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Field Guides: Shooting with SmallHD’s 502 Monitor and Sidefinder EVF System

Size is important in our industry, though exactly which size depends on the tool. For cameras, smaller is frequently better, particularly for projects with a limited crew or even one-person productions. When it comes to monitors, larger is usually better, though an on-camera monitor needs to remain lightweight. But size is not the only part of the equation. Just as important are functionality, design and ease of use. The gear we choose to use in our various modes of production has a significant effect on the quality of the work and the amount of energy it takes us to do it.

Recent years have seen the availability of smaller, higher quality, lighter and more functional monitors and viewfinders. Long at the forefront of these developments is SmallHD, whose 502 monitor and Sidefinder EVF combination offers a high-quality monitoring and on-camera viewing solution for a reasonable price. The Sidefinder EVF with 500-Series monitor was recognized with Best of Shows award from Digital Video and TV Technology magazines at the 2015 NAB Show.

Features

Rendering shows how the Sidefinder EVF fits on the 500-Series monitor. The EVF is hinged to swing away when not in use and is held shut by a magnetic clasp.

The battery-powered 5-inch SmallHD 502 LCD monitor (MSRP $1,199) has SDI and HDMI in and out, with 1920 x 1080 resolution. The cell phone-sized unit weighs in at about 9 ounces without batteries and about 14 ounces with two Canon LP-E6 batteries installed. It’s about 0.75-inch thick (without batteries), and is made of milled aluminum with a rubberized surface that is easy to grip, but has an occasional tendency to pull away. It has a solid feel. There are mounting points (1/4-20 threaded) on the bottom, one side and rear. The face of the monitor has a tiny joystick and button for navigating the menu system. Pass-through SDI and HDMI connectors can feed other remote monitors or recording devices.

The display specifications are impressive, both on paper and by eye. SmallHD’s specs include 441 pixels per inch, 1500:1 contrast ratio, 8-bit color depth, 179° viewing angle, and the ability to display 85 percent of NTSC and 100 percent of Rec. 709 color gamut. By eye, the monitor is sharp, accurate and easy to look at closely for long periods of time in a wide variety of conditions. Viewing in bright sunlight is aided by a hood.

The Sidefinder EVF loupe is a $300 option that is not available separately, which is understandable because it was designed specifically for the 501 (HDMI in/out only) and 502 monitors. It mounts, with a milled aluminum frame, onto the face of the 501/502. The EVF is hinged to swing away when not in use and is held shut by a magnetic clasp. (In December, SmallHD announced that, based on customer feedback, it was upgrading the materials in Sidefinder to prevent the EVF from opening when in use.) The monitor resolution drops to 1366 x 768 for better visual compatibility with the EVF when the loupe is engaged, then automatically resets to 1920 x 1080 when the EVF is swung away. The diopter has -2 to +4 adjustment to accommodate a variety of eyes; the 502’s software has an adjustment for field of view when using the EVF.

Viewing, adjustment and customization controls are located in the monitor software. The user navigates menus with a small nub of a joystick and a back button on the left side of the monitor’s face. Every software tool on the Sidefinder is easily activated by a swipe of the joystick. And to improve ergonomics, an included wireless joystick remote can be positioned on a tripod handle, camera rig handle, stabilizer grip or any convenient spot.

The Sidefinder’s software toolset includes a wealth of image and sound analysis tools and shooting aids. You can display audio meters, histogram, waveform monitor and vectorscope while shooting, in addition to choosing to view SDI metadata. Shooting aids include exposure and focus assist, zebras, peaking, and framing and safe area markers, as well as the ability to display a background plate over live video with a varying amount of transparency for effects framing reference.

Sidefinder’s built-in SD card slot allows the import of 3D LUTs (lookup tables), which can be applied to the incoming video; many can be stored in the device. Stills from the production can also be screen captured on the SD card, where they can be used for a variety of purposes, including continuity checking.

