I can certainly understand how someone might be reticent about the utility of an external video recorder, especially if you've invested in media specific to your format. Speaking as a DSLR/Blackmagic Pocket shooter, I have a lot of SD cards of various speeds and sizes lying around. I thought removing them from the equation and switching to (surprising similarly priced) SSD drives would be a challenge, but it's actually proved far easier than I imagined with the Atomos Ninja Blade.
It Packs Quite a Punch
The Ninja Blade package includes the following:
- A Ninja Blade (obviously)
- 1 Sony NP Battery + Charger
- AC Adaptor so you can plug in while on set
- Two drive caddies (for your SSD/HDD)
- USB2/3 Docking Station
- Battery adaptors for Canon and Nikon
- A nice hard shell case
The first thing you notice about the Ninja Blade is the awesome screen. Cranked up to it's brightest setting, it easily bests the Pocket Cinema Camera and D600 screens I used for testing. It's 1280x720 resolution and 16:9, so in addition to making focus pulls easier it also has extra room for things like histogram and scopes without obscuring too much of your shot. I will note that it was a little reflective during some of my daytime shoots, so the hood accessory might be a worthwhile investment. I usually dislike touchscreens outside of the smartphone world, but the Ninja Blade has changed my mind on that. It's responsive and once I was comfortable with the menu system it definitely kept up with my rapid fire button presses.
Speaking of the display: It has several excellent options that can really boost the capability of your camera. The default picture displays in REC 709, but you can also change that to C Log if you're shooting with any of the Canon Cinema line like the C100/300/500, 1D-C, etc. You also get a full compliment of shooting assistants like Histogram, RGB Parade, Focus Peaking, and False Color. A standard DSLR benefits most from all these features, while the Pocket Cinema camera gains more rudimentary things like, say, audio meters (any day now, Blackmagic).
The build quality is excellent. Just looking at it I assumed it would be super heavy, but even fully loaded up with an SSD and two batteries I was still able to shoot handheld without too much additional fatigue.
Some Weirdness Emerges
The one thing I'll note is that in my experience it's pretty battery hungry. It should last a whole day with two batteries on there, and chances are you might have other Sony NP batteries for things like portable lights that you can also use, but it drained quicker than I expected considering how much battery power I provided it.
Dual recording is limited, but not by any fault of the Ninja Blade. More often than not when you press record on a DSLR, the HDMI out changes over to a 720i60 signal. You can get full 1080p from most current DSLRs, but just know that you're not getting that same recording in-camera. The Pocket Cinema Camera allows for dual recording with ease, but since it also records to ProRes HQ, some of the magic is lost. Though, if you had a compelling reason to shoot RAW + ProRes, this is your best bet.
Another thing that was really strange was using the Ninja Blade with my GH3. Apparently Panasonic, on some of their cameras, uses a custom pulldown that the Ninja Blade can't interpret, so I didn't get a signal at 1080p24. I'm told this isn't an issue in Cinema Mode on the GH4, though PAL shooters might be out of luck on that one.
I was able to use a smattering of drives (both SSD and HDD) that I had lying around for backups and the Ninja Blade accepted them all. The only thing I'll note here is that the Ninja Blade was tempermental about how the drives were formatted. Using Disk Utility to format them to exFAT on my Mac yielded a "Drive Not Detected" error half of the time, with the other half of the time showing me a dropped frames warning. Drives formatted on the device itself (also to exFAT) did not demonstrate this behavior.
Overall It's Pretty Great to Have
Don't expect this device to make your footage look 100% better, but there are definitely advantages when color grading since the output over HDMI is 10-bit 4:2:2 instead of the internal 8-bit 4:2:0 and the bitrate can be up to 10x higher depending on your camera and recording settings. Using ProRes also makes your footage instantly editable on variety of platforms. I know Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere CC are optimized to handle H.264 right in their timelines, but ProRes takes better advantage of multicore systems, supports more advanced color profiles, and plays back much smoother.
I should note that you'll notice in the sample clips below that the better codec did not mitigate problems inherent to DSLRs like moire and rolling shutter, you'll just get better looking moire and rolling shutter.
Perhaps the best part of this device is just the sheer continuous recording times that are capable without having to switch media. Using a 250GB Samsung 840 Pro SSD, here are the lengths you're able to record in the various flavors of ProRes:
- HQ = 2:58:51
- 422 = 4:27:50
- LT = 6:25:14
Keep in mind you could also toss a 1TB spinning drive into the Ninja Blade and quadruple those numbers. However, even using the smaller SSD at the (perhaps unnecessarily high bitrate) ProRes HQ setting you could capture an entire wedding ceremony & reception, a conference with several speakers, and many other day-long events without even changing the drive. This is continuous recording, too, so you don't have to worry about running into the 20-30 minute time limit on most Canon/Nikon DSLRs.
Overall the Atomos Ninja Blade is a pretty incredible piece of technology. Its presence is immediately appreciated due to the fact that it's both a very capable monitor *and* a field recorder. I'll be bringing one along to all of my major upcoming shoots to get the most out of my cameras and to make my post production workflow smooth as butter.