Deciding on new camera gear is always tough. This blog post will discuss the benefits of using a field monitor to enhance the production quality of your videos and help you decide if you need a field monitor and, if so, which product is right for you.
Video and film production is a craft of many skills. We are required to create stories, evoke emotions and capture details through picture and sound. To do so well, we need to shape light, compose images, record audio, scout locations, and select and prepare talent among dozens of tasks unseen to the viewer. Whether we operate as a crew of one or one hundred, we always have the same basic responsibility: to record beautiful picture and excellent sound.
My first camera was a 5D Mark II. It’s a fantastic camera responsible for starting the DSLR revolution as we know it today.
The 5D Mark II wasn’t designed to shoot video, however, and I quickly experienced some of the pitfalls of using a still-photography camera to capture motion. One of the first challenges I encountered was its tiny, immovable, LCD screen, which made it difficult to achieve focus, confirm color balance, and properly set exposure, thus yielding inconsistent end results. It also lacked the meters and functions of even the most basic prosumer video camera, so I needed to find a workaround that would complement our production style.
The truth is that the best solution for these camera issues is to use an external field monitor.
I started shooting with magnification loupes and camera-attached hoods, which worked great as a sunshade and helped us achieve accurate focus, but I was still stuck using the inadequate camera display. I quickly discovered that the better solution for our camera issues was to use an external HD monitor. Almost every motion picture and television production crew uses high-quality, external field monitors, which take a lot of the guesswork out of image capture. The monitors can be positioned on or off camera to accommodate camera operators, camera assistants and clients, making them extremely versatile. They also include many functions and abilities most on-camera displays lack or are too small to utilize properly. These days, whether I’m shooting on a Red Epic or a Panasonic GH4, I’ll usually have a field monitor or two on set.
Why do you need a Film Monitor?
A field monitor is an external, portable, battery-powered display that replicates the picture being recorded to camera. I most often attach our monitor directly to the camera or camera rig, and sometimes I’ll attach it to a light stand as a stand-alone monitor for clients to view. Most monitors available today range from five to nine inches in screen size, making them two to three times larger than most camera displays. When I’re moving quickly in the field, the extra pixels are extremely helpful for maintaining a focused image and seeing all the details within a frame.
If you have ever been a solo camera operator interviewing someone, you understand how difficult it can be to monitor a picture while conducting an interview. As the interviewer, you’re often sitting beside the camera, making it difficult to keep an eye what’s being recorded. An external field monitor is a crucial piece of gear in these situations, allowing you to observe whether your talent is drifting out of frame or focus; it can mean the difference between a usable and unusable take.
When shooting high-perspective shots above crowds, it can be difficult or sometimes impossible to see our camera’s screen, so an external field monitor can potentially be the only option for framing a shot. I also regularly use jibs, sliders and stabilizers that require the use of an external monitor to direct camera movement.
#1: How is the Picture Quality?
The vast majority of field monitors use traditional LCD technology for their screens. However some of the newer, higher-end LCD panels like the Aputure V-Screen series integrate IPS (In-Plane Switching) technology, resulting in a higher contrast ratio and better, more accurate overall color and better image quality. When comparing Aputure’s V-Screen and older alternate brand models, there is a dramatic difference in image quality and brightness output. The extra brightness of IPS monitors make them a great choice for outdoor production.
When shooting with low-contrast, low-saturation picture profiles or Log settings so as to record the most color information and dynamic range possible, the results is often a picture that is very desaturated and unappealing, making it challenging to determine whether a shot is properly exposed and in focus. Most monitors have tools like waveform monitors, histograms, focus peaking, zebras and false color, allowing us to determine proper exposure and focus when shooting with a flat image. I’ve enjoyed using the very competitively priced V-Screen VS-3, which includes focus peaking, false color, histogram, volume bars and image magnification. And unlike its SmallHD competitor, the DP4, the Aputure V-Screen VS-3 includes tactile, programmable buttons, making toggling between these features quick and easy. It’s also about 1/5th the price.
#2: What Connections does it Have?
