Choosing an On-Camera Monitor
While many people start by looking for a monitor within a specific price range, you may be better served by defining which features you need in a monitor before you consider price. This way, you will most likely get a better overall understanding of the value of the features, which will better fit your workflow. Spending a little extra time now will help you choose an on-camera monitor that will serve you a lot better and for a lot longer than a monitor you chose just based on price.
There are many different manufacturers' on-camera monitors available at B&H, in a wide range of features and sizes. This may make choosing one on-camera monitor a daunting task, even when selecting from a single manufacturer's lineup.
Monitor or Monitor/Recorder Combination
One of the first criteria to consideration is whether you want just a monitor or a monitor/recorder combination. Advantages of a monitor/recorder combination are that you can create high-quality recordings that your camera's internal recorder may not be able to match. You are also assured that you will get the same recording file no matter what camera you use, and this can pay off when you are in the editing room. Additionally, a monitor/recorder combination is going to have built-in monitoring features and image tools that you may find useful when shooting. Not all non-recording on-camera monitors will have these features.
Atomos Shogun 4K Monitor/Recorder
Size and Weight Matter
Once you sort out which way you want to go, the next most important feature to evaluate is size. For the most part, an on-camera monitor serves as a more flexible viewing screen that is larger than your camera's view screen or EVF, and one you can position independently of the camera itself. This allows you to use it as a composition and framing aid. Your monitor choice will most likely depend on how big a screen you need, or feel comfortable using. Remember that the bigger the on-camera monitor, the more you will have to move your head to see around the monitor. Taking into consideration the size and weight of an onboard monitor, the 5 to 7" monitors are generally preferred, with other sizes being useful mounted off the camera and in special applications. You will most likely be able to find similar monitoring and image tool options such as peaking, false color, histogram, waveform, parade, and Vectorscope in the 5 to 7" range. One thing to note is that there is now a full-featured 5" view screen that can be converted to an eyepiece-type viewfinder, similar to using a loupe on a DSLR's screen, something that just isn't going to work with a 7" screen.
Weight is often overlooked, until you've mounted the monitor and are shooting handheld all day. You definitely want to consider the weight of the monitor, and how you will mount it. The more weight, the more quickly you will get fatigued, and with fast camera moves, a heavy monitor may shift and upset your balance.
Inputs, Signal Format, and Frame Rate
Now that you've established what size monitor/recorder or simple monitor you need, some things to consider are how important multiple inputs/outputs, signal cross-conversion, and video scopes with image evaluation tools are to you. If you just need a run-and-gun rig, with a more flexible view screen than the one on your camera, then extra inputs/outputs and cross-conversion are most likely not necessary for you at this stage of the game. Something you will want to check with is the frame rate that your monitor supports, as cameras are now outputting a variety of frame rates. Since you are looking for an on-camera monitor, and weight is an issue, you want to avoid using a frame-rate converter if you can.
If you are working on more organized shoots, you will probably find it useful for your monitor to have a loop-through output so you can pass the signal on to other equipment. SDI is considered the professional standard, and HDMI, found on DSLRs, is considered more of a consumer standard, although it can be found on camcorders and even some high-end cameras. If you do opt for a monitor with both HDMI and SDI connectors, on-camera monitors that offer cross conversion between the two standards is becoming more commonplace and easier to find.
Connectors along the bottom of the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q+ Monitor/Recorder
Here is where the monitor's resolution will make a difference. You may feel that it is necessary to have Full HD resolution, and 1920 x 1080 panels are becoming more available in 5 and 7" sizes. Most monitors with lower resolution will scale your video for display, allowing you to see the entire frame. This may introduce scaling artifacts, but it is doubtful that a scaling artifact, unless it is glaring, will disturb you when operating the shot. Where the resolution will make a difference is when you are reviewing your footage. Seeing the entire frame without scaling artifacts is nice, and most lower-resolution monitors provide a 1:1 Pixel mode that allows you to view parts of your image at full resolution. It may be a while before we see 4K on-camera displays, as there is some disagreement as to the smallest screen size that allows you to see 4K resolution but, most likely, your camera will provide a downscaled 1920 x 1080 output.
Image Evaluation Tools and Scopes
Unless you are only looking for the minimal monitor to use as a viewfinder, you may want to have peaking for focus, and exposure tools such as false color and Zebra bars. 1:1 pixel capability and zoom are important, and if you can read scopes, waveform, Vectorscope, and parade, they can be invaluable for objectively evaluating your video signal.
