April 1, 2020
2020 Edition

The Best Camera Monitors For Any Budget

A helpful guide to camera monitors. 

Most modern mirrorless and DSLR cameras come equipped with a screen to view content, but they may not always be reliable. Some are too small for detailed manual focus work. Others are stationary making it difficult to frame certain shots. Adding an external monitor to a camera can not only provide a larger viewing area but can also offer additional tools for filmmakers not found on the camera.

There are many different brands of camera monitors available that tout an array of features, but there are three general categories:

  • Viewing only
  • View and record
  • View and/or record, plus transmit a wireless video signal

What to consider

The list of variables to consider is long. What size? Does it need to record? Is wireless important? What resolution and frame rates should it handle? How many nits? What color gamut? Is 8-bit okay or is 10-bit preferred? What the heck is 8-bit + FRC? What type of input and output signals must it have? Does it have features like false color, zebras, vectorscope, peaking, etc? Does it offer LUT support? Is audio supported?

And that’s only some of the technical considerations. Others stem from workflow. Does the camera I own have an external output? Does the camera output have a clean signal? Can my rig handle an external monitor? Do I need to consider a different rig if it doesn’t?

Here are some considerations to help guide an answer.

Monitor/Record/Wireless

The first consideration is if you want a monitor that only displays the image, one that displays the image and records it, or one that displays and transmits it wirelessly. The advantage of having a monitor that records is its ability to record the output signal on the camera.

Generally, mirrorless and DSLR cameras can have limited internal recording features, but an external output can offer a higher bit depth or chroma sub-sampling. Say 10-bit 4:2:2.

There are also monitors that can transmit a wireless video signal to a second monitor, commonly used as a director’s monitor, while still offering traditional features. I’m surprised there isn’t a monitor that can monitor, record, and transmit a wireless signal. Maybe soon? If you know of one, let me know in the comments. 

Size/Weight

The majority of camera monitors are between 5” and 7”. But you can even use your smartphone (more on that later). Anything larger generally serves as a set monitor. While 7” monitors do offer a larger viewing area, some 5” monitors come with a compatible eyepiece that acts as a loupe. The viewfinder can be especially handy in abnormal shooting conditions.

Weight is another factor to consider. The lighter the better, especially with handheld work. A few grams heavier may not seem like much, but it can quickly add to fatigue. With that said, as a camera operator, it’s important to consider a healthy lifestyle. Simple exercises with 5 or 10 lb. dumbbells at home can go a long way in gaining muscle strength and enduranceendurance being the more important of the two. 

Input / Output Signals

A monitor with both SDI and HDMI inputs is ideal, but HDMI only is okay, too. The type of input and output signal is also worth considering.  

HDMI specification today is generally 1.4, 2.0 (2.0a, 2.0b) or 2.1. HDMI 2.1 is the newest spec that supports resolutions up to 10K, HDR, and has a bandwidth capacity up to 48Gbps. It’s the future of HDMI. Right now, most cameras and monitors support HDMI 1.4 or 2.0.

If the monitor is HDMI 2.1, make sure it’s backward-compatible with 2.0. The 2.1 specification suggests that it should be, but we all know about software issues. If the monitor is HDMI 2.1 and the camera HDMI output is 2.0, a compatibility issue could occur.

SDI is available in SD, HD, 3G, 6G, and 12G. 24G is in the works. There’s also Quad Link and Dual Link versions that take multiple signals (four or two) and combine them to transmit a richer signal. For example, Quad Link 3G-SDI bonds four 3G-SDI signals into one 12G signal and can transmit 10-bit 4:2:2 or 12-bit 4:4:4.

SDI standards are overseen by SMPTE. Bandwidth speeds are highlighted below.

  • Standard Definition SD-SDI (270 Mbps, ST 259)
  • HD standard HD-SDI (1.483 Gbps, ST 292)
  • 3G-SDI (2.97 Gbps, ST 424)
  • 6G-SDI (5.94 Gbps, ST 2081)
  • 12G-SDI (11.88 Gbps, ST 2082)

Without going into too much detail about each, know that 12G-SDI supports higher resolutions and chroma sub-sampling rates on a single cable over 3G or 6G. 3G-SDI is optimized for full HD (1920 x 1080) whereas 6G and 12G are better for 4K video. 12G can easily support 4K DCI at 60p. If the monitor only has a 3G-SDI, it most likely only supports full HD on a single cable.

Depending on the bandwidth, SDI cables can run hundreds of feet longer when compared to HDMI, which generally has reliability issues around 30 feet (9m).

While monitoring in full HD is sufficient, if you want to future-proof yourself a bit, look for a monitor with 12G-SDI support. As 4K and HDR workflows become more common, having access to the higher bandwidth will be welcomed.  

Resolution

Monitor resolution will make a difference. But the topic will voice different opinions. How so? Well, do you need 4K to frame and operate a shot? Nope. Full HD is plenty good. When shooting at a higher resolution and the monitor scales the image to a lower resolution and introduces artifacts, is that a good thing? Probably not when exposure is critical.

So what’s better for your workflow?  

