Review – Aputure VS-1 Field Monitor
While not necessarily an essential tool, an external monitor can be a valuable addition to your arsenal as a filmmaker. They allow you to pull focus and check shots more accurately, monitor your video in situations where you can’t use the camera’s built-in screen, and they allow multiple people to easily view what the camera is capturing simultaneously. Having a larger screen to watch can make you more confident during filming; for complex shots, being able to glance quickly at a monitor, instead of peering through a viewfinder, can make a huge difference.
If you’re in the market for a field monitor, you have dozens of options available that run the gamut in terms of features and price. Lilliput, Marshall, Atomos, SmallHD, and many other companies offer monitors that range from under $200 on up into the thousands. Some have high definition screens, some incorporate external recorders, some have advanced video features such as focus peaking or zebras. What you look for in a monitor is going to depend entirely on your individual needs and budget.
Aputure would probably not be considered one of the major players in the field monitor market. They’re a Chinese company that makes a variety of camera accessories, but they’re probably best known for their (generally well-regarded) inexpensive LED light panels. They do, however, offer one of the most affordable external monitors out there – the seven-inch VS-1, which can be purchased for between $150 and $170.
Although the VS-1 has not been as extensively reviewed as its competitors, what’s there is generally positive. After comparing it to similar offerings from Lilliput and Marshall, I decided to take a chance and try it out.
Now, this is my first field monitor, so I wanted something fairly basic and inexpensive. As a freelancer, I take my gear purchases pretty seriously, even “minor” purchases like this (in the world of photography, anything under $500 is probably a minor purchase). Unfortunately, I can’t give any comparisons between this and other monitors from a hands-on perspective – as I said, I haven’t owned a field monitor before, so this is uncharted territory for me. With that in mind, let’s see how the VS-1 stacks up.
The first thing I noticed about the VS-1 is that it comes well-packaged in a very nice box. That might seem trivial, but there are a lot of inexpensive camera accessories out there that just look and feel cheap – I appreciate that Aputure is taking the effort to make a good first impression. Fortunately, that impression carries through to the monitor itself. The VS-1 is understated, compact, and feels very solid. It has mostly plastic construction, but the plastic feels good and everything fits together nicely – nothing seems brittle or especially fragile.
On the front of the unit are buttons for power, input select, and the menu, along with a directional pad for menu options. There’s a USB port for firmware updates on one side, and on the bottom are a headphone jack and ¼” 20 mount. On the back are two standard AV inputs, an RGB component input, and a full size HDMI input, but no HDMI pass-through. There’s also an input for a 12v power cord, which is included, and a battery-plate. The VS-1 is designed to take Sony batteries, like the NP-F550 and F970, but no batteries are included. I would have prefered a system that uses Canon’s LP-E6 batteries, since that’s what my camera uses, but the Sony batteries are fairly cheap and common – you can grab one for as low as $12. The monitor will charge the battery while the power cord is plugged in, so it’s actually possible to get away with buying just the battery, although a charger will probably make your life easier.
Also included in the box are English-language instructions, a USB cord, a mini HDMI to full-size HDMI cord (which is what most DSLR users would need), a sunshade, and a hotshoe ball head mount, for positioning the monitor on top of a camera. The sunshade is well-made and effective, although putting it on and removing it are slightly awkward. I do have some qualms with the ball mount – it’s not especially strong and is made of fairly cheap plastic. A small chunk of mine cracked off within 24-hours of the monitor arriving and, while the mount still functions, it doesn’t bode well for its long-term sturdiness. Ball mounts are fairly inexpensive, though, and I can’t fault Aputure too much for issues with what is essentially a free accessory.
The first thing I noticed when powering the monitor on was how sharp and bright the screen is. Brightness, contrast, and color temperature are all adjustable, which means you should be able to get an accurate representation of what you’re shooting. At 480×800 resolution, the VS-1 is far from high definition, but on a seven-inch monitor I think it’s adequate. While it isn’t as feature-rich as some of its more expensive counterparts, the VS-1 has some genuinely handy features like multiple aspect ratios, the ability to flip the image horizontally or vertically, a “snapshot” freeze frame, and zoom. You also have the ability to assign many functions, like brightness, zoom, and aspect ratio, to the directional buttons on the face of the monitor as shortcut keys. Being able to make quick adjustments without digging into the menu screens is a big plus during shoots.