Atomos Ninja Blade Monitor/Recorder displaying RGB Parade, Time Code, On-Screen Menu, and Playback Controls
At this point, it is probably a good idea to consider your budget. It may just be that you can find all the features you want in an on-camera monitor for less than you were prepared to spend, or you may realize that the features you thought you needed just aren't important right now. Then again, you may find that there are some killer features that are worth the investment. In either case, by considering the features that are important to you before you consider price, you will be able to evaluate the monitors based on their value to you, not just on how much they cost.
Things to Know
Now that we've had a general overview of the important features of an on-camera monitor, you will find a more specific explanation of terms that apply to monitors.
HDMI versus SDI versus Component & Composite
Composite is a standard-definition signal only, and is still available from some cameras.
Component Video is a better signal transmission system than Composite, as it breaks the signal into luminance (green) and red and blue. Component signals can be either Standard Definition or High Definition.
HDMI is an uncompressed all-digital audio/video interface for transferring uncompressed video data and compressed or uncompressed digital audio data from an HDMI-compliant source device. HDMI is generally considered a consumer interface, but it has made inroads into the professional world. Generally speaking, even when using a good-quality cable, an HDMI signal will degrade and become unusable after about 49 feet, which limits your cable runs without using a signal repeater. HDMI is not interchangeable with SDI signals, although there are converters available, and some monitors will cross-convert from HDMI to SDI.
SDI Serial Digital Interface is a professional signal standard. It is generally classified as SD, HD, or 3G-SDI, depending on the transmission bandwidth it supports. SD refers to Standard-Definition signals, HD-SDI refers to High-Definition signals up to 1080/30p, and 3G-SDI supports 1080/60p SDI signals. With SDI signals, the better the cable, the longer the cable run can be before signal degradation renders the signal unusable. Select high-quality cables can support 3G-SDI signals up to 390 feet and SD-SDI signals to more than 2,500 feet. SDI signals are not compatible with HDMI signals, although signal converters are available and some monitors will cross-convert from SDI to HDMI
Cross-Conversion is a process that converts the video signal from one format to another.
Loop Through Loop through outputs take the input to the monitor and pass it through unchanged. This is useful when you want to feed a monitor and send the signal farther to other devices, such as the video village or a director's monitor.
Touchscreen versus Front-Panel Buttons
Touchscreen panels can be very useful, making it simple to interface with your device. Some monitors feature touchscreens for menu navigation and selection. Often, touchscreens are found on monitor recorders-most touchscreens are capacitive, which require contact with your skin. This is probably not going to be an issue, except in the cold if you are wearing gloves.
Monitors with front-panel buttons tend to be larger than their touch-panel counterparts, but the buttons and knobs allow you to work more easily with them while wearing gloves.
Usually found built into monitors designed for First Person Viewing (FPV) RF receivers are often used with remote cameras, such as those mounted on a drone or quadcopter. These monitors are more often than not standard definition, although some may use higher-resolution screens. The Radio Frequency (RF) signal is analog as opposed to digital, as most analog monitors tolerate signal loss better than digital monitors do.
To LUT or Not to LUT
LUT stands for Look-up Table, and allows you to alter the way a monitor will display the video. This feature is often found on a monitor/recorder and it allows you to apply image and color space conversion when displaying flat or low-contrast log gamma video without affecting the video recording or signal. Some monitors allow you to choose to apply no LUT, the same LUT, or a different LUT to the output of the monitor, which can be useful when recording downstream, or sending the video to another monitor.
Atomos Assassin with LUT menu screen
Viewing Angle can become very important, as the camera operator may shift his/her position relative to the monitor during the shot. A wide viewing angle allows the operator to have a clear, easy-to-see image as their position shifts. A narrow viewing area may make the image on the monitor appear to shift in color/contrast as you change your position relative to the monitor, which may make viewing the footage/operating the camera difficult. In the world of LCD-panel technologies, IPS panels offer the best viewing angles, with angles up to 178 degrees.
Contrast Ratio and Brightness
Monitors with high contrast ratios and brightness tend to display a more pleasing image. They also become much easier to see in exteriors where you may normally have reflections and glare from the sun or sky. However, even high-contrast/brightness monitors may benefit from using a sun hood of some kind.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this article, and that it has clearly identified some of the steps in the process of choosing an on-camera monitor.