Monitor and Sidefinder EVF in use

The collection of monitor settings and tools is presented in a system of “pages,” which can be customized with any feature, including custom looks (3D LUTs). With one LUT per page, it is quick and easy to flip between pages to compare them.

The production kit, reviewed here, comes in an airtight hardshell case and includes a remote control (with a joystick and two buttons to access and set menu controls for nearly all functions of the monitor), two batteries and a charger kit, rod and hot shoe mounting systems, screen protectors, SDI and HDMI cables, and even a cleaning cloth.

In Use

I used the 502 and Sidefinder system in several shooting situations, both indoors and outside, after a setup and evaluation session with studio cinematographer Alan Dater and his Sony PXW-FS7 camera. It took us a little while to figure out the mounting system for the monitor and EVF, but setup was basically pretty easy. We both felt, though, that a PDF manual for field reference would have made things even easier. SmallHD provides a quick start guide and video in the 502’s software, both of which are helpful, and there are numerous instructional videos online.

The 5-inch SmallHD 502 LCD monitor weighs about 9 ounces without batteries and about 14 ounces with two Canon LP-E6 batteries installed.

We verified the monitor’s accuracy, finding deep and solid blacks and very accurate colors, with no visible latency or smeared motion. The “pages” concept for presets is wonderful in use, given some preproduction setup time; on-the-fly adjustments are also quick thanks to the straightforward and shallow menu structure. I very much liked using a joystick and a button instead of a touchscreen, which always seems easy until the pressure of a shoot.

At the product’s launch, SmallHD co-founder Wes Phillips noted, “A lot of thought went into the decision to shy away from touchscreen control. Providing a tiny remote that can be mounted at your fingertips was a huge reason. Now shooters can have full control of the monitor and swipe instantly to any feature without compromising a stable shooting position by taking their hand off the camera. And unlike touchscreen control, operators are not forced to put fingerprints all over their display.”

The monitor is very easy to see, even from a fairly oblique angle, and is gentle on the eyes.

Sidefinder’s built-in SD card slot allows the import of 3D LUTs.

It does take a while to get the EVF configured for one’s particular preferences and use, but this is not the fault of the unit; rather, it has more to do with the individualized nature of using an EVF. One needs to adjust the physical location and angle of the monitor and eyepiece, adjust the diopter to the needs of one’s eye, and adjust the field of view inside the EVF to be able to see the entire frame. The 502/Sidefinder is easy on all these fronts, and very comfortable in use. If I were to continue using the Sidefinder, I would add a padded eyepiece to make the intersection of my glasses and the eye cup more direct and comfortable.

The included wireless joystick remote can be positioned on a tripod handle, camera rig handle or stabilizer grip.

Using the EVF outside on a handheld and constantly moving shoot was equally fine. The unit was easy to look at and unobtrusive. I am generally more comfortable not using the EVF and just working with the monitor. There were a couple of moments when I was sure I’d need a sun shade on the display, but its image held up nicely even in bright sun.

My personal preference is for a larger monitor when I am working. When I got a chance to try a friend’s 7-inch 702, I realized that that was the best size for me.

Summary

The 502 Sidefinder Kit is a great product and an excellent value. The main components, the 502 monitor and the EVF, are well and thoughtfully designed in both hardware and software. Efficiently using a field monitor and an EVF depends so much on personal preference and need, so the usefulness of the unit rests on its ability to be adapted and configured to the needs at hand (or eye). In that light, this combination unit is a big success and a pleasure to use. And it looks great, too. 

Quick Take

Product:SmallHD 502 Monitor and Sidefinder EVF Production Kit

Score:

Pros: Thoughtful design of both hardware and software.

Cons: Takes a little while to figure out the mounting system. A PDF manual for field reference would have made setup easier.

Bottom Line: Offering a range of features and options, this combination is a pleasure to use.

MSRP: $1,799 for Sidefinder 502 Production Kit, which includes 502 monitor, Sidefinder EVF, wireless remote, battery kit, chargers and case; $1,499 for Sidefinder 502 Monitor/EVF Combo (batteries not included); $1,199 for 502 monitor

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