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Z-Cage

Review of the Zacuto EVF Pro
3.2" Electronic Viewfinder with Z-Finder Pro Loupe



Review by Ron Risman, June / July 2011



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Introduction

I have been a Zacuto fan ever since I first put their Z-Finder up to my eye at a cinematography workshop a couple of years ago. Despite what I felt was a rather high price tag for what is basically a magnified loupe, the functionality made it worth every penny. It's incredibly durable (almost indestructible) and it provides users of video-enabled DSLR's the ability to use the 3.0" LCD on the back of the camera as a professional viewfinder. Footage benefits from less shake since you now have an additional contact point between the camera and your body and real-time focusing while recording became much easier thanks to the magnified view of the LCD screen.

Ever since the video advantages of the HDSLR were uncovered a few years ago, more and more videographers and cinematographers are using DSLR's in ways that make viewing the rear LCD much more difficult, if not impossible. Of course, a loupe like the Z-Finder or LCDVF only work when the camera can be positioned up against your eye. Today, filmmakers are putting DSLR's on Cranes, Sliders, Shoulder Rigs, Steadicam, Tripods, and mounting them in places they never dared with larger and heavier cameras. This poses a couple of problems; First, the LCD screens built into these camera are non-removable, which means they won't help if you mount or position the camera farther away, such as on a crane, the hood of a car, or even when shooting above or below eye level, if the screen doesn't tilt or swivel. These mounting problems can be solved by using an external monitor, but an external monitor is typically 5" - 7" in size making them a bit too bulky for run n' gun situations (weddings, documentaries, reporting) and their larger screen sizes make for poor battery life.

Zacuto EVF Pro Review

The Zacuto EVF is a high-resolution 3.0" monitor that offers the flexibility of mounting virtually anywhere. and is fully compatible with their line of Z-Finder's (Jr. and Pro). The Zacuto EVF was designed for dual-purpose use. With a Z-Finder attached it becomes a high-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) and without it's a 3.2" monitor that can be positioned where you need it. The EVF was designed to accept Canon LP-E6 Li-ion batteries making it compatible with the Canon 5D Mark II, 1D Mark IV, and 7D, and Zacuto figured out a way to make the battery last what feels like a lifetime. During the first wedding the EVF was left on during the entire 65 minute ceremony and again on a 4 hour beach shoot a few days later and the battery gauge is still showing 3 out of 4 bars. Incredible. It's a pleasure not to feel as if you need to turn it off after each pause in the action in order to conserve battery power.

On paper the resolution of the Zacuto EVF (800x480 resolution, 384,000 pixels) might seem inferior to the DSLR's 3.0" display which on some models like the 5DMKII, 7D, etc. is billed as having 921,600 dots. What many don't realize is that it takes 3 dots (Red, Green, and Blue) to make up one pixel so Canon's 920k dots equals a resolution of 640x480. Zacuto's EVF with its 800x480 display offers 20% higher resolution than the screens found in video-enabled DSLR's. This is one of the reasons it is easier to judge focus with the Zacuto EVF, even without using the built-in focusing aids, than it is using the camera's own LCD. The slightly larger 3.2" diagonal screen is also a true 16:9 monitor so you'll see everything in the frame and the EVF uses IPS panel technology and a tighter dot pitch (spacing between pixels) to make this an overall great monitor.

Not only does the Zacuto EVF offer the sharpness needed for focusing, it also has other features and attributes that make it a superior experience when filming:

  • Color accuracy.
    When comparing the Zacuto EVF to the built-in LCD I noticed that the Zacuto EVF provided superior color accuracy. It was clearly evident when I recorded a shot of my family room with eggshell color woodwork. Viewing through the camera's built-in 3.0" LCD the woodwork looked white, while through the Zacuto EVF it looked eggshell. When playing back the recorded footage on the computer the camera did indeed capture it as eggshell. This will allow for more accurate white-balance out in the field.

