Video / Hands-on Review

Hands-On Review: SmallHD 502 On-Camera Monitor

         

Coinciding with the so-called “DSLR Revolution,” SmallHD has since been supporting camera assistants (ACs) assigned the daunting task of pulling perfect focus, Directors of Photography (DPs) light and compose their shots, and Directors (no fancy acronyms for this one) realize their vision, with affordable, high-quality, and durable monitoring solutions. I became familiar with SmallHD’s products when I was working in a video equipment rental house. As DSLRs and other popular video cameras would go out on rental, any SmallHD DP4, DP6, and DP7 monitors we had in stock would often go along with them. Carrying on in the SmallHD tradition, the 502 monitor is compact, high-resolution, durable, and innovative. It seems priced pretty much in line with other feature-laden monitors, so does it live up to its price tag?

Compared to some of the monitors that I’ve used in the past, the outside of the 502 is pretty sparse. This is not a bad thing, in my opinion, since the lack of copious front-panel controls lends this monitor a very clean appearance. But how do you change advanced settings on the fly? This is where the innovation comes in, and I’ll talk about that later in this review. The chassis itself feels weighted, although not overly so, and is mainly composed of rubber-coated metal. This part conducts heat very well and will warm up considerably when in use. From what I was told by SmallHD, this is not a problem and should not be a cause of worry. The front and rear are capped in a grip-textured plastic, which does not conduct heat as well, so there are no heat issues there.

 

I’m pleased to say that the LCD is covered with an easily replaceable screen protector, so if there is ever a need to swap because of an on-set “learning experience,” the replacement process should be a relatively painless one. Other than the screen itself, the front of the monitor also has a four-direction joystick and a “back” button, which makes it look a bit like a smartphone when turned on its side. To the traditionalist it may seem sparse, but as I’ll explain later, this monitor is not lacking for control.

The rear of the monitor has the dual LP-E6 battery slots for power, the HDMI and SDI I/O, and a mounting plate. The mounting plate itself wraps around 90 degrees to the bottom for easy camera-top placement. Another 1/4"-20 mounting point is placed on the right-hand side, so no shortage of options here. On the top of the monitor you’ll find the power button, an SD card slot for firmware updates and storing LUTs and personal profiles, and an image-capture button that saves a frame grab from the incoming video stream. While I did not find myself taking advantage of this feature during my time with the 502, frame-grabs directly from the monitor can be used to check your composition quickly for shot-to-shot continuity if you’re filming a narrative piece. Using the included monitor mount screwed into the bottom, the 502 balanced nicely on my Sony a7S.

So what makes this monitor different? Well, as we saw above, this monitor doesn’t really have much in the way of dedicated function buttons like we’re used to seeing on monitors in this price range. What this monitor lacks in terms of buttons it makes up for with an intuitive streamlined GUI (Graphical User Interface) driven by the front-panel joystick and button. Now, I know some of you are probably running for the hills thinking of camera GUIs and how terribly unintuitive they can be sometimes. Let me tell you, the guys at SmallHD have done their homework and created a unique way to adjust your monitor settings. While getting the monitor set up initially requires a little homework of your own by using the monitor’s built-in tutorial and becoming familiar with the wide gamut of options available to you, it will ultimately make you wonder how you ever used a different monitor.

The basis of the 502’s operation is a “pages” concept, similar to the way you navigate the Web using tabs, or how you flip through apps on a smartphone or tablet. Each page can have completely different settings. For example, I have one page set up with a waveform and a LUT so I can use that page to set my exposure when shooting in S-LOG2. The next page retains the LUT but removes the waveform and adds focusing guides and framing overlays so I can compose for the project’s intended aspect ratio. The best part? I can easily switch between the two with a flick of the joystick. The back button zooms out to show an overview of your pages and can you access the menu by scrolling all the way to the left using the joystick. Speaking of LUTs, the 502 can output the video signal with a LUT downstream to a client or director’s monitor via HDMI or SDI. This way, you won’t hear your client complaining about the washed-out LOG image. This feature on its own can effectively replace hardware that can cost more than the monitor itself.

Using this monitor atop my a7S was a blast. The image on the calibrated 1080p HD screen was very detailed and accurately portrayed both the flat S-Log2 image and one converted with a LUT from the SD card. When used outside, the image will wash out rather easily, due to the reflectivity of the screen protector; however, the bespoke stretchy-fabric hood included in the kit easily snaps on to save the day. A nice thing about the hood: because the monitor only has two controls on the front (and no touchscreen), it doesn’t block any of the user interfaces.

