Be Careful of the Brightness of the LCD of Your Camera

Be Careful of the Brightness of the LCD of Your Camera

Since the introduction of digital photography our cameras are provided with a nice LCD screen to see the photo we’ve just taken, or to see the photo that we’re about to take. But be careful with these screens, they can be misguiding in some situations.

Camera LCD screens have become larger and brighter over the years, showing us the photo even before we take the shot. The last couple of years some cameras even have a second screen; the electronic viewfinder. It is wonderful to have those bright and large LCD screens on our cameras. We are able to review our work and correct our exposure or composition right at the spot. The screens are packed with information about our settings, the AF point and even a histogram. We can zoom in, look at it in high magnification and in some occasions it even give us the opportunity to post-process a raw file without transferring it to a desktop computer or laptop. LCD screens on cameras are so handy that we even wonder how the photographer in the previous millennium, when digital was still science fiction, managed to get the images right. Well, they did. And as a matter of fact, I did – which gives a pretty good idea how long I have been into photography.

Using liveview on a dSLR or mirrorless camera makes it possible to see the picture even before you take it. But you can also check if the picture taken is correctly exposed. You can also use the electronic viewfinder for that if you use a mirrorless camer

Using liveview on a dSLR or mirrorless camera makes it possible to see the picture even before you take it. But you can also check if the picture taken is correctly exposed. You can also use the electronic viewfinder for that if you use a mirrorless camera.

The use of a LCD screen or viewfinder may be very convenient, it also has a few downsides that you have to be aware of. Especially for those who use their digital camera to make photos of the night sky in very dark locations. When photographing the stars and Milky Way in a dark locations, it is good to have your night sight. This means your eyes have to get accustomed to the light level to have the best possible sight. It takes approximately twenty minutes for your eyes to get accustomed to the dark. Can you image what happens when you activate your camera and stare into that bright LCD screen?

When using the LCD screen at night you can get blinded by the light. This can be  quite inconvenient when when you are shooting a starry night and/or Milky Way (Canon EOS 5D mark IV with EF16-35mm f/2,8L @ 16mm | ISO12800 | f/4 | 15 sec)

When using the LCD screen at night you can get blinded by the light. This can be quite inconvenient when when you are shooting a starry night and/or Milky Way (Canon EOS 5D mark IV with EF16-35mm f/2,8L @ 16mm | ISO12800 | f/4 | 15 sec)

In a very dark location the use of a LCD screen or electronic viewfinder can blind you so much, you don't see anything for a few moments. That I witnessed when photographing Sea Sparkle. (Leica SL with 24-90mm f/2,8-4 @ 90mm | ISO6400 | f/4 | 4 sec)

In a very dark location the use of a LCD screen or electronic viewfinder can blind you so much, you don't see anything for a few moments. That I witnessed when photographing Sea Sparkle at the Dutch shores. (Leica SL with 24-90mm f/2,8-4 @ 90mm | ISO6400 | f/4 | 4 sec)

When I go out to take pictures of the night sky, I prepare myself and set the brightness of the LCD as low as possible. This way the screen doesn’t blind you completely when you are on location. I noticed that not only the LCD screen can be destructive for your night sight, an electronic viewfinder (EVF) that is found on the modern mirrorless cameras can also be too bright. Looking to it will also ruin your night sight. I found out the hard way when I reviewed the Leica SL and the Sony A9 during a nightly photo session, and I noticed it also with the newer Canon EOS-R.  Even reducing the brightness of the EVF is often not enough to maintain night sight.

Above is the difference shown of the LCD screen brightness of a Canon EOS-R, with brightness set to default and set to minimum. You can image what happens when the screen is set to maximum brightness.

The comparison above gives a good idea how much light the electronic viewfinder of the Canon EOS-R gives. It can definitely ruin your night sight when looking into the viewfinder. Of course, I only used this camera as an example. Every LCD screen and electronic viewfinder has this effect, no matter what brand or type of camera you use.

But not everyone is active in night photography. So perhaps most of you don’t care about losing night sight because you’re never photographing under these conditions. Still, the LCD screen brightness can also work against you in normal daylight situations when judging the exposure of an image. Let me explain.

I think every photographer nowadays looks at his or her screen to check if the exposure of the image is correct. This is a good habit, unless you are scrutinizing the image while losing contact with your subject in the process. Just a fast glimpse should do fine. But be aware of the brightness of your screen; this affects the way you see the image. If the brightness is of the LCD screen is set too high, you might be mistaken that the image is over exposed. If the brightness of the LCD screen is set too low, the opposite can occur and you may think the image is underexposed.

The example above shows the effect of screen brightness on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. When the screen is set too bright, it even looks  like an over exposure.

Not only the brightness of the screen can affect the way you interpreted the image, also the brightness of the surroundings have an effect on the way you see the image on the screen. In bright sunlight an image may seem underexposed even if the exposure is correct and in the darkness of night that same correctly exposed image may seem over exposed. The solution to this problem is very simple, but often forgotten in the heat of the photoshoot; look at the histogram for exposure.

