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Color, Science and Color Science: The In-Camera Capabilities of the AJA CION

CION occupies an important niche in the crowded field of digital cinema cameras today.

According to AJA’s web site, the technological innovations of its CION camera stand in service of the Science of the Beautiful. And it’s true, any camera ultimately is judged by the quality of the images it produces. AJA has tweaked its color science to create a camera with wonderfully organic color, pleasing skin tones and a wide dynamic range.

Another positive, CION offers the ability to perfect images in-camera. This point is significant. While CION lacks deep in-camera paint control, its basic gamma and color options can produce an image that requires minimal grading. Alternately, shooting either flat gamma or with no gamma curve at all provides a solid base for more elaborate postproduction workflows.

CION’s introduction at the 2014 NAB Show was eclipsed by Blackmagic Design’s unveiling of the URSA an hour later. URSA ultimately shipped first, and industry pundits expressed concern over CION’s viability considering a price differential of some $2,500 to $3,000 compared to URSA.

While I will not engage in a head-to-head comparison of URSA and CION, demos I’ve seen and footage I’ve actually shot with each camera leads me to the conclusion that these are very different 4K cameras. There is unquestionably room for the CION in the marketplace, and its image quality makes it a contender for indie productions, commercials or even features.

CION, which began shipping in late December of last year, 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 444.

CION weighs in at just under 7.5 pounds with its 1-pound top handle, not including viewfinder, lens, batteries and other accessories. Its an ENG-style camera with a comfortable shoulder pad located toward the rear. With heavy lens, mattebox, follow focus and maybe a filter or two on the front of the camera, the shoulder balance was front-heavy. Under those shoulder-mounted circumstances, I would recommend using a rail-mounted bar support (I love my ENG rig from dvtec.tv) or an EasyRig. The camera is sufficiently lightweight for Steadicam or gimbal use.

The camera’s PL lens mount is of metal construction and seems quite sturdy. Optional third-party mounts are available for Nikon, Canon EF, Canon FD and BNCR lenses.

CION is outfitted with a 4K APS-C sized CMOS sensor (22.5mm x 11.9mm) with electronic global shutter and a stated dynamic range of 12 stops.

My evaluation unit came in an AJA-compiled reviewer’s kit that lacked virtually no common accessory. The camera’s top plate includes holes into which a rod-based VF handle mounts. I was supplied a Cineroid SDI viewfinder and Wooden Camera’s VF mount.

AJA did not miss a trick in positioning every possible input, output or power port. At the front of the camera are ports for SDI monitor, HDMI 1.3 monitor and D-Tap power. All of these ports are simultaneously active. Also located at the front of the camera are two XLR audio inputs.

Because these inputs face directly out, I would strongly recommend using right-angle connectors to prevent accidental damage on a busy set. In fact, the supplied viewfinder SDI connector was angled. It is a small issue but worth noting.

On the operator’s side of camera, the 320 x 240 LCD confidence monitor really does not have sufficient size or resolution to evaluate image, but it shows framing and most importantly the menu structure. Menus themselves are wonderfully simple: Status, Config, Media, FPS, EI and WB. A knob to the left of the confidence monitor cycles choices and it is push to select. Menus are snappy and responsive.

Aft-located outputs include four 3G-SDI main, one 3G-SDI monitor, one rear HDMI 1.4, and reference and LTC BNC connectors. There is an RJ45 port for remote LAN operation and a Thunderbolt port for output of AJA raw at up to 4K 30 fps.

CION’s power consumption is 38-42W typical and 45-57W maximum. I confirmed the stats in a test, getting around two hours of camera operation from a 90W Dionic HC battery.

The camera records to AJA Pak SSD media, which is available in 256 and 512 GB capacities. Footage may be transferred via Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 with the optional Pak Dock.

CION records all ProRes formats only internally. AJA is able to leverage its years of ProRes recording device technology to produce a clean implementation. Internally it records ProRes 4444 or ProRes 422 HQ at up to 4K 30 fps. It has a lower internal data rate for ProRes 422 4K/UHD recording up to 60 fps. There is also a 1080i recording option that records ProRes 422 up to 30 fps and 1080p up to 60 fps.

There is no internal raw recording option, and in fact there are no external raw recorders compatible with AJA raw at this time. I know that recorder manufacturers are working with AJA, so I expect to see raw recording from CION to third-party devices in the near future. At the moment, however, the raw solution is via CION’s Thunderbolt port to a laptop and RAID with AJA’s CamXchange software, or via the four 3G-SDI outputs to an AJA TruZoom system, which can record up to 120 fps 4K.

I did not test raw recording. My experiments were primarily ProRes 4444 recorded internally to AJA Pak media. I support the use of proprietary media for recording devices, by the way. It’s just too risky to entrust camera originals to consumer media. AJA’s Pak media has a long track record of durability and dependability. The Pak256 runs about $700 and the Pak512 about $1,300. It’s worth the price for the peace of mind.

