How Useful Is an External Field Monitor for Stills Photographers?

How Useful Is an External Field Monitor for Stills Photographers?

I've watched with interest as videographers use external small monitors attached to their DSLR or mirrorless cameras. I could see the advantages: the larger screen, the ability to see vectorscopes, histograms, and the variety of focus tools available. At the same time, I wondered if a monitor would enhance my landscape and nighttime photography, so I took the plunge, and here are my findings.

Based on recommendations, I got hold of a SmallHD 5" monitor. I thought anything larger, like a 7-inch, would be too awkward, while a 3.5" monitor would be too small. 

Specifically, I got a SmallHD FOCUS Sony NP-FZ100. The Sony reference in the product name meant it included the ability for the battery powering the monitor to also power my Sony a7 III. As I'll talk about later, I didn't find that a major advantage.

Setting It Up

These monitors pretty much work with any camera with an HDMI output, and when the monitor is plugged into the camera, whatever is normally on the camera LCD screen moves to the monitor itself.  When the monitor comes on, the camera LCD goes off. The field monitor displays things like shutter speed, ISO, f-stop, and the usual data your camera displays. 

If you hit the menu button on your monitor, that goes to the field monitor as well. While using the monitor, the LCD on the back of the Sony was always off, as was the monitor built into the viewfinder. When you switch off the external monitor, the built-in camera monitors come back on.

Included with the monitor were an L-series battery and charger, micro-HDMI cable, micro-USB cable, micro-HDMI to HDMI type A cable, a screen protector, and four cable clips. The monitor features 1280 x 720 resolution and can display SD, HD, and UHD 4K. The monitor is bright enough to be viewed unshaded in daylight. It features SmallHD's Swipe OS for easy navigation and image adjustment.

The SmallHD monitor I was using also allows you to create additional pages of settings, some of which are useful for still photographers, like focus peaking, zebra stripes, histogram display (which appears in a smaller picture-in-picture window).

The monitor runs off a rather bulky Anton Bauer battery. It takes several hours to charge. The big battery is necessary because the screen is bright (800 nits), and you want the screen to last as long as possible on a shoot. I did not find the monitor and battery too heavy for handheld use, but in a long day of shooting, it could get you weary. Total weight with the battery attached is about 9 ounces. My Sony a7 III weighs about 1.4 lbs.

In the Field

My hopes were that having that bigger screen would make it easier to compose my shots and to get more accurate focusing. That turned out to be true. The bigger screen was a revelation, because I wasn't squinting to see things on my Sony, either through the eyepiece or the rear screen.

Likewise, I could view the images I've taken on the field monitor, and that was a big improvement over reviewing them on the Sony LCD.

Another advantage was focusing. Just like using a tablet or cellphone, I could expand the image and zoom in to get a better idea of focus. It was better than coming home and finding images almost in focus. 

This monitor is designed to attach to the flash shoe, and the monitor bracket was included with my unit. The bracket allows easy access to the camera controls, and the monitor can flip and tilt. When you flip it over to use as a front-facing monitor for say, vlogging, the picture flips to keep the orientation correct. 

The monitor was quite bright during golden time, and I tried it in midday sun, and it was still quite visible.

The SmallHD monitor I was using, like many of the other brands, has adjustable brightness controls, but one wants to balance brightness against battery life. At any rate, it was always easier to look at the monitor than the camera LCD, and it was brighter in low and bright light. 

I also do a lot of night sky photography, including Milky Way imaging. The bigger monitor was perfect for judging composition and getting a better idea what my raw images looked like. Focusing is critical when taking star images, and the combination of the bigger monitor and easy zooming got me sharper images more quickly than using the built-in LCD on the Sony. 

Although I don't do macro photography, the monitor would also serve macro photographers well, especially in making sure focus is correct. 

Using an external field monitor is not all roses. As I've mentioned, they are heavier than the bare camera, especially with the large capacity battery hanging on the back.

In the case of my SmallHD 5-incher, the documentation is pretty sparse out of the box. The company wants you to download PDF files and watch videos. It was a bit frustrating to not have much to go on when the monitor arrived. There is a plastic card that illustrates the various inputs and outputs. There are also very small-print instructions for the battery charger. 

