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NAB Roundup: Electronic Viewfinders from Zacuto, Cineroid, SmallHD, and More

04.14.11 @ 7:20PM Tags : , , , , , , ,

It’s hard to describe the sheer enormity of NAB — there are several halls of exhibitors (grouped loosely into categories like Acquisition, Post-Production, Delivery, etc.), and each hall is the size of an entire “normal” tradeshow. While I’ll have some wrap-up thoughts later in the week, now that it’s the final day of NAB I’ve finally figured out that, rather than talking about an individual manufacturer’s entire product lineup, I should group similar products from different companies together in one post and wrap them together with any analysis or firsthand experience I can provide. Up first: electronic viewfinders (EVFs), from Zacuto, Cineroid, SmallHD, LCDVF, and others.

Electronic viewfinders are important because they allow shooters to position the camera where they want it, instead of being forced to hold it directly in front of the face (in the case of a DSLR). In many situations the ideal position for a camera is on the shoulder, but HDSLRs can only be mounted on the shoulder with a plethora of support gear — and even then, the camera has to be moved forward to accommodate rear monitoring, which makes the rig extremely front-heavy. An electronic viewfinder hooked up through an HDMI or HD-SDI cable can enable operators to move the camera back onto the shoulder for better balance, while the EVF can be moved forward with an articulating arm in front of the shooter’s eyes. More than just a HDSLR accessory, however, EVFs will find increasing utility as new camcorders like the Pansonic AF100, Sony F3, and Sony FS100 hit the market. The handheld form-factor of these cameras comes with a similar dilemma (especially when the LCD monitors are mounted mid-body, instead of at the front), which puts operators in a similarly awkward position. Let’s take a look at the EVFs on display at NAB.

First up is Korean newcomer Cineroid, whose unfortunate name has done nothing to prevent them from becoming a popular viewfinder manufacturer almost overnight. At the show they were demonstrating several new models under the Cineroid Metal moniker; Dan Chung has more details on the models, which offer HD-SDI inputs and outputs in addition to the current (plastic) model’s HDMI connectivity. All of the monitors share the exact same 800×480 display, however, and while the metal units are certainly more sturdy and professional (buttons included) I actually preferred the flip-up viewfinder of the plastic model (more on this in a bit). Here’s a review of their 3.2″ 800×480 EVF:

I didn’t get a chance to see SmallHD’s new DP4/EVF combo due to SmallHD not having a booth at the show, but here’s Cinema5D with a look at their $749 combo ($549 for the monitor alone), shipping in June:

One thing to note: the DP4 is, as you’d guess, a 4″ monitor (4.3″ to be exact), which is a bit larger than the 3.2″ monitors employed by most of the others. This could be an advantage or a disadvantage, and I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s actually the latter. 800×480 at 4.3″ is a larger pixel pitch than I’d like — but we’ll see when it ships if it can live up to their DP6 monitor, which looks great and is beloved by many.

Another entrant into the EVF space is LCDVF, whose inexpensive viewfinder for DSLRs is very popular. Unfortunately their new EVF, the LCDVFe, wasn’t working at the show and so the all-important hands-on (eye-on?) wasn’t possible. Their solution should be available sometime around late May for $750:

It’s the right price point (meaning, the same as the rest of them… ) and has an interesting design — we’ll see how well the buttons hold up to heavy use.

Another well-known DSLR accessory manufacturer, Redrock Micro, was showing a good deal of gear at the show (more on this later), but their previously announced microEVF was nowhere to be seen. From talking to Brian Valente, the company’s founder, it seemed like they’ve quietly re-cast the EVF as a lower-cost unit rather than as a higher-performance one. I’d be willing to bet this is because their initial claims that their EVF was of “higher resolution than the Canon EOS cameras’ rear LCD and even the Red BOMB EVF from Red Digital Cinema” turned out to be erroneous. Redrock was counting dots, not pixels (there are three dots to each pixel, one each for red, green, and blue), and so their EVF will definitely not be as high a resolution as RED’s BOMB EVF, which is a terrific 1280×784 but costs over $3k. Expect Redrock’s microEVF, when it hits the market later this year, to undercut the $700-800 pricepoint of their competition with the same 800×480 LCD (instead of the expected higher-resolution one).

So, of the EVFs I got to see in person, which did I like the most? Zacuto’s. Here’s why.

I liked the Cineroid’s selection of buttons (there are numerous buttons on each side, allowing for quick access to toggle display functions), and their menu system is extremely extensive (especially at this price point). They’ve also got all the focus and exposure aids you could ask for, and they’re clearly an up-and-coming company; the buttons on their new Cineroid Metal model felt much more solid than the plastic ones on the current model. However, the metal EVF doesn’t allow you to easily flip-up the viewfinder; instead, it slides on and off, and it takes some elbow grease (and time) to do so. I was also told by a reseller that they’d had a high return rate of Cineroid viewfinders due to reliability problems. As I mentioned before, this could be an issue that Cineroid works past (or has already worked past), but that’s what I was told from a major vendor who sells both Cineroid and Zacuto models. This isn’t the reason I liked the Zacuto more, however. The reason I liked the Zacuto was… it just looked better. Despite having a similar 800×480 3.2″ LCD panel, I think the pixel pitch of the Zacuto is somehow tighter than Cineroid’s. I saw a grid of fine lines in the Cineroid display that I didn’t see on Zacuto’s EVF, and after walking back-and-forth between each booth several times, I just felt Zacuto’s EVF resolved a superior image.

