For a shooter on a budget, an external monitor is quite the luxury. Even an inexpensive monitor with a few basic features may be out of reach for some. With so many options to choose from and a limited budget, you might be tempted to get just a good enough monitor. Today, I'm tempted to sway you toward a different direction with my SmallHD 502 review.
Just to clarify, I am not paid by SmallHD for this review, nor will I be in the future. The gear that I review are all based on my personal preferences and our preferred style of shooting. It just so happens that I really like fancy things. Who doesn't? So, my review is purely based on my own experience with the SmallHD 502 unit.
Before I jump into the review, I want to offer a few reasons why you need an external monitor. Here is a list of my top reasons:
- When you shoot with a handheld rig
- When you shoot with a jib
- When you shoot with a gimbal
- When you shoot with a steadicam
- When you need a low-angled shot
- When you need a high-angled shot
The list above shows the need for an external monitor. Sure, you can get away without one. It will just be very difficult to operate a jib or gimbal and achieve excellent results without angling an external monitor at an ideal position.
Now onto the review. I will break the review up into three sections,
- the ability to create custom looks,
- the ability to cross covert HDMI /HD-SDI signals,
- the battery life
The Ability to Create Custom Looks
SmallHD sent me one one of their 502 monitors for a short film we were working on in December The project required us to shoot on different cameras with a short turn around so it was critical to make sure we matched lighting and color as closely as possible on set. Our three cameras were the RED Dragon, Black Magic Pocket Camera and the Sony A7S.
I was very interested in using the 502 monitor because it allowed you to import in your own custom LUTs. This allowed us to run tests prior to the shoot and match up all the cameras to a specific profile and export the profiles as LUTs in Davinci Resolve so we can use them with the SmallHD 502 (check out our How to Create Your Own Custom LUT in Under 5 Minutes on how to do this). This was a major game changer!
There wasn't a need for the 502 monitor on the RED Dragon as the RED Touchscreen is already a fantastic monitor but if you're familiar with either the Sony A7S or the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera, you know the challenges with using the LCD back screen. It's great that you're able to record Slog2 or ProRes 422HQ but the lack of color information makes it hard to light and even harder to match colors. The A7S tends to be a bit more green and the Black Magic is more pink. A nightmare in post. You also have to expose Slog2 footage differently but with a custom LUT, you can monitor (pun intended) your exposure and still see what the final image will look at the same time. Did I say game changer?
Just this one feature alone makes the SmallHD 502 a worthwhile purchase.
The ability to program in your own custom LUT means that the monitor is future proof. That combined with its 1080p resolution, you won't need to purchase any other monitor for a very, very long time.
The Ability to Cross Convert HDMI / HD-SDI Signals
So what's the difference between the SmallHD 501 and 502? The 501 has all the same features I described but only has HDMI in/out. The 502 gives you an additional feature, HD-SDI in/out and can cross convert the signal out to HMDI or vice-versa. Depending on the type of work you do, this may or may not have that much of an impact to you.
Aside from making narratives and commercial work, we also do a lot of live events as well. The SmallHD 502's ability to cross convert the Sony A7S signal is huge to us. Before using the SmallHD 502, we needed a Blackmagic HDMI to SDI converter to send the HDMI signal out to our switcher. And since our switcher does not have on set color management capabilities, we're stuck with using similar camera profiles like the Sony EX1 or EX3.
With the SmallHD 502 however, not only can we use the monitor that we'll be operating from to send out to our switcher, we can also apply a custom LUT to the signal out! We can now calibrate the colors in Davinci Resolve using tools like the Xrite ColorChecker Passport Video and match any other camera.
The Battery Life
I was pleasantly surprised with the battery life of the SmallHD 502. The unit I received came with two Canon style LP-E6 batteries which powered the monitor all day more or less (we turned the power off in between takes).
I've used many different monitors in the past. The thing I always hated was how you had to constantly change batteries because these external monitors just go through the power like nothing. Monitors that take the Sony L-series batteries take a long time to charge and drains quickly, not to mention makes your entire rig much more bulky.
The SmallHD 502 has a low profile, gives you great battery life and is very lightweight. The unit with the batteries is only slightly larger than an iPhone 6.
With a base price of $899, the SmallHD 500 series monitors are not the cheapest. And unlike some of its competitors, it doesn't record either. But it does do its job better than any other monitor out on the market, which is producing a fantastic image for you to monitor, as well as offer a plethora of features.
You may be tempted to purchase a monitor that also records ProRes that mean spending more money, buying additional accessories like SSD drives and LOTS of batteries to power the monitor.
In my opinion, and it's just my opinion, I'd spend a little more money on a unit like the SmallHD 502 and future proof my investment and keep my set up small and compact. The truth is, if your monitor is too clunky to take everywhere, you might just not take it anywhere. Not true with the SmallHD 502. It leaves such a small footprint that you're able to take it anywhere.
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