After a long day of shooting, thought I would take a moment to write a short piece about one of the most important tools in my kit.
If you are anything like me, a large chunk of your mental energy will find itself dedicated to finding ways in which you can make your life easier, rather than more difficult. And often, as a photographer, making my life easier can translate to making my life lighter by lessening the number of things I need to bring with me to set. So, more often than not, if something isn’t absolutely necessary, there’s a good chance I will opt to leave it at home.
One of the reasons for the growth in mirrorless cameras has been their lighter weight as compared to their DSLR counterparts. In my experience, this is not always true once you factor in professional lenses and all the other accessories that can be connected to a camera but that topic is for another discussion. Today’s discussion will simply be about one of those items you might want to mount to a camera. The external monitor.
Now, when shooting stills, external monitors rarely come into play. Trying to handhold a camera with a monitor attached, quickly flipping between horizontals and verticals, trying to cram my flash trigger into my hotshoe, and somehow duct tape my monitor to the side. This is not my idea of a good time. So, while I’m sure I could come up with a good reason to use an external monitor for stills, what I’m really referring to is using an external monitor for video.
But since it is entirely possible to capture video internally with almost all camera systems, you might be asking the logical question of why one would even bother with the added weight and expense of adding yet another piece to the puzzle?
Expanded File Formats and Image Quality
One of the ways in which today’s mirrorless cameras are able to offer such robust video in such small bodies is by leaving much of the heavy lifting to external devices. Whereas a larger cinema camera can often capture the absolute highest quality video with the highest bit rates and codecs straight to a capture card, most mirrorless bodies offer only limited recording options internally while reserving the higher end stuff for traveling over the HDMI.
There could be multiple reasons for doing this. A lot of it has to do with the amount of horsepower required to process that amount of data. Many smaller cameras simply can’t handle that much data, or that much heat, internally. So an external monitor is required to access the full capabilities of the sensor. Other cameras might be perfectly capable of doing all the processing in-body, but are simply not afforded that option because their manufacturers don’t want to have their lower-end bodies encroach on the territory of their larger and more expensive cinema lines.
One thing I always look for when evaluating a camera is what type of video I can get from the camera internally. Even as someone who is setup to shoot often with external monitors, having the option not to is still a plus. But, when I do use an external monitor, it is often so that I have access to greater color depth and more robust recording formats.
Today’s digital cameras have autofocus capabilities previously thought impossible. One could easily shoot an entire feature film using only a camera’s built-in eye autofocus and tracking systems, given that they had a capable system. But as you will quickly learn on any film set, or from having a five-minute conversation with any cinematographer, almost all high-end productions pull focus manually rather than depending on the camera to do so.
Why? Well, there’s the practical. As good as autofocus systems are, there are still often little micro-adjustments a camera will inevitably make that can easily ruin a long take. And the more complicated a scene, the less likely it is that the camera is going to know who or what you want to be in focus.
Also, in filmmaking, your focus point is as big a part of storytelling as your aperture, frame rate, or lighting choices. Whereas when I am shooting a still portrait of someone, I often only care about getting the face in focus, when I am shooting a film, the choice of who to focus on and when to focus on that person is far more deliberate. Should I rack focus to them from another part of the scene? How fast should the rack be? Is the undercover agent hidden deep in the background really the more important part of the frame? Is it a dream sequence and maybe I don’t want much of anything in focus at all? You are making 101 decisions a minute as a filmmaker and focus choices are one of the most powerful. Why leave that up to the camera?
But, if you are going to manual focus, your ability to do so will greatly improve with the size of the monitor you are using to check for focus. There’s a good chance if you are manually focusing that you, or your focus puller, will be using distance measurements to set focus and using the monitor only as a double confirmation. But it’s much easier to confirm that the subject is in focus on a five-inch, seven-inch, or bigger monitor than it is on a camera’s tiny LCD. This is especially true if you have a dedicated focus puller who might not be standing directly behind the camera and thus wouldn’t even have access to the rear LCD in the first place.
As an added bonus, many cameras these days have features like focus peaking built in to make manual focus easier. But some do not. This is a feature offered on many external monitors which can add versatility to your camera system while trying to gain critical focus on set.
As with choosing your focus point, choosing your exposure levels is also a key factor in cinematography. Sure you can just use some form of autoexposure and let the camera expose everything somewhere in the middle based on its factory settings. But, as you might be able to judge from my tone, that’s probably not the route you are going to go if you are trying to use your camera to tell a story. Instead, you are likely making scene-by-scene decisions on the light values you want based on the mood you are trying to evoke. Do you want light and fluffy? Or do you want dark and brooding? What best suits the story you are trying to tell?
Sure, you could use the histogram present in most modern cameras. And that could get you very close to where you want to be. But I’ve found that the best way to expose, with a DSLR, mirrorless, or a cinema camera, is to use false color. There are several different ways to gauge exposure and undoubtedly others may prefer different methods. But I find the clear visual representation of exposure offered by false color to be the best way to get a sense of the entire scene.
For those who don’t know what false color is, it is basically a color overlay of your image that represents different light values. So, imagine a scene of a subject sitting in the shade of a tree with a bright summer sky behind them. This would be a tricky scenario for almost any camera’s dynamic range. Even more important given the generally lower dynamic range offered by most mirrorless cameras versus higher-end cinema cameras. So, to properly expose the scene, you are going to make sure that both the sky in the background doesn’t blow out and the subject under the tree is still getting enough exposure. So, if you turn on false color on your monitor, the sky might be represented as bright red. This would mean that you are clipping your highlights. Or, if you then bring the exposure down to compensate for the sky, your subject might now be pushing into the purple or underexposed area. So you now know that you need to bring in some kind of fill light in order to get them to read. In other scenes, you might be looking to have your subject read as middle gray which will also be represented as gray on the monitor.
All the light values from underexposed to overexposed are represented by different colors which correspond to different IRE levels. So it is very easy to tell which end of the lightness pool you are playing in by seeing which colors are most represented in the scene at your current exposure. This is, of course, a very limited introduction to false color and what it’s capable of. But, basically, it gives you a very simple way to see your exposure visually to give you the most robust negative possible.
Some cinema cameras have false color built-in. I don’t think any mirrorless cameras have yet to offer in-body false color? I may be wrong about that. If I am, let me know in the comments. But since none of the cameras I own have this feature, and many external monitors do, false color remains one of the key reasons why I mount a monitor in the first place.
These are just three of the reasons why I find myself using an external monitor when shooting video. Even when shooting with my larger cinema camera which is capable of doing far more than my SLRs internally, I still will often mount to monitor to give me that added level of control that comes with more accurately being able to evaluate the image being captured. I don’t always use an external monitor. But, when I do, I find it to be one of the most effective tools in my arsenal.