Do you need an external monitor/recorder?

 

You’ve probably seen monitors on different people’s cameras before. Did you ever wonder why they have them there or what they could be used for?

In this post I’ll be talking about why and how I use a monitor/recorder, as well as talk about different devices.

 

Review

  1.  Review Monitor
    First and foremost  – I use them as a review monitor. Ever since jumping into video I’ve been accustomed to using the tiny screen to see what my shots look like only to go back and review and notice something in the scene, wrinkles on the back drop etc. Point is you can’t really see everything on the tiny screen. Having a monitor that lets you see the whole picture whether it be a review monitor or recorder etc is really helpful. Additionally there’s lots of times where a camera operator may be busy trying to work the camera and a director may be watching a review monitor to see what the take is going to look like.

 

  1. Recording times

All DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras whatever devices are considered “Cameras” and not necessarily. “video cameras” The limit you can record on any DSLR (as far as I know) is 30 minutes. You’ve probably noticed if you have been shooting with anything like a DSLR body like a canon or Nikon that it typically only shoots for 10-20 minutes or so. Why? On some cameras it’s the file system. Canon records to a FAT32 file system, so it’s files can only be so large. But there’s ways around that for sure using things like file spanning etc, so that’s one possible reason. Another reason is that it’s cheaper components for sure, and sensors can really overheat in these kinds of form factors, but there’s actually huge international trade agreements on taxing them differently. A “video camera” is taxed at a different rate than a “photo camera that can also shoot video”. A third-party recorder isn’t technically a video camera either since it doesn’t have a lens or any way to acquire the images, so it also can skirt around this EU law. Using a third party recorder like this can record continuously beyond 30 minutes because it records to larger media continuously and doesn’t have the same limitations that a DSLR can have.

 

  1. Quality in codecs.

    I love my a7s. it’s great footage – but when I try to do any post work on it, much of the signal is compressed. I have a couple of choices when recording in my a7s. I can choose between an h.264 mp4 codec or the XAVCHD codec. Both are lossy codec, and I have a variety of different bit rate settings. Basically the higher the bitrate, the less compressed the footage, but in the end they are all still fairly compressed. For a majority of people this wont matter too much however as the quality vs size is really great but for professionals who need as clean a signal as possible, and the ability to manipulate that footage we need something just a little more. If that sounds confusing,think about mp3. For 90% of the population its “good enough” but ask any musician or audio professional and they will tell you it’s just not enough data to do anything with.

With using my external recorder/monitor I can get a very high quality output, however the file sizes will be much larger. For comparison I can shot about 2:30 on a 64 GB card in AVCHD vs about an hour on a 480 GB SSD on my Atomos assassin.

 

4.Post production workflows

Without getting into Super technical stuff most if not all DSLRs and Mirrorless cams and devices will record in a 4:2:0 chroma subsample in a compressed h.264 codec. Where if you are ever doing any kind of post work you need at minimum a 4:2:2 preferably at 10 bits (though sadly the a7s will only output 8 bit uncompressed through the HDMI port) You may not think it makes that big of a difference but it does.

 

Recorders like the Atomos and Convergent and others can record in very high bit rates at a much less compressed codec. Codecs like Pro res or DNxHD have much more information, therefore you have more density in colors, sharpness and movement.

 

  1. Timecode and XML-

With my recorder I can apply tags like talent/landscape/b-roll right on the clip in the recorder and when i attach it to my computer it’s already tagged in my files! If I’m working with other people or as a logger, this is great because I can have time code placed onto my files along with these tags. If I was recording on a DSLR I likely will not have those options often, if at all.

  1. LUT support.

I’m playing more and more with LUTs on my a7s and with my recorder i can apply the LUTs I’m going to use IN monitor so i can see what it will look like when i apply it. I can pick different looks on the fly and even burn them in on the files should i want.

  1. Scopes histograms and false color Focus assists.-

There’s lot of times where Im trying to get a solid focus on a shot and it can be a little tough when I’m trying to do so on my cameras lcd. Theres nothing worse than reviewing a shot and realizing the focus is a little soft and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Additionally with a vectorscope on my footage I can make sure that my color is balanced the way I want and make sure I’m not clipping too bright in my scenes. On my recorder I can see all that on a nice large screen, but I can use the focus assist to highlight my focused area, and zoom in to make sure the shot is exactly the way I want it.

 

So what are my options?
Like all pieces of equipment you need to pick what’s right for you and what your needs are. Do you need an external recorder? Do you need HDMI in/outs? Do you need SDI? Do you want the ability to record audio directly into it? Do you need 4k? Etc.
Luckily for you there’s lots of options out there at various price points.

Small HD Is known for their great monitors and they makes a bunch of great ones in a variety of sizes. Currently I don’t think they have any recorders built into their monitors.
Convergent design makes a whole series of different recorders which use proprietary drives but from the friends I have who use them hold up very well.

Video Devices is another company that makes a series of different records large and small to fit different needs.

And lastly there’s Atomos who I’ve been using and have been really pleased with.
I wanted something i could use as a monitor and almost bought a SmallHD– but finding the assassin does all the monitor does AND records in 4k was something that was important to me. I also don’t like the idea of proprietary drives that convergent sells, no matter how good they are because what happens if they stop supporting it? Replacement parts might be tough to find. With the Atomos I got the best of all the other choices in my opinion. I got a solid monitor with a great display and video assist tools. I got a 4k recorder that I could buy my own drives for. I can record audio from in camera or run a line in for a price very close to the price of a SmallHD monitor. Sold. For you students out there- Atomos also has a educational discount that makes it even easier to own.

I’m using the Atomos Ninja flame for my current kit, but theres a bunch of different options out there depending on what you need.

Is it worth the price?

This is actually from A friend of mine who also owns a a7s and got this whole post going.

“So I’m really digging the Atamos shogun. My only issue is I don’t want to spend a chunk of cash for stuff that will become inferior in a year. But that’s kind of the toss up in the air with everything. But with you being an owner do you know if that’s something that will last years similar to how camera lenses don’t depreciate in value

Realistically- a decent monitor is going to run you almost a grand. Just looking at the SmallHD monitors I’m seeing thigs at around $700 for the 500 series as of this writing. This is an excellent monitor that just also happens to record in 4k for not that much more.

Now will 4k be the end all?  No- I think it will probably be viable for the next 5 years roughly so in the production world I see this being relevant for at least 5 years. Realistically Id love to be able to shoot even larger and crop down but don’t have the need for it or the desire for the storage space required for it.

Hopefully that answers some questions on why people use external recorders/monitors.

If you have any other production question be sure to send them my way and I’ll do the best I can to answer them.