Live View Focusing

With the winter weather being here, we often find that taking the camera out may not always be as rewarding as it should be. We often come back with dull, grainy, soft focused shots because the sky is black, it’s raining, the birds are far away, and a number of different reasons why we can’t get a decent, sharp, nicely exposed shot. This is where Live View focusing can come into its own.

I’ve put this (rather long) post together because it doesn’t seem to matter where I go with the camera when I’m out birdwatching, I never see anyone using this technique, and it genuinely perplexes me as to why this is the case.!! Time and time again I’ve got decent shots using Live View focusing where I would never have managed to get the same shot using the camera in the ‘conventional’ manner. I use this technique in all conditions, from very dull miserable weather to bright sunshine. It is very effective for distant birds and you can get some seriously sharp results on closer things, provided that they’ll stay reasonably still for you.

In bright conditions the staying still isn’t so important, it’s the method of focusing and ISO reduction that can make a difference.

We’ve all used this technique before by simply taking a photo with our smart phone; you switch on the camera, compose the image on the phone screen, and take the shot.

Live View focusing on a DSLR (or most modern digital cameras) is very similar, and very effective if you apply some basic rules.

Instead of looking through the viewfinder to focus and take the shot, we’re going to be looking at the camera screen instead.

This may sound a bit complicated at first but please believe me when I say that it is very simple to do.

I’ll be describing Live View focusing using a Canon EOS 7D MK2 to illustrate, but whatever camera you use, it’s likely going to have a very similar way to go about this. I’m sure there’ll be a description in your manual on how to access Live View mode.

This technique is mainly used for static or very slow moving birds on the ground, or on the water. It is of no use for birds in flight or for fast moving birds

A few things to begin with. This is a technique which is vastly improved by employing the use of a shutter release cable. You can see that my main cable has seen a lot of use.!! :-)

This will allow you to massively slow things down and take the shot with minimal camera shake by not actually touching the camera when taking the shot.

 If you don’t have a shutter release cable you can also use the self-timer function on your camera which will allow the camera to settle and be very still before the photo is taken.

The drawback with using the self-timer is that you can’t take the shot at the precise moment you want to. I’ve taken shots using the self-timer when the bird has moved, closed its eyes, turned its head away etc. just as the shutter has gone off. So a shutter release cable is a huge advantage, because you decide yourself when to fire the shutter.

Next, and most importantly, the camera must be totally stable and not moving in any way when you use this technique. I use a tripod, but a beanbag or folded up jacket, hat, gloves etc. will do the job fine. You need to be able to have the camera pointing at the bird and totally stable.

I’m using a Cannon 200mm f/2.8 lens here, but I’ve set the maximum aperture to f/5.6 to give a more representative aperture for the majority of bird photographers. This isn’t going to be a high tech scientific investigation, but if you have a basic knowledge of shutter speeds, aperture settings and ISO settings you’ll probably understand this a bit better.

Whistling Joe has a fantastic series of camera/photography related threads HERE if you want a better explanation of these things.

It should also be noted that a full frame camera will always give better results in low light conditions, but as most of us (including myself) have crop sensor cameras (see Whistling Joe’s series above), the following images are taken at 1.6x crop factor on the 7D MK2.

For this example, I was very lucky to have an exceptionally rare Lesser Blue-backed Pygmy Gull land in my garden today. It settled around 20 or so yards away in the late afternoon on a very dull and dreary day. The bird is around the size of a Goldfinch.

Without going into too much detail, for this camera/lens combination, I’ve dialled in readings of f/5.6 (as already stated) with the ISO set to ‘auto’ and a shutter speed of 1/320th sec. This is to take the shot handheld with a realistic chance of getting a blur free, decently exposed shot. I used the single centre focus point to focus on the bird.

This is the result.

On screen.

1/320th sec   f/5.6   ISO 5000

And quickly processed.

1/320th sec   f/5.6   ISO 5000

The high ISO reading was set by the camera to get the correct exposure. This is perfectly fine if you don’t intend to do much cropping of the shot, but as birds are generally quite small and far away, most of us heavily crop the images to enable us to see the bird better.

This is a 100% crop of the above shot.

Note the grainy texture of the image and a somewhat soft focus due to the bird being far away and very small. Also the camera was struggling a bit with focus due to the above reasons and also a very dull day.

This is the same subject several minutes later using Live View focussing, a shutter release cable, and the camera on a tripod. It doesn’t look much different to the first shot but the camera settings are vastly different.

On screen

1/15th sec  (actually took at  f/7.1)   ISO 400

1/15th sec   f/7.1   ISO 400

This is a 100% crop of the above image.

You’ll notice right away that the image shows far less graininess, and whilst not perhaps pin sharp, there is a distinct improvement in the focussing from the 1st handheld shot.

 Here’s a comparison shot of both images.

