Buyer’s Guide: External Camera Monitors – What to Look For

Published:
Updated:

Prosumer video cameras often come with small screens that may not flip or be visible in bright sunlight, making them less ideal for vlogging or outdoor shooting.

To overcome these limitations, professionals use external monitors, which serve as large, external viewfinders offering higher resolution, better visibility in sunlight, and additional features like zebra patterning, histograms, and focus peaking not found in standard camera screens.

Some high-end external monitors include SSD storage and support advanced codecs like ProRes and RAW. These are called external recorders, which you read more about here.

Here’s a breakdown of the most important features you need to know about when buying an external monitor for video production.

Connectivity

SDI and HDMI ports on SmallHD 702 Touch
SDI ports (left) and HDMI ports (right) on my SmallHD 702 Touch external monitor.

Some monitors come with SDI, some with HDMI, some with Micro HDMI ports, and some with both SDI and HDMI options.

What type of monitor you should get depends on what cameras you will use it with.

SDI ports and cables are praised for their long-distance signal integrity (great for studio work where you want the monitor away from your camera) and locking connectors, making them ideal for professional video environments. However, they don’t carry audio or power.

HDMI, widely compatible and able to carry audio, video, and power over a single cable, is limited by shorter cable lengths and lacks a locking connector, posing a risk of disconnection.

Micro HDMI offers the same benefits as HDMI but in a smaller form factor, though it’s more fragile and less common, making finding replacements challenging.

You can get micro HDMI protectors – also known as cable clams – from companies such as Smallrig to help protect the HDMI port on your camera.

Getting a monitor with both SDI and HDMI offers the best of both worlds but adds to the price and bulkiness.

Read more about the difference between HDMI and SDI here.

External monitor vs. External Recorder

The first thing to consider is if you need an external monitor or recorder. External recorders are monitors, but they come with additional features not found on external monitors.

External recorders come with extra storage space. Fx external recorders can have extra card slots and even the possibility to install an SSD disk to record hours of footage with high-quality codecs.

Speaking of codecs, external recorders offer high-quality codecs and frame rates that are impossible to achieve in-camera.

Fx many cameras don’t allow you to record Apple ProRes RAW internally, but only through HDMI or SDI to an external monitor recorder. This is especially true for a lot of mirrorless hybrid cameras.

So if ProRes RAW for maximum color grading and flexibility in post-production is important to you, and your camera doesn’t support this internally, you need to buy an external recorder and NOT an external monitor.

The Atomos Ninja V, for instance, offers 4K capture at 60 fps and can record in ProRes HQ 4:2:2 or DNxHR. You can also record in 10-bit color space and capture log footage.

However, external recorders are often bulkier, heavier, and more expensive. So, an external monitor can be the better solution if your camera already has good codecs and a good storage solution, such as dual slots for SD cards.

Screen size

SmallHD 5 inch monitor 2

Most on-camera displays come in sizes ranging from 5 to 7 inches.

A larger screen lets you see what you’re looking at in more detail while filming, making it easier to see if you’ve nailed that focus.

Moreover, a larger display will also let you access the functions of your monitor more quickly, especially if you have “fat thumbs.”

However, the monitor’s size and weight matter. For example, if you’re shooting handheld, a larger 7” monitor will make your rig heavier and more difficult to balance than a 5” screen.

You can get even larger monitors, aka field monitors, but if you mount the monitor on your DSLR or camcorder, buying a 19” external monitor doesn’t make sense. Those beasts are mostly used for studio work or larger-scale productions.

Display resolution

Another important aspect related to the display is its resolution.

Higher display resolutions let you see your video in higher resolutions. And many high-quality monitors come with a full HD resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels, a.k.a. 1080p resolution).

Higher resolution 4K displays are still rare. You don’t need a monitor with a 4K resolution to play back 4K footage because there’s a good chance that your camera will also provide a downscaled 1080p version through HDMI.

Scaling the footage can introduce some artifacts that may become obvious when you replay the footage on your monitor.

Luckily, many on-camera monitors provide a 1:1 pixel mode, letting you zoom in and view part of the frame at full resolution without any artifacts.

