Lights, camera, action: Manfrotto Digital Director quick review
Manfrotto Digital Director
Manfrotto's Digital Director, introduced in April, is a departure from the company's usual array of tripods and tripod heads. It's a device designed to hold an iPad Air tethered to a Canon or Nikon DSLR, providing a large live view screen, access to camera controls and wireless sharing options. It can be attached to a Manfrotto tripod with a friction arm, in theory providing a studio-like experience anywhere you want to take pictures.
One of the great pleasures of shooting with a 5x4in view camera is working with such a lovely big screen. The light bouncing from the scene in front of the camera passes through the lens and is projected onto the ground glass so, with the cloth overhead, it provides a fabulous large scale impression of what is about to be committed to film.
Working with the 3" screens of modern DSLRs feels slightly awkward in comparison, as the image is so much smaller and it is correspondingly much harder to determine whether the picture is working. What the DSLR screen offers though that the large format camera can't is a preview of white balance and exposure – and, it has to be said, focusing is a good deal easier with a modern DSLR...
Even when using cameras with exceptional rear screens it is rare to feel absolutely sure of what has been captured until the image is on a laptop or desktop monitor. The rear screen of the camera is OK for the initial checking of pictures on the fly, but really you can't beat seeing the whole frame enlarged on a big screen.
The idea of Manfrotto's Digital Director is to provide that big screen for those taking pictures out and about. The device acts as a go-between for the connected DSLR and an Apple iPad Air I or II, so that photographers can not only review what's been shot in style, but also control the camera's settings remotely and preview the scene before actually shooting it. Essentially, it replaces the camera's rear screen with the significantly larger iPad Air's 6.6in screen – while at the same time adding touch screen functionality.
Having a bigger screen that also makes live view more flexible and usable sounds like a very good idea, but the Manfrotto Digital Director is pretty pricey. Is it worth it? Let's find out.
How it works
The Apple iPad Air is not included in the price of the Manfrotto Digital Director - let's get that straight first of all. There are two models of the device, MVDDA13 for the original iPad Air and MVDDA14 for the iPad Air II, and both require that you already have an iPad or that you go buy one. The Digital Director is essentially just a case that holds the iPad in place and which holds the electronic and processing wizardry that allows it to communicate with the iPad and with your camera (also an additional purchase!). The Digital Director packs a 600MHz 256MB DRAM ARM Cortex-A8 processor for this purpose.
The iPad slides into the holder and slots over the Lightning pin at the far end of the deck. Users can choose to power the Digital Director with 4xAA batteries, or to plug it into the mains power supply – in which case the iPad gets charged at the same time. You don't need to have batteries in the chamber when the mains power is connected.
Cameras connect to the Digital Director via a USB socket, and while one of a standard length is supplied you can replace it with another of up to 10 meters/33 feet long. There is a single USB socket, so only one camera can be connected at a time.
The rear of the main plate features a 3/8" thread socket for attaching the Digital Director to a support. None comes in the box, so it needs to be screwed to a lighting stand or a ball and socket head fitted with a bush adapter. Both of those methods involve having an additional set of legs on the shoot, so the ideal method is to use a Manfrotto Friction Arm that enables the Digital Director to be fitted directly to the same tripod you are using for the camera. So, as well as buying the Digital Director and an iPad Air you also need a Friction Arm – or similar. With the Digital Director already costing $499/£399, an iPad Air running at least $399/£320 and a Friction Arm $130/£95, that is a total cost of $1028/£814 to make the kit useable.
What it does
The Digital Director is run via an app of the same name, so once the camera and device are connected the app needs to be opened. The app connects with the camera and offers a live view display on the screen of what the camera is seeing. Around the picture window is a collection of access points that allow control of the camera's settings. Manfrotto states that 'all key shooting parameters can be controlled', though only your personal concept of what a 'key shooting parameter' is can determine how true that claim is.
In the default screen layout the right-hand column offers the chance to adjust shutter speeds and apertures, ISO ratings, exposure compensation and the focusing mode. Focus peaking can be switched on and off, while other areas allow drive modes and white balance settings to be altered. The app adds touch autofocus to any compatible camera, with an ability to lock on to subjects in any part of the scene. There is no pinch touch action, but a pair of zoom icons enable magnification of parts of the image to check focus manually or to use the AF on a difficult-to-reach subject.
You don't have to stick with the default layout, as a full-screen mode enables floating palettes that allow you to arrange where the tools sit according to where space is available in the composition. There is a shutter release button too, of course, and users can switch between still and video modes via a slider on the screen.
When you trip the shutter via the screen button the image is immediately previewed by default, and by pressing the play button all the images on your card can be viewed as well. As you shoot you can select destination albums on the iPad for the images to channel into, and images can be assigned a job name as they are recorded. Shooting profiles can be set up too, so regularly-used settings can be stored and reapplied.