This was very easily achieved by using Live View focussing which I’ll now try to demonstrate.

The improved image only took a handful of seconds to set up the camera, so although it may at first appear to be a bit long winded and too much trouble to do, it is in fact very simple to achieve.

I’m going to assume that you are familiar with the different modes and basic controls on your camera.

 These are the basic controls on the 7D2.

Live View,   Focus Button,   Zoom in/out Button,   Move Focus Box Button.

I set the camera to ‘Shutter Priority’ (Tv) and dialled in an ISO setting of ISO 400.

Looking through the viewfinder, I dropped the shutter speed down until the exposure scale inside the viewfinder shows the needle in the middle of the scale.

This should get you a pretty decent exposure for the shot. In our case above, 1/15th second wasn’t too far off it.

Due to being in Shutter Priority (Tv) mode, the camera will automatically set the aperture. (There could be hours of discussion on what may or may not be depending on conditions, but for this example, our maximum aperture of f/5.6 was obtainable….we actually got the shot at f/7.1 so we still had a wee bit to play with if needed).

Once you have the exposure needle set up, activate the Live View mode (see controls image further above) and the screen will show you (in real time) what the camera is pointing at. (The viewfinder will now be blacked out because the camera will raise the mirror to expose the sensor).

On the screen we see the bird, and a small white box on the screen. This is the focus box.

This is also at 1x magnification.

The magnification goes up in 3 steps: 1x – 5x -10x.

Pressing the magnification button will take us in to the next level of magnification: 5x

Another press takes us to 10x magnification.

By repeatedly pressing the magnification button, the camera with continue to cycle through 1x – 5x – 10x …. 1x - 5x -10x, and so on.

We can also move the focus box to wherever we want it on the screen. Ideally, you want the box on the bird’s head, or if close enough, directly over the bird’s eye. If the eye is in focus, generally all is well with the world.!! :-)

In this image I’ve framed the shot to put the bird over to one of the ‘third’ lines for a more pleasing full image.

To move the focus box over the bird, we use the toggle switch. Most other cameras will use the up/down/left/right cursor buttons to do this. (Tip: on the 7D2, press the toggle switch inwards to re-centre the focus box).

Once the box is over the bird, we go in to maximum zoom.

We then use the focus button on the rear of the camera to achieve a much more accurate focus on the bird.

The focus box will turn green when focus is achieved and you can monitor the screen to ensure that it has actually focused on the correct part of the image.

It is now simply a case of taking the shot when it pleases you. I tend to zoom back out after focusing, then wait for the preferred moment to take the shot. (Activating the shutter release cable or self- timer won’t cause the camera to re-focus).

That’s about it.!!

Please remember that this works just as well on very bright days with high shutter speeds, it’s the ability to gain accurate focusing on the head/eye of the bird, and to get the ISO speeds down that can really help to achieve nice results.

Be aware that using Live View also uses up battery power a bit quicker, so perhaps a spare battery in your pocket wouldn’t be a bad idea if you plan to give this a try for any length of time, (which I really think you should), I almost guarantee you that if you get into the swing of it you’ll achieve brighter, sharper results on a more regular basis, especially on those dull, distant days. :-)

I’ve added a few shots I’ve taken using this technique, in various different lighting conditions.

I certainly don’t claim that they’re the best images ever, but I do know that without the above techniques I wouldn’t have got the shots as they turned out to be.

The images were taken in RAW format and some levels adjustments were made in processing, as most of us tend to do. :-)

All taken at 400mm.

Quite a heavy crop this one, on a bright windy day.

The twig was swaying around a bit so the f/6.3 aperture probably helped the focusing by giving a slightly wider depth of field.

1/640th  f/6.3  ISO 200  -0.7EV

Very close, on a dull day.

1/320th  f/6.3  ISO 400  0EV

  

Very little cropping, on very dull day.

1/80th  f/2.8  ISO 320  0EV

Taken this morning on a vey dull day. Not much cropping. Framed to put the bird off centre to the right of the frame,  then moved the focus box onto the head. Zoomed in and focused. Zoomed back out and waited until he looked back into the centre of the frame before taking the shot.

1/160th  f/4  ISO 320  0EV

Finally, another Grey Heron on a bright day. Approx. 40-50 yards distant. Framed to put the bird off to the left. Moved the focus box over the head and zoomed in before focusing. Zoomed back out and waited for a nice pose before taking the shot.

1/1000th  f/2.8  ISO 200  0EV

Thanks for sticking with this to the end, well done,  I do hope it may have been of interest to you. :-)

My bird photos HERE

  • An interesting read though i think that it is rather unfair to compare tripod and shutter release live view photography against hand held, especially when the hand held shutter speed rule is that it should be slightly above the focal length of the current lens. I have occasionally used live view before for stills and the magnification feature is quite useful but my biggest issue with it is my own eyesight: to use the Live View I need to wear reading specs and that severely limits my ability to monitor what is going on around and about. That said, its a useful reminder and maybe I will have another go at some point. 