  • Pixel to Pixel Zoom
    The Zacuto EVF has a menu option called Pixel to Pixel Zoom that, when selected, will zoom in on the center of the frame giving you a 100% pixel view of your scene. It's great for those times when exact focusing is a must. This feature only works with HDMI signals greater than 480p.

    Exposure Aids

  • Zebra Stripes (Exposure Assist)
    Zebra Stripes is a feature found on most professional monitors and can be really helpful when filming with DSLR's. With Zebra Stripes turned on the monitor will display diagonal stripes over any part of the image that hits a preset brightness level. The Zacuto EVF allows you to set two different IRE levels, so you might want one set at 100 IRE (pure white) and another between 50 & 60 IRE (skin tones). When activated, diagonal black lines will appear over the area that represents 100 IRE and 50 IRE (or whatever you preset them at). The Zebra stripes are displayed differently for each preset. Diagonal from upper left to bottom right for Preset 1 and upper right to bottom left for Preset 2.

    Keep in mind that if you're not using auxiliary lighting to maintain a desired balance between foreground and backlight light, Zebra stripes will mostly just irritate you. Your best bet when shooting in natural light is to visually expose for the part of the scene that is most important. For example, if you're filming someone who's back is to the sun, their face will be much darker than the background. If you expose for the face then you'll have no choice but to blow out the background, likewise if you expose for the background the foreground subject will be a dark shadow. Zebra stripes is most useful in a studio environment where you have more control over lighting.

    * IRE is a means of measuring brightness as a relative percentage of total brightness. Black is 0 IRE, while peak white is 100 IRE.

  • False Color (Exposure Assist)
    False color is another feature that can assist users with exposure control. It works by turning the display into what looks like a posterized effect with different colors representing different exposure levels(see color chart on right). I personally am not a fan of using the false color feature, however the feature is here for those that have become accustomed to using this method of exposure assist.

  • Peaking (Focus Assist)
    Peaking is an edge enhancement technology that makes manual focusing easier. The technology basically over-sharpens edges that are hard, making it easier to differentiate between in-focus and 'almost' in-focus. There are three levels of peaking (1-3) and when set to 2 or 3 you can actually see the area that's in focus (depth-of-field) move as you turn the focus ring when the lens is set at wider apertures such as f/1.8 - f/2.8.

  • Built-in Color Bars with Blue mode
    Having built-in SMPTE color bars makes it easy to check and set the color accuracy of the monitor. The Zacuto EVF also has an advanced blue-only mode, which can make it easier to get hue & saturation correct. Here's a good explanation of how to use color bars and blue-only mode.

    Other features include an Anamorphic Setting that will un-squeeze anamorphic images produced by shooting with an anamorphic lens; Frame Lines to show where borders would fall at different aspect ratios. If you know you're final edit will be output in a 4:3 format you can turn on frame lines for a 4:3 aspect ratio. The EVF includes frame lines for 1.33:1 (4x3), 1.66:1 (15.9), 1.78:1 (16.9), 1.85:1 (35mm theatrical), 2.35:1 (Cinemascope), and a rule of thirds grid; HDMI Pass-Through provides the ability to loop the HDMI signal out of the viewfinder and into another monitor, either for the client or for a focus puller; Assignable Function Buttons allow you to take your favorite 2 features and assign them so that they can be activated with the press of one button. During testing I assigned the peaking function to one button and I alternated between assigning the 100% view and zebra stripes to the other button; Full Brightness & Color Control - you can adjust RGB values as well as brightness & contrast values to set the monitor exactly as you need too.

    The one feature currently missing, but promised for a soon-to-be released firmware update, is audio level monitoring. This will be a very welcome feature that will allow users to monitor the audio levels. Unfortunately the EVF does not include headphone jacks, which would have been a nice addition, but at least on-screen meters will let you visually see if the signal going into your camera is too hot or too quiet.

