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Forgive this novice question, I am basically a complete newbie to photography. Really, all I've ever used for most my of short life have been point-and-shoots; I've only recently started to pick up some curiosity.

Anyway, from what I've gathered, reading through many of the questions, most serious photographers use the optical viewfinder as their primary tool to determine what makes a good shot. Live-preview isn't used much at all; it seems its help is to primarily set up the shot. Reading a Wikipedia article seems to confirm this view, adding that

[l]ive preview in DSLRs does not typically serve as their principal means of framing and previewing before taking a photograph, with this function still being mainly performed with optical viewfinder. While initially largely a novelty feature, live-preview functionality has become more common on DSLR cameras...

My questions are:

  1. What are the myriad advantages of using the viewfinder over live preview, what does it help one accomplish in achieving the goals of photography?

  2. What are some interesting ways serious photographers use live preview to take better shots they might have otherwise missed?

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1  
Considering this is a common question, I finally wrote a blog post about it which describes the situation as clearly as my biases let me ;) See blog.neocamera.com/?p=1248 –  Itai May 3 '11 at 16:44
    
See also closely-related question: What are the technical differences between using a DSLR viewfinder and live view? –  mattdm Dec 24 '11 at 19:14

5 Answers 5

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Using live preview means that the camera must be held out in front of the photographer... This is not inherently an especially stable way to hold a camera- especially if the photographer has to hold it that way for a while- because it offers very little additional support for the arms... Pulling the camera up close and using a viewfinder allows the photographer to stabilize the camera because it is closer in to the body. Additionally, live preview becomes more unwieldy the heavier the camera equipment gets, and DSLRs by their very nature are much heavier than the typical P&S... Add a large lens on the front of the camera, and it becomes nearly impossible to use live view handheld.

The other major drawback of live view is that because it requires the mirror to be locked up, it means that the auto focusing mechanism is unavailable. Live view actually uses a different AF technique- one that is quite a bit slower than a DSLRs main autofocus. Obviously this means that in environments where it is necessary to focus quickly and accurately, live view doesn't make for an ideal situation.

Where live view comes in very handy is when taking pictures where it's difficult or impossible to get ones eye up to the viewfinder. A good example of this might be the photographer at a wedding who wants to get shots of the crowded dance floor. Prior to live view he would simply hold the camera above his head, snap off pictures, and pray that some of them had decent framing. With live view it is actually possible to frame up a shot while holding the camera over the head on shots such as these.

Additionally, live view can be a great option where there is no need for the stability needed by pulling the camera in close to the body, such as when it is on a tripod, and/or where there is no requirement for speed inthe autofocusing of shots.

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I've been watching this game for over a decade, and I have a hard time understanding how anyone has been able to sell a camera that doesn't have either an optical viewfinder or an eye-level EVF. Why anyone would want to hold even the lightest camera out at arm's length baffles me. That said, I like having the "view camera" experience when that's practical (including a reasonable approximation of a focusing loupe with zoom in live view). –  user2719 May 3 '11 at 1:50
3  
@Stan - I personally don't like live view - but watching people around me (where at least 90% of the people wouldn't even think of using a viewfinder) makes me think I'm the weird one and the natural way to use a camera is to hold it at arms length and use the LCD screen –  Nir May 3 '11 at 14:24
    
Some dslrs do allow you to use the phase detection AF in live view mode. It makes the screen go blank till focus is attained though. –  ab.aditya Dec 26 '11 at 8:49

The original advantage of thru the lens view was that it provided an exact view of precisely the image that would be exposed on the film or sensor. Not an aproximation, but the same view, because you were looking thru the lens.

Some earlier cameras offered EVF, or electronic viewfinders. These had the advantage of showing what the sensor was 'seeing'. But the problem with them was they were of very poor quality, they were dark and not 'lifelike'.

Today, many of the live views are bright and very good quality. But, they are not 1:1 quality.

An advantage over the viewfinder is the ability to view the scene when looking thru the view finder is impractical. Like when the camera is being held above the head to get a shot over a crowd, or very low for macro shots. It also offers lots of information in the overlay, things like live histogram and other information important for taking the shot.

Many photographers use live view to aid in extremely precise focusing. This is important when you have very shallow depth of field and want to ensure that say the eye on the model in in focus. Sometimes, autofocus misses, front focuses, or back focuses, ruining a shot. By putting the lens in manual focus and using the live view, you can guarantee that your subject is in focus. This is very difficult via the optical viewfinder.

I have also seen this used often with macro photography, again for precise manual focus.

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+1 for the live view precise focusing. –  ab.aditya Dec 26 '11 at 8:45

The biggest drawback in my opinion is the shutter lag. There is generally a delay in the shutter activating when you use live preview.

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A couple of things I'd like to add to other answers:

  • In scenes with fast action, an EVF or LV will always have a slight lag behind reality, which is bad when you want to nail a certain moment (using the other eye as an optical input may help, though the delay between two eyes might give you a headache soon).

  • On the other hand, Live View is a handy tool when shooting with an IR-converted camera as it shows you what the camera sees and you don't.

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There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and you should choose the right technique given the circumstances.

  • When shooting very dark scenes (night skies, for example), often times live view does not work. That is, you get a completely black image in the, whereas you can see a very dark image in the viewfinder.
  • When focusing manually, live view is often superior, since you can blow up the specific part of the frame you want to focus on to a very large size. It can be more difficult to nail focus through the viewfinder, which presents a much smaller image.

I won't repeat the other answers except to say that I mostly agree with them.

The key here is that they are different tools, a means to an end. There is no right answer, but knowing their relative strengths will help you choose the appropriate one.

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3  
Live-view often works better in very dark conditions. One such condition occurs when I use an ND400 filter and cannot see through the viewfinder but the live-view shows an image. This is the most common reason for me to use live-view. –  Itai May 3 '11 at 0:41

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