Don't Rely on Your Camera's Rear Screen

Shooting with the rear LCD screen on your camera may be convenient, but you're also peering through a filter of colors and shades that you may not have been aware are altering the way you perceive your shots.

There are several reasons why you might want to take photographs using the rear LCD screen on your digital camera. It could be to overlay information such as a spirit level, camera settings, or to utilize the rule of thirds grid in order to achieve better composition. Perhaps you wear glasses or have an issue with vision in which using the viewfinder may detrimentally impact your ability to compose or shoot. It might even be that you're shooting with your camera at awkward angles, maybe holding the camera down low to the ground to capture a macro shot of a flower or perhaps overhead at a crowded concert, where a tilting or vari-angle screen can be articulated to help with composition. 

Camera brands use different LCD screens, so you and a friend could be taking a picture of the same scene and end up with wildly different-looking results when doing an image review together. Even models within specific manufacturers use different screens, so the reliability and uniformity of each screen for things such as color can be over-emphasized.

With the advent of mirrorless cameras and the introduction of the electronic viewfinder (EVF), we now have digital cameras where we literally can't avoid shooting and reviewing photographs through a screen. The benefits of using an EVF over the rear screen is that the screen is sheltered from reflections and extraneous light, which can affect the perception of photos when using the rear screen. However, these tiny little screens inside a small box in the camera still don't produce an ideal picture of your photographs.

An articulating screen can help to compose shots where a low or high angle is required but you can't bring your eye to the viewfinder. Because of this, we can achieve specific photographs handheld that are normally only achievable with a tripod or specialized monopod.

Unintentional Filtration

Whatever the reason, it's important not to rely on the scene on your rear screen. An assumption that what you see is what you've taken is tempting but a little foolish. That's because the screen has a limit to the light and shade it can display. It also has a color balance, which can affect the white balance or color profile you attribute to shots. This unintentional filtration can have a negative effect on how you capture images. Some cameras have the option to turn the brightness of their screen up and down, which also affects how images on the rear screen are seen (whether using live view or to display photos already taken) as well as altering color balance of the rear screen manually. One way to mitigate this is to turn on the histogram and use that.

You'd only be fooling yourself if you think you can get accurate colors and exposure settings by looking at the rear screen view alone, especially when using image review or live view. That's because each screen is created differently, and the environment we view shots in changes a lot.

The Eyes Don't Have It

Notwithstanding these options and difficulties in the limitation of the screen technology, where you view your photos also has a big impact on what you see. Looking at a screen at night, for example, you might need to turn the brightness down to avoid blinding yourself. The vivid lower frequency colors of sunset or sunrise light may be cascading warm tones across and around the screen, forcing you to perceive the color temperature in the photograph differently. If you don't believe me, have a look at color theory illusions online, and you'll see just how easy it is for the eye to be tricked into perceiving things as the same, even though they're different, or seeing the same colors or shades in a scene when in fact they're completely different (remember the dress from 2015?).

Thanks to the way we perceive shade and color, we perceive square A and B to be completely different, when in fact, they are exactly the same. This optical illusion is just one example of why relying on our rear screen for accuracy is not a good idea as surrounding lighting conditions change.

It's All About Balance

That's why I suggest you can maintain a healthy balance between relying on your rear screen for certain aspects of shooting such as composition, leveling, framing a scene, and getting a rough visual idea of how the photograph is coming together. But I would advise against relying on the screen to discern color, brightness of highlights and shadows, and other such optical aspects. For this, I would recommend the use of the histogram in camera, especially when needing to check if highlights or shadows have been over/underexposed and have become clipped. Your camera may also have a dedicated function to alert you to this. This and combining the approach with color swatches and gray cards can be a very good way to attain accurate color and exposure values in photographs.

The rear screen on cameras can be useful for a number of things, though, such as compositional framework, getting things level, and reviewing the histogram to avoid clipping. So, use of them, though limited in scope through color and brightness, is still advantageous.

It's good practice to take stills in raw format, where the color and exposure is much more flexibly editing in post-production image editing software and study images on a decent monitor screen that can display a wide color gamut with deep shadows and bright highlights to get the most accurate view of what your photographs actually look like.

Try to view them in a low-light room with minimal reflections. You might want to consider using a screen hood to remove unwanted reflections further from obscuring your view (think of viewing shots on the rear screen outside during the midday sun and how difficult it is to see what's going on without putting your hand round to screen to shade it from the bright light). So, although the rear screen is incredibly useful, it's important not to rely on the rear screen for color rendition and exposure accuracy and instead look for more reliable methods for balancing your digital photos.

If you've had a shoot ruined by the color or brightness bias of your rear screen or perhaps think that the rear screen is the better way to compose shots over the optical viewfinder or relying on a good photographic computer monitor, then I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Optical illusion image by Gustavb, originally created by Adrian Pingstone.

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31 Comments

Tom Reichner's picture

Jason,

You're right about how viewing photos on the rear playback screen can be a poor way to judge the exposure of our images. Which is why I always have the "blinkies" enabled.

