The Case for Field Monitors

Nov 8, 2014

Hugh Brownstone

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

The Case for Field Monitors

Nov 8, 2014

Hugh Brownstone

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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I’m a convert.

Not to any particular religion, but instead to the idea that a field monitor is the most important piece of equipment you can have on a video shoot after the camera, a lens and some kind of support.

This represents a sea change in my worldview. As a still photographer for decades, until recently I thought the bane of my video production existence was audio. But a Zoom H4n, a shotgun, a couple of lavs and a wireless system later, I’ve changed my mind.

And that’s because while I took for granted my ability to obtain tack-sharp focus every time, I’ve learned the hard way once again that assumptions are the mother of all screw-ups.

Turns out it was easier to focus in the good old days of film, manual lenses, split image rangefinders, and coarse microprisms on ground glass than it is today through on-board electronic viewfinders (EVFs) and LCDs.

There’s a reason why third party EVF’s and monitors are so popular.

I recently had the opportunity to review a 7.7” diagonal field monitor, and it was a revelation (no religious undercurrent intended).

Why?

1) You can actually see what you’re filming

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Unless you’ve already got an articulable electronic viewfinder (in the DSLR world, something like the Zacuto EVF with Z-Finder Pro), you won’t be able to see what you’re shooting from low or high angles in bright daylight. Yes, a bunch of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have articulated LCD’s, but just try using them when it’s really bright outside – without blackout cloth draped over your head.

Back in the old days we had waist level finders and before that right angle finders.

Now? Not so much.

With a big, bright field monitor (I’m talking at least 7” diagonal), you’ve got the best possible chance of actually seeing what the camera sees across all scenarios, light and dark. Even without a sunshade, monitors with brightness levels of 400 nits let you see pretty much everything.

There is something to be said for allowing some distance and perspective to help you evaluate your shots.

And don’t underestimate the value of comfortable viewing angles – when you’re on your belly looking trying to look into the viewfinder, you’re probably more interested in standing back up and dusting yourself off than really studying the image – if you can even see all four corners of it. It’s when you have the time and inclination to truly look at what you’re capturing that you’ll find a slightly better angle on your framing – and it’s usually worth it.

2) You can achieve critical focus

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Yes, we have autofocus. And I like the fact that a camera like the Panasonic GH4 has focus peaking. But there’s a world of difference between autofocus and beautiful, slow focus pulling; and between focus peaking in-camera through a small viewfinder or small LCD and the (usually) fuller implementation of focus assist on a bright, big and sharp monitor. With some monitors, you can even select which color you want to use for peaking – and have the option of heightening the contrast further by allowing you to switch to a monochrome view of everything but the in-focus edges.

But what’s at least as important is recognizing that in low contrast situations, focus aids often don’t work – and then you’re left with eyeballing it. Good thing, then, to have that big bright monitor AND magnification built in.

3) You don’t have to eyeball exposure

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It’s not a great idea to rely solely on what you see on the flip out LCD of your DSLR or camcorder for exposure — much better to use an exposure aid such as zebras, waveforms, or false color.

But not all exposure aids are created equal, and I prefer false color to tell me when I’m blowing out my highlights and crushing my blacks. This is another area where prosumer video gear typically falls short, often omitting exposure aids altogether or only going as far as zebras.

A good field monitor will give you not only a two-color false color reading (blown highlights typically show up yellow or red; crushed blacks typically show up as blue), but provide the option for a finer-grained evaluation including mid-tones (e.g., skin, for which an IRE of 50 or so is usually the ticket and – at least in the monitor I reviewed recently — colored orange).

It wasn’t that long ago that I feared false color, but no more. I truly get it now – and I recommend it.

Caveats

Not all cameras play nicely with monitors. Best are those that output in full HD and automatically (and properly) scale, and can send clean HDMI (nothing but the image) – not all do. In fact, on the monitor I tested recently, there were built-in Nikon and Canon DSLR presets – but at least in the case of the Canon Rebel SL1, it didn’t scale properly.

Not only that – focus peaking gets funky as soon as you send display information to a monitor, whether it’s from an SL1 or C100. The monitor will highlight the on screen information as if it is in focus (well, it is…). I’ve seen the exact behavior from the Zacuto EVF, so I chalk that up to “dirty” HDMI. A good monitor makes it easy to switch focus and exposure aids on and off (wouldn’t it be nice if cameras could switch clean HDMI on and off as well, without having to drop down into menus…).

Summary

LCDs which complement viewfinders are good; 5” external monitors all else being equal are better; but the really big shift comes when you move up to 7+” We didn’t cover this earlier, but this is especially true when the monitor is more than a few inches away, as is the case when operating something like a 3-axis gimbal or jib.

The key is making sure your camera can output appropriately.

For those cameras that send the right signal out (typically through HDMI in the prosumer space, SDI for the work-a-day pro gear), there is any number of excellent monitors out there at various price points. Seek, and ye shall find.

About the Author

Hugh Brownstone is a corporate escapee and founder of Three Blind Men and an Elephant, a small video production house with a big animal logo. He’s a regular contributor over at planet5D and works with the team at Resolution Rentals to test and evaluate gear.

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6 responses to “The Case for Field Monitors”

  1. thebeline Avatar
    thebeline

    Unfortunately, my cameras will not output either exposure or focus peeking over HDMI. So, while it does help to have a better view of the scene, it actually makes focusing more difficult (the main screen blacks out when HDMI is connected, joy).

    1. Scott Avatar
      Scott

      You do realize that the monitors perform the exposure and focus peaking internally… right? (Regardless of what camera you plug into them?)

      Usually, the more expensive the monitor, the more modes/features these focus/exposure assist tools have (including full scopes).

      1. thebeline Avatar
        thebeline

        Yay, let’s play this game: You do realize that that is an incorrect statement? First off, I do realize (by the way, that is a great way to come right out the gate and make sure the person you are speaking with doesn’t care much for you, it is also incredibly conducive to constructive conversations, thanks), and second off “that the monitors” is a fairly all-encompassing and brazen qualifier. The monitors? Like, all of them? No, I didn’t realize that, because, see, I own one, and it doesn’t.

        I did not want to buy a $600+ field monitor, so I got one that does HD for around $150. It, however, does not do focus or exposure peaking.

        Which is fine, as: if I am running and gunning, I am not using a field monitor; and if I am shooting a scene, I am taking measurements and focus is predictable.

        Sooo…. Maybe, next time, a more beneficial contribution may have gone like: “Many cameras do not output OSD information, including exposure and focus peeking via HDMI, but there are some Field Monitors that provide this functionality. Unfortunately, many of the field monitors that offer this are priced at $x and higher. You get what you pay for, it is a game of compromises.”

        1. doge Avatar
          doge

          Lighten up, Francis.

      2. thebeline Avatar
        thebeline

        For what it is worth, this is the Field Monitor I purchased.

        http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00LXR2JJE/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o01_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

        Heads up: The sun-shade is on upside down in the picture, I do not know why, but you can attach it either way. Also, the reviews are low on this one, I do not know why. Likely because few people purchase from someone with a bad product picture or something. But the product is stellar (I have yet to write a review for it).

        For $135, however, it is pretty much Rock Star…

  2. AnthonyD42 Avatar
    AnthonyD42

    I guess I thought it was kind of a given to use a monitor when shooting video, but I’m a filmmaker turned photographer so I come at if from a different point of view. However, try using that field monitor on a STILLS shoot and it’s another whole world of fun! Give the monitor to your client and it’s kind of like being tethered without being tethered. Also a cool way to check exposure when using natural light.