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Evolution, Revolution or Both?: Considering AJA CION’s Capabilities

Operators will value its simple interface with direct controls, its built-in confidence monitor, and its remotely configurable and viewable live preview video stream.6/23/2015 2:30 PM Eastern
CION in the field

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this article about CION camera users, AJA came out with a bombshell announcement. In what the company is calling a “Summer of Savings” promotion, the price of CION has been cut nearly in half, from $8,995 to $4,995.

“Sales of the CION have been strong ever since we started shipping last December,” says Andy Bellamy, product marketing manager for CION at AJA Video Systems. “In fact, we have been working hard to fulfill orders. But we made a decision that since this camera is intended for a specific market segment—the indie producer, the single owner/operator facility and freelance videographers—we needed to conform the price to meet their needs. For those who purchased a CION before May 26, 2015, we are going to compensate them with two AJA Pak 512 SSDs for free, which is itself a $2,495 value. (Current CION owners can submit their request for the free Pak media drives to cionpromo@aja.com.)

Gak Studio co-owner Calvin Paulger and Shawn Serdar set up lights for a CION shoot.

AJA’s “Summer of Savings” program also includes reduced prices for the Ki Pro line of recorders. The cost of Ki Pro is reduced from $3,995 to $2,495, Ki Pro Mini from $1,995 to $1,495 and Ki Pro Quad from $3,995 to $2,995.

Bellamy warns, however, “We reserve the right to re-evaluate this situation at the end of summer. We know this is a heck of a price for a camera that records Apple ProRes 60p true 4K (4096 x 2160) and AJA raw with an external recorder at up to 120 fps.”

When AJA president Nick Rashby introduced CION during the 2014 NAB Show, it was one of the first times I’d heard the press corps actually applaud. True, with its shoulder-mounted form factor and wood-embossed hand grip, it looked more like a real cinema camera than the DSLR-on-steroids models that others were offering at the time. The camera began shipping in December 2014. Now AJA is reaping the benefits of “getting our equipment into as many hands as possible,” as Rashby likes to say.

AJA president Nick Rashby

The development of the CION evolved from AJA’s long history with signal processing, conversion and encoding systems.

“When our Ki Pro line of recorders appeared, we recognized we were just a sensor away from a camera,” Bellamy says. “We then spent five years combining all of this into a 4K shooter, the CION, and decided to give it a true ergonomic camera form factor.”

CION features a 4K APS-C sized CMOS sensor (22.5mm x 11.9mm) with electronic global shutter and a stated dynamic range of 12 stops. CION is capable of shooting 4K/Ultra HD and 2K/HD resolutions, with in-camera recording directly to the ProRes family of codecs, including 12-bit ProRes 444. CION records internally to AJA Pak SSD media at up to 4K/60p.

The camera further offers the ability to output 4K raw data at up to 120 fps via four 3G-SDI outputs, recording to an external device like the Atomos Shogun. If you don’t need high frame rate capabilities, CION outputs 4K raw data via Thunderbolt at up to 30 fps.

Operators will value its simple interface with direct controls, its built-in confidence monitor, and its remotely configurable and viewable live preview video stream. The optional AJA Pak Dock transfers footage over high-speed Thunderbolt or USB 3.0. CION’s unique LAN port and embedded web server give you complete remote configuration and control capability, even letting you gang multiple CIONs using a standard web browser.

But what really counts is how the CION performs under real-world conditions. I was able to chat with three experienced videographers who had gotten their hands on early models. Here are their impressions.

Doug Michaels, All Points Pictures

Doug Michaels

In the Pittsburgh area, Doug Michaels founded All Points Pictures with his partner, Rick Gizzi. Among other projects at the studio, they used CION on an indie feature called The Great American Movie Hustle, written and directed by Michael Anton for Wonder Lab Films.

“It’s a mockumentary about filmmaking, and we shot the movie-within-a-movie with the AJA CION so it would look crisper and more cinematic than the documentary section, which we captured with a DSLR,” Michaels says. “I’ve worked with several other digital cinema cameras before, but after grading the video recorded with the CION in Apple Final Cut Pro X, the image quality blew me away. We could really pull information out of the blacks, even better than what we had recovered with the other cameras.”

