Kirk buys a seven inch Marshall Electronics video monitor and uses it all day on a still photography shoot. What the hell?

There I was with my big Nikon D810 on top of the Manfrotto cinema ballhead ready to shoot some incredibly cool video content of super-superstar vocalist, Jennifer Holliday, for my friends at Zach Theatre. The four big florescent light fixtures were slamming around electro-luminescent craziness and I had a Sennheiser lavaliere microphone clamped to Ms. Holliday's collar ready to record every ounce of perfect conversation that got uttered.

I had carefully focused my 85mm lens, marked a spot on the floor for Ms. Holliday and then stopped down to f5.6 to give me enough depth of field (or so I thought) to cover small amounts of talent movement. It all started out in the just right category. The voice through my headphones was wonderful and the image playing across the 3.2 inch screen on my camera looked just like the footage I saw earlier this year on the Academy Awards.

And then Ms. Holliday became a bit more animated and my day started falling apart. She took a step forward and I knew she would be out of the sharp range of focus. I went to manually focus only to be thwarted by a combination of eyes that have long since lost their perfect performance coupled with a camera screen that's great for composition but sucks for trying to achieve sharp focus. At some point I switched out of video mode and refocused. Thanks goodness for the off camera interviewer's interjection... But for a few minutes I was praying for focus peaking.

While Nikon may, at some distant time in the future, add focus peaking to the D810 I'm sure not counting on it. But then I remembered that a lot of video field monitors have focus peaking as a feature. I started looking around. I wanted to be prepared for the next session. I wanted to re-master sharp focus.

I made pilgrimage to Precision Camera and looked at their monitor selection. The one that made sense was the Marshall Electronics M-CT710. The screen looked pretty good, the controls are pretty straightforward and it has focus peaking. It also came with two batteries, a charger, an A/C adapter, a sunshade and two different HDMI cables. The batteries are copies of the Nikon EN-EL 15 batteries I use in my two Nikon cameras and one of the HDMI cables, the HDMI standard to HDMI mini fit my two cameras. At that point I made a note of the price, $345, and decided I'd wait and buy the unit the very next time I got booked to shoot video for a client. The very next time....

Miraculously, I exited Precision Camera without making a single purchase. Not even a lens cleaning cloth or a battery!!!

I got into my car and, in accordance with Austin's new hands free cellphone ordinance, decided to check my e-mails and texts on my phone before firing up the automobile. There was a message from the client that I will be working with all week long. We're working on an annual report project and she wanted to know if I had a monitor or laptop we could bring along to really look at the shots as we went along.

Now I hate shooting tethered to a laptop outside of the studio. Just hate it. It's ponderous and plodding and the big screens are hard to shield from bright, ambient light, and if your battery runs out in the middle of a field there's really nothing you can do----Apple Macbook Pros now "feature" non-changeable batteries (really, it's a good thing?). But I don't mind being hooked up to an HDMI monitor.

After I read the message I returned to the store and pulled out my wallet. That part where I talk about being a good steward of the family's money? That's over. Again. But I do have a snazzy, new 7 inch field monitor.

I charged the two batteries last night and spent time going through every control until I knew how the new monitor worked with the D810. I packed extra batteries and an extra HDMI cable and tossed a little Pelican case full of video capability into the car.

This morning we were shooting in a huge water chiller facility in a medical center. The "heros" of the shot were a rep from the company I am shooting for and his customer/counterpart at the medical center. I set up the camera and comped in the shot. A nice, wide one that showed off big, industrial gear and featured the two guys right in the middle, talking shop and looking at an iPad.

I set up a couple of background lights to keep the back wall and area from going too dark. It's a nice way to add depth and make sure the image fits into a usable tonal range. I used a large light as a main key and a fourth light as a back lit to subtly rim my human subjects. All of the lights were battery powered electronic flashes being triggered by a brand new set of Cactus V6 transceiver/receiver units. I was also using a new Cactus flash as a master unit to trigger everything else.

When I got the lighting set up and dialed in I added a  super clamp to the leg of the tripod and a Magic Arm to the clamp. At the other end of the Magic Arm I attached the new monitor and fired it up. Then I put the sun shade on it to make it look even cooler. All at once my client and I could see the live view image up big and personal. The color was fine (we were shooting raw but still making custom white balances as we went) but the cool thing was being able to see the image so big.  The client was able to see the composition clearly and quickly let me know how to fine tune it. I could "punch in" on the image and see the level of detail.

When I switched from a wide angle zoom to a manual focusing 85mm f1.4 I was able to call up the focus peaking feature on the monitor and see, very clearly, exactly what was (and wasn't) in sharp focus.

I left the monitor attached for the entire shoot and it gave my client additional piece of mind while allowing me to dodge the burden of a bigger, heavier (and more flare prone) laptop and all the inefficiencies of actually shooting tethered. We're charging the batteries now for tomorrow's shoot and we'll be bringing it along.

While I bought the monitor ostensibly for video it seems to serve a useful purpose for still imaging as well.

One more addition to the gear list for those shoots where clients are adamant about assessing the images before, during and after we shoot. I've decided to like it.

Thanks for reading.



Everything comes around. I remember as a kid hearing my dad complain about the fact that he had to move his eye to focus and then compose with his Leica IIIc. He was so happy when he didn't need to do that with his later cameras (though I'm not sure his photographs were any better).

Dennis Elam said...

If tablets were all they are cracked up to be, there would be an cdmi port and one cruel use a Fire or iPad for a monitor

Michael Matthews said...

Very interesting. I had no idea focus peaking is a function of the display. I'd just assumed it was internal to the camera's focus/software voodoo.

Kirk Tuck said...

Michael, I think it's the coolest thing about external monitors. You can add peaking (and a bigger view) to just about any modern camera for around $300. Less if you look hard. And it does work.

Kirk Tuck said...

Dennis, I would love an Apple Retina iPad with a big ole HDMI port on the side....

Anonymous said...

Interesting! I've used a Camranger before when working with a designer who needed to see my shots as we worked together. This is an intriguing option with the focus peaking. Since I shoot with Nikon and Fuji cameras this might just be a good cross platform solution.

Fred said...

Where is the monitor mounted? Is it attached to the camera on a bracket or on a tripod? It seems a little large to go on the hot shoe.