Why You Shouldn’t Trust Your Camera LCD

When I teach online classes and review the assignment photos that students upload, I often see some pretty dark pictures.

It’s understandable, especially because many students are just getting started and learning the in’s and outs of digital photography.

And I should know because I to made the same mistake a very long time ago. Two thirds of my career was the film and Polaroid (for tests) era and when digital came out it was still years before my clients trusted digital.

When I finally dived into digital i started with an Olympus system and I was immediately hooked. I began marketing myself as a ‘full service digital photographer’ and ‘all ready to meet your photo needs’, yada, yada.

I had some clients who were ready for digital and I soon received an assignment to photograph a bunch of people.

Excited with my new digital setup, I shot the assignment, the type of assignment I have shot hundreds of times on film, and delivered the JPEGS to the client on CD. I was that ‘new’ to digital, I did not shoot RAW.

The client called me shortly and told me the pictures were very dark and might not be usable. My heart sank as this was my best client who fed me many thousands of dollars of business every year. I told her I would fix it.

I next visited the camera store and told them this new camera was flawed. Look at the pictures; they were all very dark despite looking great on the LCD.

The store manager asked if I had used the Histogram. My answer was “Huh?”

He proceeded to teach me what I needed to know about histogram’s:

Don’t trust your LCD, trust your Histogram.

It was a sobering experience and hugely important and for the most part it never happened again.

As camera resolution kept growing I moved into Canon digital cameras to go with all the Canon lenses I had for my film cameras and was always mindful of the histogram and LCD issue.

One day I decided to do a test by shooting a full tonal range scene and use the LCD as my guide, then evaluate against the histogram. What I found was that my photos were about ½ to 1 stop to dark each time on my Canon camera. The data in the histogram was leaning left towards the darker tones.

I soon learned that I could adjust the brightness settings for the LCD so I went in and reset it to -1 on the brightness scale. That sounds backwards doesn’t it; darkening the LCD even more. But the reason was that if I darkened the image preview on the LCD even more and then used my LCD as the guide for a proper exposure (by adjusting the camera settings until the LCD image looked normal) it would actually be increasing the image brightness and move the image data to the right in the histogram for a larger collection of data and a more proper exposure. And by leaving the ‘blinkies‘ turned I can always check and make sure the threshold has not been crossed.

Every camera is different

My experience may very well be different than yours due to different camera manufacturers, calibrated monitors vs. uncalibrated, and other variables, but we can all do a test to make a determination.

It has been many years since I learned all this, the hard way, and it is one of the first menu changes I make when I get a new camera. It’s also one of the first things I tell my students in online classes: “Trust the histogram first and the LCD second.”

I then encourage them to shoot the same test I did to determine if they will benefit from a change in LCD brightness because every camera manufacturer is different.

If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment.

Related Posts: How to Use The ‘Cookie Cutter’ Approach to Extending Dynamic Range, How to Photograph the Perfect Campfire Scene