I have found that the blinkies (blown highlight alert) are the very best way to evaluate exposure, even better than the histogram.

Why?

Because these blinkies show exactly what parts of the image has blown whites. The blinkies also show just how badly blown they are because they appear in big blobs if large portions of the image is blown, which typically means that it is blown by a lot. They also show up as little "salt grains" at times, which is an indication that the over-exposed area is right on the cusp of not being over-exposed.

So the blinkies show me not only what parts of the image are over-exposed, but also the nature and character of the over-exposed areas. Histograms don't do this. The information that a histogram gives is not very helpful because it just shows me the net total of bright vs. dark vs. blown out areas. It doesn't show me what part of the image is blown out, and it doesn't show me which parts of the image are totally blown vs. those parts that are only barely blown.

Yes, I am well aware that histograms and blinkies and image playback are based on a jpeg and not the RAW file. That's fine, because most of us shoot so much that we have become very familiar with the relationship between the jpegs that our cameras generate and know exactly how they translate to the RAW file that was actually captured.

So the whole point that people try to make about the playback being a jpeg is really meaningless because we have all learned how to interpret that jpeg preview and how it relates to the actual image that was captured. It's really a non-issue and I wish people would stop bringing it up as though it is an important point ...... because it just isn't.

Thatcher Freeman's picture

Kinda makes me wish that stills cameras had video exposure tools like False Color and color tools like vectorscopes built-in.

Kirk Darling's picture

The LCD or EVF is most definitely going to be more accurate in a variety of ways than the optical viewfinder. It's also better than a Polaroid.

It's not perfect. But what in photography is? A monitor isn't perfect, either, unless the monitor is properly calibrated and the final result will only be displayed on other properly calibrated monitors. Pre-visualizing the final result from an imperfect initial display is part of the craft.

Matt Williams's picture

This is why I always check my photos on my monitor(s), iPad, and iPhone. Because you're totally correct that no one else is going to view the image precisely how you are (not to mention the environment they're viewing it in and the effects that has).

Peter Vlutters's picture

i wonder if those screens are colour accurate... Guess not

Matt Williams's picture

They use a nice P3 gamut so they're much more color accurate than your average monitor. And consistent across Apple devices, which isn't true for Androids. As good as it gets, really, for mobile devices.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Not forgetting that a large colour gamut does not equate to colour accuracy. Without calibration, factory built screens are rarely spot on. Adding to the mix that viewing screens in different environments can still be misleading with respect to brightness.

Personally I wish cameras gave us a waveform rather than a histogram. Waveforms can literally be "read" intelligently and we've had them with video for decades.

I also wish cameras would give us the colour temperature of a shot reviewed - much like they tell us exposure, ISO etc. That would be very useful - particularly when combining ambient with strobes.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

"I also wish cameras would give us the colour temperature of a shot reviewed - much like they tell us exposure, ISO etc. That would be very useful - particularly when combining ambient with strobes."

Nikon does that, even if you have auto white balance option, it shows you the temperature, though you have to switch to more detailed view, rather than just bare bones.

Doriano Ciardo's picture

I use the adjustable display mainly for framing, I rely little on the signs of lights or colors because the machine is already set up as I want it, and this especially in ceremonies where you have little room for maneuver. In fact, this article has little value for the daily use of the machine in uncomfortable contexts. Perhaps the author refers to studio shots where you have plenty of time to play. And anyway they are always previews that do not spoil the use for the shot, indeed, they are an excellent added value.

R Heschelman's picture

Teacher and I are shooting a simulated crime scene. He spends 20 minutes or so getting his linked strobes set for a single "scene (shot)" I spent 5 minutes setting up my tripod and getting base exposure set, then waiting for him to get out of the way.
His shots are polluted with drop offs and blowouts.
My shots looked like we were looking at the scene.
Funny how that works.

brokenlandphotography's picture

With my eyes are progressively getting worse, I've been attempting to create a tethered system which uses a larger tablet type screen. However, currently there's no tethering tablet software which allows me to tether a live view from the camera to the tablet. So if anyone has any live view software that can be tethered from a Samsung tablet to a Canon M6, this would help me take better photos.

Matt Williams's picture

Does Canon not have its own tethering/live-view software like others do?

Capture One is a great tethering system but I don't think it works with Canon cameras. Worth checking, though.

Robert Nurse's picture

It does work and works well! But, you have to remove the SD card for it to work. If not, it sees your camera as a drive and not as a camera. At least that's how it is in Capture One 20.

Matt Williams's picture

I don't have Canon but I assume this might apply to others like Nikon - good to know!

Lee Christiansen's picture

I leave either or both cards in my Canon 5D3. So not sure where you're getting that info from. C-1 puts al the images to the PC hard drive (or where designated) and ignores the camera cards.

(I have my camera set so it won't fire without a card, hence my need to have a card in camera even when it isn't recording data to the card).

