Field monitors are incredibly useful and versatile accessories, whether you’re shooting stills or are working on a commercial film production for your clients. Adam Duckworth takes a look at a selection of the latest 7in varieties.
Words Adam Duckworth
Just as the distinction between stills photographers and filmmakers is getting increasingly blurred, so is the technology and kit. While it used to be that virtually all stills pros were hooked on DSLRs and filmmakers had camcorders, nowadays video-enabled DSLRs and mirrorless hybrids are being used by both camps. And if you provide your clients with stills and video, then it makes sense to use all the latest technology to speed workflow up and improve quality.
One piece of kit that started out aimed almost exclusively at filmmakers, but which now makes loads of sense for hybrid and stills shooters as well, is the external monitor. This helps you nail your focus and exposure, frame your shots to perfection and, in many cases, control your camera for good measure. It beats squinting at a camera’s LCD screen or using a loupe or other Heath Robinson shade to see what you’ve captured.
Even if you’re predominantly a commercial stills shooter, an external monitor can be a useful tool. It delivers the benefits of shooting tethered, for example, offering a far more accurate and bigger view of your images with instant response. So you can really judge the shots you’ve taken, rather than either trusting your camera’s smaller
screen or having the faff of taking a laptop on location.
A field monitor can sit right on top of your camera or be held by your tripod’s accessory arm and it connects via the HDMI socket on your camera with no other software needed. So the images are still stored to your camera’s memory cards with all the redundancy that most twin-slot systems will offer.
Essentially it replicates your camera’s screen and/or viewfinder. But overlaid on that can be more useful tools like waveforms – which are more advanced and easier to understand graphical representations of exposure than a histogram. Once you’ve got used to waveforms, you’ll never want to go back. They also have adjustable zebra settings if that’s your preferred way of checking exposure, plus focus peaking to help you ensure everything is sharp before you trigger the shutter. Once you’ve taken the shot you can review the result on the large screen, zoom in to check it’s perfect and even see the results of pre-loaded styles to see how it would look. This uses the filmmakers’ Look Up Tables (LUTs) but you can create your own Photoshop or Lightroom LUTs with your favourite processing variables to see how the shots would look once ‘processed’.
It’s once you hit the video button that
external monitors really come into their own, as it’s what they were designed for. That’s where the professional filmmaking tools like waveforms, vectorscopes, false colour and audio really comes in.
However, some monitors also offer recording capability as well, so you can record the video signal to the monitor’s memory –either a memory card or SSD – as well as to your camera’s cards for total redundancy.
Some of these monitor/ recorders also offer inputs via SDI leads as well as HDMI, so can be used with professional movie cameras, too. But best of all, in most cases you can actually get higher-quality video out of your camera by recording the signal separately.
On some cameras, you can actually capture Raw video and the monitor/ recorder can either record this as is or cleverly convert it to formats like Apple ProRes RAW or ProRes 442 which is faster to edit. So they can make a big difference to the actual quality of your footage. They can also record separate audio in very high quality, so you won’t need an additional external audio recorder. We’re taking a look here at three of the best-value and best-spec seven-inch monitors to see what they offer and how they perform.
BEING AN all-American company where as we know the sun always shines a lot, the SmallHD team focuses on making monitors that can be used outdoors on even the brightest days. It’s no good having a monitor if you can’t see it. The latest bit of kit is the firm’s new Focus 7 monitor, based on their five-inch unit but even bigger to enable more real estate to be crammed on to it.
Screen brightness is measured in nits, and the Focus 7 packs 1000 nits, making it one of the most powerful on the market. This makes it really useful outdoors on the sunniest days, even without using an accessory sunhood. There is a very wide viewing angle too, which is important for real-world use so you don’t have to constantly move your head around to get a good view.