    ----------

    Cheers,

    Bob

    My Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bobs_retired_now/

  • In reply to Bobs_Still_Retired:

    I have (cheap off the shelf) reading specs dangled round my neck at all times when I’m out and about with the camera. I can’t function without them as I can’t see the display screen otherwise.

    though i think that it is rather unfair to compare tripod and shutter release live view photography against hand held, especially when the hand held shutter speed rule is that it should be slightly above the focal length of the current lens.

    It isn’t my intension to compare hand held versus live view as a reflection of what’s best. The vast majority of bird photographers I see use their cameras hand held (or leaning against the window of the hide) and generally have a maximum aperture of around f/5.6.

    In my 1st shot I used f/5.6 to reflect this, and a shutter speed of 1/320 to account for the 200mm on a 1.6xcrop body. I could have come in just under the rule of thumb at 1/250th which would have dropped the ISO a stop, but the message is still the same. In dull conditions, we all get grainer images and the camera struggles more to focus. How many times do we hear that it isn’t worth taking the camera out today?

    My point is, even without a tripod, by using some form of support, live view can be a big help in getting brighter, sharper, and less grainy shots on those days where it could otherwise prove to be very difficult. :-)  

    My bird photos HERE

  • Without going into too much detail, for this camera/lens combination, I’ve dialled in readings of f/5.6 (as already stated) with the ISO set to ‘auto’ and a shutter speed of 1/320th sec. This is to take the shot handheld with a realistic chance of getting a blur free, decently exposed shot. I used the single centre focus point to focus on the bird.

    It would have been fairer to take the non Live View shot on a solid tripod or bean bag with the shutter release too to enable you to drop the settings as far as possible. If the majority of birders are using aperture of about f5.6, it's probably about their wide open - Sigmas, Canon 100-400 etc. I feel you are skewing the trial a little by using an f2.8 lens. 

    ----------

    Cheers,

    Bob

    My Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bobs_retired_now/

  • Wow, that must have took you some time to put together Paul, I only do live view now and again but its handy to know how to do it thanks for the walkthrough.

    Jim

    My Pictures

  • An excellent post Paul.  Funnily enough, I was musing whilst sat in a hide this weekend that we must be due another GoA thread & what that should be about :-)

    I do use Liveview regularly, but less for actually taking pictures than to show people birds hiding - things like Snipe are always a favourite.  Focus the camera on the bird, zoom in to 10x and people can see the bird hiding on the rear screen.  Very handy for small children especially, as they find it hard to use the scope.  You've also reminded me I should put the remote back in my bag again, I don't use it much with the big lens on the tripod as normal technique for the biggies is to drape your arm over/along the lens a bit to help deaden any vibrations (and therefore using the normal shutter release is convenient).  It's certainly interesting to see what shutter speed you can get down to when you have a good support for the lens - I've used 1/60 sec and less with the 600mm/1.4x combo - very handy for low ISO shots in dodgy light!

    Autofocus is one of those areas we'll be seeing a lot of change in over the next few years I suspect.  The Phase Detect AF used through the viewfinder is fast because it can tell not only which direction to focus, but also how far - ie "Focus in 6 inches".  Contrast Detect AF, used on Liveview is slower because it has to re-focus, test, re-focus, test, in and out until it's achieved lock.  It IS more accurate, as you've demonstrated, especially in low light (and it's worth remembering that you can use it with lens/extender combinations that your camera wouldn't normally be able to AF with, such as the 400mm f/5.6 + 2x (giving you f/11)).  But it is by its very nature, a bit slow.  However, newer sensors in the Canon line-up have Dual Pixel AF, which uses two photo-diodes per pixel, allowing Phase Detect AF on the main sensor itself.  That way you get faster focussing and better accuracy (one of the issues with the separate Phase Detect AF sensor is the possibility of front/back focus - any minute difference in the length of the path light travels between lens-sensor and lens-AF module will give inaccurate focus).

    The Dual Pixel AF feature was developed to give better focus tracking for video, but it also means the new generations of mirrorless cameras (which don't have a separate Phase Detect sensor) can have fast AF.

    Interesting times ahead :-)

    ___

    Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index

  • Nice one Paul something to read and take in during the day (dull and raining here).

    I;ve used live view before when down at the Kingfisher pool, mainly for the near silent shooting with being so close and I don't have to keep getting up to look through the viewfinder.

    My Flickr photos

  • I must admit I don't use live view as often as I should, mainly because it is so much more difficult without solid support. It certainly does make the focus more accurate, especially when you zoom in. I suppose it's the stability needed that allows you take camera of Auto ISO and use slower speeds, not the live view per se but, regardless, well done for doing this article and I hope it inspires people to use it more often just for the focus accuracy … even me! Let's face it, all cameras will be mirrorless within a few years for similar reasons (well maybe several years but it is coming).

