External camera screens, also known as field monitors and recorders, give you a big picture view so you can sort out minor issues before it’s too late to re-shoot. Of course, most modern mirrorless and DSLRs cameras offer built-in screens to view and compose your image. But at 3 inches as an unclaimed standard across the industry, most of the screens are lackluster in their viewing experience.
Not to mention, most screens lack proper articulation, touchscreens, and advanced video-centric features such as Waveforms, False Color, and Focusing Assist tools. As such, they’re often not as reliable and too small for detailed focusing and critical framing.
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Thankfully in comes an external camera screen, which provides not only a larger view but a slew of advanced tools typically absent on most cameras. External camera screens come in all shapes and sizes, but each will make video shooting more enjoyable and streamline your workflow. Sure many photographers may see them as an unnecessary expense and a later purchase. But for budding videographers, these monitors are essential tools to ensure your framing is correct, your focus is clear, and your footage is ready for post-processing.
But the list of potential options that serve as external camera screens is vast. And if you’re new to this particular accessory, you may find the number of features and options slightly overwhelming. With that in today’s post, we’ll cover a detailed guide explaining all the individual factors present on external camera screens. We’ll also give some insight into what features may be most valuable to your workflow, and we will cover the best external monitors and recorders on the present market.
Blackmagic Video Assist
The Blackmagic Video Assist is designed with Blackmagic RAW in mind. This 5-inch external recorder uses 12G-SDI ports, supporting 12 Gb/s and 4K DCI video. It also has an HDMI 2.0a port and an SD card recorder that encodes files in the industry-standard Apple ProRes and Avid DNx formats at 10-bit 4:2:2. Plus, it also offers loop-through outputs for simultaneously monitoring the footage on a larger screen, projector, or broadcast monitor.
This 5-inch model offers a touchscreen for intuitive control and a 1080p resolution, 2500 nit brightness, and 100% DCI-P3 coverage. Other bonuses include dual card slots, HDR support, 3D LUT support, scopes, RGB parade, focus assist, SSD storage, a headphone jack, and a tally light.
Overall, the Video Assist adds professional monitoring capabilities with the flexibility of both SDI and HDMI connections to any setup. And it’s the ideal suit for Blackmagic users wanting to capture the B-RAW codec’s true potential first introduced on the Pocket Cinema range.
Atomos Shogun 7
The Atomos Shogun 7 brings HDR capabilities to a recorder and switch in one. This 7-inch recorder encodes to the ProRes RAW, CinemaDNG, or DNxHD codecs up to DCI 4K 60 FPS and 2K 240 FPS. And it does so using 12G-SDI or HDMI 2.0 connections. Outside of recording, it can also switch between four live HD video streams and a program stream.
This monitor features a 7-inch touchscreen with 1080p resolution. But it’s an HDR display that combines both LED and LCD technologies for richer blacks than OLED. And it has 15+ stops of dynamic range, a 3000 nit brightness, and 105% DCI-P3 coverage. Additionally, its AtomOS software automatically adjusts connected TVs’ color and brightness, providing true-to-life Dolby Vision HDR quality on any compatible display.
Other bonuses include a headphone jack, 3D LUT support, SSD storage, focus assist, de-squeeze, false color, 1:1 pixel magnification, RGB parade, and scopes.
Overall, the Atomos Shogun 7 is the perfect solution if you want both an external recorder and a large monitor combined. And it’s a powerful tool for cinematographers in multi-camera streaming productions.
The Atomos Shinobi was their first compact and lightweight monitor debuting professional monitoring tools. It uses an HDMI 1.4 connection that supports DCI 4K 30 FPS 10-bit 4:2:2.
It features a 5.2-inch 10-bit FRC touchscreen with 1080p resolution backed by a IPS panel with a 1000 nit brightness. And it also has AtomHDR technology to accurately monitor popular log formats from Sony, Panasonic, ARRI, and more with 10+ stops of dynamic range. Plus, it obtains the new Selfie Mirror Mode to easily frame compositions when vlogging. And at 196g, it’s one of the lightest 4K monitors around. Other bonuses include waveforms, scopes, focus assist, false color, RGB parade, 3D LUT support, de-squeeze, and a headphone jack.
Overall, the Atomos Shinobi is an excellent option for run and gun applications. And it’s the perfect compliment for content creators and budding filmmakers who don’t need recording functionality.
