Review: Atomos Ninja video field recorder and monitor

The Atomos Ninja is a field recorder, monitor, and playback device for capturing video to Apple’s ProRes 422 codec (all three modes) straight from a video camera’s sensor, effectively bypassing the lesser quality AVCHD codec built into most consumer, prosumer and even professional camcorders.

The 800.00 Euros Ninja has a high quality of build, its enclosure of robust aluminium and made to withstand (rough) handling in the field. The Ninja has just the right mix of I/O (HDMI, Audio Line-in, Audio Monitoring out, and LANC), uses easy to obtain components such as standard 2.5 inch hard disks/SSD and Sony NP class batteries for a runtime of over 6 hours, and has a user interface that is incredibly simple to use. The Ninja’s output quality is directly comparable to a HD tape recording or even uncompressed video, but doesn’t need any transcoding whatsoever if you’re using Final Cut Pro 7 or the just released Final Cut Pro X.

UPDATE: The Ninja’s batteries are kept tightly in place by a spring mechanism that clicks into one of the square cavities at the bottom side of the battery. However, this mechanism fails when using large capacity batteries from a different brand than Sony. I replaced the Atomos Sony NP class batteries with Hähnel’s large capacity Sony NP class replacement batteries. These batteries have no square cavities to hold onto and therefore are prone to slipping off the Ninja easily. The solution is to be either more careful, or hold the batteries in place with duct tape.

The Pelican case...

My first thought when I saw the Ninja was that it somewhat resembles the ten times more expensive Cinedeck. Unlike the Cinedeck, however, the Ninja’s focus is on video production rather than digital cinema. This explains why the Ninja doesn’t need a cooling ventilator, and why it hasn’t got phantom power for microphones, nor a whole slew of I/O interfaces mainstream video shooters will rarely use. It also explains why Atomos’ Ninja will support ProRes 422, 422 RT and 422 HQ only and the Cinedeck will support four codecs, including the Cineform codec for digital cinematography.

The Cinedeck is not really affordable if you are an individual video producer or even a small studio, which is the reason why you can rent the device. I don’t see that happen soon with the Ninja, because its price is so low any video shooter can afford it. The crucial question of course is whether a Ninja is worth paying for. After having spent two weeks of intensive testing the device I found two main reasons why it is:

  • The ProRes format will save you a lot of transcoding time in Final Cut Pro (any version)
  • The ProRes format has no problem with scenes that contain a lot of motion and abrupt moves.

The first reason will ensure a fast payback time; I estimate that you can earn back the investment after having shot two 15 minute videos. The second reason is invaluable; you can’t put a price on output quality, and when you’re working with AVCHD camera’s you’re bound to run into problems with regards to artefacts and motion ‘trails’ that you don’t want.

The components.

...more components.

What’s in the box

The Ninja comes in a black Pelican-type suitcase with foam divider blocks. The case includes everything you need except a 2.5 inch disk and a HDMI cable. You can find a 2.5 inch disk almost anywhere, but the Atomos site has some instructions on which they prefer you to use — some are simply too slow or not robust enough. HDMI cables come in many flavours; Atomos advises to buy the most flexible you can get.

The HDMI interface not having been developed for field work, the connectors can losen while you are shooting. I created a range of images (and a short video) that shows you how you can easily prevent this from happening without ruining either your camera or your Ninja (no duct tape involved).

Ninja backside: batteries and disk tray.

In the box are the Ninja itself, two NP class batteries, a battery charger, two disk trays, a disk dock, a USB 3 cable and a USB power connector, and a FireWire 800 cable. The Ninja is made of black anodized aluminium, the dock is a black metal box, the disk trays are made of plastic (I guess to avoid too much wear as the disk trays have an extremely tight fit inside both the Ninja and the dock). The cables are premium quality; they’re very thick and quite inflexible. The battery charger is simple, with four LEDs to show you the charging process, and accommodates the two included batteries.

Before you can start using the Ninja, the least you will have to do is fully charge the batteries. This took me half a day. The Ninja uses one battery at a time, and always needs battery “1” to power up. The batteries are held in place very firmly — and I really mean very firmly. This is to prevent them from working loose. This is good, of course, but it does mean you will have to exert a lot of physical power on the battery latches — not easy if you have rather large hands…

Ninja with top tripod socket clearly visible.

Atomos introduces a technology called battery looping. This results in continuous power: when one battery runs out of power, the device will automatically switch to the second. You can then remove the first, charge it, and plug it in again. This can be repeated endlessly. After two weeks of regularly shooting video, however, I still haven’t depleted the first battery completely (half a day usage each day).

Experiences

To use the Ninja, you need to plug in the batteries and slide in a disk, connect the lot to a video camera through the HDMI cable and press the Power On button at the side (powering off requires you to keep the button down 4 seconds — this is meant to prevent accidental power-off). Then you have to click the Record button on the Ninja’s control screen. Setting up the device for the first time involves setting date and time, optionally setting the scene and shot naming convention, and time code to use. All other controls on the Ninja’s touch screen are operating controls.

Ninja and camcorder connected via HDMI.

From the main screen you have control over your disk’s formatting, recording and playback, and monitoring. Before shooting footage, the disk should be formatted while inserted in the Ninja. This is done by pressing the disk icon and then following the instructions.

