I have been shooting video with DSLR cameras since the initial release of the Canon 5D Markii. From the moment we unboxed it, my mind raced: All the possibilities! Here was the be-all end-all for a shooter like me: amazing stills, brilliant quality and depth of field you could only previously get with a 35mm adapter or $60,000 in camera and lens gear.
Of course, that first camera and its initial firmware had some glaring problems. For starters, you could only shoot for 12 minute bursts, recording time on the available media was minimal, audio was very poor, and you didn’t have a clean HDMI out feed – before you even began to worry about editing in the video’s native codecs. It wasn’t the rapture I’d anticipated, but it began a new and exciting trend in the industry that prompted innovations and imitations.
So, there’s obviously a lot of directions I could point you in when it comes to maximizing your ability to shoot video on a DSLR, but I’m going to keep it simple for now and discuss a piece of gear that tackles a few big issues at once: the Atomos Ninja 2.
First off, the obvious benefit: storage. My current workhorse camera is the Canon 5D Markiii, but whether you’re a Canon or Nikon lover, you can appreciate the relatively limited recording space of a CF or SD card. The Ninja allows you to use a spinning disc or SSD (solid state) drive, which can net you between 240GB-1TB, respectively, and there are upsides to both. A solid state drive obviously makes for a more versatile solution, without the possibility of it skipping during a shoot with lots of movement or vibration, such as a concert. However, during a dinner with Atomos at NAB 2013, I learned that they recommend a spinning disc drive when possible, as it will have a longer life after much recording, transferring and wiping of data than a solid state drive. Spinning disc also has the benefit of more space for less money, so if you don’t shoot too many concerts or expeditions, you might consider a standard drive like that.
Next, consider the difference between a compression-heavy recording codec native to your camera vs. the relatively uncompressed HDMI out. The Ninja allows you to record to either ProRes or DNxHD, in 4.2.2 8 or 10 bit. From the Atomos website, “We bypass the 8-bit and record 10-bit color registries to ensure your video plays nicely with all computer effects.” What this means is that if you intend to do graphics, such as chroma key, you’re not getting color crush to the 8 bit recording your camera does itself.
Another huge benefit of an external recorder like the Ninja 2 is the monitor functions. Instead of being glued to your viewfinder, you’re able to instead see your shot on a 4.3” touchscreen monitor with filters, such as peaking (focus), false-color and zebras (exposure). It also has an HDMI out so you can pass that signal out to a director or producer without limiting your own monitor abilities.
Finally, this monitor function also allows you to visually monitor audio, whether the encoded audio over HDMI, or the analog audio in port. I mention this here to segue into one of the biggest benefits: the audio in. Let’s face it, HDSLRs are not likely to dramatically improve the onboard audio preamps any time soon, because they really don’t need to. You get a line in, which can be good in a pinch for a wireless system or as an audio sync option for post-production, but it’s simply not going to cut it for most professionals to record audio directly to the camera. There have been some great audio converters created for these cameras by companies like Beachtek and Juicedlink, but in the end I prefer to bypass the camera’s limitations and either record to the Ninja or an external audio recorder. (The problem with the latter being audio drift)
There’s been some recent innovations in the external monitor/recorder market, including some amazing features of the new Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q, but those features are going to run the price up pretty quickly, and if you don’t have any immediate designs to transition to 4K, a lot of its power (and price tag) might be wasted on you anyway.
When I shoot, I prefer the KISS method: Keep It Simple, Stupid. I say this to myself because it’s easy these days to fall into the trap of wanting cool gear with a ton of features that has an expensive name on it. I’ve tested out everything from Juicedlink Riggy Micros for audio conversion to Sound Devices Pix I/O monitor/recorders, and I can tell you that for 95% of the shoots I’d ever use my 5D Markiii on, the Ninja 2 would be more than enough. HDMI in, 3.5mm Audio In (likely from a field mixer), headphone out and I’m ready to go.
In the end, it’s about your style, your gear and your desired deliverable. The Ninja is simply the HDMI version, with the Samurai and other options added for SDI and higher-end use. For my use, time and money, being able to pop in a 480GB drive and record for almost 5 hours straight in the highest-quality ProRes or DNxHD formats instead of little 8GB SD cards or 24GB CF cards make it worth the money by itself.
No matter what you use to record your media, it’s a very exciting time to be a shooter. Whether you prefer to stick to your camera itself and stay super-simple, or if you like to kit out your rig until it looks like it belongs on a Hollywood set, shooters these days are doing far more with a lot less. From the first time I saw Vincent Laforet 5D Markii footage, to the first clean HDMI feed from a Nikon D800, to finding joy again in the 5D Markiii, it’s all about yielding results and being creative.
You can find more information on the Ninja-2 at Atomos.com