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Made for iPad, Valuable for Production: Cinematic Camera Control with Manfrotto’s Digital Director 2.0

It goes without saying that the DSLR has been a game-changing tool for filmmakers looking to capture “cinematic” images on a budget, but one of the biggest challenges for video capture with DSLRs is proper monitoring and workflow management. The compact cameras typically contain a small 3-inch LCD screen that does not articulate, making it difficult to view shots at low or high angles.

Manfrotto introduced a product at the 2015 NAB Show that generated a lot of excitement for DSLR filmmakers. Digital Director, which consists of a hardware dock and an app, interfaces between a DSLR and an iPad to manage photo and video workflows. The Apple-certified MFi (Made for iPad) device not only provides a larger image viewer thanks to the iPad’s display, it also allows the user to control the camera’s main functions via the iPad’s touchscreen. Digital Director is compatible with most Canon and Nikon DSLRs. Check the Digital Director web site for a complete list.

Digital Director consists of an iPad frame, USB cable and an iPad app. You will need to supply both the iPad and camera, and the app can be downloaded for free from the iTunes store. Supported iPads include Air, mini and Pro.

User interface of the Digital Director app

Not only does the frame support your iPad, it features a dedicated CPU (600 MHz 256 MB DRAM ARM Cortex-A8 processor) that enables camera control and real-time high resolution video display from the camera. All key shooting parameters can be controlled via the Digital Director app, including exposure, ISO, shutter speed, aperture, white balance and focus. Shooting remotely via the iPad Retina Display, the app enables real-time “Live View” monitoring and adjustments, with dynamic histogram and audio level display. Video streaming between the devices is smooth and consistent, though with a bit of latency.

Setup

I tested the Digital Director with a Canon EOS 70D DSLR and found the setup process simple and efficient. The iPad slides into the Digital Director frame and connects to the frame’s Lightning connector. The iPad may be locked or unlocked by lifting a small lever toward the top of the frame. Then connect the USB cable from the frame to the camera’s USB port.

The Digital Director frame is powered by four AA batteries. If you’re shooting near a power outlet, you can power the Digital Director with the included power supply and cable, which also charges the iPad.

I attached the Digital Director via a Manfrotto 244 Micro Friction Arm to my tripod’s 3/8-inch screw input.

Once the iPad is secure and connected, turn on the camera, press the Digital Director’s power button and open the app. Once it loads, you can start monitoring your shot and adjusting camera settings.

In December Manfrotto released version 2 of the Digital Director app, with new features including remote control of Manfrotto LYKOS and Litepanels Astra LED lights, enhanced focus peaking and zebra filters, and postproduction image adjustments.

Hands On

After having used it for a few days, it was obvious that Digital Director works best on a locked-down camera. Unlike a device like the Teradek Bolt, which transmits wirelessly to a handheld monitor, Digital Director is tethered to your camera via a USB cable, so it’s not very effective as a handheld device. Be aware that there is some latency with Digital Director monitoring. For a scene with dialogue, there will be a slight delay.

In terms of the UI, the monitor display takes up roughly half of the screen, with camera settings taking up the other half. You can also go to a full-screen view, which retains audio meters and record and shutter buttons. At the top right is a touchscreen toggle that switches between stills and video, and a switch to lock your settings once the image is to your liking.

Digital Director may be powered by four AA batteries or AC adapter

Below the lock and power switches are controls for ISO, shutter, exposure and focus. In auto focus mode, simply tap anywhere on the screen to tell the camera to focus on that point. If you are shooting manually, there’s a touchscreen dial on the iPad for adjusting focus, although I was more comfortable focusing with the camera lens due to muscle memory with a physical lens.

Below the shooting controls are the buttons for record or shutter release, as well as an album creator for photos and general information about Digital Director, including user manual, troubleshooting menu, and a compatibility chart of cameras and optimal settings. Also located at the bottom of the screen are the histogram, audio meter, white balance controls, battery life indicator, drive mode and access to image galleries.

Obviously I found it much easier to check if focus was sharp on my iPad’s 9.7-inch screen than on my camera’s 3-inch LCD monitor. Digital Director also allows users to zoom in on a specific part of the frame for more precise control of focus. The ability to control focus with the touchscreen on the iPad is a great feature. My camera beeped for audio confirmation once the object I had selected was in focus.

The most exciting features for me are the focus peaking and zebra filters—features that are essential for filmmakers but are not typically available on DSLRs in video mode.

With the v2 update in December, the Digital Director app gained nuance with regard to focus peaking, allowing users to adjust the intensity of the filter and to select the desired color for the peaking (red, blue, green, yellow).

With the zebra filter, I was able to adjust my exposure to analyze whether or not my highlights were clipping.

I found both features to work well, and it was fairly intuitive using the iPad for slight adjustments—although you can’t activate focus peaking and zebra at the same time, for some reason. That’s not a deal-breaker for me.

One promising feature I wasn’t able to test is the ability to control Manfrotto LYKOS and Litepanels ASTRA LED lights (up to 13 of them) from the Digital Director app over Bluetooth. You can turn the lights off, dim them, adjust color temperature and configure them for multiple scenes.

Target Audience

The system’s slight viewing delay will cause problems for dialogue scenes, so I suggest that Digital Director is best suited for still photographers. Because the iPad is a networking device, a big advantage with Digital Director is that you’re able to work with photo files like you would with a laptop computer—creating albums, sharing files and viewing them. I also found it very useful to be able to enter metadata from the iPad for individual files and albums. You can also downsize images while capturing to your iPad and download raw files.

As a display device for still photographs, it’s amazing to be able to view and scroll through photos quickly on your iPad after capture. You can make quick color and contrast adjustments, as well as share images with your clients, although probably not as efficiently as on a laptop computer.

There are versions of the Digital Director to support iPad Air, Air 2, mini 2/3/4 and Pro 12.9-inch. Each one is $299.99.

It’s worth mentioning that an iPad is not a replacement for a field monitor. Without some sort of sun shade, it’s difficult to view your iPad outdoors in direct sunlight. Manfrotto does offer a solution, the Manfrotto Sun Hood for the Digital Director, but it’s an additional $39.99.

If you’re working in a controlled studio environment, Manfrotto’s Digital Director is a must-have tool that will transform your DSLR into a more efficient professional imaging device. Although you’ll need to supply the camera and iPad, the $299.99 price tag (down from its original price of $499.99) is still a good investment.   dv

Quick Take

Product:Manfrotto Digital Director

Score:

Pros: iPad’s large display is better for monitoring shots than a DSLR’s 3-inch LCD monitor. App displays focus peaking and zebra filters, which most DSLRs do not. Ability to import and export photo files.

Cons: Difficult to read iPad effectively in direct sunlight. iPad needs to be tethered to camera, so Digital Director is unwieldy for handheld use. Slight latency. Better suited for still photography applications than video.

Bottom Line: If you’re working in a studio environment, this is a great tool for framing and making quick adjustments to your shots, as well as showing clients instant results. Easy to set up and intuitive to use.

MSRP: $299.99

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