We used it on mirrorless cameras like the Panasonic S1R and Sony A7R III, where it provided a very much needed increase in usability. That’s especially useful as those cameras are very high resolution and full-frame, which makes focusing super-critical. Compounded by the lack of proper tools and small screens, it makes lots of sense to use a larger external monitor on a full-frame mirrorless cameras as well as DSLRs with HDMI output.
At 771g, The Focus 7 is also relatively light, so it doesn’t add loads of bulk to your camera rig. But then you do have to add batteries, of course, some sort of clamping device and an HDMI lead, so the package does increase, as well as the cost and weight.
The Focus 7 is powered by one or two of the readilyavailable and affordable Sony L-series batteries, such as the very common NP-F lithium cells. These are hot £738 Small HD Focus 7 monitor SPECIFICATIONS swappable so when one starts to run down, you can whip it out to charge it and the second cell kicks in seamlessly. You can also use adapters for professional and very big V-lock batteries, if you have them. With such a bright screen, the screen does put a load on batteries, but not as much as monitor/ recorders.
The Focus 7 has four standard-sized threaded sockets around its tough aluminium bezel so will take lots of standard monitor arms or clamps. We used it with SmallHD’s accessory articulating arm which is designed for the monitor and it shows. It’s small, precise and totally worth the £97 asking price as it’s ideal for use on mirrorless cameras.
The connection is via an HDMI. All you have to do is plug it in and it’s instantly working. Everything is simple to use, with the touchscreen an easy way to navigate. And the pinch-to-zoom feature, just like a smartphone, is a great way to zoom in to ensure your shot is sharp.
There’s no learning curve required to use the Focus 7 as a large, bright monitor. Plug it into your camera’s HDMI socket and it just works.
For more advanced stills users and filmmaking it also offers waveforms, false colour warnings, focus tools and support for LUTs, for a truly professional workflow experience. The screen is 1920×1080 resolution and takes video footage up to 4K at 30p.
It’s a shame it can’t handle 4K 60p or 1080p at higher than 60fps. For that, you have to drop to the 1080i format, and then it goes as high as 120fps. With cameras like the Panasonic S1H and GH5S cracking the 180fps barrier in video, it’s a shame even a new monitor like the Focus 7 can’t keep up. But that’s a very specific gripe for a small group of high-speed filmmakers. For the vast majority, it’s all you’ll ever need.
IF THERE’S ONE NAME that’s a giant in the world of monitors, it’s Atomos. The Australian firm is pushing the edge of what’s possible with exclusive links to Apple, which has seen the duo pioneer the new Apple ProRes RAW format. If you want to unlock the maximum video quality from your mirrorless or pro camcorder, Atomos is usually the first port of call and, in many cases, the only option.
The Shogun Inferno is the latest 4K Monitor/Recorder and at £1039 is the priciest on test by far. But beware, the cost doesn’t stop there. You need to also budget for an SSD to record onto, which can easily cost £200 for a 480GB version that’s fast enough to cope, which fits inside Atomos caddies. Then you’ll need Atomos’ own card reader to read the files. Plus an SDI lead for pro video camera use or, potentially, Atomos’ own HDMI cable if you want to use it for HD recording. And some sort of small ball head to attach it to the camera, plus Sony NP-F-fit batteries and a charger. So that little lot could push the price up to around £1500 in total.
But you will own the fastest, most capable and pretty much the brightest monitor you can buy. The Focus 7 is very bright at 1000 nits, but the Atomos aces it with a staggering 1500 nits. The downside is battery power, as it does burn through the juice. For extended shooting, you’ll need some spares for sure. It takes two NP-F cells and, like the Focus 7, these are hotswappable so you don’t need to run out of power.
For stills use as a monitor only this means there is little advantage over the SmallHD monitor apart from the extreme brightness. It’s when you switch to video that the Atomos really shows its true colours, as it’s one of the very few that can not only record your standard camera output in 4K or HD at higher bitrates than it can cope with internally, but can actually record its Raw video signal or convert that Raw from the camera to an editable format like ProRes. Or it can convert it to ProResRAW, which is like a slimmed down Raw format that still has all the Raw options, such as being able to change white balance or recover highlights and shadows.
