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Record, Monitor, Repeat: Atomos’ Ninja 2 Lets You Shoot Longer and Move Faster

Ninja 2, a high-definition field recorder and monitor, comes from the Australian company Atomos. The creator of digital field recorders and converters, the company’s motto is “Atomos makes weapons of smart production.” Atomos competitors offer similar products, but few offer the capacity and features like uncompressed storage and a touchscreen monitor all in one convenient package.

Atomos Ninja 2 mounted on a Nikon D800

Ninja 2 records uncompressed video to HDD/SSD. Atomos leaves it up to you to supply 2.5” storage media, which you’ll mount into a supplied Ninja 2 disk caddy for recording. Based on your needs and budget, you can choose 2.5” spinning disks (HDDs) or solid-state (SSD) hard drives. Look for Atomos’ list of recommended drives on its web site. Recommended capacities currently range to 1 TB. (Also not included in the Ninja 2 box are HDMI cables, but those are readily available.)

Using the Ninja 2 is as simple as connecting your camera to the recorder/monitor via HDMI cable. Ninja taps into the HDMI signal from the camera, thus bypassing the camera’s compression codec. Ninja will record uncompressed 10-bit HD or SD footage and export Avid DNxHD or Apple ProRes files for editing. (DNxHD support comes via the just-announced firmware update to Atomos 4.01.)

Many cameras have HDMI, but only a few output a clean signal (without graphic overlays) suitable for monitor displays. Not all recorders capture uncompressed high-definition footage. The two Nikon units that are on uncompressed speaking terms with the Ninja 2 are the Nikon D800 (36 megapixels) and the D4 (16 megapixels). I used the Nikon D4 for this review.

The Atomos Ninja 2 ships with monitor and housing, durable carrying case, two NP-F570 7.4V lithium-ion batteries (other batteries are available), two empty Master Disk Caddies, a PN201 dual port battery charger, USB cables, and AC power supply with three plugs for international use.

The unit also ships with a Master Caddy Docking Station. To access and edit recorded material, you’ll eject the Master Caddy from Ninja 2 and insert it into the Docking Station, which is connected to your Mac or Windows editing workstation via USB 2.0/3.0 or FireWire 800.

The main unit weighs in at nearly 1 lb. When you add the wafer-thin hard drive and both batteries, the total comes to almost 2 lb. Ninja 2 offers Atomos Continuous Power technology, which uses battery looping. When battery one is running low, the unit automatically switches to the second battery.

The 16:9 image on the monitor’s 800 x 480 screen is not as sharp as on most DSLR LCD screens. When you attach an HDMI cable from your DSLR to the Ninja 2 monitor, the camera’s LCD screen is not deactivated as it normally is when attaching an external monitor. Most people want to preview the image on the highest quality monitor—in this case, Ninja is not the best choice as your only monitor.

Your files can be recorded in 1080 60i/50i/30p/25p/24p, 720 60p/50p, 480i and 576i. Real-time 1920 x 1080 encoding is a fast 220 Mb/s in HQ mode, 150 Mb/s in 4:2:2 mode and 100 Mb/s in LT in the Apple Pro Res mode. The speeds will be similar in Avid’s DNxHD mode. Mathematically, that gave me between 5 and 11 hours of footage on my 500 GB drive, 2.5 to 5.5 hours on the 250 GB drive, and from 10 to 22 hours on the 1 TB drive.

Supported editing programs include Apple Final Cut Pro 7 and X, Avid Media Composer 5.0, Adobe Premiere 5.5, Sony Creative Software Vegas Pro 10 and EditShare Lightworks.

SmartLog gives you the ability to tag clips during recording or playback

In the Studio
I had my cinematography class use the Ninja 2 in conjunction with a Nikon D4 DSLR shooting a four-and-a-half-minute dolly shot. Beginning with a long shot, slowly dollying 30 feet and ending in a close-up more than four minutes later, the crew had quite a task ahead of them. The Nikon D4 was attached to the Ninja 2 via an HDMI cable and the loop-through was used to connect to another monitor with a second HDMI cable.

I powered up the Ninja 2 using the touchscreen and activated the monitor function so I could use the unit as an external monitor. Pressing record started the timecode and I could see everything that was displayed on the Nikon’s LCD screen. The camera operator and focus puller moved the dolly, watching the camera’s LCD, and I walked alongside holding the Ninja 2. As a backup, the D4 recorded simultaneously to its internal CF card.

After four minutes and 30 seconds, I pressed stop on the screen and immediately viewed the footage. The Ninja 2 gave each take a shot number that was recorded by our second assistant camera operator.

One minor drawback to Ninja 2’s playback is that you must go through several menu screens until you find what you’re looking for. In situations like this, where several people might need immediate access to the recorded footage, having a carry-along example is helpful.

Among other monitoring features, Ninja 2 offers false color to check exposure.

When viewing the footage immediately after recording, you can scrub through the timeline, fast forward, rewind, and basically do anything an NLE can do. Ninja additionally provides zebra, focus peaking, false color and numerous other features, while SmartLog lets you tag clips during recording or playback.

I slipped the HDD into the Docking Station and connected it to my Final Cut Pro system using the FireWire cable. I also took the CF card from the Nikon and imported that footage. I could see no difference in quality between what was recorded on the camera’s CF card and that recorded on the Ninja 2.

There are two different ways of looking at the Ninja 2. In one use, it is an excellent, high quality way of capturing all of your footage in the studio or on location. Our batteries never wavered and we had the Ninja 2 on constantly. A 500 GB drive is large enough to shoot a sizable project and is a lot easier than juggling an armful of CF or SD cards. The other option is using the Ninja 2 as a backup recorder, as I did. If the crew needs to play back a scene, you can do so on the Ninja 2 while the camera crew sets up the next shot.

Even on an outdoor shoot, I kept my hands warm holding the Ninja 2 and could constantly monitor the footage. Portability is one of its greatest features. The cost of a 128 GB CF card approaches $600. For less than $1,000, you have four times the storage and an external monitor to boot.

If you are looking for a portable hard drive to handle all of your studio, field and editing needs, you can’t find a better solution that Atomos’ Ninja 2. 

Product: Atomos Ninja 2

Pros: Handles hard drive recording utilizing a touchscreen monitor. Large storage capacity. Easy transfer of footage in post.
Cons: More features than you need. Must go through several menus to access want you want on the touchscreen.
Bottom Line: Relatively inexpensive way to capture and export footage on location.
MSRP: $995