The Liliput A7S is the perfect starting point for beginners wanting added functionality. This field monitor uses an HDMI 1.4 connection supporting 4K UHD 30 FPS.
It features a 7-inch IPS LCD screen with 1080p resolution and 500 nit brightness. It also has a loop-through function to output the signal to other HDMI or compatible devices for extended viewing on large productions. Other bonuses include two customizable function keys, pixel zoom, scopes, false color, focus assists, and a headphone jack.
Overall, if you want the most affordable large-format option, the Liliput A7s is it. And it represents an excellent value for beginners, or mobile shooters wanted added functionality without breaking the bank.
Atomos Ninja V
The Atomos Ninja V is purpose-built and the best value around. This 5-inch external monitor and recorder use an HDMI 2.0 connection supporting 10-bit 4:2:2 DCI 4K 60 FPS, with compatible cameras. And it encodes to Apple’s ProRes and Avid’s DNx.
It features a 5-inch 8-bit+FRC IPS touchscreen with 1080p resolution, 1000 nit brightness, and AtomHDR technology for accurate log monitoring for the most popular formats. This screen also comes factor calibrated from X-Rite to ensure the image is accurately represented. And it’s built rugged to withstand the most rigorous productions with its aluminum chassis. Other bonuses include SSD support, waveforms, de-squeeze, focus assist, LUT support, time-lapse, and a headphone jack.
Overall, the Atomos Ninja V presents excellent value for money. And given its features, it’s a powerful addition for aspiring cinematographers using DSLR and mirrorless setups. But one that creates the new de facto standard amongst on-the-go monitors.
External Camera Screens Buyers Guide
Why get an external camera screen or monitor?
There are several main reasons one would consider getting an external camera screen, monitor, or recorder. Below you’ll find a list of those reasons and the explanations behind them.
External monitors provide better resolution to help you see fine details while filming or focusing. Most monitors offer 1080p resolution as standard, and with sizes ranging from 5 to 7 inches, they dwarf most rear screens built-in on compact cameras. As such, the added resolution makes it easier to determine critical focus without causing unnecessary eye strain. And the larger size makes it easier to notice distractions and other fine details. Some are even color calibrated and provide HDR support for more accurate color gauging.
External camera screens are also substantially brighter than the built-in screens on most cameras. And most external screens offer brightness levels of 1000 nits as mostly standard. And they’re well-suited for composing outdoors without needing a sun hood or optional loop attachment with this brightness. So they provide more versatility in this regard.
External monitors also display a range of advanced video tools to monitor exposure and color. Some of these tools include zebra patterns, false color, waveforms, vectorscopes, histograms, and RGB parades. And most compact mirrorless and DSLR cameras don’t offer these advanced video features. As such, they become a great way to see more detailed information so you can make accurate judgments out in the field, reducing post-processing. Plus, they also offer more aspect ratios, so you can correctly frame your shots too.
Many external camera screens also double as recorders with expandable storage options, either as SD slots or installable SSD storage. Thus, they’re also a great way to record high data rate footage with more information for longer periods and redundant backups.
External camera screens unlock the full potential of mirrorless and DSLR cameras. Most of these cameras can’t record their best video internally, mostly due to overheating and, in some cases, storage limitations. So connecting an external camera screen allows you to shoot at higher data rates with unlimited time. Additionally, more expensive screens offer better codecs such as ProRes, Cinema DNG, or DNx and RAW formats. So you can also film to a better codec than what’s available on your camera, further improving video quality. And external recorders are what unlock 10-bit 4:2:2 video for most cameras. So, overall, they’ll capture higher quality video with fewer artifacts than the standard heavily compressed H.264 GOP codec.
Lastly, external camera screens improve battery life and let you record for longer periods. Most of these accessories include built-in batteries, freeing the camera from using the rear screen, substantially improving its longevity.
How to choose the best external camera screen
When it comes to choosing the best external camera monitor, there are many individual factors to consider. Some of the questions to ask yourself prior include the following: what monitor size do I need? Do I need a monitor that can record and view? How important is wireless connectivity? Do I need a bright monitor? What kind of input and output signals do I need to suit my workflow? Do I need advanced monitoring tools, such as zebras, peaking vectorscopes, or false color? Do I also need LUT support?
These are just some of the many questions to ask while shopping and looking at various options. But below, you’ll find more detailed factors and considerations that will help.