Monitors with a resolution higher than full HD are available now and will become the norm. The most important thing to consider is if the monitor has a 1:1 pixel mapping or 1:1 pixel mode. Pixel mapping matches the source sent from the camera to the monitor to allow you to see the image full screen.

So when considering the resolution spec, consider the camera you will be using. If the output signal is full HD, is a higher resolution monitor necessary?

Color Gamut/Bit Depth/HDR

The CIE 1931 chromaticity diagram was invented in 1931 and the graph represents all the colors that can be seen by a human eye. A color gamut is a range of colors plotted on the graph. Two standard color gamuts are RGB and CMYK, with RGB being used for video and CMYK generally reserved for printing. A standard color space for video is Rec. 709.

Standards are established to create uniformity, especially for broadcast television. That's why The Office generally looks the same whether you're watching it at home or at a friend’s house.

The broadcast standard for well over a decade has been Rec. 709, but DCI-P3 and Rec. 2020 are emerging. The main difference between Rec. 709 and DCI-P3 is that DCI-P3 can display more green and red tones, but the number of blues is the same. DCI-P3 will provide an increase in picture quality over Rec. 709, and Rec. 2020 blows them both away.

  • sRGB - Consumer computer monitors (covers 35.9%)
  • Rec. 709 - High definition televisions (covers 35.9%)
  • Adobe RGB - Professional computer monitors (covers 52.1%)
  • DCI P3 - Digital cinema projectors (covers 53.6%)
  • Rec. 2020 - 4K, 8K (covers 75.8%)

For camera monitors, Rec. 709 is sufficient, but DCI-P3 is slightly better. Mobile devices, computer monitors, and televisions are supporting DCI-P3, and if the final deliverable will be DCI-P3, why not monitor in it. Plus, you have access to more of the color space for better exposure. 

Bit depth is a frequent topic discussed on No Film School. 8-bit, 10-bit, 12-bit, and 16-bit are all examples. Bit depth refers to the amount of color information that can be stored in an image. The higher the bit depth, the more colors that can be stored. 

  • 8-bit: RGB 256
  • 10-bit: RGB 1024
  • 12-bit: RGB 4096
  • 16-bit: RGB 65,356

Camera monitoring is different than color grading. With color grading, a larger bit depth will provide more color information, reducing artifacts in an image. For camera monitoring, 10-bit is plenty good, but when incorporating HDR workflows benchmarks can change.

But what is 8-bit + FRC?

8-bit produces 16.8 million colors, 10-bit 1.07 billion colors. 8-bit + FRC, known as Frame Rate Control, finds itself in the middle. It uses dithering to approximate the lost colors of 10-bit. But don’t be fooled, it is an 8-bit panel. The reason why 8-bit + FRC is an option is that it’s hard to recognize the difference between 8-bit +FRC and 10-bit with the naked eye.

For camera monitoring, 10-bit is preferred, but 8-bit + FRC is sufficient.

In general, High Dynamic Range (HDR) refers to the luminance range of an image. Specifically, the brightness range between black and white. HDR standards like Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) or Perceptual Quantizer (PG) offer whiter whites and darker blacks.   

HDR can also refer to different gamma or gamut color spaces. Are you planning to shoot in Canon CLog, Panasonic VLog, RED WideGamutRGB, Sony SLog, or something similar? If so, you will want a monitor that can support viewing them.

Scopes/Image Tools

Industry standard scopes and tools are a must when it comes to camera monitors. Waveform, RGB parade, vectorscope, histogram, zebra, false color, guides, aspect ratios, exposure tools… does it support LUTs? 

To me, some of the most important features are focus peaking and focus assist tools. While the trend in camera tech highlights that autofocus is becoming more reliable and dependable in the field, in the cinema world, most lenses are manual focus. If you’re going to invest in a camera monitor it should have focus peaking, focus assist, and zoom tools to aid in making sure the shot is in focus. If it’s out of focus, is the shot even useable? Probably not

The other thing to look for is latency. If the signal from the camera to the monitor is slow, you can miss focus or a camera move.

Let’s not forget about audio. Does the monitor support at least 2-channel audio? You will want that at least as a scratch track.

Brightness/Touchscreen/Power

As a general rule, 1000 nits or higher is ideal. If you plan on working outside in the sun often, investing in a hood can go a long way.  

Touchscreens are fairly standard, and so are monitors that are responsive. Meaning, when you flip the monitor vertically or horizontal, the image will follow suit. The viewing angle is also important. The greater the viewing angle, the easier it will be to see the image from the side. 

Contrast ratio and static constant ratio are also some things to note. Contrast is the luminance range between the blacks and whites the monitor can produce. A contrast ratio of 1000:1 is typical. Static is the widest distance between light and dark a monitor can project at a given brightness. So, let's say the monitor brightness is at 80% what is the contrast ratio at 80% brightness? It will most likely be different than at 100% brightness.

There's also dynamic contrast ratio, which is the black and whites measured at different brightness levels. But it's something that should be ignored as it's not standardized. It usually pushed by marketing and you'll see outrageous numbers like 1,000,000:1. 