Instead of relying on what you see on screen, you should look at the histogram. This is only way to check exposure without being influenced by screen brightness or ambient light

Instead of relying on what you see on screen, you should look at the histogram. This is only way to check exposure without being influenced by screen brightness or ambient light

I already wrote about checking the histogram for exposure in my previous article. The screen brightness may affect the way you interpret the image you’ve just taken, the histogram does not lie. The histogram is never affected by the screen brightness and is the only trustworthy way of checking exposure. Don’t get fooled by how an image looks in the electronic viewfinder of a mirrorless camera also. Again, the brightness setting will affect the interpretation of what you see.

Setting up the screen brightness on a Canon EOS 5D mark IV. If you use the auto setting, you never know what brightness you end up with. I prefer to set the brightness depending on the ambient light and therefor I placed the menu option in My Menu to make

Setting up the screen brightness on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. If you use the auto setting, you never know what brightness you end up with. I prefer to set the brightness depending on the ambient light and therefor I placed the menu option in My Menu to make access as easy as possible.

So, what then is the best setting for the screen brightness? That depends of the ambient light. In bright sunlight you can benefit from a bright setting to check composition and other details, while in low ambient light a lower setting can work better. But always be careful and check the histogram for the correct exposure. Luckily the gigantic dynamic range of most modern camera’s is so large, it gives us a bit of room to correct a faulty exposure, even when we thought it looked great on the LCD screen or electronic viewfinder.

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21 Comments

Eric Salas's picture

That’s a huge “problem” with Sony cameras.
As a Sony shooter, I set my screen brightness to -1 to compensate and ALWAYS use my histogram.
Everyone should use a histogram but some don’t and find out their images are underexposed by two stops instead of the intended one stop (how I shoot and tell others shooting Sony too)

Nando Harmsen's picture

Do you also turn down your EVF brightness, or only the LCD on the back?

Eric Salas's picture

I never change the brightness on the LCD because if I am using it I’m only concerned with composition and am staring at the histogram.

The EVF is a pain in the ass though especially while shooting flash so that is set to -1.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Yes indeed; I almost forgot... shooting with flash needs a correct setup for your displays. I witnessed that during a corporate shoot yesterday, with the EOS-R

Jaap Venhovens's picture

I learned this 'the hard way' too. My Sony A7R3 has a beautifull bright viewfinder image, but when first using it I dialed my correction to -1 or even -2, looked fine on both viewfinder and LCD but when uploading to lightroom they were seriously underexposed. BTW , Didn't know you also write for fstoppers Nando. :-)

Nando Harmsen's picture

Yes, I am here for a month now.

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

interestingly, the fujifilm X-T3 has a contrast adjustment setting for the rear LCD and EVF that includes a "dark ambient mode" setting that turns the display icons, values and menus to redscale and reduces the contrast and brightness to lessen the impact on your night vision.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Is this a night mode? I had one on the Panasonic camera's I reviewed a while ago (Lumix G9 and Lumix GX9). You don't get blinded by the light, but I found it very difficult to see what I was doing due to the red light. How is your experience with that?

Something i've always paid attention to on the D850 actually. Good tips.
The Z7 caught me out during some low light work though, overcompensating for the darkness and giving some nasty blotching in the darks. Delving into the menus I saw it was left on default Auto.. So no wonder.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I think we all have that experience in some way. Thanks for sharing yours :)

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

Got tricked with that few times as well and usually ended up with underexposed images. I decided to set manually my LCD brightness (so I added it to quick menu) and always check my histogram. Now I'm good. :)

Nando Harmsen's picture

I have made the same choice: into the quick menu. Thanks for replying

yes, d3 and d3s show exposure thats 1/2 stop brighter then it really is.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Fortunately that is not too much.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Very good point, thanks, Nando. I shoot a lot of photos by available light, at night. This is very useful, thank you. One of the best things about photography is the willingness of experienced photographers to share their experience and knowledge with others who are still learning!

The histogram only works correctly for jpgs!

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

That's true, but if you can extrapolate it to your RAW files, then it's a great help. :)

Nando Harmsen's picture

Just like Andrzej Muzaj said: you can use it to have a good idea how the exposure is. But it is true, it is the histogram for the JPEG preview on your screen. It can minimize the contrast in your in-camera JPEG settings to have even a better histogram.
The histogram is the best tool you have at your disposal when it comes to interpret your exposure.

Thanks for the information. I was really confused when taking flash pictures indoors at night. The display looked really bright and clean. When I exposed the image and checked it, my first thought was that the flash didn't fire because the image looked so much darker than the display. After making a few more exposures, and checking the results, I finally realized that the display was showing the room as if it was lit with very bright lights. Looked great but no where as realistic as the flash exposed images.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I had that experience also. That is why I always check my histogram with flash photography. Just like I explained in my previous article. The link is somewhere in this article also.
Thanks for sharing your experience