Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: Atomos Ninja Field Recorder

JB's review: I first want to address the negatives of the Atomos Ninja Field Recorder ($995).  It doesn't work with the current crop of HDSLRs.  If you own a Canon HDSLR (which is the largest segment of the market), DO NOT purchase this device.  Atomos is very clear on their website, that their product does not work with most DSLRs.

Regardless, I tested both my Canon 5DMKII, and Canon 60D with the Ninja.  The black borders are the actual recorded image from the video tap, and not a photoshop border.

< The onscreen icons coming from the HDMI out of the 5DMKII ruin the fun we could be having.  Canon, please twist my melon with a firmware update to correct this, especially since the new DSLR cameras won't emerge until 2012.

< Atomos claims they didn't notice the white focus square when they tested the Ninja with DSLRs because they tested against a white background.  Very sketchy information here, as there is an obvious black border around the focus square.

But despite the problems with DSLRs, I still purchased the Ninja from B&H video hoping to get 10-bit uncompressed to ProRes video on-the-fly.  I rented the new Panasonic AG-AF100 for the weekend, and went to work.  I discovered (via Philip Bloom's video - see below) that the Ninja will only accept a 60i, not 24p, 8-bit HDMI feed from the AF100.  This wasn't a big issue since I was still recording/uprezing to ProRes HQ, and planned to get it to 24p in FCP.  Since this was test footage, I didn't really plan to do serious color correction with the 10-bit stream. Also, I was only exporting to the web.  It wasn't a big deal to capture in 8-bit.  The AF100 has an HD-SDI out, but that will have to wait until the Atomos Samurai comes out in the fall.  Since I'm hardly an expert in camera, the following is simply a review for the filmmaker that wants a "nice" image for professional, and/or semi-professional productions.  And, man, do you get a significant visual bump up in bitrate with the Ninja (200 Mbps ProRes HQ vs 24 Mbps native AVCHD of AF100).  Also, this is not a review of the AG-AF100.  If you want a more technical review of the Ninja, check out the UrbanFox.Tv review.  Now...on to the good things.

< The Ninja fired right up with the battery power.  It's heavy in a good way, but not so heavy that it would topple over a camera.  The touchscreen is really cool, but needs "sticky fingers" to select the menus.  "Sticky fingers" means to firmly press & hold the menu for about 1 second.

< First thing to do was update the firmware to the latest version.  This was a simple process that took about 5 minutes real time.  Follow the instructions.  Version 1.5 is the version I tested (May 6th, 2011).

< The caddies are fairly flimsy plastic.  You place your SSD drive (not included or shown) into the case, then use the included screws to put it together.  Very easy, if you follow the instructions.  I'm curious how the caddies' plastic will hold up over time, or on heavy projects.

< After I installed the 128 GB SSD into the caddy, I needed to format the drive before it would record.  Using the blue arrows on the touchscreen was a very simple way to get going.

< The kit includes two caddies for multiple hard drives.  I only used one 128GB SSD drive in the caddy for my test.  You can also purchase more caddies, if needed.

< Once you finish recording, you slide the SSD caddy into the master caddy.  Connect it to your laptop with either the FireWire 800 cable (not shown), or a USB 2.0 or 3.0 cable.  The FireWire 800 cable needs power from the USB port (supplied), but the USB cable works directly.

< The Pelican-like carrying case.

< Panasonic AG-AF100 with Atomos Ninja connected by HDMI cable.  The Atomos Ninja monitor was of secondary quality compared to the AF100's flip out screen.  I could've used an additional Marshall or Ikan monitor, but I was lazy, and just used the AF100 screen for composition and exposure.

< The Ninja screen can be used as a secondary monitor in a pinch, but you might want to consider a Marshall or Ikan monitor for focus and exposure control.  The playback option on the Ninja is a joke, and should only be used to make sure you actually recorded something.  When playing back, it skips and is blocky like an old video game.  Your actual dailies are pristine.  Atomos claims they're going to update the firmware to improve the playback capability.

< Out in the field with Ninja and AF100.  The bright sunlight really affected the Ninja despite the maxed out brightness.  The menus were still readable, but the monitor option was just a blur.  Once again, the best way to handle the poor monitor was just to ignore it, and only use it for the menu system like "record."  Another point about "sticky fingers": make sure you actually STOP recording.  Otherwise, you could accidentally use up valuable drive space, while setting up your next shot.

< A visual comparison of the high bitrate ProRes HQ (220 Mbps) with the AVCHD (24 Mbps).  Still, both only 8-bit with the HDMI out of the AF100.

< An example of the bitrate from the above shot of the flags.  The shot was 1:20 long, and took up 2.16 GB of ProRes HQ.  But look at that SWEEEEEEET bitrate in full HD.  Yummy.

OVERALL:  Currently, it's not for HDSLRs.  It's better suited for camcorders like the Sony EX3 (native 10-bit), Sony F3, Canon XF305, or Canon XF105.  It worked as advertised, as long as you have the right camera to be able to get the 10-bit uncompressed quality output to ProRes HQ, 422, or LT.  If you own the AF100, this is still a great way to make your footage look better.  I recorded over 5 minutes at a time, and had zero issues with the SSD drive.  I hated this product on night one, but by night three, I loved the results I could see with my naked eye.  It's affordable.  It's well-built.  I even accidentally knocked it off my camera case, and it survived an 8-inch fall to the pavement--the heavy feel mentioned earlier contributes to its sturdy aluminum design.  Very curious to see the upcoming HD-SDI Samurai.  I also liked the cool carrying case, and multiple caddies.  The Ninja doesn't have XLR inputs for audio, which is an asset of the higher-priced competition.  I did no audio testing, as I was strictly interested in getting the best visual quality from the footage.


  1. Ninja vampire? Very cool concept and reviews
    The work is very versatile, with so many concentrations intermingling
    Ninja Gear

  2. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)