precisely where you want it to on distant, low-contrast subjects. It just gets you “close enough.” That’s where Tripod Mode Live View can again come to the rescue. If you enable Tripod Mode and use it to focus your camera, you can lock AF precisely where you want to and then shoot normally in normal mode. In order for this to work, you need to:

  • Set focus with Live View in Tripod Mode
  • Make sure that you don’t have your camera’s AF system set to activate with the shutter release button (use “back-button” AF or put the camera into manual focus mode).
  • Exit Live View and shoot normally without changing your focus point. You’ll need to make sure you’ve set your camera to “release priority” (the default for Nikons in Continuous-Servo AF mode) so that it will fire.
I focused on this hawk using standard AF on my Nikon D300s
In this image, I pre-focused using Live View. Note the improved sharpness.

Tips for setting up Live View in Nikon DSLRs

Access Live View options from the Shooting Menu in Nikon DSLRs
Select "Tripod Mode"
You can move the active AF point to anywhere on the screen when in Live View mode.
You can zoom in on your subject for extremely accurate focusing.

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6 thoughts on “The hidden virtues of Live View”

  1. I’ve started using LiveView for framing when on tripod, especially for long exposures. The reason is similar to your macro example: The camera is often at an odd angle or low to the ground. The LiveView is much easier than trying to get my eye lined up correctly with the viewfinder.

    I enjoy your posts. Keep up the good work !

  2. Like Grosda, I’ve been using Live View for long exposures and because when fully extended without column) my tripod is taller than I am. 😀

  3. I’ve been trying Live View on the D90 – wit the tripod you recommended I get. The D90 doesn’t appear to have a Tripod Mode, so I’m in Aperture, but I’m certainly seeing the framing better. But am I not better off with the greater control of ISO, exposure, in Manual?

  4. Bill-
    I’ve just perused the D90 manual, and “Tripod Mode” is the default setting (you don’t have other options). So, you get the contrast-detection AF system by default.

    Exposure modes will work the same way regardless of whether or not you’re in Live View. The choice is yours whether to use Aperture-priority with EV compensation or Manual.

  5. Hi Jason,
    I have just read your info on using live view and will certainly make good use of it in future. I have always been frustrated by “soft focus” issues, when using long lenses with extenders. Thanks for the information, I now look forward to getting better focusing results in these circumstances.
    I am a dedicated user on Capture NX2 and have been inspired by your articles and publications to persist with this program, even when it all got a bit frustrating, like changing to “Snow Leopard”.
    Lets hope Nikon get their act together and upgrade to allow more Nik Software apps to work within the program, like ColorFX Pro4.
    John Taylor

  6. Thank you for this great tip! However, I use my old manual focus 100mm 2.8 in live view mode.

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