More on Using the Camera Back LCD Screen
They put an LCD screen on the back of your camera for some reason. But opinions on just why seem to vary. Last week, I stirred up a hornets' nest by advocating chimping as an aid to composition. This week, I respond to questions and feedback I've received since.
Let's start off back in the days when cameras had few controls. What they did have were labeled next to each control. Old school cameras had a dial with funny numbers like 1000, 500, 250, 125, 60 for shutter speed (or rather the inverse of shutter speed). They had a ring around the lens that could be rotated to even funnier numbers for setting aperture. They had a cryptic PASM dial for metering modes. Perhaps a few more controls. But each one controlled a specific function or feature, and each one came with its own set of markings, so you knew what it was set to. Now compare this with a modern camera with so many settings, custom settings, and options that few of us who don't write camera manuals will ever all of them. The only way all of these can fit on a single camera body is if they double up and use some controls for more than one thing. All this has been made much easier to implement and (questionably) to use through the use of a series of settings menus on the LCD back. As tedious as it can be to find and change some specific option this way, imagine a camera that stuck with the old paradigm of individual controls and markings. With a surface covered in buttons, knobs, dials and switches, there would be no way to even pick it up or mount a lens to it. So clearly, the LCD screen is there to facilitate camera makers adding ever more features without cluttering up their designs. This much seems uncontroversial.
It's the fact that this same LCD screen lets you see your images (including the act commonly referred to by means of the somewhat loaded term "chimping") that creates consternation and confusion.
It's worth it to consider a bit more history here. If we look back at the history of digital cameras, tempting us with their shiny LCD screens, taunting us to look at our images after shooting them, prices have fallen, and capabilities have improved dramatically. A good DSLR cameras in those early days cost way more than even the top of the line bodies do today (not even adjusting for inflation). But what needs to be appreciated is just how bad they were when compared with even the cheapest models sold today. Back in 1991, the first major digital camera that used Nikon lenses was the Kodak DCS-100. It boasted an impressive 1.3 megapixels and sold for around $13,000. Few could justify such an expense, and I certainly never owned one. But even by the point I did make the leap to the digital dark side ("real" photographers shot film, and some were adamant about it), things had only improved modestly. My early Nikon D100 had just 6 megapixels and cost $2,000. You'd have to be crazy to spend that much for such a lousy camera today.
Over time, not just the camera sensor improved. All the rest of the electrical components did too. To process the data from higher resolution captures, camera CPU processors got smarter and very definitely faster. But more to the point of this article, the LCD screen on the back of new cameras has improved markedly too. My early Nikon D100 body had a 1.8-inch diagonal rear LCD screen with a measly 118,000 pixels. My current Nikon D850 features an impressive touch sensitive 3.2-inch tilting LCD screen with nearly 2.4 million pixels. Oh, and that legendary Kodak DCS-100 didn't even have an LCD screen. You had to plug in an external accessory to get even a tiny image screen.
Camera LCD screens have gotten better based on other metrics too. Anyone who's ever upgraded their home LCD television can attest to how much better images are these days in terms of color accuracy and contrast. Costs for big-screen LCD TV's have come down, too, and companies like Samsung are selling a whole lot of them. Every other device category that uses an LCD screen has been a trickle-down beneficiary of the quest for better LCD technology. Camera back screens are but one example.
By now you no doubt get my point that technology improves over time, and that cameras, sensors and yes, camera back LCD screens are a heck of a lot better today than they once were. Great. So, is all this concern over chimping a case of something that used to not be recommended because the LCD screen just wasn't up to the job of displaying images, but now is perfectly fine? Well, I wouldn't go quite that far.
Contrary to some opinions, you can use the LCD screen to judge exposure. But to do so, don't rely on how the image looks. Use the histogram or perhaps the blinking highlights overlay. Even new cameras can't render a wide enough range of subject brightness to be overly useful for this. Shadows may appear blocked up when viewed on the camera back (particularly when viewed under bright sunny skies) but be perfectly clear on a good home LCD screen in Lightroom. Burned out highlights may not really be either. Histograms can accurately represent subject brightness distribution under any lighting conditions.
How about color? Newer screens definitely have wider gamuts than did earlier generations and generally feature much greater accuracy, but I still wouldn't bet the farm on how my camera displays image color. But I also know that color temperature and tint are easy to adjust in RAW, and with no loss to image quality. I never really need to make life or death decisions based on camera back LCD color rendering. More than likely, if the color looked off at all, it would be attributable to the camera LCD, not the image. And, even when it's not, tinted hues are easy to fix, while burned out highlights are gone forever.
Now, a case can definitely be made that time spent reviewing images on the camera LCD means time taken away from actually shooting. And if the light is changing rapidly, time can be precious. So, too, of course, is the privilege of witnessing the beauty that nature has to offer. But if a quick check of the camera LCD can point out a way to make an image of that experience even better, I'm willing to risk it every now and then. The cost in time can be well worth the potential reward.