On-camera monitors or Field monitors: when to use one

by Joost | Last Updated: July 9, 2022
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An on-camera monitor is a small display that attaches to your DSLR camera, allowing you to see what you are recording. This is useful for framing shots, checking exposure, and monitoring audio levels. On-camera monitors vary in size, features, and price. Some even include touch screens and waveform displays.

The Sony a7S series is a great example of how a monitor with the right specs can do more than just show the picture. On the original a7S, the only way to record in 4K was to send the footage to a monitor that could create the files.

The camera couldn’t fit in the chassis until the next generation came along.

An even simpler example comes from the world of DSLRs. The series a Sony’s are all mirrorless cameras, so whatever the sensor sees can be relayed to either the rear screen or an external monitor, as well as the camera’s electronic viewfinder.

Also read: these are the best on-camera monitors we’ve reviewed for still photography

On DSLR cameras like the Canon 5D series or Nikon’s D800 series, there is still the traditional viewfinder system with mirror and pentaprism combinations.

In fact, for these cameras to shoot video, they have to block all the light hitting the viewfinder, requiring the use of the rear screen or, if you really want to see the image without squinting, a camera monitor.

Playmobil petting zoo stop motion
Playmobil petting zoo stop motion

There are a dozen other cases where shooting without a dedicated monitor is nearly impossible. Using a steadicam without a monitor is useless.

You are too far away from the viewfinder and trying to use it would likely upset the delicate balance of the device.

Getting an idea of ​​what your lighting will look like behind the scenes is another area where monitors come in handy. Many cameras produce a very flat, desaturated image for maximum flexibility in post-production.

Many monitors come with look-up tables, which alter that image on your monitor to reflect the most common approaches to color correction.

This will allow you to see what the frame will look like after it goes through post-production and to ensure your lighting setup matches the style and story you’re trying to capture.

How to choose the perfect monitor for your setup

It may seem easy to consider the size of a monitor, but it is an important feature. You have to balance your shooting style, budget and clientele.

If you’re working with a director who wants to set up a still photography scene, you’ll need to invest in a much larger monitor than would ever sit comfortably on a camera.

When you’re equipping your rig, you’ll need to add the weight of the monitor to the weight of your other gear to make sure it doesn’t go beyond your tripod’s maximum capacity.

You should also consider the weight of the monitor when calculating the balance of a steadicam or gimbal. For example, high-speed SDI connections are vital for live broadcasting.

In addition to the size and weight, you’ll also want to examine the resolution. Many monitors can play back or record in 4K, but their practical resolution may drop while the camera is physically recording.

This would only become a problem if you were doing some really fine macro focusing with an incredibly shallow depth of field, but if that’s your style you might want to invest in a monitor that maintains the highest resolution at all times.

We’ve mentioned this ability to record in some monitors a few times now, and that capability may or may not be essential to your setup.

If your camera can output higher resolutions to a monitor than to an internal memory card, this may be important. Many cameras also have ceilings when it comes to the size of the memory card they can handle, and a good monitor should be able to exceed that number, allowing you to shoot for longer without having to swap out the memory.

One last consideration would be connectivity. Some small, basic monitors offer nothing but HDMI connections, which can be fine if you just need a slightly larger screen to focus or just enjoy the show as it unfolds in front of your camera’s lens.

Other sets will require SDI connections to transmit large video files at breakneck speeds. For example, high-speed SDI connections are vital for live broadcasting. And depending on the limitations of a set, you may need a monitor that can connect wirelessly.

These are especially useful when setting up a video village when shooting on location with a moving camera.

Other vital videography accessories

In addition to the obvious parts like cameras, lenses, and tripods, there are some accessories that may fly under the radar for many photographers starting their careers.

One of the most important of these is lighting, as cinematography is ultimately more about shaping light than operating a camera.

And there are some great, inexpensive video lighting kits on the market that can dramatically increase the quality of your footage.

Stabilization is probably the other most important part of a high production value shot. Tripods are good for this, but they are a bit limited when it comes to movement.

Things like steadicams, gimbals, and dollies are all among the most vital of camera moves and are becoming more and more affordable every day.

To really get that cinematic look, one of the best things you can get is a matte box (here are the best options). This is essentially a small housing that sits right in front of the lens and physically lets in less light than the lens would otherwise collect.

