Extreme Macro Field Monitor

by Johan J Ingles-Le Nobel
Last updated August 31, 2017


Sometimes the small screen on the back of the camera just isn't big enough, and a field monitor provides an excellent albeit expensive alternative at times like this.

But, at a shade under $1,000, purchase of a good field monitor isn't for the faint hearted, so in an attempt to obtain good value for money out of it I use it for as many purposes as I can think of.

Field monitor

SmallHD DP6 in use, with specimen mounted on homemade universal stage.

Nice gradients are very easy to obtain using a gradient tool in photoshop, so using a small monitor is a good solution to making a nice background. Field monotors can also be used in the field to obtain critical focus.

Field Focusing using a Field Monitor

The intended use for a field monitor is for focusing and my SmallHD DP6 field monitor comes with some terrific tools to help with this. Focus Assist/Focus Assist Plus, both based on peaking, adds detail to a scene that you wouldn't otherwise see. Focus peaking is a classic movie tool which highlights the areas in sharp focus on an image in white, and is pretty useful. It's starting to make its way onto consumer digital cameras and is a nice thing to have.

Field Exposure using a Field Monitor

The movie industry uses different exposure aids to photography, and my DP6 comes with a False Colour HL mode that paints under and over areas similar to blinkies on a digital camera. False Colour HML is a slightly different variant that gives a bit more information about the midrange area.

Focus Assist, Focus Assist Plus, False Colour HL and False Colour HML are all toggles that you can switch to on the unit itself. The way that I use my field monitor outside is to hook it up to the HDMI-out port on my cameras, so you see what you'd normally see on live view on the field camera. In other words, the blinkies and so on that you use on live view will also appear on the field camera, but this gives you an added layer of picture analysis that you switch on using one of the buttons on the field monitor.

If, like me, your eyes are starting to go then a SmallHD DP6 is one of the best friends that you can have

If, like me, your eyes are starting to go then a SmallHD DP6 is one of the best friends that you can have. When you're using a macro lens on a tripod and you want your focus to be critical, add a DP6 on a bracket, connect with HDMI, use the focus peaking and you just can't go wrong. The screen is sufficiently bright that it's easy to see and reacts fast enough (.2s) so you shouldn't lose a shot. These things have a battery life much longer than the screen on the back of a DSLR although the battery wear on a DSLR is, surprisingly, no less when the camera's liveview is off and being output to a SmallHD.

You can also use a field monitor handheld but this takes more practice, especially if the orientation of the monitor differs to the direction that you point the camera in. The latter is extremely difficult to use but will offer you a flip-out screen if your camera lacks one.

an unneccessary firmware change that's made Pentax a bad brand for extreme macro in one fell swoop

Extreme Macro Backgrounds using a Field Monitor

I also use my field monitor to give me backgrounds when I'm shooting in the studio, as a way to attract more value for money from a tool I'd otherwise not use that much. The way that I do this is using an HDMI matrix unit, which is a unit connected to my PC, camera, PC screen and smallHD screen with HDMI cables between it and each device, and lets me output any source onto any screen. So I'll make a background that I like in photoshop using gradients and whatnot, effects that are tricky to achieve using a paper background, then switch the outputs around so that I can see my liveview on my PC screen (for focusing, composition etc) and my PC on my field monitor (showing the photoshop background).

Then I shoot my specimen in front of the field monitor mixing ambient and flash lighting to get the final result. This approach has its upsides and downsides. On the upside it's obviously very nice and unique to be able to control the background to achieve whatever I want. On the downside, mixing long exposure ambient and flash is not without its issues, so getting the colour balance right, especially when coloured light from the field monitor spills onto the specimen, takes a lot of practise, and there are various hurdles along the way such as flash ghosting that made a complete rethink of the flash mode that I use neccessary.

mixing long exposure ambient and flash is not without its issues

One extreme annoyance regarding this is the curious Pentax decision to change the flash functionality on their latest topend DSLR the K-5, and make it impossible to rear sync using a Metz-58 because I'm using non standard lenses (ie microscope objectives etc). This was an unneccessary firmware change that's made Pentax a bad brand for extreme macro in one fell swoop, and having had discussions with Metz and Pentax, there's no explanation why this was done nor any intention to correct it in the future. A cynical man would think that Pentax is trying to make sure that their modern lenses get sales by limiting certain functionality to only those lenses.

Studio Issues

Whilst nice and convenient, using a field monitor in the studio is not without challenges. I did not buy this device for use with extreme macro and using coloured paper is significantly simpler. I don't know if I would really recommend the purchase of a field monitor for extreme macro.

Mixing ambient and flash lighting means you have to balance these very carefully and use rear curtain sync to avoid flash ghosting. I have some very extreme colour presets on my field monitor which preserve colour temperature between the two sources but gels over the flashes also help to achieve accurate colour balance. Colour balance is a particular problem and it is only because of the wide variety of presets and adjustments that the DP6 has that it is usable at all. Unfortunately there is no colour temperature setting on the DP6 when using HDMI in, which is a painful omission.

surprisingly difficult to get nice bright colours with pop

In terms of the colours themselves it is surprisingly difficult to get nice bright colours with pop using a field monitor as the final output seems to be a lot duller than the backdrops put into photoshop. A longer exposure gives you a brighter backdrop but longer exposures (ie more than 2s) does throw you towards posterisation territory in the image in the camera.

