Videographer using a field monitor

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 amongst 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.
This author’s small production company bought our first Canon 5D Mark II in 2010. One of the main reasons we loved the camera was that it was able to shoot at extremely shallow depths of field, allowing us to separate our subject from its background and foreground and give our video that coveted cinematic feel. 

The 5D Mark II wasn’t designed to shoot video, however, and we quickly experienced some of the pitfalls of using a still-photography camera to capture motion. One of the first challenges we 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 we needed to find a workaround that would complement our production style.

We quickly discovered that the better solution for our camera issues was to use an external field monitor.

We started shooting with magnification loupes and camera-attached hoods, which worked great as a sunshade and helped us achieve accurate focus, but we were still stuck using the inadequate camera display. We quickly discovered that the better solution for our camera issues was to use an external field 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 we’re shooting on a Red Epic or a Panasonic GH4, we’ll usually have a field monitor or two on set.

Why do I need a field monitor?

A field monitor is an external, portable, battery-powered display that replicates the picture being recorded to camera. We most often attach our monitor directly to the camera or camera rig, and sometimes we’ll attach it to a light stand as a stand-alone monitor for clients to view. Most field monitors available today range from five to nine inches in screen size, making them two to three times larger than most camera displays. When we’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. We also regularly use jibs, sliders and stabilizers that require the use of an external monitor to direct camera movement.

The Picture

The vast majority of field monitors use traditional LCD technology for their screens. However some of the newer, higher-end LCD panels integrate IPS (In-Plane Switching) technology, resulting in a higher contrast ratio and better, more accurate overall color and better image quality. Lately, the monitor trend has been moving towards even newer, OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) displays, which according to SmallHD, offer the richest colors and extremely high contrast ratios. When comparing SmallHD’s AC7 LCD and AC7 OLED models, there is a dramatic difference in image quality and brightness output. The extra brightness of OLED 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. We’ve enjoyed using the reasonably priced five-inch Marshall VLCD50, which includes focus peaking, false color and image magnification. And unlike its SmallHD competitor, the DP4, the Marshall includes tactile, programmable buttons, making toggling between these features quick and easy.

Shooting a flatter picture also requires us to add that color and definition back into the image during the post-production process where we commonly use LUTs (Look Up Tables) and other color software. A new generation of monitors, like the Convergent Design Odessy7, now have the ability to upload the LUTs we use in post into its internal memory, allowing us to toggle between the image camera is capturing and a version with the LUT applied. This is really helpful when working with clients hoping to view a more accurately colored picture.

Get connected

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.

Get powered

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. 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.

Field Monitors + Recorders

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 ?-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.

How do we choose?

There are so many details to consider when making any technology purchase, but our first consideration is how often we 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 SmallHD monitors, from the DP4 and AC7 on up to the DP7 might be a good fit. For smaller budget TV commercials that require more than an MPEG encoding, consider partnering the Canon C100 with a 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 field 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. 

Popular Field Monitors

Entry Level Field Monitors

Ikan | VL5

($275)
(http://ikancorp.com/productdetail.php?id=563)
Spec: 5" LCD | 800×480 resolution | HDMI
Features: Peaking, Blue Gun, Under Scan

Marshall | V-LCD50-HDI

($519)
(http://www.lcdracks.com/monitors/model/V-LCD50-HDI.php)
Spec: 5" LCD | 800×480 resolution | HDMI
Features: False Color, Peaking, Magnification, Image Flip, Assignable Keys

SmallHD | DP4

($599)
(https://www.smallhd.com/products/dp4/index.html)
Spec: 4.3" LCD | 800×480 resolution | HDMI + Pass through, Component, Composite
Features: False Color, Focus Assist, Magnification, Image Flip, Aluminum Frame

Entry Level Field Monitors
Entry Level Field Monitors

Mid-Level Field Monitors

Ikan | VK7i

($550)
(http://ikancorp.com/productdetail.php?id=614)
Spec: 7" IPS LCD | 1280×800 resolution | HDMI, Component, Composite
Features: False Color, Focus Assist, Magnification, Image Flip, Assignable Keys

