Ever look at the screen on the back of your camera and wish that it were just a tad bigger, or brighter, or sharper? Yeah, me too. The good news is that there is a solution! External on-camera monitors come in all shapes and sizes and are packed with additional features that will make shooting video much more enjoyable. Here is how you can pick the best one for you.
Everything always starts with the camera. For external monitors, there are a few crucial features and specs you need to know before you can begin your search:
- Can it output clean video?
- What connectors does it have?
- What is the resolution and frame rate of its video output?
Start at square one—whether or not your camera will even work with an external monitor. If it can’t output video, you can’t use one. That’s not to say there aren’t other helpful tools for you—dedicated loupes and magnifiers can improve your situation.
Assuming your camera can output high-res video, you have to know what connectors it can use. This could be a flavor of HDMI, SDI, proprietary with an adapter, etc. There are a bunch and I’m not going to get into them all here. HDMI and SDI are the most common options these days and where you should start if your camera has them.
Finally, you have to know what resolution and frame rate your camera outputs. If it only sends out DCI 4K at 60 fps and the monitor only takes Full HD at 30 fps, you’ll be out of luck.
Make sure these basic features are compatible between your camera and monitor:
- Frame rates
Now we can talk about monitors.
Size, or Bigger Isn’t Always Better
Yes, one of the primary reasons filmmakers pick up external on-camera monitors is because the one on the camera is too small. However, I do still want to caution you from immediately jumping at the biggest you can get just because you believe it will solve all your problems. If you want us to tell you what to get, just get a 5" monitor and be happy.
Now, if you do want something a bit bigger or you have a larger camera that can handle it, then a 7-9" monitor is a perfectly viable option. There will be some added weight, so make sure all your mounting arms and other tools can handle it. For mirrorless/DSLR, I would stick to 5", but if you have a more traditional pro camcorder or cinema camera or even a rigged-up mirrorless or pocket camera, the 7" monitor can be a great addition.
Larger than this isn’t advised for on-camera use. It’s just too big. However, they can be great field monitors for a director or producer at a remote station.
- 5-7" is the sweet spot for on-camera use.
- 7-9" works well for larger kits or remote viewing.
- 10" or more are generally field monitors and not designed for on-camera use.
Resolution and Brightness
I’m lumping these two specs together because they relate to the panel. When you are looking for a monitor, these are critical specs, and going for higher-quality models can add to the price.
Resolution, in the simplest terms, is how sharp the screen can be. It also relates to screen size. A small screen can get away with lower resolution, since the density of the pixels makes it appear sharper. A larger screen will require higher resolutions. With on-camera monitors, anything between 5-9" will look very good in HD to Full HD. Anything smaller than 5" might be able to get away with less than Full HD and still look great.
Keep in mind the specs your camera can output, as well, and make sure the display and its resolutions can support it. For example, if you are outputting 4K, you will want to make sure it can down-scale and has proper mechanisms for zooming in to 100% for focus checking if the resolution is only Full HD. Nowadays, I would say that a Full HD monitor is a good option and most good monitors offer it.
Brightness speaks for itself. This is simply how bright the screen can get. This matters because if you are mostly filming outside in varying degrees of sunlight, you may need a brightness boost to see the screen clearly. If a monitor doesn't have a super-high brightness setting, you may need an optional hood and, even then, you might not be able to see the screen. Brightness is another huge reason to pick up an on-camera monitor, since built-in displays usually lack in this key spec or their high-brightness modes quickly burn through battery life.
Brighter Is Better
This is a harder spec to judge, because you may not really notice any issues with a low-brightness display until that one day you shoot in the sun. If you intend to do a lot of shooting outdoors or want to guarantee that you have a display for all lighting conditions, then some monitors marketed as “daylight-viewable” offer 1000 cd/m2 (nit) brightness. Anything around this should be a good target for you.
Bear in mind:
- For resolution, aim for HD to Full HD at a minimum.
- High-brightness monitors are useful for outdoors.
Better bets for outdoor use are to pick up a hood or shade to protect from glare and direct lighting.
Waveforms, LUTs, and HDR
While a bigger, brighter picture may be all you were looking for, if you are purchasing an on-camera monitor you will benefit greatly from having extra monitoring tools. Things like LUTs and waveforms should be on your list.
Starting with standard monitoring tools, there are a few things with which you should work. Zoom-in or punch-in settings can be very helpful for checking focus before you hit Record, especially if your monitor can pull in a full 4K feed to display on its Full HD screen. Then there are tools such as waveforms, false color, vectorscope, and RGB parade that help with confirming brightness and color in your image.
Waveforms and other related tools are some of the biggest advantages for separate monitors over built-in options. Even when a camera offers advanced monitoring tools, they usually don't offer the same quality, customization, or resolution as dedicated monitors. Having greater fidelity and resolution can help ensure your exposure and focus are spot-on, which is becoming more and more so as cameras introduce new gammas and formats each with their own particular quirks.
Guidelines to shoot for other aspect ratios is another option you may want to have to make sure your original footage can work if you decide to do a widescreen crop later or vice versa.
LUTs are likely the most important, because these will allow you to preview your image with basic grades or corrections applied. Monitors usually come with default options for common log profiles (C-Log, S-Log3, etc.). Also, better monitors will let you load up custom LUTs and then provide quick access to turn them on and off as you shoot. This is very beneficial because you can make sure your exposure and color work for the way you intend to push the footage in post.
New in the past few years is the proliferation of HDR-capable cameras and devices. Monitors are no exception, offering versions of HDR preview based on receiving HDR signals or by doing a rough conversion of log footage. This is a handy feature to have, but I wouldn’t call it essential just yet. What I would think about is having it, so that you can use it for HDR on set and then use the monitor again for grading if you connect it to a computer that supports HDR. This is far from the ideal, pro-quality setups used for HDR grading, but it is a great start for filmmakers looking to try HDR finishing.
More unique features would be things like anamorphic de-squeeze and various others.
Here's a list of features to have on a monitor:
- Aspect ratio guides
- False color
- LUT support (custom and built-in)
- False color
- HDR preview
Make sure you have a monitor with a wide range of features. Even if today you don't use all of them, you will want something that will last as a monitor and can be used on many different cameras.
Another increasingly common option in the monitor landscape is built-in recording. This means that the monitor can accept the incoming video signal and process and save it into its own format to its own storage. This is essential to get maximum image quality from many camera systems—though mirrorless and DSLRs see some of the greatest benefit.
Many cameras actually can't record their best quality internally. This can be because the processing isn’t powerful enough, or the camera might end up generating too much heat and have to shut down faster. It can also be a space-saving measure for the compact media many cameras use. The HDMI and SDI output can produce uncompressed video at higher bit depths but will demand a recorder that supports it.
Some other things to look out for are camera-specific compatibilities. ProRes RAW is a great example. Many new mirrorless cameras, the Sony a7S III, for example, offer raw output. However, they usually only work with select monitors, such as the Atomos Ninja V, to record. This is just one example, but there are a few available you may encounter so do some quick research before you jump into a monitor purchase. You never know, the decision might be easy after you look into it.
- Monitor/recorder combos are a great idea.
- Doublecheck that the recorder will support the camera’s maximum output.
- Raw video output requires additional compatibility and firmware.
On-camera monitors can be complicated, so we hope this helps. Some of my personal recommendations would be the SmallHD FOCUS 5" for a basic monitor and the Atomos Ninja V for a monitor/recorder combo. Both are from reputable brands and offer an incredible array of features, plus the 5" size is certainly my recommendation for on-camera use.
Be sure to stop by the Comments section, below, if you have questions you need answered or want help figuring out what is best for you!