Here’s the key to Atomos’ smallest and least expensive 1080p ProRes external recorder, the Atomos Ninja Star: you’ll love it if you love color grading or you love shooting golden hour skies – and you have a camera that can output clean HDMI in 10-bit 4:2:2. Otherwise? It’s more complicated.
Answer: Buy an Atomos Ninja Star external Apple ProRes recorder for $295. At that point, you’ll have the same sensor as found in the larger C300 outputting 10-bit 4:2:2 externally to the Ninja Star via a codec that provides massively more information than the 8-bit 4:2:0 AVCHD file recorded internally by the C100.
Then again, you won’t be able to record simultaneously onto those SD cards you’ve loaded into the two slots inside the C100 anyway (confirmed again this morning with Canon Cinema EOS Tech Support). But you do get the C100 to trigger the Ninja Star by any of its record buttons, reducing the hassle you’d otherwise have if you had to start and stop it separately.
Answer: Buy an Atomos Ninja Blade combination field monitor/external Apple ProRes recorder for $995. Now you’ve got all the benefits of the better codec, higher bit rate and richer color space, plus a bright, 5” (bigger than both the C100 and C300 LCD’s) high-res monitor within the same piece of gear housing the recorder (you’ve even got false color, something neither the C100 nor the C300 has).
Of course, you won’t have the same capacity with the baby Ninja that you will with the Atomos Ninja Blade, because the Ninja Star uses CFast cards while the Ninja Blade uses removable hard drives or solid state drives – and you don’t get the built-in, high res monitor that makes the Ninja Blade such a powerful tool.
But in either case, you’ve got a very compact (the Atomos Ninja Star is about the size of a deck of cards), well built, well-thought out and nicely designed accessory which can definitely make an impact at the margins.
What can the Atomos Ninja Star do for cameras like the Canon 5D Mark III, the Panasonic GH4 or Sony A7s?
It all depends on how important high capacity uninterrupted shooting is to you, and whether your particular camera outputs at the aforementioned 10-bit 4:2:2. While all three can benefit from the extended recording times made possible by the Ninja Star and offer clean HDMI out, only the GH4 outputs full high def at 10 bits.
And that’s the rub, really. Yes, the Atomos Ninja Star comes in a custom-designed, fits-like-a-glove carrying case and includes battery; battery charger;car adapter; CFast card reader; and cheese plate. But these may be beside the point: the NinjaStar addresses a very specific need and unless you truly fit the profile, it will not be – like any other precision tool – right for you.
As a data point of one, my color grading skills and inclinations are not sufficient to warrant such a precision tool 99.5% of the time.
But if it is the right tool for you, you'll love it. Just make sure that you have the right cables to your camera (and pass through to a monitor if you're using one). The Atomos Ninja Star uses microHDMI in and out, and at least in my own testing with the 5D3, the tolerances around the 5D Mk III miniHDMI port were simply too tight for the micro:mini adapter I purchased from Radio Shack. I ultimately had to acquire Atomos’ own microHDMI:miniHDMI cable (mercifully, the Cinema EOS line uses full size HDMI ports so I had no problem).
Note: During the course of evaluating the Star, we came across a glitch that appears to be a manufacturing issue with their micoHDMI:microHDMI cable. We learned that the connector itself was too short, preventing a full contact connection and the Atomos Ninja Star from receiving a signal from the camera (the red “lock” light turns green only when you have a signal). Their customer service, however, was excellent: they diagnosed the problem and jumped right on it, sending out a hand-trimmed cable the same day. We expect they'll have sorted it in production by the time you read this.
Would I change anything on the Star?
On the one hand, it doesn't matter because I don't fit the target profile. But with this written, my issues were primarily with the cameras themselves: how they output; when they choose NOT to record internally as backup (neither the 5D3 nor the Cinema EOS line will record internally when outputting to an external recorder); and the fact that you need to start up the camera with the HDMI cable UNPLUGGED so you can turn timecode on which in turn allows you set up remote triggering.
Still, I did find myself wishing that Atomos hadn't economized quite so much on the buttons. I would have preferred a separate. physical on/off/lock switch and a dedicated recording status indicator, distinct from on/off.
Your mileage may vary.
(cover photo credit: snap from Atomos)