Live-view focus

Poppy Pastel, California Gold Country

In wide-aperture macro scenes like this, perfect focus on the right spot is essential.
** Poppy Pastel, California Gold Country **
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/125 second
F/4.0
ISO 400
100 mm

Sometimes getting the ideal focus point is so essential that you just can’t trust the camera’s autofocus (or your own eyes through the tiny viewfinder). But if you have a tripod and digital camera with live view, live-view focus could change your (photographic) life. I started doing it regularly when I came to mistrust the autofocus on one of my lenses, but the results were so good that I soon started using live-view focus on virtually every shot.

Here’s the recipe:

  1. With your camera on the tripod, compose your shot (it won’t work without a tripod)
  2. Turn on live view (on some cameras you need to go into the menu settings to enable live-view the first time—once it’s enabled, you’ll be able to engage live-view with a simple button push on the back of your camera)
  3. Position the live-view’s placement window (usually a small square that can be moved with the camera’s arrow keys or joystick) over the point at which you want to focus
  4. Magnify the view to maximum
  5. Focus: some newer cameras allow you to autofocus at this point, but I usually focus manually with my lens’s focus ring
  6. Click
  7. To verify your results, review the image you just capture and magnify the focus point you used (I’ve found live-view focus so reliable that I rarely verify my focus unless I think vibration or scene motion might be a problem)
I particularly like this technique for macro photography, where even a fraction-of-an-inch miss can mean failure, but it works well for any scene.
Raindrops, Orchid in Lava Tree State Park, Hawaii

Raindrops, Orchid in Lava Tree State Park, Hawaii
Not only did I use a wide aperture for this image, I used a 100mm macro lens with 58mm of extension, leaving me a paper-thin focus plane and not a lot of light in my viewfinder with which to view it. Using live-view enabled me to see the image exactly as I’d capture it and to decide the focus point that gave the best combination of foreground sharpness and background softness.

Raindrops on Poppy, California Gold Country
Adding an extension tube to my 70-200 lens and dialing to f4 gave me the extremely soft background I wanted, but narrowed my margin of focus error to just about zero. The only thing in this frame that had to be sharp was the raindrop at the base of the poppy, an easy target in magnified live-view.

:: More photography tips ::

10 Comments on “Live-view focus

  1. Pingback: Cameras are stupid, Part deux | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  2. Your statement is so true and simple Gary and yet we (especial I) fail to do so when presented with an photo opportunity. Sometimes I feel a self impose rush or believe its requires too much complex complications or too difficult to set up and believe the results wouldn’t be worth it. Obviously from your results, they are worth it. Thanks for reenforcing the basic’s, yet again.

    • The beauty of digital photography is that, unlike film, each shutter click is free. Not only that, nobody else needs to see your failures, not even the guy in the lab. So if you experiment freely when things aren’t happening fast, you’ll soon find that what you learn then has become second nature when it’s time to react.

  3. Oh so true Gary-I have friends that think I’m crazy when I bring this up but it has changed the way I capture macros-thanks for driving this home. Great image.

  4. I’m enjoying your articles, Gary.

    I’ve been a live view convert for several months, and I want to echo what you’ve said here about it. Now that I’m using live view, it’s hard to imagine how I got good macro shots before.

    I also use live view for sunrise and sunset images: set everything to manual, choose an ISO speed (usually 100 or 200, depending upon how dark it is), set the aperture, and adjust the exposure while watching live view until I get exactly the image I want. It takes all of the guesswork and trial-and-error out of getting exactly the right exposure to show off those sunset colors.

    I’m guessing this technique may work well for rainbows, too, but I haven’t had an opportunity yet to try that out.

  5. As always, great tips…I have found this to be very true. I don’t like to be a technology doubter, but when I take the time to focus manually as you described, nails it every time!

  6. Great article and love using live mode for focusing macros and as above, adding a Hoodman loupe really helps to make sure the image is in focus!

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