Because not everyone wants to shoot video, spending around $1000 on an external video recorder and monitor may seem out of the question. Others, on the other hand, find it opens up creative challenges just as satisfying as still photography.
The more you shoot video, the more you’re likely to come across (and require) tools that are rarely included with stills/video cameras. We’ll be shooting with a few of the more popular models in the coming weeks to see how they compare, but first, let’s go over why you’d even consider using one, recorder and monitor.
As the two-part descriptor implies, there are two primary advantages to using an external recorder: getting a larger, more informative preview as you shoot and capturing higher-quality footage.
Most stills/video cameras, understandably, have processors designed primarily for stills, and they must also make significant compromises in the name of battery life and thermal management, because video isn’t their primary role. Furthermore, they are generally designed to generate amounts of data that are manageable by consumers and at bit rates compatible with (relatively) slow memory cards. This typically means heavily compressed video, typically using a GOP (group of pictures) video codec, which only records a full image at select key frames while interpolating the in-between images based on frame changes. A common example of a GOP codec is H.264.
External recorders, on the other hand, are dedicated video capture devices built by video capture companies. So, while they can’t improve the level of detail that your camera captures at first, they take advantage of the fact that your camera frequently captures more detail than can be recorded using the internal codec. As a result, you can capture video with fewer compression artefacts and in formats compatible with major editing software, such as Apple’s Pores and Avid’s DNxHD and HR.
Most cameras, for example, output a more detailed 4:2:2 stream over HDMI rather than the simpler 4:2:0 footage they can capture and compress themselves. Meanwhile, the Fujifilm X-T2 will only output Log video through its HDMI port. Other cameras, most notably Panasonic’s GH4 and 5, will only output 10-bit footage and cannot internally capture their highest quality footage.
External recorders frequently support SDI connectors, a more robust type of connection commonly found on professional video cameras. The most recent recorders support Raw footage over SDI, which means the recorder will continue to serve you even if you upgrade your camera.
Similarly, external recorders frequently have superior audio capture capabilities than the mass-market capture formats used in many cameras. As with the video footage, this is primarily due to more screen space, lower levels of compression, and a broader range of settings and connectors.
On the monitor front, there are far more advantages than simply having a larger screen to view things on, though this is useful in and of itself. The ability to see your scene on a larger screen allows you to spot small, distracting objects and double-check where your focus is set. It can also assist you in better visualizing how your final footage will look, allowing you to make creative decisions such as how much depth-of-field you want.
Overlays and composition aids are also common on monitors. Framing guides that show crops for different aspect ratios, for example, can be useful if you intend to publish your work in a format other than the camera’s native aspect ratio.
Also, because they don’t have to share battery power with so many other functions, external monitors can often be brighter than your camera’s rear screen, making it easier to shoot outside recorder and monitor.
External devices, on the other hand, frequently include useful monitoring tools that go beyond what is available in most cameras, both in terms of the range of tools available.
Focus peaking, which highlights an area of a certain brightness, is becoming more common in cameras, but zebras, which highlight an area of a certain brightness, are still not universal. External recorders provide these functions, often with more control over their settings. The ability to highlight a typical skin tone brightness or everything exposed above 90 or 95% brightness simplifies achieving consistent exposure.
The ability to apply color and gamma curve correcting look up tables (LUTs) to Log video in real time is another feature common on external recorders that we’ve only seen on a few cameras. This means you can shoot gradable but washed-out Log footage, but with a preview that approximates the final result, so you end up with something much more visually meaningful.
A group of exposure and color analysis tools known as ‘scopes’ are widely used in video production. These are extremely rare on modern stills/video cameras, but they are extremely useful for assessing your setup.
A waveform display is a tool that aids in the visualization of luminance/exposure. It’s common on professional video equipment and video editing software. Unlike a histogram, which only shows how many pixels have each brightness value, a waveform shows where those pixels appear in the image. The waveform diagram displays the brightness values for each column of pixels in the image, with dark pixels at the bottom and bright pixels at the top.
Waveforms are popular among videographers because they allow them to easily visualize exposure and contrast across the frame. This is especially useful for judging exposure at a specific location, such as a subject’s face. For judging color balance and per-channel exposure, it’s also common to have a choice of Luminance or separate R,G,B waveforms (known as an ‘RGB Parade’).
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