Often when shooting video on a DSLR the screen is simply not pointing in the right direction for optimal / ergonomic viewing as cameras are often placed up against something, held high, held low. And there’s the matter of critical focusing that is very important especially when using low apertures and larger censor cameras like the Canon 5DMKII.. So I began my quest of looking for a field monitor that would fit within my current budget of $500.
The first model I purchased was a sub $200 7″ model from Lilliput. It quickly became apparent that I was going to need a monitor that had some sort of color calibration. While the Lilliput monitor offered color controls, there was no real way to calibrate it with my cameras. And without calibration, there is no way to be assured that the images you see on the screen are what’s being recorded by your camera. So I returned it and continued my search. With my search now narrowed down to two monitors, the iKan VL5 and the Marshall V-LCD50. I made the decision to go with the VL5 as it was half the price, and offered DSLR scaling, whilst and the Marshall did not.
Since I purchased this monitor for my Canon 5DMKII, and it’s obviously marketed at HDSLR shooters, this review will be based on use with an HDSLR. More specifically, the Canon 5DMKII.
What’s in the box:
Upon opening the box you will find the a battery plate (more on that later) shoe mount, AC adapter, sun visor and the VL5 monitor.
The VL5 is made of plastic and is lightweight. The sun visor as well as battery plates attach firmly to the monitor, and by no means feel as they will break at any given time. Buttons are decent size for the size of the display and are very responsive with good physical feedback that a buttons has been pressed. Being light weight, and with the smaller form factor, I don’t have reservations when mounting it on my cameras hot shoe.
Understanding what the issue with scaling with Canon HDDSLR’s for example will help one appreciate and desire the feature. There are tons of websites that do a fantastic job of explaining DSLR Scaling. So if you want the full 411 on it, a simple Google search will help you get up to speed. The brief and quick explanation I can provide you is this. Canon DSLR’s output an image that’s 3:2, the same size of the cameras censor. And most field monitors are 16×9 or 4:3 even. Resulting of a big loss of screen real estate. And make matters worse. Canon made the information that is overlaid on the picture by pressing the info button, outside of the boundaries of the actual image when displayed on external monitors. Monitors that have DSLR scaling, are able to expand the image to take advantage of more if not all of the screen real estate. The larger the image is on screen, the easier it is to frame shots, focus etc.
Peaking is a camera or monitors ability to put an outline around objects in the image is are in focus. With peaking enabled on the VL5, the screen switches from color to monochrome and as you rack focus on the lens you will see a red outline around whatever in the image is critically in focus. With large censor cameras and use of low apertures “shallow depth of field”, being able to determine exactly what is in focus can be difficult without the use of peaking or false color.
As I mentioned above; one of the biggest downfalls to the 7″ Lilliput monitor was the lack of a color calibration system. Simply no easy way to calibrate that display to your camera. And those who’ve shot video and used an external monitor can attest.. It’s tough to reliably produce images when your monitor doesn’t accurately display what colors and exposure the camera sees. The VL5 also has that covered with Blue Gun. Blue Gun separates the blue channel from all other colors allowing for proper setup or calibrated. The first order of business to calibrate your monitor is to get the SMPTE color bars on your cameras memory card to display them on screen. Some cameras are capable of generating the color bars, for those that are not, you can find them online and follow this super easy method as outlined by Richard Harrington to get it on your Canon HDSLR’s memory card in a format that it can display on screen. Once the SMPTE color bars are displayed on the VL5′s screen, enter the menu and enable Blue Gun. Now, adjust the image by using the contrast, brightness, hue and saturation settings found in the menu. Ikan has a video on how to calibrate one of their higher end monitors online. The principal is the same, just slightly different on the VL5. Also, this is a pretty good post on how to calibrate an external field monitor with SMPTE color bars. The VL5 can also be adjusted with RGB color settings in the menu.
When you order the VL5, you have your choice of battery pack. Available are Sony L series, Panasonic D54, Canon 900 as well as the ever popular Canon LP-E6. I have both the Sony L series and Canon LP-E6 plates. I have easily gotten over 3 hrs of battery life on a single LP-E6 battery. And to be honest, I have yet to fully kill an LP-E6 battery. My only complaint with battery use, is the unit will continue to discharge batteries when shut off. Once you’re done shooting for the day, it’s best to remove the battery. If you leave the battery connected, it will continue to discharge it’s power.. For those times when shooting in doors and when power outlets are readily available, the AC adapter can be used.
Screen & Display Output:
The matte screen is easily viewable from various angles 45, 90 degree’s etc. As well as outdoors on a bright sunny day. The sun visor helps a little, but I would like to see iKan make a sun visor similar VL5 like those available for Marshall and the SmallHD’s.
Signal inputs from 480p to 1080p are supported via HDMI only as there are no other types of signal inputs on the monitor. Actual resolution of the display is 800X480. With a 600:1 contrast ratio. Aspect ratios are switchable from 16:9 to 4:3
Also worth of mention since I never turn them off are the aspect ratio guides. Used to properly frame and compose shots, plus, they look cool as hell.
Negatives that I have with the VL5 are somewhat small, but are there none the less. With the VL5, there is no instruction manual. And the “quick start” guide can be lacking to many as it provides a high level overview, and doesn’t go into some of the monitors features. It does not come with an HDMI cable, and I believe it should as some who purchase it may assume it would, and when they receive it is when they will realize it’s an extra purchase. Plus, the less expensive Lilliput came with an HDMI cable. When the unit is turned off, the power button switches from free to red, and the batteries continue to drain. Is that something that could be corrected with a firmware update? Possibly. But it would be nice to simply shut it off, and store it for a while (shoot or day) not needing to take out the battery.
For the price I paid, $259.95… I am pleased with the feature set and performance of the iKan VL5. It’s lightweight, compact, built solid, and the “pro-like” features without the “pro” price make it a very compelling purchase for anyone who is looking for a small inexpensive field monitor.