These are used on movie sets more or less without exception and they really make a difference.

Selection aid for the perfect monitor

While many people start out looking for a monitor within a specific price range, you can be better served by determining what features you need in a monitor before considering the price.

This way you will probably get a better overall understanding of the value of the features that fit your workflow. Now if you spend a little extra time, you can choose a monitor on the camera that will serve you much better and for much longer than a monitor that you have chosen based on price alone.

There are many monitors from different manufacturers available in a wide variety of functions and sizes. This can make choosing a monitor for the camera a daunting task, even when selecting from a single manufacturer’s models.

Monitor or Monitor / Recorder combination

One of the first criteria to consider is whether you want a monitor only or a monitor/recorder combination. The advantages of a combination monitor and recorder are that you can make 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 which camera you use, and this can pay off when you are in the editing room.

In addition, a monitor/recorder combination will have built-in monitoring functions and image utilities that you may find useful when shooting.

Not all on-camera monitors have these features.

Size and weight

Once you figure 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 display screen that is larger than your camera’s or EVF’s display screen, and one that you can position anywhere independently of the camera itself. This allows you to use it as a composition and framing tool.

Your monitor choice will likely depend on how big a screen you need, or feel comfortable. Keep in mind that the bigger the monitor on the camera, the more you have to move your head to look around the monitor when shooting.

Taking into account the size and weight of a built-in monitor, the 5 to 7″ monitors are generally preferred, while other sizes are only useful when mounted separately from the camera and in special applications.

You’ll probably be able to find similar monitoring options and imaging tools like 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 5″ screen that can be converted to an eyepiece type viewfinder, similar to using a loupe on a DSLR screen, something that just won’t work with a 7″ screen .

Weight is often overlooked until you mount the monitor and shoot handheld all day. You definitely want to consider the weight of the monitor and how you are going to mount it.

The higher the weight, the faster you tire and with fast camera movements, a heavy screen can shift and disturb your balance.

Inputs, signal format and frame rate

Now that you’ve determined which size monitor/recorder or simple monitor you need, some things to consider are how important multiple input/output, cross-conversion of signals, and video scopes with image evaluation tools are to you.

If all you need is a run-and-gun rig, with a more flexible display than the one on your camera, then additional inputs/outputs and cross-conversion probably aren’t necessary for you at this stage of your hobby.

Something you’ll want to check anyway is the frame rate supported by your monitor, as cameras now output different frame rates.

Since you’re looking for a monitor on your camera and weight is an issue, you may not want to use a frame rate converter as well.

If you’re working on more organized recordings, you’ll probably find it helpful 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 opt for a monitor with both HDMI and SDI connectors, on-camera monitors that offer cross conversion between the two standards are becoming more common and easier to find.

Monitor / Recorder Resolution

Here’s where monitor resolution will make a difference. You may feel the need to have Full HD resolution, and 1920 x 1080 panels are increasingly available in 5 and 7 inch sizes.

Most lower resolution monitors will scale your video for display so you can see the entire frame. This may introduce scaling artifacts, but it’s doubtful that a scaling artifact, unless it’s glaring, will interfere with you taking the shot.

Where resolution will make a difference is when you review your images. Seeing your images without artifacts is nice, and most lower resolution monitors offer a 1:1 Pixel mode that lets you view parts of your image in full resolution.

It may be a while before we get to see 4K displays on camera as there is some disagreement about the smallest screen size you can see 4K resolution at, but most likely your camera will offer a downgraded 1920 x 1080 output.

Image Review Tools and Scopes

Unless you’re just looking for the minimal monitor to use as a viewfinder, you may want to have peaking for focus and exposure tools like false colors and Zebra bars. 1:1 pixel power and zoom are important, and if you can read scopes, waveform, vectorscopes and parade they can be invaluable for objectively evaluating your video signal.

At this point, it’s probably a good idea to keep your budget in mind. You may find all the features you want in an on-camera monitor for less than you were willing to spend, or you may realize that the features you thought you needed aren’t available at all right now. to be important.

On the other hand, you will find that there are some great features that are worth the investment. In either case, by considering the features that are important to you before considering the price, you can evaluate the monitors based on their value to you, not just how much they cost.

Also read: best cameras for stop motion reviewed