    PS I never let my camera choose ISO because as soon as you put a super-telephoto on, it chooses a much higher ISO than I ever would (as your example), even if the sun is out! I accept this means it might cause more duds due to low shutter speed, but hey ho. 

    __________

    Nige   Flickr

  • In reply to Nigel O:

    I never let my camera choose ISO because as soon as you put a super-telephoto on, it chooses a much higher ISO than I ever would (as your example), even if the sun is out! I accept this means it might cause more duds due to low shutter speed, but hey ho

    Oddly, that's the reason I DO let the camera choose ISO most of the time.  You can reduce noise somewhat in an image, but something blurred by camera shake is a lost cause.  It's why I suggest Tv (shutter priority) with long lenses.  Use a decent shutter speed with Auto-ISO, get a shot or two in the bag (may be a bit noisy, but at least sharp), then drop the shutter speed a notch, the ISO will also drop to keep exposure correct.  Take a couple of shots, drop shutter speed again (by now you are probably taking a bit more time to wedge yourself in a stable position as well).  If you end up with a low-ISO and sharp image, great, bin the others, but at least you get a higher keeper rate

    ___

    Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index

  • In reply to Whistling Joe:

    A very interesting read Paul and I want to thank you first of all for all the time and effort you have put into this very helpful "tutorial" on Live View Focusing;   like Jim, I have used it  (ashamed to say only a test run to familarise myself with the camera functions) in the past whilst photographing garden birds but it was so long ago that I've completely forgotten how to do it and thus continued on with my old set ways mainly due to battery saving !      If out and about taking pics I would have to use a light weight bean bag or my coat to rest the camera on (as you also suggest)   as I can't carry further weighty tripod gear around (even CF ones) or I'll be on my knees lol.     This is the main reason I have never gone for the 600mm prime lens as opposed to the 300 prime with 2 x attached.   Mind you, I've heard the new 600mm mkII is a whole lot lighter so ...........errrrr. ..... sorry I digress from the topic as Christmas season is upon us and Santa is waiting for my wish list  !       

    During these long winter months I will study your informative set up again for LVF and at least have a practice to compare the differences;   I think when we put this into practice and see the improvements to our shot and the vast improvement as you have shown it will encourage us to consider LVF as a definite option;  it's like the saying of old habits die hard.    Thanks again Paul, you are a good chap to add this extremely helpful tutorial on Live View set up - makes it a whole lot easier for me than wading through the "war and peace" of a camera manual so many thanks indeed.    Now I'm off to read the abridged version of War & Peace again  LOL    Takes a lot longer these days for info to seep into my brain these days !     btw,   love the Lesser Blue-backed Pygmy Gull as I've never seen it on a tick list - how do you think up these names  lol

    ps;  was also interesting to read about the ISO as I also had same problem as Nigel found.    There's so much to grasp, understand and put into practice with these modern DSLR cameras which have extensive menus/options -  thanks for all the tips !

    _________________________________________________________________________

    Regards, Hazel 

    "Each kindness shown to birds or men is sure to flutter back again" 

  • It would have been fairer to take the non Live View shot on a solid tripod or bean bag with the shutter release too to enable you to drop the settings as far as possible. If the majority of birders are using aperture of about f5.6, it's probably about their wide open - Sigmas, Canon 100-400 etc. I feel you are skewing the trial a little by using an f2.8 lens.

    A valid point, Bob. I could have used the 400 f/5.6 but I used the 200mm so I could enable the subject to be a decent distance away (relatively speaking) down the garden. The 400mm would have pulled the subject in too close. I wanted to illustrate the magnification function on the live view which was much easier to do with a subject that was very small in the original frame.

    You’re correct in saying that using a beanbag and shutter release would certainly have changed the results, but the idea behind the thread was really just to highlight the live view function and the potential benefits/drawbacks of using it. I also realise that stopping down an f/stop or two on most lenses can help a bit with sharpness, and as you say, a lot of birders are using the 100-400 or the Sigma’s, but in all fairness to those lenses, they are extremely sharp, even wide open. I also realise that my comparison shots are almost from one extreme to the other, but again, I just wanted to highlight the use of the live view function as an additional handy technique to have in your armoury when light conditions are very poor and your subject is at a distance. :-)

    If out and about taking pics I would have to use a light weight bean bag or my coat to rest the camera on

    I took the plastic beads out of my bean bag and replaced them with polystyrene beads which weigh next to nothing. It does make setting the camera in position very slightly fiddlier as it doesn’t settle quite as easily as it did on the plastic beads, but it really isn’t a major issue.

    My bird photos HERE