Display technology

The display technology of external monitors varies. Some monitors feature an IPS display, while others use an LCD, LED (or a combination of both!), or an OLED.

Each technology has pros and cons, but IPS, a combination of LCD/LED or OLED, is good to look out for.

Technologies like OLED and IPS let you enjoy a wide viewing angle without altering the image quality.

It also offers better contrast and deeper blacks than, let’s say, a monitor using a simple LCD screen.

Contrast ratio

The contrast is a measurement of the ratio of the luminance of the brightest white and the deepest, darkest black that the monitor can produce. It is often written as, e.g., 1,000:1.

Please don’t get fooled by the sometimes outrageous claims made by the manufacturers of monitors when it comes to contrast.

There are two different ways to measure contrast: static and dynamic.

The static contrast ratio measures the distance between the darkest blacks and the brightest whites the monitor can produce at a given brightness. For example, if you’re shooting indoors, you might have turned your brightness down to 50%, but when you shoot outside in the bright sun, you have the brightness set up to 100%.

The static contrast ratio will most likely be different at each brightness level.

Dynamic contrast ratio, however, is measured as the darkest blacks and brightest whites at different brightness levels. So, in essence, the manufacturer can set the monitor brightness level to 1% where everything is dark and measure the blacks. Then, the brightness level was 100% to measure the whites. Naturally, this will give a much higher ratio, but it will not be what you can see on your screen at any given time.

Because of this, manufacturers often use the dynamic contrast ratio in their marketing material. It sounds much more impressive to claim that a monitor has a contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1 than 1,000:1.

In short, you should always take the dynamic contrast ratio with a grain of salt. It isn’t a standardized number.

If possible, compare one monitor’s static contrast ratio with another’s static contrast ratio at a specific brightness level. That is – IF you can find the number.

Display brightness

RED Komodo with SmallHD 702 Touch 7 inch monitor
Here is my RED Komodo with the 7″ SmallHD 702 touch screen. The 7″ monitor is great when the camera is mounted on a tripod, but I find it too big and heavy for run-and-gun handheld work. But it has a display brightness of 1500 nits, making it a great option for most outdoor work.

Lastly, each display also has numbers related to the monitor’s brightness.

Brightness is usually written as either cd/m2 or NITS, which is the same thing. Fx 1000 nits or 1500cd/m2.

A higher number means a brighter display and vice versa.

A monitor with a brightness of 1500 nits is usually enough for filming outdoors, except maybe in direct sunlight. If you’re shooting in bright sunlight, you can either put on a sunshade (sometimes included), put a jacket over your head and the monitor, or purchase a brighter monitor.

This guide lists some ultra-bright monitors.

OLED displays usually offer more brightness and contrast (better for outdoor work) than an LCD but are way more expensive.

Touchscreen or not

Some on-camera monitors feature a touchscreen. But with a touchscreen, the price also increases.

There are pros and cons to having a touchscreen.

If it is a good one that is fast and responsive, it can make the whole user experience more efficient and intuitive. If it is a bad one, you’ll hate that it doesn’t respond well to your touches.

Touchscreens are also prone to greasy fingers. So it’s really up to you what you prefer.

Power Options

The two battery slots on the SmallHD 702 touch
The SmallHD 702 Touch has two battery slots on the back and can attach a single battery plate for a V-Mount or Gold-Mount battery (powered via D-tap). It gives it a long running time but makes it heavy on a handheld rig.

Different types of batteries can power the external monitor. In most cases, you might need to buy the battery separately.

At the same time, some monitors require a different type of battery, usually made by Sony (L-Series Battery Mount for NP-F550 batteries) or Canon (LP-E6 Battery Plate, e.g., LP-E6 batteries)).

Some monitors have two slots for hot-swapping batteries (you can switch one out while the monitor is powered by the other). It’s a nice feature, but it adds to the weight.

Some monitors allow you to attach various battery plates to the back, such as a V-mount or a Gold-mount battery.

However, the good thing is that those batteries are designed to last for hours, allowing you to record video footage indoors or outdoors continuously.

You can even get a dummy battery kit, which allows you to power your monitor and camera from a single battery. However, if you run your camera and monitor at full brightness from a single battery, expect the battery to be drained quickly.

