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Production Monitors Buyer’s Guide: Getting the Right Image for the Work

Choosing the best production monitor for the work being done is the best key to success.

Shooting a video production requires more than just a camera and lights. A production monitor (also known as a studio monitor) provides a view of what is being shot that otherwise would be limited to only the cameraperson while everyone else hovers nearby. Additionally, such a monitor offers both verifications of the quality and characteristics of the video in play as well as manipulation for broadcast use. But don’t expect to just hook up a television from the den or basement, as there are exacting standards that the monitor must meet in order to function not only efficiently, but correctly as well.[vm_ads:segment_break:1]

Monitor Characteristics

To begin, the physical size of the monitor determines such factors as screen size and resolution, although a trend for increasing resolution in small form factors exists today. For the most part, the larger the monitor, the larger the viewing panel it will have, with greater resolution possible. This viewing panel is typically LCD, with or without other technologies added in (for example, LED backlighting) and the panel’s size will help determine its cost factor. Screen resolutions approach and can meet that of an HDTV (1920x1080 pixels), but for the most part they are similar to that of high-end computer monitors in that resolution of 800 pixels horizontal (800x600) is sufficient for most productions.

The inputs of a production monitor can also vary, depending on the model, but the choices found are standardized and not proprietary, for example component, RGB, and HDMI, and those designated for use with professional video equipment, being SDI, HD-SDI and the more recent 3G-SDI which is seen as replacing dual-link HD-SDI. These inputs all conform to the standards for use with broadcast-grade video. Also to be found with some inputs will be a “pass-through” status: this is where the signal is passing through the monitor without alteration for use elsewhere.

The brightness levels vary for different monitors, as does the contrast. Those designed for use “in the field” have increased brightness to compensate for outdoor ambient light and typically a higher contrast level than those designated for indoor use.

Another consideration is how rugged the chassis is and how well it can handle abuse outside of a studio location. Whether the monitor can run off battery power also affects its viability outside of an indoor environment (there is no longer a significant trade-off between the weight of a monitor with or without battery power). Such monitors are called “field monitors” and can be found in use as stand-alone monitors as well as working as viewfinders for digital cameras.

Additionally, the advent of the Internet as well as features found on mobile devices has not been lost on manufacturers either: some production monitors now feature Ethernet inputs to allow for remote adjustments through computer software (besides the usual front-mounted physical controls), for example Blackmagic Design’s SmartView Duo rack-mountable dual 8-inch LCD Monitors which features 800x480 resolution and 3G/HD/SD-SDI inputs. Among other features, the $700 price tag buys the ability to rotate the displays upside-down for an auto image-flip as a way of achieving the best viewing angle.

Another important aspect of a production monitor is the viewing control technologies that are built-in, for example false color which is a group of color rendering methods for displaying color images (i.e. a “true-color” image) and blue-only exposure check for adjusting chroma and phase. Calibration technologies are also built in, such as color bars generators and vectorscopes for viewing image saturation.[vm_ads:segment_break:2]

The types of productions that can take advantage of using a production monitor can be broken down into three categories: the hobbyist, the lone wolf producer, and the small production company.

Hobbyist

Everyone likes to shoot video, but going beyond a quick grab of the video camera or cellphone separates the hobbyist from the others. Perhaps it’s a tribute to a returning veteran for a local public access channel or to commemorate a special event; it could be an event of importance like a graduation or special outing. Regardless, having a monitor to use, instead of relying on a viewfinder, will up the ante not only production-wise, but quality-wise as well.

  • Marshall Electronics V-LCD51 800x480 on-camera/portable field monitor with HDMI, $600.

The 5-inch screen and small chassis contains features found in much more expensive models -- such as an 800x480 resolution LED backlit screen with a wide viewing angle of 170 degrees. It features a 600:1 contrast ratio and an HDMI input. Standard features include a wide variety of formats and markers, as well as false color and peaking filters (designed to assist the camera operator in getting the sharpest focus possible). Batteries supply the power and the V-LCD51 can be mounted to cranes, jibs and DSLRs. This makes it quite useful for all sorts of camera use, and can function quite effectively as a field monitor

  •  Atomos Ninja-2 10-Bit Smart Production For DSLRs & HDMI Cameras -- Field Recorder, Monitor & Playback/Playout Device/$695

This battery powered field monitor doubles as a video recorder -- providing touch screen operations for HD recording, monitoring and playback. 10-bit 4:2:2 video and audio are captured from any HDMI source, which even includes mobile devices such as an iPhone or iPad. Built-in software aids in accurately assessing focus and exposure, with other functionality such as false color twin mode, blue-only exposure check and adjustments for individual filters included. User-replaceable 2.5-inch hard drives (HDD/SSD) provide for up to 16+ hours of recording time. Aircraft-grade aluminum makes for a lightweight but durable chassis.[vm_ads:segment_break:3]

Lone Wolf Producer

This type of production involves the one-man band and requires attention to detail since you don’t have a multitude of people to do the work or be involved in the technical execution. The shoot could be a band’s performance in a stadium or a dance troupe in a theater, or even “hard” news on the street that requires the flexibility of fast movement, quick setups and even faster shooting. Having a monitor that can meet the changing needs of varying types of productions will serve well here.

  •  Ikan TL-1850HD-SE LCD Studio/Field Monitor/$2,000

A rugged construction and a dual-use (in studio or out) is complemented by an 18.5-inch screen and 1366x768 resolution. Inputs consist of HDMI, composite, SD/HD-SDI and VGA (audio as well for the dual speaker). Built-in features include Pixel-to-Pixel, underscan/overscan and temperature settings, plus a tally light.

