The first & most significant thing pros use is years of experience. When I walk into a space, I can look around & predict where problems are likely to arise. So I’m solving the bulk of the possible troubles before I start setting up. And right now it sounds like you all ain’t seen the vast expanse of potential problems. So you have a lot of exciting times ahead.
Now I started shooting back in the era of video pick-up tubes and cameras & field recorders were connected by cables. The idea of LCD displays to frame & focus was years away, after all, they had just developed the very popular LCD digital watches. So we did our field work through a black & white viewfinder. And white balancing required the right filter to be in place. So it required me to trust my skills while I was gaining those skills. So what I did was develop a production checklist and use it religiously. Almost always taking the same steps in the same order. Shot considerations before camera & scene set-up, connect & adjust the audio and final camera set-up (white balance, iris setting, sharp focus in manual at full zoom and a whole lot more.) I couldn’t see the footage in color & full size until I got home.
Of course, now I wouldn’t consider not using the color LCD display to verify overall image quality & check the stuff I shot. And to be honest, I use auto functions a lot. When they are appropriate for the conditions. And experience is the trick I use to know when to do what. Including when I’ll need something better than an LCD camera display to adjust the camcorder(s).
When I need to fine tune the camera settings, I use something no longer available (more or less) or useful for you. Some time back, Serious Magic created the DV Rack software package. Designed to run on a laptop for field productions, DV Rack contained a number of modules. In fact, it had the full complement of tools you asked about. And more! In addition to a waveform monitor & a vectorscope, there was a tech monitor module. And they all worked very well. Then they made numerous improvements when they upgraded the product to handle HDV. The package was a steal considering what the equivalent tools would cost. It would have been exactly what you needed to view, review and record with complete confidence that what you’re seeing is what you’re getting. When I purchased my VX2100 from B & H Photo, they threw in a copy of DV Rack Express. Which is great for me, since I don’t shoot HDV. Now the Express version of the software only contains a few modules. There is the extremely useful tech monitor and direct-to-disc AVI2 recording. So when I think I may need to fine tune the camcorders, I just bring along my laptop and I have a WYSIWYG tech monitor. Although I’d love to have my very own vectorscope & waveform monitor, the tech monitor module gets me through.
Now DV Rack Express is still available at B & H Photo for around a $100, but it only works with SD video. If there is a way to record HD on your camcorder and send a letterboxed SD version out the Firewire port, you could benefit greatly from this package. I routinely use it and think it’s just the cat’s meow. But when Adobe purchased DV Rack from Serious Magic, they pulled all of the full function packages off the market. So in order to get this very useful and upgraded version you need to purchase Adobe’s On Location software. But to make sure they rip you off, the only way to purchase On Location is in a Professional Premiere Pro package for over $800. I call it a rip off since you have to buy the full pro version of Adobe Premiere Pro to use a tool totally EDL independent. The BASTARDS! But anyway, back to the question at hand. (Oh I just remembered there is a different program available for Mac’s; it is reviewed as part of a recent two part article from Digital Content Producer (you know the www & .com) in case you went that route.)
If you aren’t able to use a Mac (with software I know nothing about, I haven’t had the chance to read part 2 of the article) and don’t have the desire to spend $800 for Adobe Premiere Pro, we’re talking about field monitors. You first need to decide what elements of the video image have to be monitored. Framing & general image quality don’t really require a full-blown tech monitor. But you must be able to “tech” your monitor option to display NTSC bars properly. Here’s another skill acquired by practice & experience. But as I point out in my response in another forum question about video monitors, you can only adjust a TV as precise as your ability to judge color. Which is another skill practice improves. But I go into detail there, so I won’t repeat it here.
Let me close with what I believe is a tremendous problem for beginners (of any level.) Too many of us get fixated on trying to make perfect productions. But once we realize the real world prevents us from achieving perfection in the production as a whole, we obsess over our equipment. We think we need the best camcorder, which seems to require perfect lighting & set-up. The thing that differentiates seasoned pros from most is they have realized that video production is an engineering project. Before modern engineering, structures were built using materials custom made for their function. But to build a tower of steel & glass, better coordination between material suppliers and building crews was required. Most of that coordination was achieved by the simple application of engineering tolerances. A beam is a certain length, plus or minus the required tolerance. Tolerance being the amount of variation that doesn’t negative effect the construction.
So when I say that TV is an engineering project, what I’m telling you is, “Determine your required tolerances to be successful.” So long as we have cathode ray tube displays, we have to be aware of our “safe area” in order to frame for every viewer. But if your project is a POS video for a store using wide-screen, flat panel displays, you’d want to use the entire frame for composition. You have to determine your tolerances for each production task. Green screen shooting works best if the screen is evenly lit from the camera’s point of view. You mentioned a situation where you had a “unseen glare from the green color,” I wonder if it was not “unseen” but “unnoticed.” There’s a huge difference. Monitors & scopes can really help with exposure, white balance and framing, but when there are unnoticed production details, nothing will help. The last chromakey I set up took me some six hours to hang the backdrops and set the lighting. I was working in too close to the background and having shadow problems. The finished video wasn’t perfect, but it was adequate for its purpose. I could have finished hours sooner if I’d just reviewed my tolerances for chromakey before I got stuck. So even seasoned pros can get caught up in trying to perfect something when all we need is adequate (which still means way better than average.)
So review your needs and see if you can’t get by with a decent portable color TV. You’ll have a lot of options if you don’t shoot where you can’t get electricity. But there are battery powered color monitors found in the RV & Camping stores. Just look around, but your best bet is to learn to shoot without them. Don’t get me wrong, they can be a real asset. But not on every shoot. Learn to see what you are doing in the context of what’s most important here? And let me tell you, for the struggling production company, the best cost to value option for improving productions is called practice. Especially when you’re not under the gun to please your client, just fooling around with your tools to learn what happens if we do this? Can I chromakey a chicken? You want to learn the real variables in a production so you don’t have to waste time on stuff that’s already adequate.