Atomos Ninja Star: $295 Can Do Great Things with the Right Camera

by Hugh Brownstone6 Comments

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.

First question: How do you turn a $5,000 Canon C100 into a darned close approximation of Canon’s $11,000 C300 – for less than $300?

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.

Atomos Ninja Star image 1

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.

Second question: How do you turn a $5,000 Canon C100 into something which –- depending on your wants and needs – may actually be a little better than an $11,000 Canon C300 – for less than $1,000?

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).

Atomos Ninja Blade

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.

The Atomos Ninja Star and Ninja Blade are available from B&H Photo and other retailers.

(cover photo credit: snap from Atomos)


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Comments

  1. Pingback: Atomos Ninja Star | CINENIC Noticias

  2. dhoene

    You can totally record internally and to the star at the same time.  I was doing it just yesterday with my C100.

  3. HughBrownstone

    dhoene This is the bane of my existence at the moment, as I was unable to record internally on repeated occasions and spoke with Canon tech support who confirmed that it cannot be done.  With this written, I know a number of people who have been successful at it.  I’m guessing it’s either a firmware thing or a sequence thing (like making sure the HDMI cable is NOT plugged in when first firing up the C100, so that you can set timecode on and then rec out).  Would you be willing to share the precise steps you take to make this happen?

  4. Devap

    “outputting 10-bit 4:2:2 externally to the http://blog.planet5d.com/5xdovia a codec that provides massively more information than the 8-bit 4:2:0 http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/buy/avchd/Ntt/avchd/N/0/kw/search/BI/2975/KBID/3910/DFF/d30-v1-t1/DFFInline=series file recorded internally by the http://blog.planet5d.com/c100.
    This is misleading. The c100 only outputs an 8-bit 4:2:2 signal which is then saved in the 10-bit ProRes format. The c300 doesn’t even output a 10-bit signal.

  5. HughBrownstone

    Devap Thanks for the sharp eye.  8-bit vs. 10-bit is a big deal under certain circumstances — and not just with the C100.  It seems camera manufacturers are not always keen on sharing the distinction when their spec is 8 bit.  But maybe it’s not that simple (truly, I am not sure): see the Atomos forum where they are pretty clear that their gear can record at 10 bits, but acknowledge this simply provides “headroom” in post in the case of the C100 (this in response to a specific question about the C100): http://forum.atomos.com/showthread.php?1202-Actual-10-bit-recording-from-C100.  On the other hand, see: http://ntown.at/2014/02/05/canon-c100-ninja2-10-bit-workflow/ in which the author asserts that something more than 8-bit is coming out.  I’d be curious to know what you think.

    My takeaways are: 

    1) Bit rate is clearly a specification where manufacturers make trade-offs to achieve certain price points
    2) If one needs 10-bit, it seem to me it’s best to use gear which the manufacturer clearly specifies is 10-bit (this is an issue with the Sony A7s as well, as it only outputs 8-bit in 4K)
    3) In my own work, I’m not at the point where I need 10 bit.
    4) On the other hand, as a still photographer for many, many years, the limitations of high def are stunning to me in comparison to 1) film and 2) what I can do in post with an 18 or 21 mp still image.
    5) Still, one can get great footage out of a Rebel or an iPhone if one has the skill.
    6) And finally, having recently watched once again THE PHILADELPHIA STORY in standard def and black & white, none of this really matters if you’ve got a great story and the skill to tell it within the limitations of whatever medium you choose.

  6. dhoene

    HughBrownstone dhoene
    I was more just messing around with the settings until I got the thing to work.  Make sure that you are outputting timecode and rec command via hdmi.  I didn’t have any problems initiating recording from the C100 rec trigger.  Make sure that you are using fast enough SD cards where the internal buffer wouldn’t get bogged down trying to deal with 2 HD output streams, but it shouldn’t be a problem since the C100 is capable of doing that already with it’s dual SD card record feature.  The only other thing is that I didn’t bother with the most recent firmware update since it didn’t add anything that I needed, and was mostly intended for the new dual pixel AF sensor.

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