Atomos Ninja 2 review with Canon C100
Since using the Canon C100 with it’s internal AVCHD I’ve been wanting to try out an external recorder like the Atomos Ninja 2 just to see how much difference the cameras compression really makes to the recorded footage. I’ve found that it’s easy to see tell the difference between the footage from the C100 compared to that from the C300 so in theory bypassing the C100’s internal codec should yield results matching the C300, after all it’s reported that both cameras share the same sensor.
The Atomos Ninja 2 is a 10 Bit HDMI to ProRes Recorder that also offers monitoring and logging features. The Ninja-2 takes an uncompressed HD or SD source and encodes it in real-time to 10-bit, 4:2:2 Apple ProRes (422, LT, or HQ) as well as Avid DNxHD at up to 220Mbps.
For more specifications visit the Atomos website, alternatively lets move on to the fun part and have a look at the Ninja 2.
Unboxing the Ninja 2
The Ninja 2 arrived from Atomos nicely packaged in two cardboard outer cartons, lurking within was a this sturdy looking hard case.
The case seems really tough and the items within fit really nicely into the custom designed foam insert that feels very durable and looks to offer great protection for the ninja-2 and it’s accessories.
On opening the case the following items were found within…
- Ninja 2 recorder
- 2 x rechargeable batteries
- Battery Charger
- Charger PSU with four socket options
- 2 x drive caddies
- Docking Station
- USB cable + USB power connector
- FW 800 Cable
- Setup guide
- Carrying strap
Setting up the Ninja 2
The first job was charging the supplied batteries. The included twin charger looks to be of good quality with each battery showing it’s charge status via a set of four LED’s. The Power supply for the charger is the type that allows various pins to be fitted for use in multiple countries.
With the batteries charging I then had to turn my attention to the storage media. The Ninja 2 uses standard 2.5″ hard drives or SSD’s which have to be fitted inside the included caddies. The Ninja doesn’t came with any media so you have to purchase drives separately. For this review I used a standard 2.5″ 320GB hard drive that I had kicking around but I’d likely swap that for an SSD in normal use.
Fitting the drive into the plastic caddy couldn’t be easier, you just lay it in the bottom part of the caddy, slide on the top and then screw in the four small screws supplied with each caddy to secure everything in place.
Next up was the first look at the Ninja 2 itself. The device has a really simple layout consisting of a touch sensitive screen on the front, mounting holes top and bottom, HDMI and headphone ports on the left with a main on/off switch on the right.
On the rear are mounting points for two batteries. The Ninja 2 uses these one at a time allowing for hot swapping of batteries as they become depleted. The manual suggests always using the slot marked ‘1’ first so I inserted a single battery to begin with in that slot.
The previously constructed drive caddie was then simply inserted into the side of the Ninja 2, it can only be inserted in the correct orientation and slides in with ease and comes to rest with a positive click.
The next job was to connect up the Ninja 2 to the C100 via an HDMI cable and mount the device to the camera. It’s a shame there’s not a cold shoe mini ball head included in the pack as that would be a welcome addition. luckily I had a couple of mounting options already so I started with a Cine ARM fitted to the top of the Ninja via the mounting point at the back of the C100′s handle.
I would definitely invest in a shorter HDMI cable for this setup, ideally one with pivoting ends so that the cable could be routed more easily stopping it from sticking out as it did in my setup. Accidentally pulling the cable out would obviously interrupt recording so it would be good to secure the cable as much as possible.
I then tried using a mini ball mount on the front of the C100’s handle which worked well although does start to make the camera a bit tall and likely to be top heavy.
Finally I tried mounting it straight on to the camera without the handle. This is obviously a limiting configuration as without the handle fitted the C100 has no XLR audio capability.
Using the Ninja 2 with the C100
Using the Ninja 2’s user atomOS interface is really simple, it’s touch screen controls are laid out in a fairly simple manner and a quick press of each item on the main menu takes you to a sub page with easily understandable options. The screen does take a fairly solid press to respond, it’s not as sensitive as something like an iPhone or iPad but responds well once you get used to it.
After setting the correct time and date, I selected ProRes HQ at 1080/25p as the recording format. The Ninja 2 handles the 1080/50i HDMI out from the C100 well and stores the content as true progressive frames even though the camera can’t actually do the same itself with the internal AVCHD codec.