As I mentioned, this monitor package comes with a dummy battery that slips into my Sony a7 III battery compartment. It has a cord so the camera can be powered by the monitor. I did not find this an advantage, as the Sony has good battery life on its own. And I didn't think it made sense to further drain the monitor power. Battery life seems quite good. In a half-day of shooting bracketed exposures, it only drained about 20%. For videographers, I would expect it to get 4-6 hours or more, depending on conditions and the amount of video being taken. For a still photographer, I think the battery life is more than adequate.

I think this monitor should at least come with a slip case to offer some protection, but it doesn't. The company suggests a $59.00 hard case. I found some soft cases online for about $10.00 which would suffice.

What I Liked

  • Very good image quality
  • 5" screen with a 1280x720 IPS LCD that is very sharp 
  • Excellent monitor size for focusing
  • Plenty of brightness even during the day
  • Good battery life (several hours)

What I Didn't Like

  • Poor documentation in the box (I had to guess how to set things up)
  • No case included. Even a bag would have been nice, although it does include a screen protector and cleaning cloth

Summing Up

I know some still photographers are using these field monitors, but most external monitors are being used for video. I think they are very practical for many still photographers, and I found it enhanced my time in the field and sped up my work. On the other hand, hooking it all up takes some time too.

Shooting as I do, around sunset and sunrise, I now would not want to be without this monitor. It's yet another thing to carry and fiddle with, but it pays off for me in better photos and gives me a really good view of what I am photographing, something I could never get with the Sony LCD. It's also excellent for reviewing images you've taken.

These monitors continue to come down in price; some are as low as $100. At under $500, I liked the quality and feature set of the SmallHD monitor I purchased. If you are a still photographer who wants a better view for composing, focusing and reviewing your images, I can recommend the SmallHD. I started out skeptical, but I'm a believer now.

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14 Comments

Logan Cressler's picture

I use a cam ranger to my ipad on nearly every shoot, and have used it on several landscape photos as well because of the increased functionality and tools for both focus stacking and creating a program for multiple images for stacking.

I think this is a far more versatile setup, although it is more expensive if you dont have an ipad already, but cheaper if you do have an ipad (or any tablet, or any phone).

Johnny Rico's picture

For critical focusing why not punch in 10x in live-view and focus. Also when reviewing outdoors a hoodman hoodloop or alt pressed up against the screen works wonders to kill all daylight.

Allen Ng's picture

Hoodman hoodloop totally worth it...low tech low price very high function! Ive got one and batterries need not included!

Motti Bembaron's picture

Having an external and larger screen helps a lot for family portraits and school photography. Seeing if you got the shot can make life much easier after.

Rob Mitchell's picture

It's thinking I've often thought about doing but never pulled the trigger. These monitors caught my eye but then the latest Ninja came out with recording too. I've still not bought one though. I'll see if I can try one first, both the SmallHD and the Atomos.

I’ve often thought about doing this as my eyesight has gotten worse in the last few minutes years. I’ve wanted it primarily to check for precise focus. Maybe I’ll give it a go! Thanks for the info.

Wes Jones's picture

I'm in the same boat. My poor eyesight makes using the viewfinder or back LCD difficult. A 5 or 7 inch external monitor is on my wish list.

Ryan Stone's picture

So a bigger screen with less resolution?

Is there any way to turn off all screen info and record video feed to an atomos. Some clients need me to record video clips while shooting stills. I have used GoPro but this doesn’t really work well if you want to shoot with longer lenses.

Slawek G's picture

Thank you for the review. It was very helpful for me. Since I own the Sony a7III i think about a external Monitor but the Quality of the Camera internal Monitor is soo poor.

half serious, half joking, but seems we come full circle on larger 'monitors'. I used to use a 4x5 view camera for landscapes and other still shots. I had a 6.4" monitor!

andy greenwell's picture

I use a Nikon D850 tethered to an iMac or MacBook Pro. Is it possible to shoot tethered and use this at the same time? Thanks!

Are there some clues when shopping as to which category of cameras are likely to support external monitoring in both "working" mode and just for playback/review? My bridge camera (Canon SX50 HS) is crippled of course in a few features a full DSLR may have, and this is one of them. It will display to HDMI on playback/review, but not while composing or recording.

Even having the camera manual to scour for information was not definitive about this. $25 for a cable got me my answer. UNLESS there is something unique about the HTC-100 cable that is not found in a generic consumer mini-HDMI to HDMI cable. - Thanks.