A Tale of Two Field Monitors:Panasonic & Flanders Scientific
The world is full of production monitors these days, but two new models stand out thanks to their big screens that can run for hours on battery power. That alone means cameramen and producers can finally take a big monitor into the field, without giving up much mobility.
Having a good monitor around is essential for a crew, but whatever monitor I worked with on various sets always came with the same compromise:
- If I wanted a lightweight, battery powered monitor that I could easily move around, then I would have to skimp on size, settling for a screen no bigger than 9" (like Panasonic's excellent BT-LH910GJ). But while that size is fine for a cameraman standing very close to the monitor, it's too small for a director, producer, client or other crew member to comfortably see from a distance.
- And if I wanted a bigger screen size (starting at, say, 17") , that would mean carting around a much bigger, heavier monitor, which always had to be tethered to a wall socket because it was so power-hungry.
Recently, though, Flanders Scientific (FSI) and Panasonic have shipped new monitors that minimize much of the compromise between screen size and power requirements. You get a big picture, but with low power draws (22-24 watts), so you can run the monitors for close to three hours using standard camera batteries like a 90 watt Anton Bauer Dionic HC. Three hours! No wall power! Super-quick set up, because there are no long cables to string over to an outlet! No worries about someone tripping over the cables and sending your precious monitor to the floor!
The Flanders monitor, the CM-170W
, is even more impressive in that it's also shockingly light, at only 6.4 pounds, and includes a full 1080, 10-bit color panel, which is unusual in field monitors. That 10-bit panel makes the monitor more "future-proof", but you'll pay $3295 for the priviledge, which isn't exactly cheap.
Panasonic's monitor, the BT-LH1850
, gives you a different blend of features. You get a bigger screen, at 18.5", and you get an appreciably lower price ($2595 list, but more like a street price of $2150). But the monitor is 8-bit, uses slightly-better-than-720P resolution (1366x768), and is twice the weight of the Flanders. Still, the 1850 is much better suited to field use than many of the Panasonic monitors that have been very popular on sets over the years.
Anyway, I had a chance to try out both monitors in real-world conditions, and found a few key impressions worth sharing...
FLANDERS SCIENTIFIC CM-170W
Click image for larger view.
The FSI's case isn't much larger than a briefcase. Click image for larger view.
- You really have to feel the FSI's 6.4 pound weight (about the weight of a Macbook Pro) in your own hand to appreciate it. You can comfortably lift the monitor out of its case and onto a light stand with one hand. Since the monitor's so light, you can put it on smaller stands instead of the cumbersome c-stands that clutter up too many sets. It's also quicker and easier to reposition around the set.
- The monitor uses 1920x1200 resolution, which lets it display every pixel in a 1080 HD picture, along with room for on-screen settings/controls. Many field monitors, including the Panasonic 1850, aren't quite as sharp, using resolutions closer to 1280x720 pixels. When you're standing a few feet away, you're not likely to tell the difference between a 1080 or 720 panel, but if you're a cameraman who's just a foot away from the monitor, focusing on someone's eyes, you're likely to see slightly finer details on the FSI's panel.
- It's also rare to find a 10-bit panel in a field monitor, but the FSI offers it nonetheless (along with a 178 degree viewing angle, so the picture doesn't change unless you're looking at it considerably off-center). In certain scenarios, when you've got lots of variation in similar colors (like a sky), the FSI will render things without the color banding you'd see on an 8-bit panel. With more cameras shooting 10 bits these days, the FSI is likely to keep its value in the years ahead.
- The FSI has a lot of other things going for it: multiple inputs/outputs for 3G HD-SDI, DVI, and component; 12 scopes including vector and waveforms; multiple color spaces; full-screen scaling for DSLRs; audio meters and speaker; a basic frame grab/split screen feature; basic focus-in-red (albeit blocky); lots of front-panel controls and map-able function buttons.
- Unfortunately, the FSI is missing an HDMI port, which can be a little inconvenient given how many people are still using DSLR cameras and loop-through monitors with only that connection.
Besides the monitor, I could fit two 25-foot SDI cables and a couple of Anton-Bauer batteries. Click image for larger view.
One tip for folks who use this monitor with a battery, which I think will be almost everyone: letting the monitor drain your battery to absolute zero can hurt the battery, so try to keep an eye on the battery's charge, and take it off before it hits "empty". Click image for larger view.
