As a cinematographer, having the right tools and gear is essential. The fun in deciding what equipment you need depends on the type of projects you are working on. However, it can be challenging to figure out which gear you should rent and which gear you should own. While equipment can get expensive quickly, one piece of gear has helped my productions not only look better but make my sets look more professional. During every production, I would be lost without my external monitor. In this article, I’ll explain what an external monitor is and what to look for when purchasing an external monitor for filmmaking.

What is an External Monitor for Filmmaking?

Turning a camera rig into a cinema camera

Here’s a great video showing how to add an external monitor to a Sony A7III.

What is an External Monitor?

An external monitor, also known as a field monitor, is a portable display that can connect to a camera or other video recording device.

With an external monitor for filmmaking, cinematographers can see the footage they are capturing in real-time on a larger screen than the one on board their camera. For reference, onboard screens for cameras are typically around 3 inches, with most external monitors starting at 5 inches. Filmmakers can see the footage they are capturing in more detail, especially when filming in bright sunlight or other challenging lighting conditions.

Features of External Monitors for Filmmaking

External monitors have different features that are helpful for filmmakers looking to create beautiful imagery. These features include waveform, vectorscope, focus assist, and false color, to name a few. The waveform feature displays the brightness levels of the shot, and it helps the filmmaker ensure that the image is exposed correctly. The vectorscope feature shows the picture’s color balance and allows the filmmaker to ensure that the colors in the shot are accurate.

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The focus assist feature helps the filmmaker to achieve a sharper focus by showing a magnified view of a particular area of the image. False color shows the exposure levels of the shot in a different color palette, which helps the filmmaker ensure that the picture is exposed correctly. My most used and most helpful feature of external monitors for filmmaking is focus assist. When pulling your own focus and operating handheld cinematography, focus assist saves your life!

Miss Ash Productions on Set Using an External Monitor for Filmmaking
Ashleigh Coffelt

Advantages of an External Monitor for Filmmaking

The most significant advantage of using an external monitor for filmmaking is viewing the footage in high definition. Many cameras, especially consumer-grade ones, have tiny screens that can make it difficult to see the details of the footage. An external monitor can display the footage in high definition, allowing the filmmaker to see the details of the shot more clearly. This can be particularly useful when filming Close Ups and Inserts.

Check out this article I wrote about shooting coverage.

External monitors also help your gaffers, production designers, costume designers, and directors catch specific details on set instead of fixing them in post-production.

Here are some tips on using an external monitor with sunlight:

Another advantage of using an external monitor is viewing the footage with a larger screen size. Most cameras have tiny screens that make it difficult to see the footage. On the other hand, an external monitor can be connected to a larger display, allowing the filmmaker to view the footage on a much larger screen. This can be particularly useful when filming in bright sunlight to see the dust on the sensor that needs to be cleaned. Trust me, the last thing you want is to film a whole scene outside and mask out each spec of dust simply because you couldn’t see your footage.

External Monitor for Filmmaking - Courtney Birk Using an External Monitor
Courtney Birk Using an External Monitor

What to Look For in an External Monitor for Filmmaking

When purchasing an external monitor for filmmaking, there are several essential things to consider to ensure that you get the best monitor for your needs. These include the monitor’s resolution, size, features, and compatibility with your camera and other equipment.

Black Magic External Monitor
Black Magic External Monitor

First, consider your external monitor’s resolution. The resolution of a monitor refers to the number of pixels that make up the image, measured in pixels per inch (PPI). The higher the resolution, the clearer and more detailed the image. For filmmaking, looking for a monitor with at least 1080p resolution is recommended, as this will provide a clear and detailed image suitable for critical focus and color grading. HDMI and SDI inputs and outputs could degrade the image quality if you aren’t careful. Consider your camera’s output when purchasing an external field monitor for filmmaking.

Cine 7 Small Rig External Monitor
Cine 7 Small Rig External Monitor

Another essential thing to consider is the size of the monitor. The monitor size will depend on your personal preferences and the filming you will be doing. For example, a larger monitor may be more suitable for a filmmaker who needs to view the footage from a distance. A smaller monitor may be ideal for a filmmaker who needs to consider the footage up close.

Further Reading: Best Color Correction Monitor for Post Production

I use the Blackmagic Design Video Assist HDMI/6G-SDI Recorder with 5″ Monitor  and have the SmallHD Cine 7 Touchscreen On-Camera Monitor with ARRI Control Kit (L-Series) as a director’s monitor. I’ve found 5″ and 7″ monitors to work great as onboard external monitors for filmmaking.

waveform external monitor

The features of the monitor are also important to consider. Some monitors come with built-in tools such as waveform, vectorscope, focus assist, and false color, which can help adjust the focus and color of the footage. Other monitors may have built-in batteries, making them more portable, and some may have touchscreens, which can be useful for adjusting settings and making selections.

Also, check into overheating – it’s a thing! Another detail to consider is where the cable plugs are on your monitor in relation to how the monitor will attach to your rig. By incorporating your external monitor’s extra weight, cables, and batteries into your rig before you purchase it, you’ll likely save yourself frustration in the long term.

external monitor ports

The monitor’s compatibility with your camera and other equipment is also essential. Ensure the monitor has the right inputs and outputs to connect to your camera and other equipment. Some monitors may require an HDMI or SDI input, while others require a USB connection.

Before purchasing, you must ensure that the monitor you are considering is compatible with your camera and other equipment. Regarding cabling, angled HDMI plugins work best with my external monitors, and this HDMI cable alone has been essential to my SonyA7Sii rig.

Twozoh Left Angled Coiled Micro HDMI to HDMI Cable
$12.79

Micro HDMI to HDMI Coiled Cable 90°Degree Stretched Length 30cm to 150cm

Check Price & Reviews
02/27/2024 06:15 am GMT

Lastly, consider the budget; external monitors for filmmaking come in different price ranges, and it’s crucial to find the one that fits your budget and has the features you need. Some monitors may be more expensive but come with more advanced features, while others may be more affordable but have fewer features.

Ashleigh Coffelt Looking into an External Monitor

Additionally, you may only need some of the bells and whistles that come with higher price range monitors. Be mindful of the things necessary to you while also considering the final price tag of a new external monitor, including a good carry case, batteries, chargers, and cables.

Additional Resources on Filmmaking Gear

If you are looking for more information about other gear that I’ve discussed, here are some additional posts with the Gear category:

Now Go Use an External Monitor for Filmmaking

In conclusion, an external monitor is a valuable tool for any filmmaker. It allows the filmmaker to view the footage in high definition, from different angles, and with various features that can help to achieve the desired results. It also allows the filmmaker to view the footage with a larger screen size, which can be especially useful when filming in challenging lighting conditions or working with a team of filmmakers.

Whether a professional or an amateur filmmaker, investing in an external monitor can significantly improve your footage quality and help you achieve the desired results. Do you have a favorite external monitor that you love working with? Feel free to share in the comments below. I hope you learned about external monitors for filmmaking, and I look forward to seeing your stories brought to life.