Robert Nurse's picture

I just couldn't get it to work with my 5D3. Then I looked at one of their forums where this solution was highlighted.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

If Canon did have one, would it install on a tablet, though?

Matt Williams's picture

I mean, I don't see why not? I just have an iPhone and iPad but I've never experienced not being able to install something on a phone but not the iPad. Maybe Androids are different.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

1. Canon's EOS Utility is for Widows, macOS, and Linux.
2. He has a Samsung tablet. :D

Dominique PHILBERT's picture

Android app and wireless : Canon Camera Connect. Tethered PC : Canon EOS Utility.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Capture One works with lots of brands and especially well with Canon. It is regarded as the king of tethering softwares by pros worldwide.

Robert Nurse's picture

Compared to LR, it's a breeze!

Malcolm Wright's picture

According to this youtube video you can connect your Canon EOS M6 to your android phone using WI-FI:
https://youtu.be/GqB9z--kWNg

As an android tablet is just a large mobile phone, you could try substituting the tablet for the phone.
If the WI-FI requires a SIM card to make the android device a WI-FI hotspot, you may have a choice of getting a SIM card for your tablet, or trying screencasting from the android phone to the tablet. Although a pay as you go SIM card for the tablet would probably work best, if a SIM is required at all.

I've given a presentation of Flower show pictures to my specialist hobby club using an Android tablet and Chinese projector with no need for a SIM card so I expect it may just work for you.

Hope this helps.

Tom Reichner's picture

Brokenland Photography said,

"However, currently there's no tethering tablet software which allows me to tether a live view from the camera to the tablet."

Can't you just use the camera's WIFI to display live view on a phone or tablet or any other WIFI compatible device?

With my old Canon 6D, made almost 10 years ago, I just use the WIFI to connect it to my cheap smart phone, and it works great. Full functionality. It shows me the scene that the camera sees on my phone's screen, and I can also adjust aperture, shutter speed, and ISO right from my phone. Heck, even touch focus is enabled, meaning I can change what the lens focuses on by just tapping my phone's screen. I can do this with the camera 50 feet away, remotely and, of course, wirelessly.

If this works so well using a $50 WalMart phone and a 10 year old economy level DSLR, then why wouldn't it work with a modern tablet and a new high-end camera?

I am assuming that your "Canon M6" is a high-end camera that has modern WIFI capabilities. Even though I have been a Canon user for almost 20 years, I must admit that I have never heard of the M6.

brokenlandphotography's picture

As I said there's no "tethering" software designed to allow the Canon M6 to direct connect (hardwire) to a Samsung tablet or other tablet. I've tried several apps which claim they can do this but the app's interface is difficult to maneuver. I've went as far as contacting an app manufacture to design the app for me. Even contacted mark Harman (opencamera) to see if he can create something. So sure everyone can or could go wifi, but I happen to like and relay on hardwired connections. The end result, I may have to explore the wifi tethering for a larger view screen but I wouldn't like it as I've already tested this setup before.

Tom Reichner's picture

I think you should just use WIFI instead of tethering with a hard wire. Maybe you shouldn't hold on to this preference for hardwired connections anymore, since it doesn't seem to be working out for you. Sometimes we like things and insist on them, and then we learn more and come to realize that we never should have liked or insisted on the thing in the first place.

Mateusz Antonowicz's picture

qDlrDashboard on Android is great for tethering. I use it in various scenarios, it can even focus stack and a lot more. Definitely recommended.

Malcolm Wright's picture

According to the U.S. National Institutes for Health between 5% to 10% of the US of A's total population has some form of colour blindness, and it's more common in men than women.

So a colour blindness eye test might be a better option first. After all if the photographer is colour blind, they're left with a choice, to either always rely on colour correction tools and software, or treat it as their own style.

Then again with Lightroom and Photoshop (apart from commercial/specific jobs were colour accuracy is demanded) when hasn't a photographer chosen to paint a better lit scene with brighter or less jarring colours ( to their eyes at least) than the sensor captured. It's part of the artistry. Just think of all those orange celebrities and before the advent of colour films, I've read that a lot of screen make up was in shades of green, apparently it works better for black and white films.. Orange is the new green when it comes to colour television..

Interestingly photography isn't on any of the lists of occupations that colour blind people can be banned from, which speaks volumes for the colour film processing labs and of course today's jpegs presented on those oh so small leds.

Matt Williams's picture

One of the reasons Nicholas Winding Refn's films are so neon and colorful is because he's partially color blind.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

Its more common to men because its in the X-chromosome.
Women have two of them and if one is intact its all good.
Men only have one so if thats damaged you've got a color-problem :)

Thats also why women can spread it via the bad X-chromosome while have a complete intact vision themself. The only way women get it is if both x-chromosomes are damaged which is very rare.

Kelvin Vine's picture

OK. But this applies to your LCD screen, your PC screen, the screen of the person viewing, the screen of the person previewing your prints. It literally never ends. So I wouldn't worry too much about this.