- One of the things I really appreciate about the FSI is that you can order it will all the accessories you'll need beyond the monitor itself. That includes an Anton Bauer or V mount battery plate ($195), a lightweight, low profile Vesa mount for light or C-stands ($260), and a slim-but-sturdy softcase for $295. The case is especially useful because it puts a reasonable amount of rigid padding around the monitor, but also unfolds to create a big sun-blocking visor for outdoor use. You just mount the monitor on a stand with the case still on, then unfold the leafs of the case, and secure them together with built-in Velcro (watch out for wind, though!). It takes about a minute to set up and then collapse again. You can order all of this when you order the monitor, and it all works great together and saves you time from having to piece accessories together after-the-fact.
PANASONIC BT-LH1850 ($2595)
Click image for larger view.
- One more thing I can personally vouch for regarding FSI is its customer service. Since I first got my hands on the 170W in April, FSI has sent out beefier padding to all customers who bought the case, and also issued two firmware updates that add small but appreciated features. One new addition, for instance, is the ability to show Canon C log and Sony S log footage with a color correction applied in the monitor, letting you shoot in a Log format, but show the director/DP/producer/client an image that's closer to what they'd get after color correction. I will say that this mode is not as useful as it might be. For instance, using my C300, the picture doesn't look as good as the correction Canon applies on the C300's own display, but at least FSI is making an effort, and they're always open to customer feedback, which I'm giving them.
Click image for larger view.
- The 1850's panel is 18.5", which feels luxurious for a field monitor. While I've always felt that 17" was a reasonably comfortable size, it's very easy for that to start feeling cramped when you've got the 1850.
- Unfortunately, that bigger panel adds weight, bringing the monitor's weight up to 12.4 pounds (compared to the FSI at 6.4 pounds). That's still a pound or so less than Panasonic's popular BT-LH1710/60 line of monitors, but it's enough to make physically handling and securing the monitor no different than it's always been.
- Again, the Panasonic sips power like a teetotaler (22 watts), just like the FSI, so you can drive it for about 3 hours on a typical Anton Bauer battery. The only hitch is that you have to buy your own battery mounting plate and DC power connector, and then screw it to the back of the monitor before mounting the battery. FSI saves you some time and effort by letting you order the monitor with a battery plate already installed!.
Click image for larger view.
- The 1850 displays a great-looking picture, just like you'd expect from a Panasonic display, but it does have a rather narrow viewing angle, which is about 170 degrees horizontal, and 160 degrees vertical (the FSI is 178 degrees). That means if you're standing to the side of the monitor, or looking up or down at it, you're likely to see a darker and less saturated picture than the video signal is delivering. It was definitely noticeable when I had the FSI and Panasonic monitors side-by-side: when looking at the Panasonic straight on, it looked identical to the FSI picture, but as soon as I leaned away a bit, the Panasonic picture started to go dark.
- The Panasonic is a little more limited in connector options than the FSI, but it gets the important ones: two HD-SDI inputs, one SDI output; DVI-I; Video In/Out, and, fortunately, HDMI. It also has a headphones jack, which isn't a common thing on monitors these days.
SUMMING THEM UP
- The 1850 doesn't have a focus-in-red feature. Given the big size of the panel, that's less of a loss than it otherwise might have been, but I can't help but miss the feature, given how well it worked on other Panasonic monitors.
- Panasonic doesn't make it as easy as FSI to get all your essential accessories in one fell swoop. You're on your own to find a light stand mount, a battery back, and anything but the standard hard-shell case. I wish Panasonic made these extras as easy to order as FSI does.
It's pretty clear that the Flanders CM-170W is the "best" product, on many levels, including its reasonably big screen, its 24 watt power draw, its shockingly low weight, the 10-bit, full HD panel, great accessories, etc. But, at $3295, you definitely pay for all that "best"-ness, and if you want all the accessories (from the battery plate to the stand arm to the case), then you're pushing around $4,000 for the whole package.
The Panasonic doesn't have quite as much going for it, but that might be just fine because it still has what's really important in a production monitor: a big screen that you can run for a long time on a standard camera battery. That alone makes it a better choice than the thousands of 17" field monitors that Panasonic has sold over the years. The fact that you can buy the monitor for about $2150 is another factor in its favor.
Personally, I bought the FSI with all the trimmings, but I expect I'll see the Panasonic on quite a few sets, as well.
About Helmut Kobler
Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based documentary cameraman and producer. He's also written three editions of Final Cut Pro for Dummies. For more info, go to http://www.losangelescameraman.com
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