In review mode images can be inspected, rated and sorted, as in most desktop browsers, and a very basic editing application is included that crops, adjusts 'exposure', contrast and brightness. For more advanced editing users can download the image to the Camera Roll and use a third-party processing app.
As fabulous as Apple iPads are, they are essentially indoor devices. Outside on a sunny day it can be very difficult to see what is on the screen, not only when the sun is shining on the screen but also when the sun on the user's face is reflected in the glass of the screen. The Digital Director is perhaps best suited for indoor use, which is why a power cable is supplied, but I suspect many people will want to use it outside. Most field monitors come with a sunshade, or at least come provision for one, and really the Digital Director needs one to make it useable on bright days, along with - ideally - a matte screen protector to prevent reflections.
The ability to liberate the usually conservative AF distribution of DSLRs, particularly the Nikon D610 that I used for part of the test, was like walking into Wonderland
When you can see the screen though, the idea works rather nicely. That big view of the picture is made available, and it's far easier to check details and to see how composition is working out. I found the focusing aids especially good, and the ability to liberate the usually conservative AF distribution of DSLRs, particularly the Nikon D610 that I used for part of the test, was like walking into Wonderland. Being able to touch subjects right at the edge of the frame and have the camera focus on them is brilliant, and almost worth the asking price on its own.
The control design could do with a bit of an upgrade, which I'm sure is easily done, to make the touch buttons a little bigger. Changing ISO and apertures is simple enough when sitting in a chair playing with the interface, but when out on location with the whole thing attached to an arm or tripod head finger-to-screen accuracy isn't quite as refined. In short, it can be a bit fiddly to use.
While the principle controls of the camera can be operated via the screen there are some things that need to be dealt with through the body. The functions of the camera's physical dials cannot always be accessed. Exposure modes, for example, can't be changed from the app, and surprisingly you can't switch file formats without going back to the camera body itself. Less 'key' shooting parameters, such as exposure bracketing, flash controls and shooting styles are also off the menu. While access to white balance control is offered, it only provides kelvin adjustments, as the app has no 'sunny day' mode or any of the other pre-set values that photographers are used to working with.
While movies can be recorded via the Digital Director app, they can't be played back.
That seems an unforgivable shortcoming
It is a shame too that there is no means of creating a custom white balance setting by touching a reference grey object in the scene – that would have been extremely useful. More of a shame for videographers is that while movies can be recorded via the Digital Director app, for some reason they can't be played back.
On the positive side, all the things the app is supposed to do it does very well. As we'd expect, the iPad screen is very sensitive, responsive and a pleasure to use for operational functions as well as for viewing a captured image. The connection to the camera is very quick too - it's great to see that there is no delay between pressing the shutter release and the picture being taken.
I really wanted to like this product, and had already worked out the benefits of using the Digital Director over my usual Lilliput field monitor – the ability to control the camera, not just preview and review the image; touch sensitivity; and image storage with in-device editing with apps. Indeed those benefits still stand, and although my field monitor is easier to see due to its matte screen and sunshade, its resolution is nothing compared to an iPad's.
During the test though, I came to question whether this Digital Director is a competitor to my field monitor or my laptop. Tethered and running Capture One Pro I can exercise far more control over my Nikon and Canon DSLRs from my portable PC, and the images get stored where I am going to work on them with fully-featured Raw-image-processing software. There is nothing the Digital Director does that can't be done by Capture One Pro, a laptop and a trackpad, but there is plenty that the latter combination can do that the Digital Director can't. If you have a laptop already all you need is the software, though your laptop may not be quite as light and portable as an iPad Air – mine certainly isn't.
If you are starting from a position of not having an appropriate iPad I think the Manfrotto Digital Director is a touch on the expensive side as a tethered live view solution, and even if you do have such a tablet already you might think twice before spending that much to get the on-screen functionality that the Digital Director offers. To be better value the app needs to be able to delve a bit deeper into the camera's control system – and should come with the Friction Arm or some similar means of attaching it close to the camera.
The Digital Director is certainly a fun device to use, but on a number of occasions when turning a wheel or dial on the camera I wondered why I was using it. Then I looked at the screen and remembered, but even so, this feels like a good shot at Version One. Version Two should offer more control, be compatible with a dedicated sunshade, be compatible with a wider range of cameras, run from an interchangeable rechargeable lithium ion battery and will be made from a form of plastic that doesn't feel as though it will break when dropped. I'm also slightly worried about what happens when I get the iPad Air III – will it fit the current Digital Director cradle?
- iPad has fantastic screen
- Lightweight tethered shooting solution
- Can save images to iPad for editing/sharing
- Easy to set up
- Not well made
- Only works with current iPad
- Can't play back video
- Screen hard to see outside
- Control of camera isn't extensive
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