Monitoring acts the same as your camera’s LCD screen; it just shows you wat the lens is focussed on.
Selecting a ProRes type is done by tapping the word ProRes at the top of the screen; this will cycle through the three possible settings. You can also see battery status by clicking the battery icons, and you can set audio input and analogue gain. Audio input can be set to originate from HDMI only, from analogue only, or both. In Final Cut you’ll get either a synchronized (with the video signal) stereo or quadrophonic timeline.

The one thing I couldn’t test was the LANC feature, simply because I lack LANC cables.

Securing the HDMI cable on the camera with a velcro cable tie.

Recording with the Ninja is actually a very unsexy affair. Instead of having to push all sorts of buttons, keep my eye on various parameters and histograms, all I had and could do was push the button when I started recording, and push it again when I was finished recording my take/shot/clip. A very unsatisfying experience if you’re into complex and complicated workflows — which I sincerely believe very few professionals and semi-pros are.

So, recording with the Ninja was so simple and easy, it was an absolute anti-climax. I got more excited when trying to record analogue audio. That didn’t work with the microphones I have lying around. Finally something that was more complicated than meets the eye: you need a microphone preamplifier to make this work. After testing the feature with something that resembles a preamplifier (which I don’t have for the microphones I have) it worked with no further setup or action on my part. Needless to say audio monitoring just required me to plug in my headphones’ mini jack and I was done. Of course, with a pro-level camera, you’d normally plug your microphones into the camera itself, and acquire the audio through the HDMI connection.

A Sniper glide strap attached to Ninja's tripod socket; another velcro cable tie attached to the strap's buckle secures the HDMI cable.

The scene and shot management, perhaps? Alas, here as well, things couldn’t be easier. You can set the scene and shot numbers you want to start from, and Ninja automatically increments as you shoot. No further naming is involved.

Indeed, Atomos has done a brilliant job at keeping operating the Ninja simple. You can really concentrate on shooting that footage without ever pressing the Record button on the camera. What does prove to be difficult is the removal of batteries, and the first couple of times even the disk. The components are very tightly inserted and fitting to ensure nothing will fall out during a recording session. You also have little space to work them. After using the Ninja half a dozen times, however, you get the hang of it and it becomes a trick to not hurt your fingers!

Ninja turned on and ready to record.

Reading the footage off the disk is of course the easiest of all: insert the disk into the dock and connect the lot with the included FireWire or USB 3 cable. Colour management and correction is done in Final Cut Pro or in Color (or with a Red Giant colour plug-in, for that matter).

Is there anything I dislike about handling the Ninja? Well yes, there are a couple of things. To start with, there’s the weight. The Ninja weighs half a kilo. That can add up quickly when you are using a professional video camera. On the other hand, other field recorders such as the Cinedeck weigh more.

Monitoring on; notice the 2 velcro cable ties that secure the HDMI cable.

Another critical note I have with the Ninja is its screen: it’s not protected and you can’t buy a protective frame or anything of the kind. Perhaps Atomos will start selling something like this in the future, but for now you’ll have to be a bit careful; a plastic touch screen can only handle minor bumping and even less scratching. My comments in this area are also only relevant if you are going to use the Ninja with a glide strap the way it shows in the images.

If you are going to use the Ninja with a semi-pro or professional video camera, chances are you’ll mount it on the camera’s hot shoe anyway, which reduces the risk of damage to virtually zero.

The Dock and cables.

Testing equipment and my opinion

I wanted to test the Ninja with a low-cost consumer video camera and a semi-pro model. The first wasn’t too much of a problem: I used a Sony CX130, the lowest cost model you can buy. Much to my surprise, the video camera did output its raw signal via the HDMI interface to the Ninja and it worked like a charm. My footage no longer suffered from motion trails and harsh edges.

I also got to very briefly test the Ninja mounted on top of a Sony HVR-HD1000E and a HVR-A1E. Because I wasn’t allowed to take these cameras with me and make some shots of my own, my experience with them is limited, but at least in the area of picture clarity and brightness I found the ProRes recording to be superior.

The Ninja hanging on a strap and camcorder held in hand. HDMI cable secured with cable tiers.

The bottom line of all this is that using a Ninja with very low cost camcorders makes a lot of sense if you want to dramatically improve your video footage (the G-lens on the consumer thing is actually of very fine quality) beyond what you would get out of a consumer camcorder that costs the same as the low-end camera and the Ninja together.

Since the output quality of professional HDV camcorders and those in the bottom range of that market also perform at sub-optimal rates with regards to quality, the Ninja will certainly feel right at home there — at the least it will speed up the editing process in Final Cut Pro 7 or X.

To get better quality than what the Ninja is capable of you’ll need to move into the field of digital cinematography. When you want or need the ability to switch between multiple codecs, a Ninja will also fall short. However, you can’t get better quality than ProRes HQ for conventional HD video.

It’s visually lossless, so where it matters it’s the same quality as uncompressed. What I’ve seen has therefore convinced me of the added value of the Ninja; Atomos’ way of dealing with firmware updates and support can only make the experience a more pleasurable one.

The Ninja costs approx. 800.00 Euros. Include a low-end camcorder for let’s say 600.00 Euros and you have yourself a top-of-the-bill video system for anything from YouTube to commercials broadcasting. Combine the Ninja with a higher-end camcorder and you’ll get more control over the end-result as a bonus.

Videos on the Ninja: Introduction to the Atomos Ninja

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