First and foremost, we need to ensure that your current camera setup supports external monitors. Here are the questions to ask yourself, and we will cover each in-depth below.
Firstly, does your current mirrorless or DSLR camera output a clean video signal? Secondly, what kind of connection does your camera have? Is it a mini HDMI, micro HDMI, or a full-size HDMI? And lastly, what is the resolution and the frame rate your camera outputs via HDMI?
Let’s begin with square one. Before all else, you want to know whether your camera is even compatible with an external monitor. And if your camera doesn’t supply video via an external output, you won’t be able to use an external monitor. To find this information, visit your camera manufacturer’s website, download the manual for your camera model, and review the manual’s HDMI subsection. Here, ensure the camera offers a video feed via HDMI, as some only support image playback. And ensure that feed is clean, meaning it removes all of the on-screen information on the LCD.
But assuming your camera can output video to an external device. The next question is to determine the size of its input. Most mirrorless and DSLR cameras feature Micro-HDMI and Mini-HDMI outputs. However, some models do use proprietary ports that require adapters. At the same time, higher and camcorders offer SDI ports. But, in general, HDMI and SDI are typically the standards and most used. And it’s easy enough to find adapters to go from Micro-HDMI to full-sized to connect to a monitor.
Finally, you’ll need to investigate your camera’s resolution and frame rate via HDMI. Not all cameras can output 4K resolution, and most offer 1080p instead. But, if your camera can output 4K and you up for a monitor that only supports full HD, you’re out of luck. So it’s critical to ensure that you know the camera’s resolution and frame rate to find an appropriate monitor that matches.
External monitors from various brands come with a wide array of features. But in general, they fall into one of three categories. Below are the three types:
- Viewing only
- Viewing and recording
- Viewing/recording and wireless transmission
Viewing only monitors provide the sole benefit of giving you a larger display while recording. And they’re a great option if you want more screen real-estate or versatility. But, their benefits mostly stop there.
Viewing and recording monitors provide the added advantage of built-in recording. These monitors accept the camera’s signal and process it internally and save it to external storage. Ensuring you get the maximum image quality the camera provides. And many come with extra storage in the form of SD card slots or an optional SSD drive so that you can record hours of high-quality footage. As such, mirrorless and DSLR cameras see the greatest benefits from this monitor type. The reason is that these cameras don’t supply their best image quality when recording internally, mostly due to processing or storage limitations and overheating.
And shooting externally allows them to produce an uncompressed video with a higher bit depth, chroma subsampling, data rate, and superior image quality. So, in general, if you want to bypass the limited internal recording features of most mirrorless and DSLR cameras, then recording externally is best. But, these monitors are more expensive, bulkier, and heavier than view-only monitors. Therefore if your camera already has excellent video capabilities and dual SD card slots, a view-only monitor is likely the better option.
The last monitor type also transmits a wireless video signal to a second monitor, most used as a director’s monitor. This style is perfectly suited for larger setups in remote locations where composing directly next to the camera is impractical. However, this monitor style is the largest and the most expensive. And for most users, this functionality is unnecessary.
Size & Weight
Most external camera screens and monitors range between 5-7″. And anything larger generally works as a director’s monitor for larger sets or commercial applications.
While 7-inch monitors do provide the added screen real estate, some 5-inch monitors also have eyepieces. And attaching the eyepiece provides improves the viewing experience and is especially helpful when shooting in bright scenes. But even so, as a general rule, the larger the display, the more information you can see on screen while recording.
But you’ll want to factor in the size, weight, and overall form factor if you’re mounting the monitor to your camera. And you’ll want to ensure its weight doesn’t overpower your support system and overall maximum capacity. And while a few grams heavier may not look like much on paper, a larger setup quickly and increase fatigue. So if you’re shooting handheld, 7-inch monitors will not only make your setup heavier, they’re also more challenging to balance on a gimbal, steadicam, or shoulder rig. As such, the lighter, the better, particularly for handheld running gun work. And if you’re stuck comparing two similar options, use the monitor’s weight as a deciding point.
But, if you don’t plan on shooting handheld and are working in larger productions, a larger monitor from 7 to 9 inches is a powerful option. And these screens are an excellent option for traditional camcorders, cinema cameras, and large rig mirrorless cameras. Just ensure your mounting arms and your current rig can accept the weight.
But in general, 5 to 7 inches is perfect for on-camera use, while 7 to 9 inches works better for larger productions and remote viewing. And 10 inches or larger are ideal for field monitors on commercial applications.