    One of the more important features of the Zacuto Electronic Viewfinder, especially for users of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, is the scaling feature. This feature will take a lower resolution video signal that some cameras output through the HDMI port and scale it to fit the screen. You can set the viewfinder to auto scale, select from the many included camera presets, or manually adjust the scaling of the display then save it as a custom preset. When using the EVF with the 5D Mark II you won't get a full-screen image until you hit the record button, which means the screen will display a smaller area than what you would get with the camera's built-in LCD. If you're not planning on using a Z-Finder Loupe with the EVF you'll find that pre-focusing could be tougher using the EVF.

    The rest of the features I'll skip over as I want to get to some of the other aspects of this review. However, here is a link to the user's manual if you want to read about additional features.

    This past weekend I filmed a Greek wedding, my second wedding with the Zacuto EVF. I used it during the Ceremony and Reception and was able to capture footage that would have been much more difficult to film without it. The detachable nature of the Zacuto EVF allowed me to keep my eye in the Loupe despite the fact that the 5DMKII was on the tripod raised up almost a foot above my head. While a pivoting LCD display, like those found on the new Canon EOS 60D or Rebel T3i, would have provided a bottoms-up view for framing it would have tough for me to judge focus at the f/2.8 aperture.

    Review Conclusion
    I am the first to admit that I feel that most products being marketed to indie filmmakers and DSLR filmmakers are overpriced, and for the most part they are. I'll even go as far as to admit that I believe the Zacuto EVF and the few other electronic viewfinders now hitting the market are also overpriced. A 3.2" high-resolution display that sells for as much as a DSLR itself? It's a hard pill to swallow. I am sure the broadcast industry will find these products very value priced, but these products are being marketed toward DSLR event videographers and filmmakers who are on a much tighter budget or at least should be if they analyzed their books.

    But now I need to do a bit of an about face. One of the first 'over-priced' products I ever purchased for my 5D Mark II was the Zacuto Z-Finder. That was in 2009 and I couldn't believe that I wanted to spend over $100 on a magnified loupe, never mind over $300. I had already purchased a Hoodman Loupe ($79) with cinema straps ($19) which I hated, yet when I had the opportunity to use the Z-Finder over a 3-day workshop I fell it love with it. My justification was knowing how unhappy I was with the $100 Hoodman solution - and the truth is - I should have saved the $100 on the cheap solution and put it toward the right solution. As they say Hindsight is always 20/20.

    When it comes to external monitor solutions I have owned a cheap solution (7" LCD with RCA Inputs, Haier HLT71) and I still use, albeit sparingly, the mid-priced JAG35 LCD Monitor with HDMI input. While the JAG35 works well, the larger size just is too cumbersome for weddings and it barely makes it through a ceremony when being powered by a Canon LP-E6 battery.

    At first glance the Zacuto EVF would seem like a step backwards with its smaller 3.2" display, yet for me it's a huge step forward. I absolutely love shooting using the Zacuto Z-Finder. It makes focusing a breeze and the view through the loupe is so big and free from reflections / distractions that I feel connected to the scene, much more than when I shoot with a larger monitor. The problem with using the Z-Finder on the camera's LCD is that you need to have the camera at eye level in order to make use of the Loupe.

    Despite the smaller size of the Zacuto EVF, when used with the Zacuto Z-Finder Loupe you have the best of both worlds. A big view through the lens and one that can adjust to any shooting situation. At another wedding this past weekend I attached the EVF to an articulating arm which allowed me to keep the screen in front of me while the camera was positioned about a foot above eye level on a tripod. As I tracked the Ceremonial Walk during the [Greek] Ceremony I was able to keep the subjects framed and in focus, despite the shallow depth-of-field. During the reception I made use of the EVF without the loupe for low-angle slider shots and also back on the articulating arm for the first dance, toasts, and high-angle dance floor shots.

