SmallHD makes some pretty awesome little monitors, the one getting the most buss as of late being their 502 HDMI/SDI monitor with the optional Sidefinder viewfinder. What makes this one special? Well, mainly its incredible pixel density and brightness, two things that make this monitor a joy to use while filmmaking. It has some other outstanding features as well, and in my time with it, I really see the appeal of these little monitors.
From a build quality perspective, the 502 monitor is pretty much perfect. It has a perfect mix of light weight and sturdy feel, even though it’s made of all plastic (outside of the metal attachment points). I was never afraid of breaking the monitor while using it. It doesn’t use a glass screen, which probably contributes to both the light weight and the feeling of indestructibility. However, on the downside, the plastic screen can get scratched pretty easily, so you’ll want to be careful with it. The scratches don’t really do anything to the usability of the product, since the monitor is so darn bright, but if you’re particular about keeping your gear as perfect as possible this might bother you. Just make sure to store the monitor in a soft pouch.
It’s very popular to mount things via a camera hot shoe, and SmallHD even includes a bracket for it with the monitor. That said, I’m not a fan of the ways these attach, and the bracket they include never really felt super secure. I would recommend getting a cheese plate of some sort and using a small magic arm or something similar to mount this monitor for a couple reasons. One, because as I mentioned mounting it on the hot shoe isn’t really practical, and two because the angle of view and weight distribution is going to be better for most situations if the monitor was mounted to the side.
From a usage standpoint, the monitor software feels quick and snappy. It has a very fast boot time (four seconds) and once up and running, navigating the functions and operating the monitor feels very swift. I never felt like I was waiting on the monitor, and only when asked about the speed and comfort of using it did I realize something: if I wasn’t fully evaluating everything about the montiro, it never would have occurred to me to consider it. That’s a testament to how smooth the software runs: you don’t have to think about it, and you are never waiting.
Besides the obvious benefit of having a larger monitor with which to see what you’re shooting, the SmallHD 502 allows for several custom functions that filmmakers will love. Firstly, the configuration system, called Pages, allows you to create and store up to 8 different monitor presets. These presets include focus aids, exposure aids, camera metadata and 3D Look Up Tables (LUTs). Personally, I often used Zebra, Focus Peaking, Histogram and Audio Meters. Above, you can see the layout of the pages, and you can toggle between them using the small joystick. Below, you can see how you add different presets via the same method.
A nifty feature is that when browsing which Page you want to have active, they all display active previews while you’re scrolling, which saves you time and doesn’t force you to guess which presets you are activating on which Pages.
Most of the presets work great, however I was a bit disappointed with the Focus Peaking. Even pushed to the max, it wasn’t always easy to see what was actually in focus. The way the monitor peaks was just to really oversharpen areas that are in focus, rather than drawing colored outlines like I have come to expect. That said, it’s better than not having it at all if you’re shooting with DSLRs. However, if you’re using a Sony Alpha camera or a Panasonic, the peaking is going to seem totally outclassed by the one found in camera.
EDIT 11/06/2015: It turns out SmallHD calls what we all typically refer to as “focus peaking,” “Focus Assist.” The peaking they include in the monitor just over-sharpens the image… which was the intent. If you want multi-colored outlines showing what is in focus in a shot, you’ll need to select “Focus Assist,” not peaking. This is a confusion caused by a SmallHD misnomer instead of what I originally called a poor execution.
The 502 monitors are powered by the pretty ubiquitous Canon batteries, and with two of them on the monitor I never really worried about the power dying. I shot a half day (four hours) continuously for a client using the monitor and it lasted the entire time. The batteries are easy to pop in and out, and you can hot swap one as long as the other still has some juice.
The monitor supports HDMI and SDI inputs and outputs, and can even cross convert between them. I did not personally use the SDI inputs because I don’t use those for the most part. The HDMI worked great, however, and firmly stayed plugged into the monitor all the time. One of my biggest peeves is when a cable won’t stay plugged into a source, and that was never a problem with the 502 monitor.
The pixel density and color accuracy of this monitor are two more bright spots, as both are highly impressive. The monitor projects full HD 1920×1080 with a pixel density of 441 PPI and is able to produce 85% NTSC Color Gamut (greater than the REC. 709 color standard), which is pretty close to the color capabilities of OLED technology. Everything you shoot will be crisp, clear and colorful when shooting in the field. The monitor also allows you to load custom LUTs via an SD card slot so you can get a good idea of what your footage is going to look like after it has been put through post production.
