Possibly the biggest advantage of working in the industry today is the ability to accurately see exactly what it is you are shooting. We now rely on reference monitors, not as a crutch, but as a powerful tool to ensure we are getting the exact image we want. In the days before digital, the cinematographer would do the math, work out the exposure, shoot it, and find out if his or her efforts worked after the film was developed as early as the next day! Today we use these monitors not just to eyeball exposure. There are built-in are tools such as histograms, vectorscopes, focus peaking, false color and many more that aid us in our work.
We now rely on reference monitors, not as a crutch, but as a powerful tool to ensure we are getting the exact image we want.
Field monitors are only half the equation though, accurate studio displays are a must for any editor, VFX artist or colorist. When working in VFX, I relied heavily on my monitors to make sure my comps looked perfect. I needed to be sure that every element had the same exposure and color and it all looked as if it was shot in camera. Don’t even bother trying to color grade your work on a poor display, that is a recipe for disaster. I know this all sounds expensive and overwhelming, but after you read this buyer’s guide you will have some great options to choose from, no matter your budget. This is by no means a comprehensive anthology of all the available monitors; think of this like a super slick mixtape brought to you by your friends at Videomaker.
First up, let’s take a dive into the pool of field reference monitors. We are focusing on monitors that are intended to be mounted on your camera rig, so we’re not talking about anything larger than 7-inches. This section is also broken down into two parts: standard monitors and monitors that record video. Monitor-recorders are fantastic and an important piece of equipment for people whose camera is capable of sending a higher quality signal out of the camera than it’s able to record internally– cameras such as the new GH5, or the first Sony a7s. Here we go!
F&V Lighting Metica FM HDMI Plus $400 – This is a great beginner monitor. For around $400 you get a decent display with a lot of pro features. The resolution is not quite HD at 1024×600 and has a contrast ratio of only 800:1, but for the money it is great. Plus you get focus peaking, false color, a histogram, adjustable frame guides, audio columns and image zoom. Also the three custom function buttons are super handy. If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on gear, the Metica FM is a wise choice. Your $400 goes a long way.
ikan 5” DH5e $420 – This is a popular display for many low-budget filmmakers, in part because it’s inexpensive but also because ikan has done a great job positioning itself as a reliable source for quality low-budget gear. This monitor is no exception. For only about twenty dollars more than the Metica FM you get a product with a reliable name, an increase in resolution to full HD, and a couple of super-cool features, my favorite of which is “pinch to zoom”; just like your smart phone. The ikan DH5e is a great display and not just for the price.
Marshall Electronics V-LCD70 $725 – Marshall Electronics is another very popular brand when it comes to low-end and mid-level field monitors, and for good reason; these are often very reliable and easy to use. The resolution on this is about the same as the Metica FM with a slightly improved contrast ratio. What this does have going for it is 3G-SDI input and Loop Through Output– a feature usually reserved for more expensive units. Now SDI means nothing if you are using a DSLR or mirrorless camera, but for those with traditional video cameras such as a Sony FS5, this is a cool feature. The Marshall is reliable product, plus the plethora of buttons and dials are super-handy.
Small HD 701 Lite $700 – Since Small HD emerged a few years back, they have introduced a fantastic, well-built and well thought out series of monitors, and this one is no exception. While it is not a full HD display at 1280X720, it is a gorgeous one. The 701 has all the standard professional features you would expect from a professional monitor, but also has the ability to preview LUTs. This is huge, especially when shooting in a log or flat format. It can be very hard to see what your exposure or white balance looks like with an unsaturated and low contrast image. Famed cinematographer Roger Deakins uses LUTs on his preview monitors when shooting digital and so should you. If I only had around $700 to spend on a monitor, this would be my choice. I would trade the SDI inputs of the Marshall for the better designed Small HD 701 Lite. For me, LUT integration is a must.
Small HD Ultra Bright 7” $3,000 – This is a beast. The Ultra Bright is one of the brightest on camera displays you can buy and a beautiful one at that, with a 1920×1080 LTPS LCD display with optically bonded gorilla glass. It has all the professional features you would want and is built like a tank. With a small thumb toggle, back/power button and five custom function buttons, this was designed with the user in mind — though at 3K, it is an expensive animal.
Blackmagic Design Video Assist 4K 7” $895 – Of all the monitors we are discussing in this buyer's guide, the Video Assist by far, gives you the most bang for your buck. It has a glorious full HD touch screen display that can also record 4K video in 10 bit 4:2:2 ProRes or DNx codecs through either of its HDMI or SDI connections. The monitor records to a standard and inexpensive SDXC card and has two slots. The Video Assist also has two mini XLR inputs, which if you are a DSLR shooter is huge. Plus this has all the pro features including LUT previews.
Atomos Ninja Inferno $995 – Atomos makes some of the best monitors you can buy for under 2K, nevermind that they happen to also record video. The Ninja Inferno is one recent addition in a long line of excellently named and built monitors. While this one is geared towards GH5 owners, it is a great monitor for any camera. My favorite feature is pre-record; you get up to eight seconds in HD and two seconds in 4K. Most importantly it can record 120 frames per second in HD and 60 frames per second in 4K. Powerful stuff. One downside, however: it records to SSDs.
