In the Field: SmallHD FOCUS OLED On-Camera Monitor

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I recently had the opportunity to work with the SmallHD 5.5" FOCUS OLED On-Camera Monitor for HDMI. What you need to know is swipe left, swipe right, swipe up, and swipe down. It takes a little time to figure it out—at first I was swiping too fast, but the touchscreen interface replaces front-panel buttons, switches, and knobs. It is a compact unit, sleek and smartly designed. I already own a 7" on-camera monitor from another company, and that monitor has front-panel buttons and knobs, multiple power inputs, video in/out, and it is a lovely piece of gear that will now be relegated to the Director because the FOCUS OLED is just too useful a piece of gear for the DP/Camera Operator to give up to someone else. The 5.5" screen offers more than enough display real estate, and its simplicity of use is just what I'm looking for—plus, the included mounting arm is a revelation. I worked with the FOCUS OLED monitor on both a RED GEMINI, as well as a Panasonic GH5, on interiors and exteriors, and although designed for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, it was still a powerful tool when working with the RED GEMINI.

SmallHD 5.5" FOCUS OLED Monitor

Why Use a Second Monitor

Offering a 5.5" screen may not seem like such an advantage for your DSLR or mirrorless camera, which probably has its own built-in LCD screen. Besides what we already know—that you can position a second monitor pretty much wherever it works best for you—it isn't just about having a second monitor that isn't locked into the camera body, it is about having a more flexible view.

Tech Specs

I'm not going to bog down this review with a lot of tech specs regarding resolution and display. If that is what you need then please click here. I will say the monitor is OLED, which provides deep blacks and good contrast, and is bright enough to use on exterior shoots without an accessory hood.

Bundles

The FOCUS OLED is available either in HDMI or SDI, and also in a variety of dedicated bundles for select camera or battery models. I tested the FOCUS OLED HDMI, so that will be the focus of this article.

No Buttons or Controls

This is not exactly true: there is a power button on the side, and all the connections are on the side or bottom, leaving the face of the unit free of buttons and knobs, keeping it small, just over the size of the screen itself. As mentioned before, it is OLED, which provides excellent contrast and deep blacks. It also has a resolution of 1920 x 1080—OK, I snuck a tech spec into the review—and supports input over HDMI of up to 4K. No buttons and controls though, so how do you use it, you may wonder?

Just Swipe

The FOCUS OLED uses “OS 3,” like SmallHD's “Pages” OS, but there is no joystick on this monitor, you must use simple swiping motions, touching the screen. Once you set it up, you have an image displayed, but don't think of it as the display screen, think of it more as one of eight possible menu display palettes, to which you can add a slew of modifiers. Just add the modifiers you want to your current display palette, from Waveform, Vectorscope, histogram, focus assist, peaking, zebra bars, framing guides, anamorphic de-squeeze, and more. Adjust the parameters of each setting, and your display palette is ready to go. No saving is needed because it updates automatically, and stores your selections without going through an additional step. Turn the FOCUS OLED off, remove the power, and guess what? Your settings are still there when you power it back up. You can save up to eight “pages” of settings, so if you want to add a new page, just swipe down and select NEW PAGE. Once you have more than one page, you can swipe left or right, to move between them. You can also tap on the left side of the screen to get to the settings directly on each page.

Swiping up zooms into your image and brings up a little info box so you can know how much you've zoomed in and see what part of your image is being enlarged. Tap the magnifying glass to get to the navigation tool so you can move around your image; tap the navigation tool to return to a magnifying glass, and then swipe down to get back to the normal size image. It does take a little time to get used to this method of working; at least it did for me, so I would suggest you spend a good hour just going through the menu options before going out on a shoot. This will help avoid stress, and you will be able to get the most out of your monitor.

Multiple Menu Settings

I hate menus. I really do. Too darn many of them, and then you are left wondering, what did I set, how does it affect my display, or what if I must change something—how will I get back to this setting? I want my display to be the same, have some standard, so I can learn to interpret what I'm seeing on the monitor and correlate it to my finished images. It is bad enough how deep the menus go for your camera, but monitors also have deep menu systems, and trying to page through and remember what you changed can be panic inducing, especially when you are running out of light, you’re trying to get the shot, and you are wishing that you had just hired a tech to deal with your monitor. Being able to create up to eight presets for how the monitor displays the image, and what tools it displays alleviates that concern. You can make up different pages with different tool palettes and just swipe between them. You no longer must tape off the buttons and knobs, or worry that some menu setting three levels deep has been changed. You can even name each page and save the pages to an SD card to upload into any FOCUS monitor, as well as 500, 700, Ultrabright, 1300, 1700 series, and 703 Bolt monitors, which is great for situations when you have more than one monitor and you want them to have the same settings.

A More Flexible View

You can preset your pages, have one display histogram or zebras, or both—add multiple tools to the same page. You can even add multiples of the same tool. For example, you could add more than one zebra bar to a page and change the range and display color of each. You can add focus assist as well, but if you want to use focus assist by itself, you can swipe to a different page, where you've set up focus assist, and if you find that annoying when shooting, a simple swipe and you’re at your frame guide page, or however you customize the pages. With up to eight pages to customize, you have lots of flexibility. You can even save the image displayed on the monitor and save it as a still image, then overlay that onto a live image—what a boon for matching shots. Depending on how much control you have on your camera’s output, you could put all that technical readouts and image tools on your camera's view screen, and then just shoot with a nice clean image on the FOCUS OLED. The best part is that you don't have to worry if you change a setting on one page, because the palette of tools you choose is independent of the other pages, so tweaking one page won't mess up the way the other pages are displayed. I didn't realize just how valuable this was until I started using it, and why my old 7" monitor can now be the director's personal monitor, which they can happily tweak until the PAs go home.

Physical

So, no protrusions, and the interfaces are along the edge, as is the power button. You can set the monitor to power up when it receives an HDMI signal if you want, and go completely button free. The monitor takes a Micro HDMI input, but SmallHD includes its own full-size HDMI to Micro HDMI adapter that locks snug and tight and doesn't fall out. There is also a power connector when running from an AC power adapter. The headphone jack and SD card slot are on the bottom. There is also an included tilt arm, which you don't have to use because the monitor has three built-in 1/4"-20 mounting holes, but I recommend using it instead of a ball head or generic articulating arm. Swiping back and forth can knock the ball head or arm out of alignment, but the included tilt arm is solid and it features a friction clamp that allows you to adjust the tilt without loosening or tightening a knob.

Conclusion

Interiors or exteriors, bright or dim, the FOCUS OLED provided a great image. Having the programmable palettes (pages) that I could flip between with just a simple swipe, is so much better than tweaking the menu, brightness, contrast, or other settings and changing the whole look of the monitor. It is something that you will appreciate more and more as you work with the monitor. Small, slim, and lightweight, it fits easily into even my smallest shooting package. I'm going to hate to give it back.

If you have any experiences with this monitor that you’d like to tell us about, please have at it in the Comments section, below.

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