Before we go any further, a disclosure: Zacuto is a sponsor of this site. However, anyone who’s read NoFilmSchool for a while knows that I haven’t been recommending any one manufacturer’s products very frequently. I’m chiefly concerned with maintaining objectivity, and besides, sponsorships on the site are currently sold out — if I offend an advertiser and they pull their sponsorship, I’m sure someone else will be happy to take their slot…

With that out of the way, here are the things I wasn’t keen on with Zacuto’s EVF: the casing is a bit bulky, but that does have its advantages (on Zaucto’s web site, at the bottom of this page, they do a drop test from 12 feet to show the durability of the unit). Also, there are less buttons and menu selections in the Zacuto EVF than the Cineroid, but there are enough of each to obtain the correct image size and activate exposure and focus aids. In fact, I would’ve thought Zacuto had an extensive menu system if I hadn’t just seen the almost overwhelming selections on the Cineroid. Ultimately the most important thing is how the viewfinder looks to the naked eye — that’s what we’re here for, to pull focus and monitor shots — and the Zacuto just looked sharper and smoother to me than the Cineroid. For a video of Zacuto’s NAB presence, see this previous post.

Both units are a similar price — the Cineroid is $799, and Zacuto’s pricing is below. If you don’t wear glasses (meaning, you don’t need an adjustable diopter), and if you don’t already own a Zacuto Z-finder, after using the different Zacuto EVF models I would recommend the EVF Flip for the best price/performance.

Zacuto’s EVF models should be shipping May 1st.

In response to the pricing disparity between the numerous HDSLR-appropriate viewfinders on display at the show and high-end EVFs like RED’s, I tweeted a suggestion to accessory manufacturers:

MFGRs: please make a 720p EVF somewhere between the $700 EVFs of @ and @ and the $3200 BOMB EVF from RED. #NABshow

Expect a number of EVFs in the next year or so to fill in this middle ground, because post-DSLR cameras like the Panasonic AF100 and Sony F3 demand better viewfinders. When your DSLR costs $1k and can’t resolve a true 1080p signal, a $700 EVF makes sense. When your Sony F3 resolves a true 1080p signal and costs $13k, you’re going to want something with better resolution than 800×480 — and you’ll be willing to pay more. I should note that most of these EVFs, the Cineroid and Zacuto included, include 1:1 pixel modes that allow you to scale the image up to full-size for better focus pulling — not ideal for racking focus and monitoring your framing at the same time, but it’s a great tool for ensuring focus is dead-on initially. Until midrange models hit the market to complement the latest batch of large-sensor camcorders, the currently available (or soon-to-ship) $700-800 EVFs are a great match for HDSLRs.

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  • I find it hard to believe but the Sony EX3 viewfinder is rated at 1920×480, it does feel sharper than those after market solutions. One wonders why Sony didn’t use the same solution on the F3.

  • Here’s something I don’t understand when looking at electronic viewfinder options. Look at this Olympus viewfinder for some of their compact Micro 4/3 cameras: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/675005-REG/Olympus_260057_VF_2_Electronic_Viewfinder_Black.html

    Very compact in comparison to the ones listed here. 1.4 Megapixel resolution! $250!

    Unfortunately, I believe it has a proprietary connection for Olympus cameras, but why doesn’t some aftermarket company jump on this display tech and release it as a generic aftermarket add-on with hdmi (or whatever) input? It seems to me that something like this could blow all these others out of the water due to its display density, if they set it the proper pro functions. Even without the pro functions, I still think it would sell like hotcakes. Is there something I’m missing here?

    • 1,440,000 dots is the specification — that does not mean it has 1.4 megaPIXELS. Three “dots” = one pixel (R,G,B) — these 800×480 viewfinders are thus 1.15 million dots. Still, the price is right on that Olympus — hopefully we’ll see more universal VFs like it.

      • Ah, good point, I did not think of that (3 dots = 1 pixel). Thanks!

      • Sony OLED Electronic Viewfinder for NEX cameras is even more dots at 2359K and costs around $239… There is definitely something wrong with the current crop of electronic viewfinders and their prices.

  • Beside the smallHD evf, one of the more interesting solutions I saw was Cinevate’s cyclops mounted as an evf. I believe it was attached to a small Sony display. Yea, I know the cyclops is large, but it looked kinda cool!

    • Good point – forgot to mention the Cyclops – it did look great. You have to surrender both eyes to it, but it’s a very nice eye(s)piece.

  • I’m surprised they are not adding an hdmi out or a composite out for the directors monitor / video village?… That would be slick.

  • Well I like the Zacuto offerings but given the input is only HDMI this makes the SmallHD DP4 more attractive. Older cameras without HDMI like the EX-1 need other options. I thought I’d save a couple bucks on the Zacuto as well since I already have a Z-finder but again I can get the DP4 package for the same money as the Flip. Oh well……

  • Looks like some real great stuff at NAB but nothing really innovating and brand new. Also is anything well priced when it’s target audience is DSLR owners?