Inputs & Outputs
When it comes to monitors, the input and output connections do vary, and it’s another area to consider. Today’s monitors come with two primary inputs, either SDI or HDMI. Let’s start with HDMI.
HDMI connections range in sizes. And some monitors offer standard full-size HDMI, others mini HDMI. But, a full-size HDMI is preferred, as the connection is more robust. The specifications for this connection also vary. Today’s HDMI interfaces range from HDMI 1.4, 2.0, or 2.1, where 2.1 is the latest technology supporting 10K HDR and the highest bandwidth capacity. If you want to future-proof your setup with HDMI, look for a monitor with HDMI 2.1 connectors. However, keep in mind, most cameras and monitors only support HDMI 1.4 and 2.0. As such, if you do opt for an HDMI 2.1 monitor, ensure it’s backward compatible with HDMI 2.0. Otherwise, connecting the monitor to a camera that only offers HDMI 2.0 will result in incompatibility issues and will likely not work.
SDI connections are also available. And this connection interface is the standard amongst professionals. The specifications for SDI vary, though. And you can find standard SDI for HD video, 3G and 6G for 4K, and even 12G. Plus, you can also find quad-link or dual-link systems that take multiple input signals and combine them into a single richer signal. An example would be quad-link 3G-SDI, which creates a single 12G signal.
Additionally, when it comes to bandwidth speeds, those also vary. Standard definition or SD-SDI offers the lower rates at 270 Mb per second, while 12G-SDI provides the greatest and approaches 12 GB per second. These higher bandwidth speeds ultimately allow 12G-SDI to support higher resolutions and better chroma subsampling than other connections. But, as such, it’s the most expensive format to acquire. Even so, SDI-equipped monitors can supply crisp, reliable transmissions hundreds of feet away. And they’re far more reliable when working remotely. And in general, if you’re recording 1080p, 3G-SDI is best. But if you’re planning to shoot mostly 4K video, then consider 3G or 6G-SDI. But, you can also opt for 12G if you want to truly future-proof your setup.
Resolution is another consideration point, though not as crucial as the monitor’s display technology. In general, a monitor that supplies a 1080p Full HD resolution is great. And you don’t need a 4K-equipped monitor to frame correctly. Namely, because shooting at higher resolution causes lower resolution monitors to automatically scale the image to fit, introducing artifacts and making proper exposure judgments difficult. So until monitors with 4K resolution becomes the norm, 1080p is still sufficient.
Crucially, however, ensure the monitor offers wonder 1:1 pixel mapping or at least a 1:1 pixel mode. This mode matches the monitor with the camera’s source signal, allowing you to see the full-screen image without scaling artifacts. So you can essentially zoom into any part of the frame and view the footage there at full resolution.
Additionally, it’s also important to consider your camera’s HDMI output resolution. If your camera cannot output 4K by HDMI, a higher resolution monitor is unnecessary. So, in that case, opt for a full HD one instead.
Another area to consider is the monitor’s display technology, as this also varies. You can find monitors on the market with IPS displays, others LCD, LED, or even OLED. And like traditional desktop monitors, there are pros and cons to each of these technologies. But in short, IPS displays, which combine LCD and LED, and OLED screens are the best options. And these two display technologies provide the broadest viewing angles without introducing distortion or reducing image quality. Plus, they also offer better contrast ratios with the deeper blacks and color reproduction.
Color Gamut, Bit Depth, and HDR Support
The term color gamut represents the colors visible to the human eye. Today’s standard color gamuts include RGB and CMYK, where RGB is the standard for video and CMYK for printing. These color spaces create standards that establish uniformity across publishing mediums. So one show or photo looks the same across an infinite number of devices. But when it comes to broadcast, the current standards are Rec. 709 and eventually DCI-P3 and Rec. 2020. Ultimately, the separating characteristic between, say, Rec. 709 and DCI-P3 is that the DCI-P3 displays more colors, mainly green and red tones, producing better image quality. Rec. 2020, on the other hand, is the widest color gamut available but not currently a standard.
Comparatively, sRGB, the standard used on most consumer electronics, covers 35% of the full gamut, while Rec. 2020 75%. But for camera monitors, Rec 709 is excellent. However, if you want to future proof your setup, DCI-P3 is best. More devices are gradually supporting the DCI-P3, and it’s a nice bonus to monitor in this gamut if it’s your final output. You also have access to a larger color space for better gauging of exposure.
