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.

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.

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?).

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.

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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