Some accessories in video production and HDSLR filmmaking are so essential that they transcend being mere add-on gear, and become part of the camera system itself. One such item is an on-camera monitor. Sometimes referred to as a “video-assist monitor,” they’re used to help the camera operator (or assistant) focus the camera. There are literally hundreds of different monitors in this product category. This guide was created to familiarize you with common features and to explain the varied capabilities of these monitors so you can make an informed decision should you decide to add one to your kit.
The most obvious advantage of using an on-camera monitor is that it provides a larger screen than the one built into your camera. This extra LCD real estate is useful for setting up shots, shooting and reviewing footage. Larger screens are also far less fatiguing to watch for long stretches of time. A less obvious advantage is that the external monitor may offer a higher-resolution image than a camera’s built-in display. Many cameras can shoot stunning 1080p footage, but their built-in LCD screens are often limited to lower resolutions. In addition to screen size and higher-resolution capabilities, some on-camera monitors feature built-in tools that help you adjust exposure, achieve sharper focus and fully maximize screen real estate. More advanced on-camera monitors will feature additional inputs and outputs for video and audio, and some enable you to loop the camera’s signal to additional monitors or capturing devices.
Like televisions, one specification that separates different models of on-camera monitors is screen resolution. On-camera monitors are small, with screen sizes typically around four to seven inches. Casually viewing videos on small screens with low resolution may be fine for watching YouTube, but higher resolutions make a noticeable difference when you’re working on a serious video shoot. It can help you keep the image in focus, and you’ll have a better sense of light, color and contrast. Lower-quality monitors have resolutions of 320 x 240 and 480 x 230. Better quality on-camera monitors will have resolutions of 800 x 480, or even higher.
An on-camera monitor could have a range of different video and audio jacks. The least expensive models will typically only have a single input; more involved units will have additional I/O. The inputs can be anything from composite A/V on a 3.5mm jack to professional SDI inputs and outputs. If you’re using an HDSLR camera, one of the most useful jacks to have is an HDMI input. Some on-camera monitors even feature a headphone output. This can be really useful because many HDSLR cameras, including most entry-level models, don’t feature a headphone jack. If your camera sends audio out of the HDMI port during recording, you’ll be able to monitor your sound as you shoot. If your camera lacks this ability, you’ll still be able to listen to the audio through headphones when you watch the playback of video clips on your camera.
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SDI connectors are professional high-definition video ports. One of the great strengths of the SDI format is that it enables you to send HD video and audio signals through 300 feet of cable (HDMI is limited to 30 feet). An example of when you would need this is when the camera is shooting in one area, and an additional video monitor is set up and fed the signal from the camera a great distance away (producers and other crew members often need to view a shoot remotely, without interfering on set). Unlike HDMI, SDI connectors lock into place to avoid accidental disconnections.
Pass Through (also referred to as “Loop Through”) is a feature that duplicates an input signal and sends it out of an additional output. An on-camera monitor with HDMI Pass Through would have both an HDMI input and an HDMI output. When you connect an HDMI cable from a camera to the HDMI input on the monitor, the Pass Through functionality duplicates the video signal from the camera and sends it to the HDMI output on the monitor. This enables you to connect the video feed from the camera to an additional field monitor, or to another piece of equipment. Without Pass Through, you need to purchase active signal splitters (which require power to operate).
Signal Conversion is a feature that enables an on-camera monitor to output a video signal in a format that’s different from the format that was input. For example, if you connect the HDMI output of an HDSLR camera to the HDMI input on an on-camera monitor with Signal Conversion, the monitor will output a duplicate of the camera’s HDMI feed on a jack of a different format, such as SDI. This is a useful feature because HDSLR cameras don’t have SDI ports. Being able to send the feed from an HDSLR camera up to 300 feet away on an SDI port to a field monitor with an SDI input is impossible without Signal Conversion.
Peaking is an on-camera monitor function that helps you focus. It finds sharp lines in the image and highlights them with a color (usually red or yellow). The thicker the superimposed highlighted color is, the more out of focus the object on screen is. This visual aide helps you quickly determine what is in focus, and what is not. Peaking can quickly be engaged and disengaged, to speed up your focus-pulling abilities while shooting in the field. It can be useful in tricky focusing situations, and when a long shoot is fatiguing the camera operator’s ability to focus by eye alone.