In my opinion, one of the coolest things about the 502 is its ability to transform into an EVF with the optional Sidefinder. Unfortunately, I did not receive a Sidefinder attachment to test (and if SmallHD is reading this, I would love for them to send me one for review), although the feedback I hear is generally positive. While SmallHD has done the monitor/EVF combo thing before (specifically with the SmallHD DP4), this design is a massive improvement over just about any other solution I’ve seen, to date. The ability to flip the monitor out from the loupe attachment is ingenious. Kudos!

So. Is it worth it? In short, yes. If you are willing to fork over some hard-earned cash to purchase this monitor, I cannot recommend it enough. If you are strapped for cash, there are other options to consider, including the little brother to the 502, the 501, which has everything the 502 has, minus the SDI spigots. Perhaps in the future SmallHD will offer a 501 to 502 paid hardware upgrade like they offered on some of their previous monitors, but that’s only speculation on my part. If you can’t scrape together enough savings for the 501 and you absolutely need a monitor, go with a lower-end model and then work your way up. The tools available on the 502 can actually end up saving you time, and therefore money, in post, especially if you shoot in Log formats and take advantage of LUTs.

While this monitor does not have many competitors yet, I feel that a very strong alternative could be the Video Devices PIX-E monitor/recorders. For a little more cash you get many similar features to the 502 with the additions of 4K recording, a touchscreen, and traditional button controls. Now, considering the cost of media and other accessories, the PIX-E can come close to doubling the price of a 502 by itself, so it’s not an entirely fair comparison. But for some more cash, you gain a lot of functionality. However, the 502 is more compact and has a more ergonomic, unified design that doesn’t expose crucial components to impact, and which requires fewer extra components. What’s more is the fact that many current cameras used by professional content creators can already record very high-quality files by themselves, basically obviating the need to spend any significantly larger sum for a feature that may not be necessary. DPs who work for clients with a budget to rent high-end gear may not be using the same camera for every shoot, but pack up the 502 with the necessary LUTs and you will be able to pair the 502 with any camera from a DSLR to the most expensive of cinema cameras.

If you are considering purchasing this monitor, I would recommend you get the kit version—either with or without the Sidefinder, depending on your needs—since it includes everything you need to get started, from batteries and a charger to HDMI and SDI cables, spare screen protectors, and even a hardshell case for storage, among other accessories, without significantly denting your wallet that much more. I wish it came with a micro HDMI cable that would work with my a7S, but I suppose you can’t always have your cake and eat it, too. I ended up purchasing a coiled micro HDMI to HDMI cable from Wooden Camera that worked swimmingly. If you are in the market for a high-resolution monitor that can also double as an EVF with the Sidefinder, the 502 would make an excellent choice. Check it out!

Discussion 2

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While this monitor may be a slight step forward in terms of providing a camera operator a better viewfinder, it still has a long, long way to go before it reaches the functionality of the optical viewfinders of the film era. For a camera operator, nothing beats the accuracy, intimacy and efficiency of a good optical viewinder as fitted to cameras like the Aaton 35, Cameflex and Panaflex cameras.

The small area of a ground glass is easy to cover with an eye and the operator can take in the entire scene without scanning. Importantly, all professional ground glass viewfinders overscanned so the operator could see action outside the frame area, whether it was boom mikes or the end-mark of a camera move.

Perhaps most importantly, the entire 'rig' of a modern DSLR video camera has the ergonomics of… something like a Technicolour 3 strip camera. Cameras like the Eclair Cameflex and NPR reinvented the language of the cinema because they were small, portable and could be shoulder mounted. Nothing in the DSLR field comes remotely close to providing the "small" film unit ethic of these old cameras.

Technology and commercially driven product development has taken over from the artists and artisans of the past.

D

Hi D,

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Much has indeed changed since the golden age of film. Pages upon pages can be written about the evolution of filmmaking through the "DSLR Age". While I have never personally used a reflex optical viewfinder in a film camera, probably the closest I've come to that experience was when I had the brief opportunity to use an ARRI ALEXA. The ALEXA's viewfinder actually displays video outside the recorded frame for that purpose. From talking to my colleagues who have shot extensively on film cameras, I gather that it is a different experience, in more ways than just the ergonomics. Much can be discussed about the inherent mechanical aspects of the film camera "experience", the shooting process, the mentality, and handling the film itself.

Indeed the times have changed.

All the best.