Video Devices PIX-E7 7” $1695 – This is a great monitor recorder that is clearly geared towards professional filmmakers. It’s designed very similarly to the more popular Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q, but more on that one later. It records DCI Cinema 4K and is capable of simultaneously recording 4K Prores and HD H.264 Proxy files. Frustratingly, the PIX-E7 records only to proprietary USB drives.
Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q $1795 – This is a super popular choice among professionals and are common on film sets. It can record DCI or UHD 4K in 12 bit Prores 4444. It supports several RAW signals including the Alexa, Sony and Canon, plus has all the pro features including anamorphic desqueeze. The Odyssey 7Q records to dual SSDs and is built to take the daily grind of filmmaking.
Stepping off the set and into the edit bay, it’s time to talk about studio displays. As any indie filmmaker can tell you, editing, color grading or VFX work on a standard or budget monitor is an uphill battle– one you likely can’t win. You must invest in a decent display to work on.
You will notice one brand missing from this list; sadly Apple no longer makes it’s beloved Cinema Display. Like a lot of people, I adored them, but Apple as lent some of that technology to LG ,who have made a fine replacement, but more on that later.
Viewsonic VP2780 4K $700 – Starting at the low end is the VP2780. I know, seven hundred bucks for a low end? It only goes up from here, but trust me, this is an area where you don’t want to skimp on money. The VP2780 is a beautiful UHD 4K 27-inch display that does a better than average job at displaying colors and contrast. The monitor isn’t lacking in connectivity with one HDMI 2.0, two HDMI MHL, four USB 3.0 but not a single DisplayPort! Sorry Mac users, you’ll need an adapter. This is a great display for those who don’t have mounds of cash to throw at a monitor.
Dell U3415W 34” Ultra Sharp $780 – If you can only afford one display, a curved one might be your best choice. I actually prefer them to dual monitor setups. The slightly curved display is ultra wide with an aspect ration of 21:9, perfect for editing and VFX work. Not only do you get a lot of real estate to play with, but the colors are superb and the images are sharp. Plus, it’s got two display ports for the Macs, a USB 3.0 HUB with two USB upstream ports and four USB downstream ports.
LG Ultra Fine 5K $1,300 – This is basically the new Apple Cinema Display. This 5K monitor is one of the best you can buy when it comes to image quality and color. Once you use one you can’t go back. Seriously, it will ruin you. The downside is that all those beautiful pixels are packed into a 27-inch screen, and it only has an uninspiring three USB-C ports.
HP Dreamcolor 732x Professional $1,400 – Like the LG Ultra Fine, this is a gorgeous display with near perfect color representation. Plus, it’s a couple extra inches bigger at 31.5 inches. Though the resolution is slightly less at 4K, the Dreamcolor is designed to be a workhorse for industry professionals. It’s not the sexiest machine — it’s kind of clunky and large — but it gets the job done well.
Eizo ColorEdge CG277 $2,430 – Eizo is a standard name in high-end monitors and the ColorEdge CG277 lives up to the name with basically perfect color representation thanks to a built-in calibrator. This display is designed to be used by colorists and editors. There is nothing glamorous about the monitor other than its perfect images. Then again, for almost twenty five hundred it better be pretty darn good.
It doesn’t matter whether you are looking for an in-studio reference display or a field monitor, the calculus is the same: you buy the monitor that fits your budget. Personally, I would love to have two curved monitors to edit off of and a Eizo Coloredge as a reference but I don’t have that kind of budget. All the monitors we listed are great products that will get the job done. Monitors are just like any other piece of equipment; they are only as good as the monkey using them.
Side Bar: Why should i care about color?
Color is one of the most important factors when considering a new monitor. Heck — it’s one of the principle reasons we spend so much money on them. There are several ways we judge a display's image quality, these include the color gamut, contrast ratio and color depth.
Color Gamut refers to the total number of colors the display can potentially reproduce. This is quantified by using one of three different gamuts — NTSC, sRGB, AdobeRGB — and is measured by percentage, the higher the percent the more colors of that gamut it can represent, though percents of each gamut are not equatable. Confusing, I know. NTSC is the first official standard and was developed back in 1953. While many consumer companies and even some professional ones still quote this, NTSC is antiquated and virtually meaningless. sRGB is the standard with all consumer LCD displays and works very well with consumer content. AdobeRGB was developed by, you guessed it, Adobe and is 17 percent larger than sRGB and was intended to be used by professionals. A display with a high NTSC rating does not mean it has can reproduce more colors than and AdobeRGB monitor with a lower percentage. When a high end monitor such as the Eizio Color Edge can reproduce 99 percent of AdobeRGB it is a big deal because that is a lot of information.
Another number you want to look at when deciding on a monitor is its contrast ratio. This is essentially how dark the blacks are compared to how bright the whites are. A decent monitor will have a ratio of 1000:1 but they go much much higher than that.
Last, but also very important, is the monitor's color depth which is the color range of the pixels used in the monitor and is represented as 8-bit (256 colors), 16-bit (65,536 colors) and 24-bit (16.7 million colors). Obviously, those numbers went up exponentially. Most consumer monitors are 8-bit and are very limited in their ability to show a variety of colors, which is one of major reasons consumer displays are garbage for professional work. High-end monitors are typically 16-bit.
Jason Miller is an Emmy Award nominated producer, editor and visual effects artist whose work has been seen in feature films and national marketing campaigns.