7 Best External Camera Monitors: How to Choose Yours

We’ve all seen the behind-the-scenes footage of Hollywood movies with the director sitting off to the side, watching the footage on their own screen as it’s being recorded. Most of us will never have the opportunity to work with the resources or budget of a Hollywood studio, but we can bring many of their tools and methods into our own projects. Even a solo videographer can benefit from adding a stand-alone monitor to their kit.

Why Do You Need a Camera Monitor?

Many people get by using whatever viewfinder their camera offers. But external monitors have features that change the way you work and some recording monitors even improve the quality of the footage you capture.

The most obvious benefit of an external camera monitor is that you can simply see your footage better as you are filming. A larger screen will show more detail, make it easier to see what is or isn’t in focus (not to mention all of the guides and overlays that assist with this), and reveal flaws that you might easily overlook on a built-in 3” screen. External monitors, by virtue of being able to be set apart from the rest of the rig, give you more flexibility with camera placement and angles while still allowing you to see what you are filming.

Camera monitors also help you better visualize what your final product will look like. The screen matches the aspect ratio of your final output (unlike many DSLR and mirrorless camera screens). Additionally, some monitors have built-in LUTs or other tools to more closely simulate what your final processed video will look like.

How External Camera Monitors Unlock Powerful Capabilities

Using certain external recording monitors unlock powerful capabilities that you might not have in your camera body. For example, some cameras will throttle the bit-rate of their footage when shooting in-body in order to avoid issues with overheating. When using an external recorder, you may be able to use higher bit-rates.

More cameras are offering video-centric features like focus peaking and zebras, but they are still missing from some cameras. Monitors bring these capabilities to cameras that don’t have them (or simply make them easier to see if they do have them). Some also give a wide range of waveforms, scopes, and histograms so that you have all of the information you need to ensure your lighting and exposure are perfect.

What to Consider When Choosing a Camera Monitor

First is basic compatibility. If your monitor needs HDMI and your camera only has USB, you’re going to run into problems. Adapters might work, but an older connector type like USB could limit the resolution at best. Some monitors use only SDI, etc.

If you’re shooting with a relatively recent cinema camera, you won’t have to worry as much. Those cameras are made with a wide range of I/O ports (mainly HDMI). On the other hand, if you are a hybrid shooter with a photo-focused camera (especially if your camera’s a little older), you probably don’t have the ports you need.

You also need to consider if your camera will output clean video. Overlays of recording information from your camera will, at best, be annoying on the monitor and, at worst, ruin any footage you record through your monitor. Again, video-focused cameras shouldn’t have a problem, but hybrid shooters should be cautious.

Also note that not ALL monitors are recording monitors. You might only need a nice viewfinder, which will open things up for you budget-wise. But if you want something that records footage as well, you’re looking into higher-end equipment and higher-end pricing. If going the recording + monitoring route, make sure it supports the resolution and frame rate that you are going to shoot in.

What Size External Camera Monitor Do You Need?

There are going to be tradeoffs when choosing what size monitor you need. Smaller monitors will show less detail and have fewer features but they will be more portable – even portable enough to use on a handheld gimbal. Larger monitors show more detail and come with robust features but are heavier and clunkier to use and sometime require beefy broadcast-style batteries to even run.

Most popular monitors are between 5-7”. This is going to give you more viewing area than a camera’s built-in viewfinder or articulating LCD while also remaining portable. A 5” monitor should work with most setups, including small run-and-gun/gimbal systems. If you’re relatively static in a studio-like setting, you may want to splurge on a 7”+ monitor.

What Features Do You Need?

Do you need focus peaking or zebras? What resolution and frame rate do you want to shoot at? Do you need HDR? Do you need to record directly to the monitor?

Some monitor systems will have the capability to be used wirelessly. If you want to use your monitor from a distance, those can be more convenient than having to wrangle long cables and wires. Some monitors can also be used as a focus following system, allowing you to adjust the focus of your shots directly from the monitor while recording.

Monitors also have different brightness capabilities. If you are shooting outside in bright sunlight, you’ll want your monitor to have enough brightness to be easily visible even in direct sun. These are all just basic considerations to help you narrow the field.

How Are You Going to Connect It to Your Camera?

