In Daylight We Can See Again!
The Society of Operating Cameramen has a venerable old slogan: We see it first! These days, with the advent of 4K and higher resolution cameras with tiny, dim viewfinders, more than a few frustrated operators have suggested, only half joking, a more appropriate motto: We see it worst!
It is truly disconcerting to think that viewers in front of their giant screen TV at home or in the cinema have a 100X clearer view of a scene than we do in the camera. Indeed, given today’s large-format sensors with their concomitant reduced depth of field, it is more critical than ever that we actually see what we’re doing. In a business where seeing is everything, one would think this should be the priority but it’s clearly not the case. We will discuss to no end the merits of shooting 2K, 4K, or 6K resolution, but something as imperative as the size and brightness of a camera’s viewfinder and our eyes grow dim. It seems the fantasy of capturing great images is more appealing than actually having the means to do so.
While some camcorders like the Canon C300 Mk II do offer an improved, brighter-than-average LCD finder, most low- and mid-level camcorders feature LCD screens that are woefully too small and underpowered to be visible in daylight. The OLED EVF in cameras such as the Sony PXW-X160 and Panasonic AJ-PX270 was intended to improve visibility in bright conditions, but the overall poor implementation featuring a minuscule 0.5 inch screen render them pretty much useless. Add to that, for reasons of economy and weight, the EVF itself is disappearing from most low- and mid-range cameras leaving only the anemic swing-out LCD to continue to frustrate and annoy us – especially when shooting outdoors in full sun.
The truth is a practical, bright, high-resolution viewfinder is expensive. Consider the VariCam LT – a superb camera whose body alone will set you back north of $14,000, but if you would like to actually see what you’re doing and would like the superb OLED viewfinder, you’ll need to shell out $5400 more.
At this point, most documentary and news shooters will simply toss in the cleaning cloth and opt for a third-party EVF loupe. At $2450, the Zacuto Gratical HD Micro OLED EVF certainly allows effective daylight viewing, but for many of us, this is an imperfect solution. Regardless of conditions, I usually prefer to operate, if possible, with my eye away from the camera from a decent-size monitor, which is where the daylight-viewable SmallHD 502 Bright enters the picture.
The 502 Bright is a compact 5-inch LCD outputting 1000 nits, an intensity sufficient to enable accurate framing and focus under most daylight conditions. To achieve the greater brightness, SmallHD had to find a way to optimize the monitor’s backlight, by ultimately developing a proprietary light valve to push as much light as practical without washing out the image.
Like other manufacturers, SmallHD applies a general calibration LUT at a ‘normal’ viewing brightness of about 200 nits. In the Bright models, however, with five times the output, the LUT is tweaked at various intensities up to 1000 nits in order to maintain acceptable color and density in the image. Even at maximum brightness, one can detect no hint of milkiness in the shadows or black level. This level of sophistication with respect to calibration is unique to SmallHD monitors.
The 502 and 702 Bright yield remarkably clear, balanced images, at any brightness setting.
Both the seven-inch 702 Bright and the new five-inch model feature a robust machined aluminum construction with a bonded glass protective screen. The full-sized HDMI and SDI connectors located in the back of the monitor offer pass-through and cross-conversion capabilities – the built-in converter obviating the need, potentially, for an additional black box hanging from the camera’s normally encumbered cheese plate.
SmallHD’s 3D LUT color flow engine accepts an array of camera output file types, including V-log, a key feature of interest especially to Panasonic VariCam and EVA1 shooters. Suffice it to say, real-time 3D LUT support is crucial, as we know how pulling focus in log can be nearly impossible because the image is so flat.
Other useful tools in the 502/702 Bright monitors include a waveform and vectorscope, customizable false color, and focus peaking. I found the exposure control feature to be especially compelling. Spot metering over a subject’s face highlights a luminance value inside the waveform, which can help me accurately gauge skin tones.
Very lightweight at under 10 oz (266 g), the smaller 502 Bright is well suited for Steadicam, MoVI Pro, and other gimbal applications. The monitor offers simple mounting and a range of power options, in addition to a jet black finish that helps reduce glare and stray reflections on set.