False Color is a function that helps you adjust the exposure of the camera. It superimposes different colors over the on-screen image. The colors indicate if an area of the shot is overexposed or underexposed (overexposed areas turn red, underexposed areas turn dark blue). False Color is simply a visual aide that will help you judge exposure when adjusting the iris of the camera.
A high definition video signal can easily fill up a large screen with a vividly detailed moving image. The Pixel to Pixel feature essentially displays an HD video signal at its full size, so only a small portion of the image will be visible on an on-camera monitor’s small screen. Think of the Pixel to Pixel feature as a way to quickly zoom in and out of the image on screen, without the need for optics or a grainy “digital zoom” feature. It’s useful to be able to see the fine details of a shot without adjusting the lens or downgrading the resolution. For example, say you need to check if your subject is in focus. You can engage the Pixel to Pixel feature, making a small portion of your subject fill up the screen. You will instantly see if the image looks as sharp as possible. You can adjust the focus while zoomed in, and instantly exit the Pixel to Pixel mode to see the entire frame of the shot.
Different kinds of video screens have different aspect ratios. Markers are superimposed graphical borders that show you where the frame ends on different kinds of screens. If you’re shooting a project with 16:9 aspect ratio, it’s always a smart idea to also judge how the composition of your shots translates to a 4:3 screen. If you have an on-camera monitor with Markers, you’ll be able to quickly see how your work will display on both sized screens.
|Normal View||Full Screen||4:3||16:9|
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Image Flip does exactly what it says it does: it flips the image on the screen upside down. It’s an essential feature for times that the on-camera monitor needs to be mounted upside down. It’s not uncommon for camera rigs to get really complex, with mounting rails and video components jumbled together in a seemingly chaotic fashion. In situations where the only option is to hang the monitor upside down, Image Flip becomes an indispensible feature.
If you use a monitor regularly for a specific purpose, or if you know that you like a number of settings adjusted a certain way for a shoot, it can be really helpful to have a programmable preset button. Instead of having to go through all of the controls and menus to adjust different parameters, just one tap of your programmed preset button will call them all up instantly, so you can concentrate on other things.
There are a number of different ways to attach an on-camera monitor to a camera, but the most common method is to use a camera shoe mount adapter (like the SM103 from Ikan). Typically, a shoe-mount adapter will screw into a ¼"-20 thread that’s built into the monitor (it’s common for on-camera monitors to have more than one ¼"-20 thread to give you more mounting options). The other end of the mount will be fastened to the camera’s hot shoe. If you’re using a camera support rig with rails or other mounting points, the on-camera monitor can be attached in a number of different ways.
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Powering options can vary from monitor to monitor. Sometimes monitors come with an option to run on AA batteries (but not always). On-camera monitors often need to be powered by external rechargeable camera batteries, like the Panasonic CGA-D54 battery (or more affordable third-party versions of these batteries). Sometimes on-camera monitors will come with battery plates for a number of different batteries, other times the plates need to be purchased separately. It’s also fairly common for monitors to feature external power inputs, for either AC adapters or battery distribution systems.
The most essential additional accessories to have for an on-camera monitor are extra batteries and chargers. When you’re doing a long shoot, you want to have enough batteries to be able to constantly feed your monitor the power it needs to keep running. Another handy accessory to have is an articulating extension arm (like these 10.7cm and 21.1cm arms from Pearstone). The articulating arm makes it possible to maneuver and lock the monitor in a variety of positions and heights. Monitor Hoods are also essential accessories for on-camera monitors. They help keep ambient light (from the sun or from studio lights) from glaring and interfering with the screen. Dedicated monitor cases, calibration tools and power supplies also can be useful.
There are numerous factors that play into the overall price of an on-camera field monitor. Obviously a monitor with a smaller screen, low resolution, limited connectivity and powering options and an inferior build quality will sell for less than an on-camera monitor with all those attributes. SDI ports and signal-conversion features tend to drive up the price of on-camera monitors. Better monitors will have wider fields of view. There’s a good chance that you’ve heard this phrase before, but you get what you pay for with on-camera monitors.