  • TVLogic SRM-074W 7” Viewfinder/$2,895

This lightweight (2lb.) magnesium housed 7-inch 1024x600 display comes with a wealth of inputs, two 3G/HD/SD-SDI, HDMI in, HDMI out, and HDMI to HD-SDI converted out. The matte finished panel also possesses the necessary brightness for being able to be viewed in sunlight conditions. Horizontal and vertical image flip adds to the versatility, as does support for TVLogic color calibration, waveform, vectorscope and RS422 external monitor control.[vm_ads:segment_break:4]

Small Production Company

Professional productions require professional-grade equipment, and for monitoring video feeds, this is of vital importance. The work may take you from studio into the field, on foot or in a broadcast van, but in each case the monitor being used must be more than merely competent if the production is to be true to what is being shot. The monitors that meet these needs do not come cheaply, but what is being paid for is massive control over the image.

  •  TVLogic LVM-074W 7” Multi-Format HD LCD Monitor/$2,695

This high resolution 1024x600 (16:9) LCD panel (LED backlit) is contained in a durable housing suitable for studio as well as on-location use. It has an 800:1 contrast ratio. Features include HDMI-to-SDI convention output and HDMI-to-HDMI/SDI-to-SDI Active Loop Through. Control buttons are located on the front panel, and internal software provides for such features as Waveform, Vectorscope, built-in HDMI to HD-SDI conversion output and vertical image flip, among others. White balance drift (from cold/hot weather) is automatically compensated for, and proper color calibration is assured through the TVLogic Color Calibration utility.

  • ikan MR7 7-inch 3G-SDI LCD Monitor with Built-in H.264 Recorder/$2,299

This 7-inch 2k resolution monitor has much going for it - even if that means looking no further than the built-in H.264 recorder, false color, waveform, vectorscope, tally, SMPT-425M 3G signal, 1:1 resolution mapping, daytime brightness mode, and focus peaking assistance. The monitor also shows a VU meter, has a viewing angle of 170-degrees, can convert HDMI input to SDI output and has an internal speaker.[vm_ads:segment_break:5]

Field Monitors

A field monitor, although used in a manner similar to that of a production monitor, has a different “mindset” in that it is designed for use outside or on location. As a result, these units are built to expect some rough handling and battery packs are employed for greater mobility, although the ability to plug into an AC outlet often exists as well. There are also models that can be camera-mounted, with the advantage here being lighter equipment, and a more mobile setup one example is the Marshall Electronics’ 5-inch V-LCD50-HDI.

  • SmallHD AC7 Field Monitor/$599

This 7-inch IPS LCD monitor runs on AC current or batteries. It has a 1280x800 resolution display, 8-bit color depth, and HDMI and component and composite inputs. The built in software provides for such functionality as focus assist, false color, DLSR [http://www.videomaker.com/article/14766] scales and frame guides.

  •  ikan D7w - 7" 3G-SDI LCD Monitor w/ IPS Panel/$1,299

This digital 1280x800 HD resolution on-camera monitor packs a wealth of features within a compact aluminum chassis featuring both HDMI as well as a 3G-SDI video input. Software functionality includes underscan and DSLR scaling functionality, along with peaking (with red outline), false color with adjustable under/over luminance warning as well as a Clip Guide with an adjustable threshold. Battery powered and compatible with select Sony, Canon and Panasonic batteries, built-in features include a Waveform (calibration of professional video cameras), Vectorscope [http://www.videomaker.com/videonews/2012/04/13023-essential-video-skills... ] (set/verify skin tones and white balance monitoring) and RGB Parade functions -- here designed to balance out the shadow region when leveling a shot and provide a view as to the color cast of an image (through separating out the red, green and blue channels and providing the color values for each).[vm_ads:segment_break:6]

Decisions, Decisions

Video productions can vary wildly, but all will benefit from the use of a monitor. That’s because it provides a way to control and modulate what is being shot so that it will meet the standards of the intended use (such as broadcast) as well as ending up looking the same when viewed as was shot. Choosing the best monitor will be determined by your needs, not just your pocketbook.[vm_ads:segment_break:7]

Marshal M. Rosenthal is a technology and consumer electronics freelance writer.

[Sidebar:]

Equipment Backup

Shooting a video production must always include the possibility of equipment failure. While a careful examination and run-through of all equipment prior to the shoot can guard against this possibility, should a vital piece of equipment cease functioning when on the job, the loss in time and money can be exorbitant. The simplest solution is to have a back-up of the most critical equipment. This equipment can be rented and, while having similar functionality to the one it might have to replace is desirable, it can be many times less sophisticated than the one it is to replace since the odds are that it won’t be used. If nothing breaks down, the worst thing that has happened is the loss of a rental fee.
 

 

Tags:  June 2013
Marshal
Rosenthal
Tue, 05/28/2013 - 4:53pm

Comments

greglefevre's picture

The D7W lets you really see what you're actually shooting.  No second guessing your tiny lcd monitor or a cheap television set.  I am writing this during a break on set, looking at my D7W mounted on a monitor arm from VFGadgets.com.  The D7W has every essential feature for great field production all in a compact, sturdy, easy to use package.  Buy the kit which includes a great carring case.  The D7W tells you exactly what you need to set color levels, gamma, luminance, focus, framing and exposure.  The learning curve is....there is no learning curve.  

The real benefit is that this monitor will save you time in post.   A 20 second check in the field, pressing the buttons in sequence, will cut hours off color correction in post.

SDI or HDMI inputs, battery or a/c adapter powered, bright, crisp screen, pixel to pixel, variable ratios.

Features for days.