HDMI and SDI are the two most common interfaces for connecting camera and monitor; both send video and audio over a single cable. Most cameras available today include an HDMI output (micro, mini or full size), while only professional and broadcast cameras can connect via the more robust SDI connection. There are even wireless HDMI and SDI transmission systems by companies like Teradek and Paralinx that allow for remote monitoring and focus pulling. HDMI is great because it transmits beautiful, high quality HD and 4K images, but it’s important to remember that it is a consumer grade connection. Over the course of production, it’s common for HDMI to wiggle loose and cables can quickly become brittle and unreliable. It is a good practice to test your cables before every shoot and to invest in high quality, sturdy cables for production use. The Aputure VS-3 includes both HDMI in and out. In addition, in a few months, the Aputure VS-5 will be released, which will feature both HDMI and SDI.
#3: How can you Power it?
Production gear is often designed to be very modular and parts are sold ala carte, which can be great if you know what you’re looking for but extremely confusing if you don’t know what you need. Most monitors include an A/C adapter for use in studio, but very few include a portable power solution. Manufacturers assume that as a camera user, you already own a collection of batteries and chargers, so instead many offer additional battery plates that allow you to use the Canon, Nikon, Sony or Panasonic batteries you already own. For instance, all of the Aputure V-Screen Monitors can be powered via AC plug in, but can also take Sony Li-On Batteries. If you don’t already have a collection of batteries, this is something to consider before finalizing your purchase. Many monitors can also be charged via D-Tap or barrel connector from your V-Mount, Anton Bauer or Switronix batteries.
#4: Can it Record?
Most camcorders and DSLRs capture video that is highly compressed to removable, flash-based media cards (e.g. SDHC, Compact Flash, etc). This can be difficult to color grade and is not recommended for broadcast level work. A relatively new trend is a field monitor combined with a video recorder, which captures broadcast-quality, uncompressed video. Manufacturers like Atomos, Convergent Design and Video Devices have pioneered the way in this market, offering options for recording uncompressed eight and 10-bit high definition video all the way up to 4K Raw video. This technology is only in its infancy, but has the ability to really unlock the potential of many low-cost cameras.
Though these monitor hybrids are known for their ability to record picture, another amazing feature of high-end models like the Video Devices Pix 240i, Convergent Designs Odyessey 7Q+ and Atomos Shogun is that they also record professional quality audio via XLR. Most DSLRs include consumer level ⅛-inch audio inputs with low quality preamps, so by using the XLR inputs included on these monitors, you also increase the quality of audio captured. They also allow you to use professional, phantom powered microphones, allowing you to dramatically increase the quality of production audio capture while SDI inputs allows for higher bandwidth video recording. The Shogun and Odyssey 7Q+ truly are amazing tools, both offering up to 4k raw recording with options for high speed capture, 3D LUT programmability, SDI and phantom powered inputs and bright high-resolution displays. It’s worth noting that the Shogun displays full resolution 1920 x 1080 picture on a 7.1-inch IPS-LCD monitor while the Odyssey displays 1280 x 800 picture on a 7.7-inch OLED monitor.
Which field monitor to choose?
There are so many details to consider when making any technology purchase, but our first consideration is how often I will use the gear. Is it something that will be with us on every shoot or will it often sit on the shelf? For something as critical as a field monitor, it makes sense to invest in a unit that was compact, bright and accurate, could stand up to regular wear and tear and had great user reviews. If the monitor is too bulky or requires lots of prep time, it will likely stay in the camera case or at the office. For a small to mid-sized production company, the line of Aputure V-Screeen Monitors, from the VS-1, VS-2 and VS-3 are definitely a good fit. For smaller budget TV commercials that require 4k recording or more than an MPEG encoding, consider an Atomos Ninja Blade recorder.
Most manufacturers make great products these days, so often the choice boils down to personal preference rather than pure technical specs. The majority of monitors available today should easily suffice for the beginner and intermediate user. Certain projects might require some specialty features available only on niche products, but many of the entry-mid level monitors should be suitable for most of our daily production projects. We all have different needs and expectations from our DSLR monitor, but our end goal is always to capture the most beautiful images and engaging stories possible. To do that, we need gear that fits our budget and, equally as important, our production style. It’s important to invest in the appropriate equipment to tell the most amazing stories we can.