Next I set about making the record function on the Ninja 2 start and stop with the record button on the C100. There’s two ways to achieve this with the Ninja-2, you can either set it to start recording when it see’s timecode from the C100 running, or alternatively the ninja can detect a trigger commands over HDMI. I opted for the second method as the C100 is one of the few cameras that support HDMI triggering.
Firstly in the Ninja 2’s Timecode menu the Camera Trigger needs to be set to Canon via HDMI, Secondly in order to make the C100 send the required trigger commands over HDMI they need to be enabled in the C100’s menu.
I ran into a slight problem here to begin with because the HDMI menu was greyed out so I couldn’t change the settings. It turns out that the HDMI settings on the camera can’t be changed whilst an HDMI cable is connected. As soon as the cable was removed the menu became usable and I enabled the rec trigger option. With the cable connected back up again the C100 successfully took control of the Ninja 2 and triggered the required start / stop commands.
The Ninja-2 starts recording quickly, although not in perfect sync with the internal C100 recording, the files from the Ninja tend to be slightly shorter than those from the internal cards but only by a few frames. This shouldn’t cause any problem though as it’s unlikely both versions of the files would need to be synced.
Using the Ninja-2 as a monitor
The Ninja 2 can also be used to monitor what it’s recording and as well as displaying the image from the camera also provides some tools and options to help with focusing and exposure settings.
Included tools are Peaking, Zebras, False Color, Blue channel and Black & White. All of these seem to work well and there are some options to adjust settings. Even though the display is 800 x 480 I felt it wasn’t detailed enough for my liking and preferred using the cameras built in LCD & peaking function. The addition of false colours is very handy though, being able to run both together could be very useful and if you’re a DSLR user all of these tools will become invaluable.
When the Ninja is recording the bars top and bottom turn red as shown in the last image below.
Offloading the files
The Ninja 2 comes with a docking station that allows the drive caddy’s to be inserted for fast download of data to a computer. The reader has USB 3 as well as Firewire 800 ports. I connected the reader up to my Mac Pro via FW 800, inserted the drive caddy and it was instantly mounted on the macs desktop in the same way any external hard drive would.
Ninja 2 ProRes vs C100 AVCHD
I want to put the Ninja through some real world tests and will update this page at a later date once I have more examples but for now here here’s some stills exported from my initial tests. These are in the form of a split screen exported directly from Premiere Pro.
It’s very easy to see the difference once you open the images at full size, the C100’s AVCHD introduces macro blocking and doesn’t hold as much colour information as the ProRes 422 HQ files from the Ninja. I haven’t uploaded any of the video files because once they are encoded as H.264 the difference becomes negligible as the encoder damages the ProRes version in much the same way as the AVCHD has already done. The stills will give a much better representation of how the source video files look and how the ProRes files retain better quality gradients and smoother colours.
The stills below are not scaled, they contain two 1920 x 1080 shots with the upper clip moved left in the frame. The C100 was set at ISO 850 and recorded the images using Canon Log.
Note: You really need to see these files at full size so it’s best to choose to download them or open them in a new window where they can be displayed as full resolution.
Thoughts so far on the Atomos Ninja 2
After using the C100 / Ninja combo along with my C300 on a couple of two camera shoots now I’m confident that the Ninja 2 elevates the C100 to be as capable as the C300 in terms of image quality, in fact with ProRes recording at bit-rates up to 220 Mbps it’s likely more capable than the C300’s internal codec. Of course the Ninja can also be used with the C300 giving it the same recording options too.
I’m definitely investing in the Ninja 2, it’s obvious that the AVCHD codec in the C100 is damaging the footage and I would prefer to know that my shots are being stored without being degraded. As well as retaining better quality the ProRes files are also a lot easier to work with than the AVCHD files and require less horsepower during post production.
The Ninja 2 is well built and rugged with it’s aluminium casing, it’s small, light weight and works really well with the C100’s HDMI triggering so they make a good combination. The touch screen atomOS driven user interface works well on the 800 x 400 panel but it’s not a replacement for your smallHD DP4 or Marshall LCD50 in terms of detail, especially for nailing focus by eye although the included tools will prove useful, especially if your using a DSLR or other camera that doesn’t have them.
I’d say the the Ninja-2 is a must have addition for the C100 or any camera with clean HDMI out. I need to spend more time with the device to see how reliable it is with longer shoots and try out some of the logging tools included so I’ll report back on those over the next few months.