The monitor’s bit depth is also another area of consideration. Bit depth refers to the amount of color data stored in an image, ranging from 8-bit to 10 and 12-bit or even 16-bit. And in general, the higher the bit depth, the more colors are stored, and the better the overall image quality. For monitors, 10-bit is excellent and the gold standard. But you can also get 8-bit +FRC, which uses dithering to approximate the information loss between 8 and 10-bit. And it provides a good middle ground, as the human eye has a hard time differentiating between the two.
You’ll also want to ensure the monitor supports various log formats so you can view them in real-time. Some of these log formats include Canon C-log, Sony S-log, and Panasonic V-log.
Image Analysis Tools
While the larger screen of a monitor is helpful, its real value lies in the advanced monitoring tools that simplify your workflow. Some of these extra features include LUTs, RGB parades, waveforms, vectorscopes, false color, zebras, guides, custom aspect ratios, and focusing assist tools.
Let’s cover some of the use cases now.
Most monitors include standard focus assist tools, such as focus magnification to check focus before recording. Others also include focus peaking so that you can have a visual display of in-focus areas. And these are a must since most cinema lenses are manual focus.
Tools like waveform, vectorscopes, false color, and RGB parade all ensure your exposure and color are correct. These features fall under color analysis and exposure tools to help visualize illumination and help you fine-tune the contrast of your final image. And collectively, these are some of the biggest advantages that dedicated camera monitors offer. Sure, some interchangeable lens cameras do offer these tools. But even so, they don’t provide the same level of customization, resolution, and quality as a dedicated monitor. And monitors offering these tools do so with greater fidelity, resolution, and accuracy to ensure your footage is precisely the way you want.
The next area is guidelines and aspect ratios, ensuring your recordings match various crops. And it’s beneficial when shooting widescreen or to unconventional forms, say vertical video for social media.
Lastly, LUTs, so you can preview your image with a set grade or color correction applied. Most monitors come with the default options for standard log profiles, including C-log, S-log, and V-log. But, higher-end models let you load custom LUT, so you can ensure your exposure and color will work during post-processing.
Brightness, Touchscreen and Power
Brightness is a key advantage an external monitor provides over most cameras’ built-in rear screens, as enabling the high brightness mode quickly reduces battery life. And if you plan on filming outdoors, you’ll want a screen that’s bright enough for easy composing. As a general rule of thumb, 1000 nits or higher is best. You can find this specification in the manufactures listing or the manual. But without 1000 nits, the monitor will likely be too dark outdoors. And you’ll have to purchase an optional hood or loop attachment to see the screen. But, even that, in some cases, isn’t enough. So a bright screen natively is the best option. However, if you don’t plan on filming outdoors, then 500 nits is plenty.
Having touchscreen support on your external monitor will make it easier for you to engage various assist tools and quickly check your footage. And from user experience, accessing settings is also more streamlined and intuitive. Not all monitors offer touchscreens, though. So if this functionality is essential to you, consider it while you’re shopping around.
Another area of consideration is the monitor’s latency. If the monitor suffers from a slow signal from the camera, you can miss read a movement or focus. To avoid that, look for monitors with less than 100 ms if you can find this specification listed.
Another area to consider is a monitor contrast ratio, which signifies the luminance range it produces. A greater contrast ratio means more deep blacks and better whites. Most monitors offer a contrast ratio of 1000:1. Some manufacturers also specify the static constant ratio, a measurement of the distance between dark and lights at a given brightness level. But this measurement is not particularly standardized. And it’s also not readily available on every product. But if you can find the specification, use that as a deciding point between two monitors offering similar contrast ratios.
You may also want to consider how you plan on mounting the monitor. Do you plan on using your camera’s hot shoe? Or are you going to use 1/4-20″ or a 3/8 mount? These connections do vary, so something to consider based on your rig and setup.
Lastly, for power, does the monitor offer an external battery as well as continuous AC power? Hot-swappable batteries are a bonus and not given. The same applies to monitors that power other accessories or even a camera via D-Tap. You can also use dummy batteries to power both the monitor and your camera simultaneously in some cases. But, the power setup is something to consider depending on how long you plan on shooting. And how your current camera setup is configured.
Last Updated on September 22, 2023 by Photography PX Published March 1, 2021