We’ve already discussed making sure you have the necessary ports on your camera to connect it to the monitor, but that’s only half of the equation. How are you going to physically attach the monitor to your camera? Can you attach it via your camera’s hot shoe mount? Are you using a camera cage? Are you mounting it in some other way? Almost all monitors have either ¼”-20 or ⅜”-16 mounting ports along its edges so you can configure them in endless ways but don’t assume this — you may have to purchase an additional cage.

As you look at camera monitors, think about how you can balance features, price, and how the overall physical setup will look to find the best monitor for your needs.

The Best External Camera Monitors

Atomos Ninja V

Atomos is the dominant brand among external monitors/recorders and the Ninja V has become one of their most popular models.

With a 5”, 1080p touchscreen, the Ninja V is small enough to pair with almost any camera setup, sharp enough to show the details you need, and bright enough to see even in direct sunlight. But while the monitor only displays 1080p, it will record full 4K 60p HDR footage. 

Additionally, you get a full suite of features including waveforms, vectorscope, zebras, false color, and focus peaking. It also has the ability to view anamorphic footage with 2x, 1.5x, 1.33x or Panasonic’s 8:3 squeeze. 

The Atomos Ninja V supports Log formats from ARRI, Canon, Panasonic, RED, and Sony as well as Apple ProRes Raw from the Nikon Z6 and Z7.

Key Features:

  • Max Resolution: DCI 4K up to 60p
  • Screen Resolution: Full HD
  • Screen Size: 5”
  • Memory Requirements: 2.5” SSD, SSDMini
  • Ports: HDMI (Full Size, Type A) In/Out, 4-Pin XLR, 3.5mm Stereo Mic, 3.5mm Headphone, 2.5mm LANC
  • Size: 5.94” x 3.6” x 1.22”
  • Weight: 0.7 oz

Atomos Shogun Inferno

The big brother to the Ninja V, the Atomos Shogun Inferno is a 7” monitor packed full with a wide range of professional features. It offers a more extensive range of I/O ports, adding an extra XLR port and 4 SDI ports on top of what the Ninja already offers. The 7.1” touchscreen has a slightly taller aspect ratio than the Ninja with 1920 x 1200 resolution, giving room for additional information underneath the Full HD footage.

As a recorder, the Shogun can capture both raw and Log footage from Sony, Canon, ARRI, Panason, JVC, and RED. It can capture 4K footage up to 60p and 2K footage up to 240p (depending on your camera’s capabilities). 

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Key Features:

  • Max Resolution: DCI 4K up to 60p, 2K up to 240p
  • Screen Resolution: 1920 x 1200
  • Screen Size: 7.1”
  • Memory Requirements: 2.5” SSD
  • Ports: HDMI (Full Size, Type A) In/Out, HD/3G/6G/12G-SDI In/Out, 4 x 3G-SDI, 2 x XLR, 3.5mm Stereo Mic, 2.5mm LANC
  • Size: 8.4” x 5” x 1.8”
  • Weight: 2.5 lbs

Atomos Sumo 19

If you are part of a multi-person video team and want to go all out, think about the Atomos Sumo 19. It takes a lot of the top notch features of the Shogun Inferno and supersizes it into a 19” screen.

With a screen this large, you obviously won’t want to carry it around. Instead, it’s a great option for directors monitoring the footage from the side. Additionally, it offers the capability to monitor and switch between 4 camera sources and up to 12 channels of digital audio, making it a great option for multicam setups. 

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Key Features:

  • Max Resolution: DCI 4K up to 60p, 2K at up to 240p
  • Screen Resolution: Full HD
  • Screen Size: 19”
  • Memory Requirements: 2.5” SSD
  • Ports: HDMI (Full Size, Type A) In/Out, 3 x HD/3G-SDI In/Out, 4 x 3G-SDI (Quadlink), HD/3G/6G/12G-SDI In/Out, 4-Pin XLR DC-in, 2 x 4-Pin XLR Battery Input, 2 x 3-Pin XLR for Microphones, 1 x 3.5mm Stereo Jack, 2.5mm LANC
  • Size: 19.8” x 12.2” x 2.5”
  • Weight: 12.3 lbs

Blackmagic Video Assist 4K

The Blackmagic Video Assist 4K gives you another option for a premium 7” monitor but at a more accessible price point than the Atomos Shogun. It gives you recording capabilities up to UHD 4K at 30p in Apple ProRes 422 HQ format. You get a range of I/O ports as well as multiple mounting options, allowing you to fit it into almost any setup you want. 

