To Expand Production Quality, Use an Outboard Video Recorder/Monitor

Very often, today’s compact video cameras have internal limits that restrict their use in professional production. To overcome these limitations, many videographers use an outboard video recorder/monitor, which offers a better video image on location and a variety of recording formats not available in the camera itself.

External recorder/monitors usually connect to a camera via an HDMI or SDI connection. When connected, the camera’s viewfinder is displayed on the external monitor. There are a range of recorder/monitors available. Picking the right model depends on your workflow requirements.

Not all external recorders are compatible with all file formats, so it’s important to check and make sure the various components of the production and post chain work together. Many external recorders have the capability to record higher-quality video formats for longer periods of time. These include ProRes, DNxHR, CinemaDNG and RAW.

Shooting in RAW offers maximum flexibility in color grading and image correction. RAW extracts image data directly from the camera’s sensor — altogether bypassing any image processing or compression.

Blackmagic Assist 12G

It is best to choose a monitor/recorder combo. Most camera viewfinders are small and often not very bright. It can be hard to judge images on them in bright ambient sunlight. Outboard recorder/monitors — with five to seven-inch HD resolution screens — are much easier to clearly see.

The most advanced recorder/monitors allow the user to see details like zebra patterning, histograms, focus peaking and a range of grids and guides. These features offer greater control over the image a camera is capturing. The ability to choose to highlight a typical skin tone brightness makes achieving consistent exposure much easier.

To record to an external recorder via a HDMI connection, the camera must output a “clean” signal. This means one must not be able see all the screen graphics normally shown on a camera’s LCD screen. In addition to HDMI, some recorders support SDI connectors, a connector on many pro cameras. Many of the latest outboard devices support RAW footage over SDI, which ensures the recorder is future-proofed to operate beyond the current generation of cameras.

Once the video leaves the camera, it is recorded on the outboard recorder, which uses some type of flash memory for storage. Some devices have a LAN controller connector, which allows the camera operator to start and stop recording on the camera from the external device.

Having a larger screen aids the ability of the operator to detect any distracting objects; check focusing more precisely; and to choose how much depth-of-field is desired in a scene. It helps better visualize the way the final video will look.

The two main benefits of using an external recorder/monitor is to get a better preview of the video as it is shot and to record higher quality video than the camera is capable of.

Most compact video cameras produce data compatible with only relatively slow SD memory cards. To process and store this video, it is typically compressed. With compression, a full image is recorded at select key frames while interpolating the in-between images based on the changes between frames.

Recording to an external recorder offers a far better image than in-camera recording. It will allow a maximum of color depth and dynamic range. As a result, video can be captured with fewer or no compression artifacts.

External recorder/monitors and other video capture products are made by several companies, including Blackmagic Design, Atomos, Convergent Design and SmallHD. As with most considerations in video, first determine the workflow before choosing an external recorder/monitor. If your workflow demands a specific video codec, be sure the external recorder can record it.

Consider enhanced color capture in a recorder. Many video cameras record only in 4:2:0 chroma subsampling. This can be difficult to grade in post-production. A recorder with 4:2:2 subsampling has four times the color information as 4:2:0 and offers color that appears almost like full bandwidth color (4:4:4). Some recorders support 4:2:0 color via HDMI and 4:4:4 color via SDI.

Another feature common on external recorders is the ability to apply color and gamma curve correcting Look Up Tables (LUTs). This means the operator can shoot gradable, but washed-out-looking Log footage. This comes, however, with a preview that approximates the finished result after coloring. This system effectively offers an approximate insight into what the footage will look like in post-production after color grading has been completed.

If a camera outputs 10-bit video, it will offer far better quality when recording to an external recorder/monitor. This again becomes important when color grading or editing in post. Also, since external recorder/monitors have their own batteries, they can run brighter than the rear screen on a camera.

There are many models of outboard video recorder/monitors on the market. One of the top models is the Blackmagic Design Video Assist 7-Inch 12G ($995). This model offers both 12G-SDI and HDMI inputs and outputs and has a seven-inch 1920 x 1200 touchscreen LCD.

The Video Assist can record up to DCI and UHD 4K video to dual hot-swappable SD cards and connect to an SSD drive via USB-C. Its touchscreen offers 2,500 nits of brightness and it has P3 wide color gamut. The monitor features a range of assist tools and supports LUTs. It has two balanced mini-ALR audio inputs.

Atomos Ninja

On the lower cost side is the Atomos Ninja V ($499). It has a 1920 x 1080 touchscreen display with AtomHDR image processing with a 10-stop dynamic range in RAW, Log, PQ and HLG HDR. It can preview 3D LUTs.

Like the larger Atomos Shogun Inferno model ($999), the Ninja V can record up to 4K at 60 frames per second in 10-bit, 4:2:2 ProRes, DNxHR and ProRes RAW, though not CinemaDNG. The main differences between the Ninja V and the Shogun Inferno are the size, screen brightness and connectivity options.

The Ninja V has a 1000 nit, 1920 x 1200, five-inch screen and offers only HMDI in/out. It’s also without the balanced XLR audio inputs of the higher-end Shogun Inferno.

So what are the negatives of using an external recorder/monitor? Probably the biggest downside is the larger rig can slow down a crew’s work. The added weight and bulk of carrying a second device around makes the gear package less portable and more clumsy.

Forget agile “run and gun” shots when using external recorder/monitor. Outboard devices also mean extra batteries, which translates to extra weight being carried around. Your shooting rig will be larger and more conspicuous when mounting another device on the camera.

That said, external video recorder/monitors have a place in professional production mainly due to the sheer number of features they add and the 4K RAW video that can be recorded. It’s a decision each video crew should make in planning a shoot.

Writer at Broadcast Beat
Frank Beacham is a New York-based writer, director and producer who works in print, radio, television, film and theatre.

Beacham has served as a staff reporter and editor for United Press International, the Miami Herald, Gannett Newspapers and Post-Newsweek. His articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Village Voice and The Oxford American.

Beacham’s books, Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem & Murder and The Whole World Was Watching; My Life Under the Media
Microscope are currently in publication. Two of his stories are currently being developed for television.

In 1985, Beacham teamed with Orson Welles over a six month period to develop a one-man television special. Orson Welles Solo was canceled after Mr. Welles died on the day principal photography was to begin.

In 1999, Frank Beacham was executive producer of Tim Robbins’ Touchstone feature film, Cradle Will Rock. His play, Maverick, about video with Orson Welles, was staged off-Broadway in New York City in 2019.
Frank Beacham
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