A dummy battery won’t gain much battery life if your camera batteries quickly run out of power.

LUT support

Some monitors also feature an SD card slot for loading LUTS. LUT support allows you to test different color grading options while filming. That way, you can better see how the final result might look.

Some external recorders allow you to record – or “burn in” the LUT to the footage as you record. This can help you get closer to your finished result – even when you’re still in production.

Burning in the LUT should be used carefully because it leaves less room for color grading later. But it’s great for fast turnarounds.

You can read more about LUTs here.

8-bit, 10-bit, “fake” 10-bit support

Some monitors can show 8-bit colors, others 10-bit colors, and some use a special technique to simulate 10-bit colors called Frame Rate Control.

8-bit color supports 16.77 million colors, and 10-bit supports 1.07 billion hues.

Frame Rate Support (FRC) fakes 10-bit color by flashing two alternating colors (the last two bits) so quickly that it looks like any of the shades in a billion-color experience. This is sometimes also written as 8+2 bit.

HDR support

Another thing to consider is if you need HDR support. If you know your clients will view your footage in HDR, getting an external monitor with HDR/HLG support is a good idea.

I’d say that HDR is nice to have, but not a need to have, though, since most people still don’t have an HDR screen.

Mounting Options

external monitors
A couple of my older camera monitors on Panasonic cameras with different mounting options.

You can attach the display to your camera in numerous ways regarding mounting options.

For example, most external monitors have a cold shoe mounting bracket that fits most DSLR and mirrorless cameras. This means the monitor will sit on top of the camera, and you can adjust its inclination, viewing angle, and height.

You might find an adjustable arm in the package for more sophisticated external monitors. This device, also known as a magic arm, gives you even more freedom when mounting the display.

For example, you can position the monitor at an angle, rotate it at 360 degrees, change the viewing angle and the height of the arm, etc.

Other Cables and Connections

For example, most external monitors have a USB upgrade port, an Audio/Video port, a 3.5mm jack for your headphones, and a DC port.

In some cases, the display will also come with a 1/4 -20 thread hole, which lets you attach this device to a tripod or stand.

Accessories & Extras

It’s also important to check out the accessories included in the package by the manufacturer to know exactly what you’re spending your hard-earned money on.

Here are a few accessories and extras to consider that are nice to have:

  1. Cables: These cables should ideally be included in the box for connecting your monitor to your camera or other devices. You’ll have to make additional purchases to get your setup working without them.
  2. Carrying Bag/Case: A carrying bag (or, even better, a protective case) is valuable for protecting your device while on the move. It also makes it more convenient to carry all related accessories.
  3. Warranty Policy: Look for a warranty of at least one year to ensure you’re covered against any manufacturing defects or issues that might arise shortly after purchase.
  4. Mounting Tools: Some packages include a wrench or other tools for mounting the monitor to a tripod or your DSLR camera. This is particularly useful for ensuring a secure and stable setup during shoots.
  5. Sunshade: A sunshade is a must for outdoor shoots, allowing you to see your screen even in bright sunlight. It’s not always included and may need to be purchased separately.
  6. SD card for LUTs: Rarely included, but very inexpensive to buy. You don’t need many megabytes.
  7. Screen Protector: It’s like a tempered glass protector for your smartphone that you glue onto the monitor’s screen to protect it from breaking or scratches. It’s nice to have, is rarely included (but can often be included in a bundle offer), and can be annoying to attach since a single dust corn can create an air bubble. Ensure to wipe the glass first. I recommend you buy a package of three screen protectors if you ruin one while attaching it.

These are the basics for buying an external monitor for your video camera.

One set of features might be perfect for one filmmaker, while another is perfect for another. Only you know what you want from your monitor.

Summary

When selecting an external camera monitor, it’s crucial to prioritize display quality, size, and compatibility with your camera.

Additional features like touchscreen controls, scopes for exposure and focus assistance, and portability should align with your specific filming needs.

Choosing a monitor that enhances shooting efficiency and image quality can significantly impact your production value.

I hope you found this guide helpful. If you have any questions, please share them in the comment section below.

Author

    by
  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

    View all posts

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.