I see it so many times on various forums and user groups – “I didn’t see it until I looked at it at home and now I find the footage is unusable”.
We all want our footage to be perfect all of the time, but sometimes there might be something that trips up the technology that we are using. And that can introduce problems into a shot. The problem is perhaps that these things are not normal. As a result we don’t expect them to be there, so we don’t necessarily look for them. But thinking about this, I also think a lot of it is because very often the only thing being used to view what is being shot is a tiny LCD screen.
For the first 15 years of my career the only viewfinders available were either a monocular viewfinder with a magnifier or a large studio style viewfinder (typically 7″). Frankly if all you are using is a 3.5″ LCD screen, then you will miss many things!
I see many forum post about these missed image issues on my phone which has a 6″ screen. When I view the small versions of the posted examples of the issue I can rarely see it. But view it full screen and it becomes obvious. So what hope do you have of picking up these issue on location with a tiny monitor screen, often viewed too closely to be in good focus.
A 20 year old will typically have a focus range of around 12 diopters, but by the time you get to 30 that decreases to about 8, by 40 to 5 and 50 just 1 or 2. What that means (for the average person) is that if you are young enough you might be able to focus sufficiently on that small LCD when it’s close enough to your eyes for you to be able to see it properly and be able to see potential problems. But by the time you get to 30 most people won’t be able to adequately focus on a 3.5″ LCD until it’s too far from their eyes to resolve everything it is capable of showing you. If you are hand holding a camera with a 3.5″ screen such that the screen is 30cm or more from your eyes there is no way you can see critical focus or small image artefacts, the screen is just too small. Plus most people that don’t have their eyesight tested regularly don’t even realise it is deteriorating until it gets really bad.
There are very good reason why viewfinders have diopters/magnifiers. They are there to allow you to see everything your screen can show, they make the image appear larger, they keep out unwanted light. When you stop using them you risk missing things that can ruin a shot, whether that’s focus that’s almost but not quite right, something in the background that shouldn’t be there or some subtle technical issue.
It’s all too easy to remove the magnifier and just shoot with the LCD, trusting that the camera will do what you hope it to. Often it’s the easiest way to shoot, we’ve all been there I’m sure. BUT easy doesn’t mean best. When you remove the magnifier you are choosing easy shooting over the ability to see issues in your footage before it’s too late to do something about it.
Here are some updated pictures of the screen protector for the FS5 that I sell via Shapeways. It’s not an exciting product, it’s just a clip on plastic cover that protects the LCD panel from damage when you are not using the camera. I travel a lot with my camera and the unprotected LCD screen is very vulnerable and could easily get scratched or worse still smashed. Arriving for a shoot and finding the FS5’s LCD screen smashed would be a disaster!
It’s interesting to see how the term viewfinder is now used for small monitors rather than monocular viewfinders or shrouded dedicated viewfinders. Unless the a monitor screen is properly shielded from external light then you can only guess at the contrast and brightness of the images feeding it in anything other than a dim/dark room.
This is one of the key reasons why for decades viewfinders have been in fully shrouded hoods, snoots or loupes. As one of the key roles of a viewfinder is to show how your recordings will look for exposure assessment, if it doesn’t have a full shroud then in my opinion it isn’t a viewfinder, it is simply a monitor and exactly what your images will look like is anyones guess depending on the ambient light conditions. Furthermore even a young person with perfect can’t focus properly at less than 6″/150mm and that distance increases with age or in low ambient light. So most people will need a loupe or magnifying lens to be able to make full use of a small HD LCD for critical focus. In order to be able to see the sharpness of an image you need contrast, so an unshaded LCD screen on a sunny day will be next to useless for focus – perhaps this is why I see so many out of focus exterior shots on TV these days?
To be truly useful a viewfinder needs to be viewed in a controlled and dark environment. That’s why for decades it has been normal to use a monocular viewfinder. The eyepiece creates a tightly controlled, nice and dark, viewing environment. This isn’t always convenient. I will often flip up or remove the eyepiece for certain types of shot. But – if you don’t have the option to fully shade the viewfinder – how do you work with it on a sunny day? On a camera like the FS5 I often find myself using the small, enclosed viewfinder on the back of the camera when the sun is bright. These tiny built in viewfinders are not ideal, but I’d rather have that than a totally washed out LCD or trying to shoot with a jacket over my head as my only option.
So next time you are looking at upgrading the monitor or viewfinder on your camera do try out a good 3rd party monocular viewfinder such as the Zacuto Gratical or Zacuto Eye. Perhaps consider a Small HD monitor with the Side Finder option. Or an add-on monocular for the existing LCD panel. Without that all important shading and magnification it isn’t really a viewfinder, it’s just a small LCD monitor and in anything other than a very dim environment it’s always going to be tough to judge focus and exposure.
One of the most important things to do before you shoot anything is to make sure that any monitors, viewfinders or LCD panels are accurately calibrated. The majority of modern HD cameras have built in colour bars and these are ideal for checking your monitor. On most Sony cameras you have SMPTE ARIB colour bars like the ones in the image here. Note that I have raised the black level in the image so that you can see some of the key features more clearly. If your using a LCD or OLED monitor connected via HDSDI or HDMI then the main adjustments you will have are for Contrast, Brightness and Saturation.
First set up the monitor or viewfinder so that the 100% white square is shown as peak white on the monitor. This is done by increasing the contrast control until the white box stops getting brighter on the screen. Once it reaches maximum brightness, back the contrast level down until you can just perceive the tiniest of brightness changes on the screen.
Once this is set you now use the pluge bars to set up the black level. The pluge bars are the narrow near black bars that I’ve marked as -2% +2% and +4% in the picture they are each separated by black. The -2% bar is blacker than black so we should not be able to see this. Using the brightness control adjust the screen so that you can’t see the -2% bar but can just see the +2% bar. The 4% bar should also be visible separated from the 2% bar by black.
Color is harder to set accurately. Looking at the bars, the main upper bars are 75% bars so these are fully saturated, but only at 75% luma. The 4 coloured boxes, 2 on each side, two thirds of the way down the pattern are 100% fully saturated boxes. Using the outer 100% boxes increase the saturation or colour level until the color vibrance of the outer boxes stops increasing, then back the level down again until you just perceive the color decreasing. I find this easiest to see with the blue box.
Now you should have good, well saturated looking bars on you monitor or LCD and provided it is of reasonable quality it should be calibrated adequately well for judging exposure.
I find that on an EX or F3 the LCD panel ends up with the contrast at zero, colour at zero and brightness at about +28 on most cameras.
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