I think what impressed me the most about the VS-1 is that it just worked, right out of the box, with virtually no fuss. I mounted it, plugged it in, and powered it on – and it behaved just the way I expected it to. When you first plug it in, the monitor takes a few seconds to connect, but after that there is no lag and no break in the feed when you start recording. On my camera, the monitor does not output sound during recording, but this is a quirk inherent to DSLRs, not the monitor itself.
Aputure also sells a higher-end model called the VS-3, which improves on the VS-1 in several ways. It has a higher resolution screen, an HDMI passthrough, and several on-screen assist functions, like focus peaking, false color, and histograms. At around $380, the VS-3 is a little over $200 more than the VS-1, but still falls on the low end of the price spectrum for field monitors. Compared to other monitors with similar features, the VS-3 is extremely inexpensive. As I was writing this review, Caleb Pike at DSLRVideoShooter.com posted a nice, in-depth review of the VS-3, so you should check that out if you’re interested. Depending on your needs and budget, both monitors are great values and either would make a worthwhile addition to your gear kit.
If you’re in the market for a well-made no-frills field monitor, I would definitely recommend the VS-1. If you want more resolution or advanced features, you’ll need to move up a price bracket – in which case, I’d recommend taking a good look at the VS-3 (based purely on my positive impressions of the cheaper model). For me, right now, though, the VS-1 is completely adequate for my needs. Aputure has really impressed me with the value, quality, and functionality of their product and I definitely plan on checking out more of their gear in the future.
UPDATE: I just completed an actual, in-the-field video shoot using this monitor, so I thought I’d add a few quick impressions based on my experience. Overall, the monitor performed beautifully and having it on set was hugely helpful. I was running a multiple-camera interview shoot and it was great to be able to watch one of the cameras from a distance using the monitor. It was also nice to be able to quickly and easily show my clients how shots were looking by swiveling the monitor around (instead of having them crowd around the camera’s tiny LCD screen). Reviewing footage on the monitor was also much easier, because of the size of the screen and the reasonably loud built-in speakers. If you’ve tried to watch (and listen to) footage on a DSLR’s built-in screen, you’ll definitely appreciate the difference.
There were a few quirks – for example, the monitor had to be set to the 4:3 aspect ratio during recording, but 16:9 during playback. I don’t know if this is the fault of the monitor or the camera (or if it’s just some weirdness inherent to HDMI), but setting the aspect ratios to a shortcut key allowed me to get around this pretty easily. I think that the built-in “snapshot” feature is actually very cool – the alternative, taking photos with the camera to show clients what shots look like is kind of a pain, after all – but since the feature is buried in the menus, I only ended up using it once. If the snapshot feature had a dedicated button on the front of the unit, I would probably use it a ton, but it’s kind of a wasted feature as-is.
The monitor takes a few seconds more than I’d like to wake up after it goes into power-saving mode and it also takes a while to start displaying footage when you first turn it on. This isn’t unusual and it’s not really a big deal – but when a client is standing over your shoulder, waiting to see a shot, it can feel like a long time. There was also a very slight flicker in the monitor when I turned it on the first time, but it stopped after just a few minutes. These are very minor quibbles, though, and the monitor essentially performed just how I wanted it to.
I powered it using a knock-off Sony NP-F770, which cost me about $20. While it wasn’t exactly running continuously, the monitor easily ran on the one battery for the entire shoot, from about 9am to about 3pm. I’d have to test it further to get an accurate idea of what the total running time would be, but I was impressed with the battery life.
Having tested the VS-1 “in the wild,” I feel even more confident in recommending it. It’s a well-made product at a very competitive price and it was an extremely useful tool to have on set. My clients seemed impressed with it as well – in addition to being genuinely useful, a field monitor looks very professional and can help make a good first impression. All in all, I think the VS-1 is a great addition to any collection of video gear.