The CION’s shoulder-mount design meant Michaels could use it for extended takes without having to mount awkward rails on its body, and the simplified menu system meant he didn’t have to push his way through myriad buttons. “You toggle through the menu system on the LCD screen, select what you want with just a push, and start shooting,” he says. “It’s the bare bones of a menu system, which makes it quick and intuitive. Because of that, I was comfortably using the camera within 15 minutes of taking it out of the box.”

But it’s hard to completely satisfy a demanding DP, especially when he is prompted to suggest ways CION might be made even better. “What I would like improved is the ISO,” Michaels offers. “You are limited to an exposure index of 1000, which is pretty low. At that level, the highlights tend to clip. But like any camera, this is just one of the things you need to learn. I’d recommend keeping highlights about 1/2 to 2/3 stops under if you want to see details in bright clouds, for example.”

(Readers should note that CION’s EI of 1000 is already an improvement on the camera’s release specs. The maximum EI was 800 until a firmware update in February 2015, which also improved highlight handling capabilities.)

Michaels also recommends that if you want to shoot AJA raw, bring some extra hard drives. “4K raw at 24 fps eats up 256 GB per hour,” he says, “but the advantage of shooting raw easily makes up for it. Those 4K images really have a wow factor.”

Shawn Serdar, Pacific Producers Group

Shawn Serdar tested a CION with v1.1 firmware prior to purchasing one. AJA used some shots from his test shoot (pictured) in its CION demo reel at the NAB Show.

Shawn Serdar is owner of the Pacific Producers Group in Vancouver, B.C., and an independent videographer who works on commercials and corporate videos. He started shooting with a CION in March. With the camera’s PL lens mount, he prefers Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 lenses in the studio and a RED Pro Zoom 18-85mm in the field.

“We really like the camera,” he begins. “Thinking as a producer as well as a videographer, the CION is a great time-saver over some of the other 4K cameras we own because it shoots native ProRes 4444, which can be imported directly into our Final Cut X NLE without taking time for transcoding. ProRes 4444 is also a big help for quickly setting up greenscreen work.”

Thanks to the CION’s multiple outputs, Serdar is able to view his video on an 8.5-inch Panasonic BT-LH900 on-camera monitor while sending video to an 18.5-inch Panasonic BT-LH1850 production monitor for client review.

Serdar is impressed with the camera’s audio capabilities. “The CION has twin 3-pin XLR audio inputs with control knobs for each channel,” he says, “letting us use dual professional stereo mics. And we can easily meter them on the LED VU meters on the side-facing UI screen next to your right ear.”

Of course, anything can be improved. “The CION can record 120 fps in AJA raw on an external recorder,” he notes. “Wouldn’t it be great if it could handle that frame rate in ProRes on its internal SSD media?”

Ben Millar

Ben Millar

Ben Millar is a freelance DP in the UK who has been using a CION leased from Shoot Blue in London to bring home 4K music videos, corporate productions and commercials.

“We recently used the CION on a high-end real estate development promo where they wanted a cinematic look to suit their luxury buildings,” Millar says. “It’s a very flexible camera and easy to set up, so we could just take it out of the bag and start shooting within minutes. That really helped us stay on schedule.”

Millar had a high-resolution monitor for his clients on the set, and found that by using the Expanded 1 gamma setting in the camera, he could bring the same quality of video back to the edit bay that they saw during the shoot.

“We were shooting with top-quality Cooke and Angenieux lenses, which fit quickly on the CION’s PL mount, and that simply made things easier,” Millar says. “They made our 4K recordings look simply spectacular.”

The camera’s battery life and AJA Pak media capacity proved crucial to Millar on this shoot. “We were able to record up to 35 minutes straight without having to cut the take or change anything in the camera, and that really impressed our clients.”

Could it get better? “We found that the colors in the midrange and darker areas were beautiful,” Millar says, “but when we started going one to one and a half stops over, we would start to lose image detail in the highlights. So we learned to make sure we positioned the camera away from ambient sunlight during exteriors and added a bit of contrast so we would not blow out the brightest areas. But we could correct for this in post—and after all, here in the UK, it is almost always cloudy.”  

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