I am disappointed that CION offers only one media slot. Likewise, I’m concerned that this top-mounted media slot has a spring-loaded door and no other cover, making it potentially vulnerable to dust and moisture. I hope that future versions of the camera address these issues.

Setting and shooting this camera is simple with gamma and color selections. I was disappointed initially with the lack of paint menus, but what CION can accomplish simply with in-camera processing, never mind what you can achieve with tweaking in post, makes me question why you should bother painting the camera for production. Gamma selections are the starting point. Of course, try to avoid clipping. Nobody has a magic formula to recover data in areas of an image that are hopelessly blown out.

A variety of gamma curves (Disabled, Normal, Normal Expanded, Video, Expanded 1) are found within the Exposure Index menu to suit the highlights and shadows within a given scene. Expanded 1 is most useful when dealing with high-key scenes where the majority of the image is quite bright. Video, of course, most closely resembles a low-dynamic-range Rec. 709 signal. In some test shooting in my living room with a subject partially in shadow looking out a window with bright sun on the snow, Normal Expanded provided the optimal range. As with any camera, run tests in your shooting scenario to see what works best.

I also tested Gamma Disabled, which turns off all in-camera gamma correction. A Gamma Disabled image will have a very high-contrast appearance. Essentially, the only image processing that is applied is the debayering process to transform the raw sensor data to a linear image. In grading this footage, I merely needed work with midtones and shadows, only reducing highlights depending on how much I needed to raise the midtones.

CION offers basic in-camera color correction settings: Flat, Skin Tones, Normal and Video. Again, DPs should experiment. I prefer flat (which essentially disables in-camera color correction) because I like control in post. But I emphasize again, CION is capable of shooting an image you can use straight out of the camera—preferable for quick turnaround projects or live events where additional postproduction image processing and color correction may not be possible due to time or budget constraints.

The camera’s native ISO is 320, increased from the ISO 250 available in CION at launch. In addition to increasing the camera’s EI values to 320, 500, 800 and 1,000, the February firmware update enabled improved highlight handling capabilities.

In a quick test of EI 1000, noise levels were not unpleasant and even the noise had a film grain look. (I don’t advocate using noise to achieve film grain as these are really very different things, but the noise was not too conspicuous.)

I would like to see a higher native sensor ISO in CION. The global shutter is to some degree a limiting factor, but this is the age of high-ISO cameras. The obvious answer to low ISO is more lighting, but it’s not always possible to flood a scene with light, especially with lower budgets or challenging shooting environments.

You may need an ND filter when shooting outdoors. CION’s built-in filter combines an optical low-pass filter and an infrared cut filter, but no ND.

White balance presets are 5,600° K (default), 4,500° K and 3,200° K, as well as AWB and Unity (white balance correction disabled). Setting proper exposure may take you back to the old film days. The camera has an excellent histogram with options for either linear or log interpretation. It may be configured to display luminance, red, green, blue, RGB or luma+RGB. In the case of the Cineroid viewfinder, the VF can display a WFM. But this is a camera for which you may want to get out your light meter. I like that CION gets back to the basics of filmmaking, where the DP and operator concentrate on composition and lighting. I do not miss the camera clutter.

CION has two balanced analog audio XLR inputs and two channels of audio. I wish it had four audio channels, achieved with four XLR inputs or even AES/EBU audio, despite the added cost.

One area of concern for me is the camera’s construction. In addition to the problematic top media slot I discussed previously, I’ll mention heat dissipation. The cooling fan vents through a grille on top of the camera, as well as through grilles on either side. It unsettles me that I can see electronics through those vent holes and makes me wonder about dust and moisture entering the camera there. I discussed this issue with AJA reps, who are confident about the camera’s construction. They recommend using a slicker on the camera when in a dusty or moist environment.

With CION, AJA has produced an admirable first release of a camera that delivers extraordinarily pleasant images. The feel is rich and organic. Even in video modes, there is none of the edginess or sharp knee that gives away a “video look.” The camera is easy to configure, can be operated by a single operator as well as a crew, and provides just enough control. It is limited by a relatively low ISO, incomplete raw recording options, only two audio channels and some construction concerns.

Measure these caveats against the fact that, at $8,995, this is a camera that an indie producer can actually afford to own, that a facility can afford to buy in multiples instead of one. CION occupies an important niche in the crowded field of digital cinema cameras today and is a product well worthy of consideration by serious filmmakers.

Product:AJA CION

Score:

Pros: Excellent image. Solid form factor. Ease of operation. Numerous I/O ports. Global shutter.

Cons: Some construction issues. Only two-channel audio. No internal raw recording or third-party raw recorders currently. Native ISO 320.

Bottom Line: A worthy camera for cinema applications suitable for owner-operators as well as for larger production facilities. Produces organic, cinematic images

MSRP: $8,995

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