SmallHD | AC7-LCD

($599) | AC7-LCD-SDI ($899)
(https://www.smallhd.com/products/ac7/index.html#)
Spec: 6.95" LCD | 1280×800 resolution | HDMI, Component, Composite
Features: False Color, Focus Assist, Magnification, Image Flip, Aluminum Frame

SmallHD | AC7-OLED

($899) | AC7-OLED-SDI ($999)
(https://www.smallhd.com/products/ac7/index.html#)
Spec: 7.7" OLED | 1280×800 resolution | HDMI, Component, Composite
Features: False Color, Focus Assist, Magnification, Image Flip, Aluminum Frame

Mid Level Field Monitors

Professional Field Monitors

Marshall | V-LCD70MD-3G

($1029)
(http://www.lcdracks.com/monitors/model/V-LCD70MD.php)
Spec: 7" IPS LCD | 1024×600 resolution | HDMI, 3G SDI + Pass through
Features: False Color, Focus Assist, Waveform, Image Flip, Assignable Keys

SmallHD | DP7-LCD

($1499)
(https://www.smallhd.com/products/dp7-pro/dp7-pro-lcd.html)
Spec: 7" 8-bit IPS LCD | 1280×800 resolution | HDMI, SDI + Pass through
Features: False Color, Focus Assist, Magnification, Image Flip, Aluminum Frame
Smart-Keys | Waveform & Scopes | Programmable 3D-LUTs

SmallHD | DP7-OLED

($1999)
(https://www.smallhd.com/products/dp7-pro/dp7-pro-oled.html)
Spec: 7.7" OLED | 1280×800 resolution | HDMI, SDI + Pass through
Features: False Color, Focus Assist, Magnification, Image Flip, Aluminum Frame
Smart-Keys | Waveform & Scopes | Programmable 3D-LUTs

Professional Field Monitors

Field Monitors + Recorders

Atomos Ninja Blade

($995)
(http://www.atomos.com/ninja-blade/)
Spec: 5" IPS LCD touch screen | 1280×720 resolution | HDMI
Features: False Color, Focus Assist, Magnification,
Uncompressed 10/8bit 4:2:2 HD ProRes + DNxHD encoding

Atomos Shogun

($1995)
(http://www.atomos.com/shogun/)
Spec: 7" IPS LCD touch screen | 1920×1200 resolution | HDMI + 12G SDI | XLR audio
Features: False Color, Focus Assist, Magnification,
Uncompressed 10/8bit 4:2:2 4k + HD ProRes + DNxHD + Raw encoding
Waveform & Scopes | Programmable 3D-LUTs | Timecode

Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q

($1795)
(https://convergent-design.com/products/odyssey7q.html)
Spec: 7.7" OLED touch screen| 1280×800 resolution | HDMI + 12G SDI | XLR audio
Features: False Color, Focus Assist, Magnification, High Speed recording
Uncompressed 10/8bit 4:2:2 4k + HD ProRes 422 HQ + Raw encoding (upgrade)
Waveform & Scopes | Programmable 3D-LUTs | Timecode

Field Monitors and Recorders

 

Brad Watanabe is the owner and director of Hawaii-based video production company Berad Studio (beradstudio.com) and lead writer for video/photo production blog HawaiiShoots.com. 

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Susan is the Art Director at Videomaker and YouTuber Magazines.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I shoot with field monitors almost exclusively now.  Even the most modest version are a huge benefit.  Easier to compose a shot, and most importantly to see if your focus is correct.  You have to buy a higher end one to judge color and exposure, but even a relatively modest Lilliput is a huge benefit over the on camera display.  

  2. I am just thinking to buy a SDI monitor.One of my friends recommend me this 7 inch Feelworld monitor with 3G-SDI. I checked, and find it is IPS panel,1280*800, and with Waveform, Vector Scope, RGB Histogram etc. Have you guys tried this one before? Can you give me some suggestion about it?

  3. I’m shooting with a 270 degree lens and need to overlay graphic markers onto a live feed. Does anyone know of a field monitor I can overlay my own graphic file without the use of an external mixer? Thanks tony@povr.co.uk

  4. I’m shooting with a 270 degree lens and need to overlay graphic markers onto a live feed. Does anyone know of a field monitor I can overlay my own graphic file without the use of an external mixer? Thanks tony@povr.co.uk

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