For stills pros who shoot exclusively in Raw it may come as something of a shock to realise that the vast majority of video cameras – even hugely expensive ones costing tens of thousands of pounds – don’t record Raw video. The Atomos is one of the very few ways of actually managing this feat, and certainly the most affordable and user-friendly.
The buzzword in filmmaking right now is HDR, as many HDR-equipped TV sets are hitting the market. The Atomos helps you monitor and record HDR as you can set it to Atom HDR viewing mode, which has a slider on the touchscreen so you can alter what you’re seeing between a full HDR image right down to the standard Rec.709 version, which has around six stops of dynamic range. So you can set the slider to HDR then, using the waveform, tweak your exposure so you’re not losing any highlight details.
It’s a fully professional tool that’s portable, rugged and delivers what others can’t. But it’s more pricey, power thirsty and significantly more complicated to get to grips with. But for the ultimate result it’s just about the best you can get.
IF YOU WANT the advantages of a monitor/ recorder but don’t want or need the complexities or cost of a unit such as the Atomos, then the Blackmagic Video Assist 4K is an affordable and slick package to consider. It can be used to partner everything from cinema cameras through to mirrorless models and there are twin mini XLR inputs for audio recording, too.
The unit is powered by a pair of Canon LP-E6 lithium batteries which clip onto the back. The media is recorded onto two high-speed SD cards, and these have to be of a certain spec. The Blackmagic website lists several recommended cards but we tried two that were listed, without any luck. Trying
another brand of card that wasn’t officially supported did work though, and this could be formatted directly on the unit itself.
The 1920×1200 screen is very sharp and you can see a full 16:9 image. The biggest issue is the brightness, which is only around 350 nits so it’s significantly less than its rivals. However, in use it’s plenty unless you really are in the direct sun, and then a clip-on sun hood is useful.
The Video Assist 4K records HD and 4K up to 30p in full broadcast quality 10-bit, 4:2:2 ProRes or DNxHD files that works with most software, so you can start editing without having to convert them. And twin recorders means that once one card is full, the signal is automatically recorded to the other card with no gaps. But this facility means you will need some serious memory card space. It eats up a lot of storage, compared to the size of card you might need when recording smaller files internally in your own camera.
The touchscreen display lets you change recording formats or view the current input frame rate, histogram, false colour, audio meters and timecode. There are lots of mounting points, so you can fix the rugged, aluminium unit in lots of places and the screen autorotates if you use it inverted.
Just about the only drawbacks in use are the relatively basic exposure and focus aids on the screen. The histogram is in the bottom corner and is not particularly easy to see, and there are no vectorscope or waveform options. The peaking and zebra assist functions are quite basic, but they do the job. But there are no look-up table options. And while 4K recording and Apple ProRes is impressive, there is no Raw recording and no fast frame rates. HD is limited to 60fps and UHD to 30fps.
The monitor/ recorder does come bundled with the light version of DaVinci Resolve colour grading software, which is a substantial and valuable bonus.
These three seven-inch monitors may on the surface look very similar, but they offer very different features that make them suitable for different users. At the top of the pile is the most expensive and complicated, but also the most feature-packed, the Atomos Shogun Inferno. It’s by far the brightest on test and, as a video recording device, it unlocks the true potential of your camera. In many cases, it’s the only way of getting the benefits of Raw video out of your camera so is highly recommended.
At the other end of the scale is the Focus 7 from SmallHD. This is very bright at 1000 nits and has all the good tools like focusing and waveforms monitors and support for LUTs. If you just want a seveninch monitor, this is truly a professional version and you’d go a long way to find anything better.
The Blackmagic Video Assist 4K, meanwhile, offers incredible value. It costs virtually the same as the Focus 7 but, like the Atomos, can also record, so it can be used to improve the video footage from your camera. As a budget monitor/ recorder it offers a lot.
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