By itself, the 502 monitor is stellar. It’s lightweight, tough and makes shooting a lot easier when you don’t have to squint at the tiny monitor included with your camera (unless you’re shooting on something like the URSA, this is a problem). It’s just big enough to show you what you’re shooting clearly, but not so big that it becomes cumbersome.
Now, I made a point to say “by itself” because SmallHD has an attachment that comes as a $300 add-on or a $200 kit bundle: the Sidefinder. The Sidefinder is a easily mountable optical loupe attachment that turns your monitor into a giant EVF that you won’t have trouble seeing in bright light. Using the Sidefinder scales down the monitor slightly for viewing, making it 1366×768 instead of full 1080, which is fine because of how close your eye is to the “screen.” Using a mirror, the Sidefinder bounces what is appearing on the monitor into an eye cup that has an adjustable diopter that can be tuned to anyone’s eyesight (including my horrific vision).
On paper, the Sidefinder is a great idea. In practice, I was left a bit disappointed with it for a few reasons.
Attaching the Sidefinder to the monitor is a bit tricky and requires what I would compare to putting a case on your iPhone: tight, annoying and questionably might make me break one of the two items. Once attached, the way the loupe “swings” closed and stays affixed felt out of place and slightly janky. It’s not a smooth “click” like it should be. Instead, the alignment seems to be a bit off, and you have to sort of force the door closed over the monitor before the two magnets click together and hold the loupe affixed to the body. It’s not a perfect system by any means, and the process feels cheap and… well… janky. I really can’t think of another word to describe it.
Don’t get me wrong, the Sidefinder does work. It’s just not clean, smooth and as easy as I would have hoped, especially for $300.
Besides those physical issues I have with the Sidefinder, I have another more glaring physical issue: it’s HUGE. The Sidefinder more than doubles the area the monitor takes up, and actually finding a place in my camera bag for the loupe was pretty much impossible. The bizarre shape physically takes up more room in my bag than my camera, and the fragile nature of a mirror and eyepiece means I have to be somewhat careful with it, as the mirror is exposed when not closed over the 502 monitor.
Seriously though, look how much more enormous this monitor becomes once the Sidefinder is attached:
It’s almost comically huge, and my original note about mounting the monitor down lower might make more sense now. Trying to use the Sidefinder while also maintaining the right height angles for what I was shooting was often a challenge, since I’m not very tall. Additionally, the part where I mentioned I wasn’t satisfied with the strength of the hot shoe attachment is also linked to how it was able to handle the additional weight of the Sidefinder (it wasn’t great and constantly felt loose).
- Beautiful bright, crisp monitor makes shooting video more enjoyable
- Ability to load 3D LUTs directly into monitor
- Many built-in presets like Zebra, Audio Levels, Focus Peaking and Histogram
- Ability to save eight individual presets and toggle quickly among them
- Solid build
- Multiple attachment areas
- SDI and HDMI compatible, and can cross convert
- Operating device felt quick and snappy, and the quick boot time is appreciated
- Focus Peaking is below average- EDIT: Use “Focus Assist,” as “Focus Peaking” just over-sharpens an image. Assist is what is typically called “peaking” by everyone else
- Sidefinder is huge, hulking and challenging to store and transport
- Sidefinder attachment less than perfect, with edges catching and loupe unable to close quickly or properly
- A bit pricey at $1200 for the monitor by itself, so if you don’t need SDI, go for the much more affordable 501 monitor which is only HDMI. The inclusion of SDI is what bumped the price up several hundred dollars. $300 for a Sidefinder is very high, considering the issues I had with it.
The SmallHD 502 monitor is a beauty. Aside from my one complaint about the less-than-perfect focus peaking, there is very little about the monitor to not love. The size is perfect for a filmmaker on the go, and the crisp brightness of the screen makes shooting a much more pleasant experience than going without. On the flipside, everything you gain in mobility and flawless use is turned on its head when you look at the Sidefinder. It not only feels like it could have used more time in the engineering department, but is so huge and bulky that any space you save with the monitor is immediately lost (and then some) on the loupe. For me, I recommend the monitor as a standalone… for now.
We give the SmallHD 502 field monitor four out of five stars for ease of use, excellent features, fast processor and small form factor. Just don’t get too excited about the Sidefinder.