The Ninja Blade is Atomos’ newest available 10-bit HDMI recorder/monitor/player. The difference with its predecessor, the Ninja 2, is unbelievable. Everyone in the business already knows the screen isn’t just bigger but also has a higher resolution, but even if you know all that and have seen the images on the web, it still hits you in the face when you see it in real life. Other than that, the Ninja Blade has waveform monitors and a vectorscope, and a plethora of other features that make it a must-have and an upgrade to consider.
When you unpack the Ninja Blade, you will notice a difference with what’s included compared to what was included with the Ninja 2 (reviewed here). With the Ninja Blade you will get a single battery charger, a battery power adapter, a car charging cable, one battery, a LANC cable for remote operation and screen calibration, two battery conversion plates, and a master caddy docking station with USB 3 cable. There is also an A/C adapter included with the Ninja Blade. My test unit came in a hard case with foam insets to keep everything neatly organised. Of all the items that are included, I found the docking station to be far better than the previous included models. Also handy is the A/C adapter, which allows you to power the Ninja from the mains. Getting only one battery instead of two seemed a step back from previous Ninja models, but in practice I tend to replace the included batteries with real Sony ones or the Hähnel replacements for the NP-F950.
The Ninja Blade’s recorder part hasn’t changed from previous versions: it still records to all flavours of Apple ProRes 422 or Avid to DNxHD onto cheap 2.5inch hard disks or SSDs. It also still records to 10-bit 4:2:2 video at 1920 x 1080 resolution maximum. As before, it uses continuous power, which allows automatic switch-over to the second battery when the first runs out of steam. Audio recording also hasn’t changed since the Ninja 2, with the ability to fine-tune synchronisation between video and audio signal for various cameras.
One thing that has changed in the recording domain is that previous versions did not include a tally light, while the Ninja Blade has one on the side. And a new feature is that the Ninja Blade does not have a latch for the disc caddy. It is friction fit. This means that you can simply pull the master caddy out using the top and bottom tabs on the master caddy itself.
Finally, and in contrast to the Ninja 2, there is no recording limit of 30 minutes per clip anymore.
The big change: the monitoring functionality
What has really, dramatically changed for the better is the monitor/player part of the offering. The Ninja Blade has a reflective screen which is 5 inches diagonally with a resolution of 1280×720px and an aspect ratio of 16:9. It has been factory calibrated to the REC 709 HDTV colour specification. Its native frame rate playback is auto-switchable between 48, 50 and 60 Hz. The Ninja Blade’s 325ppi screen has a maximum viewing angle of 179 degrees at 400nit brightness.
Especially the maximum viewing angle combined with the brightness and clarity of the screen make up for an impressive viewing experience. The Ninja Blade is powered by Atomos’ latest operating system, which enables overlays. This allowed Atomos to get rid of the monitor button and instead overlay waveforms and monitor assistant functions on top of the rendered scene.
The waveform features include a histogram, luma overlay, an RGB parade and a vectorscope, which all can be resized. You can also control their transparency and set the brightness of these monitoring functions. The vectorscope monitor can be zoomed into from a small corner rendition to full-screen. In addition — and this is what makes it really interesting from a colour management view — all monitors can be shown on a black background. This makes it easier to calibrate (or rather, pre-calibrate) your camera’s settings by visually evaluating a white balance and/or colour checker card such as the ones sold by X-Rite and Datacolor.
Activating the RGB parade as an overlay running across the lower third of the screen is a boon for applying real-time exposure adjustments when lighting conditions change — which frequently happens when you’re shooting outdoors.
The Ninja Blade also has the monitor assist tools that were already available on the Ninja 2, i.e. focus peaking, zebra pattern, false colour (for judging overall scene exposure quality) and blue only exposure (to evaluate the noise, which is always most visible in the blue channel). The Ninja Blade has an extra monitor assist feature, the Safe Area / Grid Lines feature that helps with framing for safe areas, title safe and 4:3 framing. The Grid lines stay visible, even when you tap to hide all overlays.
What makes it better
No matter how good value for the money the Ninja 2 was overall, there were far better monitors on the market and you often saw photos of Ninja users with another monitor mounted on their camera rig side by side with the Ninja 2. With the Ninja Blade’s IPS screen that really isn’t necessary anymore.
First of all, the Ninja Blade’s black is black! That is due to the IPS (In-Plane Switching) LCD panel being used. In this type of panel, when no electric current is running through the liquid crystal cells, the cells naturally align in a horizontal direction between two substrate panes of glass which blocks the transmission of light from the backlight. This renders the crystals opaque and results in a black display screen. When an electric current is applied, the liquid crystal cells are able rotate freely through 90° allowing light to pass through resulting in a white display screen. IPS panels have superior image quality, good contrast ratio and wide viewing angles of up to 178°. IPS panels are well suited for graphics design and other applications which require accurate and consistent colour reproduction. (Source: Eizo).
A second reason is that you can actually colour calibrate the Ninja Blade’s panel to force its colour characteristics within the very narrow factory limits. This results in a monitor image that you can visually trust to render colours accurately as time goes by. This is not the case with the Ninja or the Ninja 2, and as far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong) no other video monitor can be calibrated either.
Although the Ninja Blade, as many other monitors, has been colour calibrated when it leaves the factory, colours will shift over time. An optional calibration accessory co-developed with Datacolor will allow you to bring it back to the exact REC 709 HDTV colour standard.
Finally, the luma, RGB and vectorscope overlay monitors are implemented in such a way — with exactly those options that make sense — that you can judge colours the way colourists are used to. The vectorscope is accurate enough to enable its use for colour matching between scenes and shots.
The vectorscope functionality in a sense is a cross-breed feature between production and post-production in that it can save you from white balancing and colour matching across clips in post. But the Ninja Blade has other, more post-production type features as well.
Just as the Ninja 2, the Ninja Blade has SmartLog capabilities, allowing you to approve or reject clips directly on the Ninja and export this metadata as a Final Cut Pro X XML file. The advantage over the Ninja 2 is that you can now use this not only on a “good shot / bad shot” level, but also on a “good/bad colour for grading” level.
The Final Cut Pro X XML integration implies that your Final Cut Pro X production workflow will be easier and faster. It’s a pity it only works with Final Cut Pro X, though. If you’re the “lonely video shooter”, there’s also not that much to be gained from early-in-the-workflow approval, unless you’re travelling without a notebook, in which case the Ninja Blade’s screen is good and colour-accurate enough to log your shots during lost time.
For teams with a Final Cut Pro X editor who isn’t necessarily the camera operator, SmartLog will help a lot more because he/she doesn’t have to go through all the clips including the ones the camera operator himself already found to be rubbish.
If you have just purchased a Ninja 2 you probably are not inclined to invest in a new monitor/recorder again. There are good reasons to do so, though. The Ninja Blade is a colour accurate device with a monitor and features that you need to tap into the picture quality your camera is capable of. The Ninja 2 is an excellent recorder, but it performs less well in the monitor department.
At €899.00 the Ninja Blade is much less expensive than its competition while in many areas delivering better and more functionality in an attractive package.