You'll also want to consider the mounting options of the monitor. Cold-shoe? Does it have any 1/4-20" or 3/8" mounts? For power, it should have an external battery option as well as AC power. Hot-swappable batteries is a bonus, the same goes for monitors that can power other accessories or even the camera via D-tap.

Best Camera Monitors 

So now that you know what to consider, here are monitors worth considering. 

Atomos Shogun 7 - $1,299

 Adorama Amazon

What we like about it: 

  • 7.2" 
  • 3000 nits
  • DCI-P3 wide color gamut
  • Rec. 709, Rec. 2020 color spaces
  • Up 4K DCI support at different frame rates
  • SSD recording 
  • 10-bit or 8-bit up to 4:2:2
  • CinemaDNG, ProRes RAW, ProRes, DNxHD
  • Hybrid Log Gamma, Log support
  • HDMI (2.0) and SDI 

Blackmagic Video Assist 12G HDR - $995 or $795

AdoramaAmazon

What we like about it: 

  • Available in 7" or 5" 
  • 2500 nits
  • DCI-P3 wide color gamut
  • Rec. 601, Rec. 709, Rec. 2020 color spaces
  • Up 4K DCI at 25fps
  • 10-bit up to 4:2:2 
  • Dual card slots for recording
  • Blackmagic RAW, ProRes or DNxHD 
  • HDR10, Hybrid Log Gamma
  • HDMI (2.0a) and SDI

SmallHD FOCUS 7 - $439

AdoramaAmazon

What we like about it: 

  • 7" 
  • 1000 nits
  • Image tools 
  • 4K UHD up to 30P 
  • 8-bit, 10-bit, 12-bit support
  • HDMI support

​Atomos Shinobi SDI - $399 

AdoramaAmazon

What we like about it: 

  • 5" 
  • 1000 nit
  • Rec. 709 color gamut 
  • 4K UHD and 2K DCI 
  • Image tools, LUT support
  • Anamorphic De-squeeze
  • HDR support
  • 8 + 2 FRC
  • 3G-SDI and HDMI support

FeelWorld F6 Plus - $229

AdoramaAmazon

What we like about it: 

  • 5" 
  • 500 nits 
  • 4K DCI and 4K UHD 
  • Image tools
  • Anamorphic modes 
  • Audio monitoring 
  • HDMI support 

Andycine A6 Plus V2 - $219 

Amazon AndyCine

What we like about it: 

  • 5.5" 
  • Full HD resolution 
  • 500 nits 
  • 4K DCI and 4K UHD support 
  • Image tools, LUT support 
  • AC and USB-C power options 
  • Rec. 709 color space 
  • HDMI loop through 

Lilliput A7S 7" - $159

AdoramaAmazon

What we like about it: 

  • 7" 
  • 500 nits
  • Supports 4K UHD at 30p
  • Image controls
  • HDMI loop through

Eyoyo A5 - $99

Amazon

What we like about it: 

  • 5" 
  • Full HD resolution 
  • 500 nits
  • 4K support
  • 1000:1 contrast 
  • 170-degree viewing angle 
  • External battery or AC power
  • Mounting options 
  • Image tools 
  • HDMI loop through

SmallHD Cine 7 500 TX/RX - $4,000

Adorama Amazon

  • Wireless Video Transmission
  • 7"  
  • 1800 nits
  • DCI-P3 wide color gamut
  • 8-bit color depth, 10-bit scopes
  • Full HD at various frame rates 
  • 10-bit 4:2:2 support 
  • Wireless range up to 500 feet
  • 3G-SDI, HD-SDI, SD-SDI, HDMI

Your Smartphone - Free

Your smartphone can also be used as a monitor if you use any number of apps, including the $20 Field Monitor app for Apple devices. However, it is limited in its camera support and functionality, so be sure to read all the fine print. Others have found luck with the $9 qDslrDashboard app for Android, but again, it's also limited.

Depending on the camera manufacturer there also might be a native app, like the Panasonic LUMIX Sync Support app available for Android and Apple Devices. Nikon has a version. The same with Canon. While limited in functionality, the apps do offer a live view and record functionality. This is also a great feature if the camera needs to be separated from the operator. 

Final Thoughts

Camera monitors can be great tools for filmmakers offering flexibility in monitoring and recording or even wireless. It's important to consider the features that fit your workflow needs. Finding that perfect balance between functionality and price point starts by asking yourself a question: What type of monitor is best for me? If you have found a preferred monitor already, let us know in the comments below.      

Your Comment

1 Comment

Didn't see the 7" "Feelword 279" 4K in that list. All plastic but it's 2200 nits and has zebras, false colour, peaking, flip and flop, histogram, HDMI passthrough. Auto detect resolution, Audio speakers etc etc you can even load LUTs and have a choice of battery plates. £220 on eBay NEW!!!. I love mine. And you can get a version with SDI for an extra £50 or so. Should have been on the list without question. I would love Feelworld to bring out a 5" version for the same price.

April 4, 2020 at 4:14AM

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John Stockton
Filmmaker, Editor.
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