One set of features that is likely to be very attractive to a lot of shooters, particularly those coming from DSLR setups, is the ability to use several common accessories. Specifically, it allows you to record onto SD cards (with 2 slots) as opposed to 2.5” SSD and accepts up to 2 LP-E6N batteries — the same commonly found in Canon DSLRs. 48V phantom power also allows it to be used with a range of microphones, making it a convenient package.

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Key Features:

  • Max Resolution: UHD 4K up to 30p
  • Screen Resolution: 1920 x 1200
  • Screen Size: 7”
  • Memory Requirements: 2 x SD Card Slots
  • Ports: HDMI (Full Size, Type A) In/Out, 6G-SDI In, 3G-SDI Out, 2 x mini XLR, 3.5mm Stereo Mic, 2.5mm LANC
  • Size: 7.6” x 5.14” x 1.45”
  • Weight: 1.7 lbs

Blackmagic Video Assist 5” 12G HDR

The Blackmagic Video Assist 5” 12G HDR is a fantastic option for a portable monitor setup. The super bright monitor offers FullHD resolution, an SD memory card slot, and USB Type-C 3.1 for easy external drive recording. 3D LUTs, professional scopes, focus assist, and exposure tools offer a strong suite of tools for videographers.

As long as your camera has SDI or HDMI outputs, the Video Assist 12G can record in resolutions from HD to DCI 4K60p. 

Key Features:

  • Max Resolution: DCI 4K up to 60p
  • Screen Resolution: Full HD
  • Screen Size: 5”
  • Memory Requirements: 1 x SD
  • Ports: HDMI (Full Size, Type A) In/Out, 12G SDI In/Out, 3.5mm Headphone, 3.5mm Line In, USB-C
  • Size: 5.83” x 3.54” x 1.44”
  • Weight: 0.9 lbs

SmallHD Cine 7

The SmallHD Cine 7 is a versatile and portable 7” monitor with a very bright Full HD touchscreen that makes it a fantastic choice when shooting outside. It offers flexible mounting and power options as well as a variety of high resolution 3D LUT overlays, framing guides, and more.

To unleash the full power of the Cine 7, you can pair it with a Teradek system allowing for wireless monitoring as well as follow focus system capabilities. 

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Key Features:

  • Max Resolution: Full HD up to 60p
  • Screen Resolution: Full HD
  • Screen Size: 7”
  • Memory Requirements: 1 x SD
  • Ports: HDMI (Micro, Type D), 3G-SDI In/Out, 3.5mm Headphone, USB 2.0, Ethernet
  • Size: 7.09” x 4.67” x 1.32”
  • Weight: 1.25 lbs

SmallHD Focus OLED

The SmallHD Focus OLED 5 is a 5” touchscreen monitor that is a fantastic companion for a smaller DSLR or mirrorless setup. It offers an array of features including waveform, false color, vectorscope, focus peaking, and real-time 3D LUTs.

The Focus 5 is powered through an integrated Sony L-Series battery plate but also includes adapters for pairing with different cameras. It can capture UHD 4K at up to 30p and can be mounted with a tilt arm, making it a great option for portable setups.

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Key Features:

  • Max Resolution: UHD 4K up to 30p
  • Screen Resolution: Full HD
  • Screen Size: 5.5”
  • Memory Requirements: 1 x SD
  • Ports: HDMI (Micro, Type D), 3.5mm Headphone, 3.5mm Line In, 3.5mm Barrel Out, USB 2.0
  • Size: 5.54” x 3.45” x 0.77”
  • Weight: 9 oz

There are a lot of tools that can help videographers improve their capabilities. While external camera monitors might initially seem like an extravagant add on, the reality is that they can become vital parts of your kit. Monitors help shooters better see what they are shooting while also offering professional features that many cameras themselves might lack. This makes them more than a mere luxury. Try out an external camera monitor and see how one can elevate your own workflow on set.


Tags: , , , , Last modified: October 6, 2021

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