The amount of gradient that the image sees depends on the magnification that you're using and at magnifications of 5:1 and above there is sometimes little room to place the field monitor in the right place, near to the mounted specimen.

As you work the colour temperature changes so I always leave the monitor running for 30 minutes before a shoot. For this you want to have the mains connection.

Perhaps the trickiest problem is the fact that the monitor faces your lens at just about the most perfect angle to encourage reflection of the flash light back into the lens. You can combat this by putting the thing at an angle but that may destroy the shape of the nice background that you've painfully constructed on your PC. Some serious hood action helps a lot in combating this, as does the use of barn doors on the flashes pointing at your diffusers to stop light hitting the field monitor itself.


A field monitor used like this is just a lighting device, so standard studio techniques can be used to modify its light output. If I want a little bit of a darker left hand side to an image I put a black square over the background in photoshop which acts as a flag. If I need a lighter shade in the centre of the image I add a white circle in the centre.

Field Monitor & Photography

there are now much cheaper models available

Some thoughts that are worth bearing in mind if you're considering the purchase of a field monitor. Overall, it's a handy too but let's be honest they're also quite an extravagance as they're just not cheap. Mine was more that US$1,000 when I bought it several years ago - there are now much cheaper models available. Camera companies do output strange HDMI signals in esoteric ratios and so if you're looking at a lower end one you might find that there are black bands at the bottom of your liveview.

Just to confirm that the SmallHD DP6 is configurable in this aspect and has a bunch of preconfigured memory settings that will save different output settings for you, which is quite nice. For what it's worth, I tested the Marshall units before buying the SmallHD, and found that the Pentax HDMI display just wasn't visible on the Marshall V-LCD51 unit I tested. I reported the issue with Marshall who promised they'd get back to me with fixed HDMI software on a factory model, but this was 2 years ago and I never heard anything back from them. I guess their customer service department is a bit useless.

Video glasses

TV glasses - it is only a matter of time before we can start using devices such as these to see the HDMI output of our cameras rather than field monitors.

The 5.6" screen on my SmallHD DP6 is nice and bright, and a big big improvement on using the LCD on the back of my Pentax cameras because it's not only bigger and brighter but I can tilt it any damm way I please. But, despite it switching the on-camera screen off, this curiously doen't improve battery life so liveview still switches off according to the timings set on the camera in the Pentax firmware, which is a bit weird, but more of a Pentax error than anything else. It takes quite a bit of trial and error to get the most out of the field monitor, but I now have a rig that I can use with a flash bracket that lets me use the smallHD with a battery and pootle around in the field. But it's heavy, and for example the peaking modes are at their most handiest when I have the camera mounted on a tripod rather than when I use the handheld rig.

the field monitor does change colour temperature as it warms up

Colour balance on your field monitor is a bit of an issue as the colour balance you choose on your cam may not be replicated well on the field monitor. The SmallHD thankfully comes with RGB and RGB gain settings (so 6 in all) which, with quite a lot of trial and error, lets you achieve prettymuch any field temperature and setting. That said the field monitor will change the colour of the output as it warms up, so what's appropriate at the start of the shoot may not be appropriate at the end. I solve this by using the 9 presets to have a range of 'all else being equal' RGB settings, so as the monitor warms up I just move onto a different preset that preserves all the scaling and output size settings but is maybe just a few points more red and less blue. Works perfectly.

I think what differentiates a good field monitor from a poor one is what the field monitor has in its included software on the monitor. Features such as being able to tweak the field monitor display not to have black bars on the sides because of the 4:3 display output from the cam, or the ability to add guidelines, or being able to focus peak or use the field camera for exposure with the HML option. Watch out for this if you purchase - at the time of writing (late 2013) lower end field monitors don't have software built in and whilst they're great value as a focusing tool, beyond that they're of limited utility (to me, at least).

Lastly, a special mention about upgradability. The SmallHD DP6 has a USB port on it that can be used to upgrade to new software as it comes out by SmallHD. This means for example that you always have the latest version of focus peaking as a free upgrade, which is something that a lot of the other brands don't let you do or have.

Comments (3)

Article: Field Monitor
Petrochemist says...
I see field monitors with focus peaking are now available for under £100! This could be the ideal way to add peaking to my cameras! I think I know where my next overtime is going :)
25th April 2014 2:56pm
Fred says...
With Smartphone and Tablets nowadays, could the same neat trick be used, displaying a color gradient on them?
6th December 2013 10:39pm
Johan says...
Totally, if you want it just for the gradient background then I don't see why not at all, just import a jpg made on the PC and done. Much cheaper too!
7th December 2013 10:05am
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