Photography Tips: When to look at your DSLR’s LCD screen

Posted on 29 Sep, 2014 by Scott Jones
Photography Tips - photographers review images on DSLR LCD

Here’s one of my favorite Photography Tips: That LCD panel on the back of your DSLR is a blessing and, if you let it become so, a curse.

There’s even a term for its overuse: ‘Chimping’ is the act of spending too much time looking at the LCD while you should have your attention on the subject you’re supposed to be photographing. Does that mean you should never use the LCD? Absolutely not.

Digital cameras have many tools that allow us to get better images than we could in the film days. Back then we relied on light meters of some sort, either the basic ones built into our SLRs or separate, hand held devices of greater accuracy and greater inconvenience. Whichever we used, we had to trust them to give us the information we needed to create good exposure settings for a given situation. We didn’t know for sure if we got it right until we saw the processed negative.

Now we can check the DSLR’s light meter accuracy by making a test exposure and then get immediate feedback via a histogram, a graph of pixel values that shows precisely what’s going on in a given situation. To see this valuable information, we use the LCD on the camera back.

I have all of my DSLR bodies set to display an image’s histogram with a single touch, so that I can quickly see if my settings need to be adjusted in a given situation.

This screen is also very useful for checking to see if focus is just right. If a check reveals a razor sharp image, we know we have that one in the bank and can move on. I also have my bodies set to display a 1:1 view with a single button push so that in a second I can see if an image is sharp or not.

The slower the shutter speed of a given exposure, the more useful a focus check can be. Consider the MotoGP veterans shown above. They are standing on the hill that overlooks the Omega turn at the Sachsenring. A common shot from this elevated perspective is looking down through the trees as the bikes pass.

The trees themselves will confuse the auto-focus, so manually focussing on the bikes beyond the tree limbs is a solid approach. The LCD is a great tool for checking that the focus is correct before attempting this shot.

The theme here is that I can get the information I need from the LCD screen in a second or less. That way I can learns what I need to know and get my attention back to my subject immediately.

Chimping is spending to much time falling in love with what you see on the LCD. If you’re looking at each image as you take it, reviewing your work as it happens, your attention is on the past rather than the present.

If you’re photographing a subject that moves at a leisurely pace, snail racing for example, then you may have plenty of time to gaze into the LCD between exposures. But if your subject is changing from moment to moment, then every moment you are looking at the LCD instead of through the lens, index finger on the shutter, is another possibility of missing a shot.

My general rule is to look at the LCD only when absolutely necessary. Even when I happen to be in the right place at the right time to capture a some unique moment on track, I don’t look at the results until the session is over. Mostly this is because another moment might be about to happen and I want to be ready, not looking at images already recorded.

But another reason is that the LCD, as useful as it is for certain information, can be deceptive when judging an image’s value. Over and over again I’ve been tricked by what I see on the LCD. Sometimes an image looks good there, only to be disappointing on my laptop. Other times an image looks poor on the LCD, but on the laptop I find there is some merit after all. Only the grossest mistakes can I confidently delete on the camera based on what I see on the LCD. If I miss half the bike, for example, I’ll trust the LCD and delete that image.

So if I’m not checking focus or the histogram, or adjusting a camera setting such as Frames Per Second, I try not to look at the LCD when I should be taking pictures. I don’t want to be looking at shots that can wait for attention back in the media center, I want to be ready to capture whatever might happen next.

In order to help myself stick to this approach, I will share one more setting I use on all three camera bodies. This one is unusual as far as I can tell from observing other photographers.

Your DSLR is probably set to display an image on the LCD after you make it, right? Not mine. I have set them all NOT to display images unless I want to see something specific and press the Playback Button. (On my Nikon bodies this setting is in the Playback Menu, Image Review – OFF)

I find this much less distracting in general, and it helps me to keep my attention on what might make my next good image rather than on images I’ve already created. But again, I do use the LCD screen for the purposes mentioned above IF doing so will help me make a better image on my next try.

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Comments

  • Todd Connaughton 2014-09-29

    One other reason you shouldn’t spend too much time looking at the LCD is safety. The tracks I go to are probably have what you would call ‘rustic’ safety standards if you are being kind, certainly for anyone not in a dedicated spectator area. Bikes move very fast and when they crash they can bounce in a very unpredictable way so you need to keep your head on a swivel.

  • Scott Jones 2014-10-01

    Todd, that is another EXCELLENT reason to mind closely when you have your head down looking at the LCD. Thanks for the comment. (Can’t believe I left that out – shame on me!)

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