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A Bigger View? Is An External Monitor For You?

At 50, my eyesight isn’t what it once was. I’ve been wearing eyeglasses since I was about 15, almost as long as I’ve been a photographer, and shooting with glasses has never been easy. They spend a lot of time on top of my head when the camera’s to my eye, and my diopters are constantly moving around, depending on whether I’m finding it easier that day to wear, or not wear, my glasses as I shoot.

Eyeglasses or not, I’ve often looked at videographers and envied the larger monitors through which they experience the scenes they film. You won’t see many of them looking into the tiny viewfinder still photographers use; instead, they use larger, brighter field monitors to keep an eye on their scenes.

I spent the last couple of weeks in Kenya, and for the first time, I brought a field monitor to play with. I used it on and off while photographing on safari, and if you’ve ever wondered about using a field monitor, here are some thoughts.

Looking down at the field monitor while shooting, it’s all there the same way it would be in your viewfinder. In this case, my basic exposure settings and histogram.

The monitor I chose is an Atomos Shinobi 5″ 4K HDMI Field Monitor, and while I don’t see using a field monitor for street photography or any trip where compact and unobtrusive is important, I can see it being very helpful for other kinds of photography—certainly in the studio, and anything for which a tripod is desirable. I can see this being appreciated by anyone who does landscape photography, macro, or still life, as well as certain kinds of wildlife photography. 

Both on safari and on my bear trips, I shoot long hours with big lenses. Most of the time, the cameras are on monopods or tripods, but they’re almost always as low as I can get them. This makes it next to impossible to look through the viewfinders, so a larger additional monitor seemed like a perfect solution for this trip, and I loved it! But with some caveats. So here are some thoughts about using a field monitor for still photography.

I’ve been using the flip-down LCD screens on my mirrorless cameras for years, and I vastly prefer them to looking through a viewfinder most of the time. I love the ability to get low or explore alternate points of view, but I also like not having to keep the camera to my eye the whole time. Watching the LCD on my lap not only allows me to remain present and focused but also to see what’s going on around me; it gives me back my peripheral vision. That’s not unimportant when photographing predators, but also advantageous in busy scenes where your timing might be affected if you can see the action coming.

So then, why not use just the flip-down LCD screen on my cameras as I’ve always done? Well yes, I could, but the additional monitor has some (pardon the pun) big benefits. First, the further away that little screen gets from me, the harder it is to see it, especially the finer details and the histogram. But put a larger 5″ screen a couple of inches higher than the LCD, and it’s much easier to see everything and keep an eye on my histogram. (If I did my math right, a 5″ inch screen is almost twice the surface area of a 3″ screen, and when you bring it closer to your eyes the apparent size difference is amplified. Math aside, the experience is much better).

I can keep my camera on my monopod or tripod and watch the action large and clear. I can also see anything on the monitor that I might otherwise see on my LCD or in the electronic viewfinder, including histograms and menus. I knew I’d like this, but I can’t believe what a difference it made. The experience of watching the action unfold on a much larger screen that I could bring closer to my eyes was wonderful. I was more relaxed and less exhausted by the effort to see it all on the smaller LCD screen of the camera.

There’s another advantage, at least for me. My Sony a1 screen only articulates in one direction, so if I want to use it for vertically framed shots, I’m out of luck. With the HDMI monitor on a swivel or small ball mount, I can easily use the screen, and though it’s not as close to my eyes, it’s still better than the on-camera tilt screen that doesn’t tilt to vertical (why, Sony, WHY?!).

So, How Does It Work?

1. Get a field monitor. HDMI monitors come in different sizes and can be had quite reasonably or quite expensively. My Shinobi was somewhere in the middle at USD$350 plus an additional $190 for their power kit, which includes two batteries and a charger. (Don’t skip this. Not every monitor comes with a battery included. Mine didn’t.)

2. Put it on the camera. In addition to the monitor, you’ll need something like this SmallRig monitor mount that sits in your camera’s hot shoe and then screws to the bottom of the monitor itself. I got mine on Amazon for about USD$37.00.

3. Plug it in. Lastly, you’ll need an HDMI cable to connect the camera to the monitor. I won’t link the cable itself because different cameras need different outputs (HDMI or MiniHDMI), but it should be easy enough to find out which HDMI output you need). And then you plug the monitor into the camera via HDMI cable, put the battery in, and turn it on.

About Brightness.

One thing you’ll want to keep in mind as you select your particular field monitor is brightness. They’re measured in nits, and my Shinobi puts out 1000 nits or 1000cd/m2. If you plan to shoot in bright light, you probably don’t want to get a display that’s less than 1000 nits. There are plenty of field monitors you can get for around $100, but the cheaper ones I saw were all around 500cd/m2. It seemed a false economy to me to get a monitor I couldn’t see in bright daylight.

What About Recording Monitors?

The other thing you’ll want to know is that some of the HDMI field monitors are what they call recording monitors. Used by videographers, these are of limited value to those who shoot still images only, like me. They allow you to record video (not stills) to special hard drives built for this purpose (SSDMini). For my needs, this was just more function than I could use. But if you do a lot of video and find that you’re running out of space on your SD cards, you might want to look into not only a field monitor like the Atomos Shinobi but a recording field monitor like the Atomos Ninja V (for which you’ll then need to buy an SSDMini drive).

What About Power?

The battery for my Shinobi isn’t tiny. I brought two with me, which were yet another thing to add to my carry-on luggage because the airlines forbid batteries in checked luggage. I found one battery was enough for several hours of shooting. They claim it’s an all-day battery, though I didn’t test that. If I had to bet, I’d say the battery for the monitor will outlast the battery in my camera. And because the camera LCD or EVF isn’t being used, you’ll get more life from the battery in the camera.

Anything Else?

On the larger screen, previewing the images I’ve already made is fantastic. Sitting around during downtime and looking through what I’ve shot or being critical about what I’m shooting in the moment is so much easier on a larger screen. My eyes are healthy; I’ve only just barely been given a prescription to help with reading, but still, the experience of previewing images on a 5-inch monitor is so much better than using the viewfinder or the LCD.

Previewing images is a larger, nicer experience on a field monitor.

Is it so much better that it’s worth the additional cost and fuss? Only you can know that. I bought this set-up for underwater work and only on a whim decided to bring it to Kenya. But the real question is: would I bring it again?

Well, maybe. If I was packing light, no. I wouldn’t call this essential. In fact, at this point, it’s really just experimental. I found myself taking the monitor off often. There’s still something I like about having the camera to my eye when I can. And honestly, without practice, I still found it easier to handle my monopod and keep up with the moment with the camera to my eye instead of looking at the screen. But for when you need those lower points of view and you’d otherwise have to use the flip-out screen, or you’re doing significant tripod work (especially for those of you who do a lot of landscapes with maturing eyes), I see this being a valuable approach. I just need some practice with it.

The pros to using a field monitor are several, but it’s probably more a case of “if the shoe fits” in terms of when and how you use it. It might take some use before it stops feeling clunky, and if you’re a go-light kind of photographer, it’s yet one more bag of goodies to pack into that already bulging bag, but I’m excited to have one more tool in the kit for those times when it’s the right shoe and the right fit. Will it make your photographs better? No. But now you know it’s an option and it might make your photography a little easier, and the view noticeably bigger.

Questions? Leave a comment below, and we’ll talk about it.

For the Love of the Photograph,

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Rafael Jones

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