Review of the smallHD AC7 OLED Monitor: Big Where It Counts

by Hugh BrownstoneLeave a Comment

A large, bright, tools-galore monitor is the first piece of gear you should look at when you decide to accessorize your Canon C100 – or any digital filmmaking camera, for that matter.  The smallHD AC7 OLED should be on your short list.

Back in the 19th century, the first rule of photography was: make sure you have enough light.

In 2014 – an age of incredibly sensitive digital sensors, wide aperture lenses and image stabilization – perhaps the first rule of digital filmmaking (beyond having a great story) is: make sure you have good focus. Maybe the second rule is: make sure you have the right exposure.

Even now, easier said than done.

It’s why after-market viewfinders and monitors abound, and why you can find one or the other on just about every professional shoot.

It’s why Panasonic’s GH4 and Sony’s A7S are taking share from Canon in the hybrid DSLR/mirrorless still/video market (along with 4K and aggressive price points!): focus and exposure aids are built in, and their viewfinders are operable in broad daylight. Canon has no answer to them anywhere in its DSLR line, including their top of the line 1D C.

It’s why the Canon C100 – the value offering within the Canon Cinema EOS camera line and an otherwise wonderful combination of ergonomics and functionality which simply obviates the attraction of their 5D Mark III for video — is notorious for its poor viewfinder.

It’s so bad, in fact, that looking through the C100 viewfinder is like looking through a late 19th century nickleodeon. It’s so bad you have to wonder who on earth made the decision – and if that person still works at Canon, let alone anywhere in the camera industry.

The alternative – the C100’s rear articulated LCD — is really too small and too physically limited in its articulation to count on in critical situations.

And it’s useless in broad daylight.

Enter the smallHD AC7 OLED 7.7” monitor.

SmallHD AC7 Image 1

A Transformational Experience

The good folks over at lent me the AC7 OLED and a C100 for an informal test, and my conclusion is pretty simple: if you’re going to accessorize the C100, this is the very first piece of gear to look at.

The 7.7” display is so big, bright and crisp that it transforms the entire shooting experience. Yes, the Gorilla Glass of the AC7 is highly reflective, but at 9:00AM on a bright Tuesday morning – even without the optional sunshade – it was easy to see.

Focus assist on the AC7 was a revelation. Yes, the C100 has focus peaking, but the AC7 one-ups that with four different flavors of focus assist. My favorite, by far, was Focus in Color, a dramatically more pronounced visual cue. And with about four times the viewing area of the C100’s LCD, the AC7 was – what else can I write? — fabulous.

Canon C100, smallHD AC7 OLED, Atomos Ninja Star feeding the AC7 via pass-through HDMI. Focus assist visible on AC7

Canon C100, smallHD AC7 OLED, Atomos Ninja Star feeding the AC7 via pass-through HDMI. Focus assist visible on AC7

But here’s the dirty little secret about focus peaking that makes the AC7’s size, brightness and contrast even more important: if the image isn’t contrasty enough (typical of low light situations), focus peaking won’t work. It simply won’t show anything. That’s when you have to go old school and focus by eye – and on the AC7’s screen, it was a vastly easier thing to do, especially with the ability to turn on 1:1 pixel mapping (the AC7 will map the image coming off the sensor so that its 1200×800 resolution screen shows, one for one, the sensor pixels). Since 1200×800 is smaller than the 1920×1080 signal coming through, the AC7 allows you to navigate around the image to find the 1200×800 pixels most critical to you. It isn’t done with a joystick (that would be ideal), but it works well enough.

And instead of the Canon’s built-in waveform to assist with exposure, the AC7 offers two flavors of false color – both of which I prefer. The HL (high/low) setting only lights up those parts of the image which are blown out (IRE of 100 and higher, shown as yellow then red) or crushed (IRE of 5 or lower, shown as blue). The HML (high/medium/low) setting uses a five zone color scheme which in addition to the HL highs and lows colors IRE ratings in the range of 50-58 (usually indicative of proper skin exposure and shown as an orange/peach), the range above that before clipping (59-98, shown in shades of green) and the range below it (49-4, shown in shades of purple) on the way to crushed blacks.

Compared to the Zacuto EVF with ProFinder I use with my Canon DSLR’s? Well. There’s a new sheriff in town. The Zacuto ProFinder is much more comfortable to view than the native C100 finder, but with the relatively low resolution and small size of both the Zacuto EVF which I use with it – and the rear screen of the Canon DSLRs which I also use with it– it’s not remotely in the same league (nor are its focus and exposure aids).

I don’t know about the Sony A7s yet, but I can write that even though the Panasonic GH4 has focus assist and false color, once again it just doesn’t hold a candle to the AC7 OLED.

The AC7 has additional options – DSLR scaling, aspect scaling, anamorphic, image flip, blue only, monochrome (I like this one,too), and more – but smallHD had me at 7.7” OLED, Focus in Color, False Color and Gorilla Glass. An optional battery adapter allows you to shoot for hours without AC power (they have versions for Canon, Panasonic and Sony batteries), and the AC7 comes with a full complement of SDI and HDMI connectors (well, let me modify that: there is no HDMI out, only in).

At $1399 ($1099 with rebate through November 15th), the smallHD AC7 OLED monitor transforms a camera like the C100. Add a Ninja Star which will record in 10-bit 4:2:2 color in ProRes for $295 (vs. the C100’s internal 8-bit 4:2:0 AVCHD), and you’ll transform the C100 into the functional equivalent of its bigger brother the C300 at a savings of almost $6,000 – enough to buy a second C100, one of your favorite Canon or Zeiss Cine primes — or rent a whole pile of gear for quite some time.

About the SmallHD AC7 OLED Monitor

SmallHD AC7 Image 2

8-bit doesn’t sound like much more than 6-bit, but let’s put it this way; 8-bit means you get 64 times the amount of displayable colors than current 5.6inch HD monitors.

SmallHD AC7 Image 3

True HD 720P
You didn’t expect us to skimp here, did you? Each AC7 ships with native 1280×800 resolution so you don’t have to worry about your built-in on-camera LCD telling you your shot is in focus when it is in fact, not.

Compact Frame
Even with a bigger screen, the AC7 (LCD) is barely any larger than our DP6 and nearly the same weight, meaning more room in the gear bag

Learn more about SmallHD AC7 OLED Monitor

(cover photo credit: snap from Hugh Brownstone)

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