Sometimes, it’s the spaces between the specs that are the most informative. In the case of the Atomos Ninja 2, a great piece of gear demands a thoughtful assessment of intent — and the gear to which it will be connected.
The idea is compelling: turn a great value but compromised piece of digital filmmaking gear into a much less compromised piece through accessories. When it comes to digital SLRs doubling as video cameras, we think about external audio recorders and microphones, cages, rigs, monitors, finders, software hacks, and more.
Atomos has become a leader in a relatively new accessory category: external video recorders, or more specifically hybrid recorder/monitors. Their Shogun is what makes a Sony A7s capable of capturing 4K and a Panasonic GH4 capable of capturing 10 bit 4K, things that neither camera is capable of doing on its own.
And even purpose-built video cams can benefit from the Atomos Ninja 2, a non-4K HDMI version of the Shogun: it is what allows a Canon C100 to capture 10-bit 4:2:2 1080p footage using better codecs, just like its bigger brother, the Canon EOS C300.
In these cases, the value proposition is clear and compelling.
But what about using a Ninja 2 with a DSLR like the Canon EOS 5D Mark III? What can it do for you there?
The short answer is: less.
The longer answer is: but it may still be compelling depending on your needs.
The Ninja 2 is a 1080p external recorder using swappable hard disk drives (HDD) or solid state drives (SSD) allowing you to record in AppleProRes or Avid DNxHD, coupled with a built-in 4.3” diagonal, 800 x 400 pixel monitor with focus peaking, zebras, false color, and audio meters. The good folks at lenslends.com provided us with a Ninja 2 and a Canon 5D Mk III for our review.
A quick test confirmed what the specs actually tell us we should have expected:
1. We did not see a meaningful difference in the 1080/24p footage we captured through the Canon 5D Mk III internal recording using the H.264 codec and the Ninja 2 recording Apple ProRes other than a slight difference in color cast.
Why? We assume it's because the Canon records internally — and outputs via HDMI – in the same 8 bit color, and the difference between 4:2:0 (internal) and 4:2:2 to the Ninja 2 is not visually meaningful for the kind of scenes we captured. Footage which is limited on the way into the recording medium, even with a much higher performance codec, is not going to get magically better upon arrival.
2. Focus peaking is a huge help, but a smallish, 800 x 400 resolution screen still makes it more difficult than we'd like to confirm great focus, whether it’s the Ninja or something like the Zacuto EVF (an even smaller 3.2” diagonal monitor with similar though not identical 800 x 480 resolution).
3. The Canon 5D Mk III does not send audio through HDMI, so you need a separate cable. Fortunately, you can also synch the Canon 5D Mk III and the Ninja 2 using timecode. We weren’t able to test the audio during the time we had the gear, but if you don’t use Magic Lantern or an external audio recorder, you’ll appreciate the fact that the Ninja 2 has audio meters. And the timecode worked perfectly.
Is The Ninja 2 Right for You?
The Ninja 2 is a well-made, well-designed product, and when coupled with the right camera under the right circumstances — like the Canon C100 shooting golden hour sky by a skilled cameraman — it can have a significant impact on image quality.
On a more pedestrian level, when used with the 5D Mk III without Magic Lantern or any other accessories, the Ninja 2 allows you to record for longer periods of time and provides focus assist, zebras, false color, and audio meters without having to worry about crashing your camera (though I have never experienced a Magic Lantern crash).
These are not small things — and some are in fact essential to video capture.
On the other hand, if you already have a Zoom H4n or other external audio recorder and a good monitor, at a practical level you already have everything except extended recording time. In this case, the incremental improvement to image quality and sound capture made possible by adding the Ninja 2 to your arsenal is such that you may want to think about working with a different camera altogether rather than trying to get more out of an accessorized 5D3 (unless extended recording time alone is worth it to you — and may be).
This doesn’t necessarily mean moving up, either: while the Cinema EOS series is definitely a step up in spec and function from a 5D3, it’s intriguing to imagine what you can accomplish with a dozen SL1’s for the same price – or allocating a portion of that spend to lights, audio or experienced crew instead.
In the End
Ultimately, this is what’s so intriguing about the Ninja 2 beyond the fact that it is a lovely piece of kit: it forces you to evaluate very carefully your precise objectives and constraints, and this makes you a better filmmaker in the process. For a Canon EOS C100 owner, it's almost a no-brainer. For someone with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III or similar DSLR, the decision to own a Ninja 2 warrants closer attention.
(cover photo credit: snap from Atomos)