    I have spent the past month testing out the Zacuto EVF and have taken it along to my last three weddings. The first wedding I let my second shooter use the EVF on a JAG35 shoulder rig and he absolutely loved it. At the second wedding I got my first in-field use with the EVF during the reception, and during this last wedding I used it almost the entire time with the exception of Groom Prep. With each use I am getting much more comfortable with the idea of having extra gear connected to the camera. Typically I shoot with just the camera, a microphone on the accessory shot and the Z-Finder Loupe (and of course a lens) on a Tripod. Adding in an articulating arm, Zacuto DSLR baseplate, Zacuto EVF Standard Mount, LCD monitor, and HDMI cable definitely makes things a little less simple, yet after just a few weeks I know how hard it will be to say goodbye to the EVF (it's a review loaner from Zacuto).

    The Zacuto EVF, like all Zacuto gear, is made to withstand tons of abuse. Zacuto got a lot of attention with their video showing Steve Weiss, founder of Zacuto, dropping the EVF from the top of a ladder (5 feet) three times to demonstrate its ruggedness. While I had no intention of testing this on their loaner unit, the Z-Finder did drop to the floor while I was trying to swap lenses during the second wedding. It only (luckily) dropped about 3 feet but suffered no damage, not even cosmetic. Another feature that Zacuto has promoted is that the HDMI ports are screwed into the rugged EVF frame, ensuring they don't ever come loose. However, the weakest part of the EVF is the HDMI connectivity. Not the port, but the HDMI cable that is used to attach it to the camera. Despite a pivoting end that plugs into the EVF and a straight mini-HDMI end that plugs into the camera I was concerned about the mini-HDMI end breaking as it easily bent just from the pressure of the cable pulling in either direction. As with all my gear I guess it would be smart to keep a backup cable on hand.

    One issue that I hard during the last wedding was the EVF wouldn't see the signal from the 5DMKII at times after turning the camera back on. The camera was in live-view mode and when this happened I would have to reconnect the HDMI cable to the camera to get the signal back. I have been trying to duplicate this while writing about it but cannot, so I don't know whether it's a connection issue with the cable, a faulty cable, or a certain combination that I am not hitting on.

    Canon LP-E6 Battery Powered
    Another important thing to know is that while the Zacuto EVF ships with a Canon LP-E6 compatible battery and can be powered using the Canon LP-E6 , the battery included with the EVF MUST be charged in the compact charger shipped with the EVF. It won't charge using Canon's LP-E6 charger and you cannot charge Canon's LP-E6 in the charger included with the EVF. But both batteries can be used to power the EVF itself.

    Zacuto offers the EVF in four configurations. The EVF Snap ($675), EVF Flip ($775), EVF ($805), and EVF Pro ($1000). Here are the differences.

    • EVF Snap - Zacuto link | B&H Link
      This is an EVF only package, meaning it does not include a Z-Finder Loupe. This is the model for those who already own a Z-Finder Loupe. The EVF Snap has a built-in frame that surrounds the screen to easily attach a Z-Finder Jr. or Pro viewfinder loupe.
    • EVF Flip - Zacuto link | B&H Link
      This is similar to the EVF Snap, except the EVF Flip has a Z-Finder frame that is hinged so that it can be flipped open to 180 degrees. Again, this is an ideal kit for anyone who already owns a Z-Finder Jr. or Pro viewfinder loupe.
    • EVF - Zacuto link | B&H Link
      The EVF is the EVF Snap + Z-Finder Jr. viewfinder loupe with anti-fog disc and 'step' frames for diopter correction.
    • EVF Pro - Zacuto link | B&H Link
      The EVF Pro is their most expensive package and replaces the Z-Finder Jr. with the Z-Finder Pro with anti-fog disc and built-in diopter.

    Disclaimer
    Cameratown has an affiliate relationship with Zacuto as well as other brands and retailers. An affiliate relationship means we get a small percentage of a sale that results from a link on our website. We only get into affiliate relationships with brands and with who's products we feel comfortable recommending. Cameratown reviews are never biased because of these relationships and are always written to represent our findings during testing.

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