The atomos ninja blade is a relatively inexpensive, quality external recorder & monitor.
That pretty much sums it up; i like this recorder/monitor. It's simple, it works, and doesn't add too much to a bare camera setup. It's their 3rd generation Ninja and 3 looks like a magic number to an already pretty darn good line of Ninjas. Does it have endless connections? No. Does it have a bottomless pit of adjustments and options? No. Does it have a very useful amount of all the above that's more than enough for a lot of users and more than you get for just about anything in this price range? YES. This is where Atomos excels: Excellent quality/features to price ratio.
Atomos provided me a demo unit for the purpose of evaluation. I was NOT paid to do this, they did NOT make any requests or demands. Everything i state here and in the review video are my own thoughts and have in no way been coerced or compensated for.
5" is my favorite size monitor, it's just big enough for image scrutiny, and small enough not to lop-side a lightweight camera rig. It does have a pretty thick posterior which looks like they could have shaved off a half inch or so, but it's not something i'd harp on. It's very light too, just 314 grams empty, or 633 grams with both batteries and an SSD. That's thanks to some nice aircraft grade aluminum.
Looking around the body
You get two battery mounts, one is a primary which needs to be occupied to start-up off of, and the second kicks in when the first is drained, allowing for constant hotswapping even while recording.
There are 1/4" mounts on the top and bottom, which gives a sufficient number of ways to mount it to your rig. A lonely power button gets its own side, while the connections and SSD slot finish off the other side.
OK, it doesn't do HDMI and SDI, i know, i wish it did too.(even though i rarely use SDI admittedly) Other products on the market do have both, but it is what it is. The good news is that you can use the Atomos connect module to gain SDI pretty seamlessly, as that gizmo fits inline with one of the batteries.
You do get both HDMI input and output, so you can monitor/playback on another screen of any sort. An LANC port gives you option external control which is good for situations like multi-cam, or if your camera doesn't support the HDMI trigger. Finally you get a headphone out and separate line in. That line in is a great thought, as you can get a feed from an external audio source, be it the camera, a wireless pack from the audio guy, or even a small powered mic for scratch audio. The unit can also pickup audio tracks over HDMI if your camera is sending them.
As a monitor
The prior ninjas were not so great as monitors, but this fella absolutely is. It's their "superatom IPS" screen which is a fantastic 1280x720 resolution. That resolution on this size screen is very crisp and usable. The IPS part means it has very good viewing angles, so if someone is peeping on your shots, they won't see a washed out side view.
The brightness is also impressive at 400nits. Cranking it all the way up helps a lot in bright conditions. They include a nice hood, but even that combined with the brightness still doesn't make for an ideal outdoor monitor, and that can be blamed a bunch on the shiny screen. Shiny means reflective and even if the sun isn't hitting it directly, you're going to see a reflection of everything the sun IS hitting. I've had pretty good success with adding matte screen protectors to other devices to remedy this. If you go that route, apply with care and keep in mind they can fuzzy up the screen a tiny bit.
Atomos awhile back announced a loupe/viewfinder for the older ninja, but that faded into mystery. Such an addition would be very useful, there are a few aftermarket ones around, and i prototyped my own when testing the BMC4k, and it was a big help outdoors.
You also get two very useful monitoring tools: Zebras, & focus peaking. Zebras can be set from 50-105%(a bit odd that in the manual it shows a level of 35%) And peaking has 7, yes SEVEN different colors to choose from. While that's lovely, i wish they would have put in a way to adjust the strength. I do however like how peaking is dialed in, it works very nicely. You also have the choice of viewing peaking in a monochrome or outline mode. Need more exposure assistants? There's also blue only, and false color.
But wait, there's more.
Waveforms! And not just one: Luma, RGB parage, & vectorscope with zoom. A proper monitor, this is. What's better is that you can view any of them fullscreen, or on the bottom/right, and even better; you can adjust the opacity so you can see what's behind it. Proper job Atomos.
As a Recorder
They could have just had Prores, they could have just had DNxHD, the fact that they included both is very appreciated. You get a handful of flavors of both, including 8-bit and 10-bit options. Which brings up a question many folks ask: If my camera is only outputting 8-bit i should only record to 8-bit, right?
That would be absolutely fine, but it depends on your intentions for the footage. If your camera only outputs 8-bit, than recording to 10-bit of course isn't magically creating something that isn't there. however, it is giving you that headroom for heavy color grading/effects. The more you push/pull the footage in editing, the more you will want the benefits of a 10-bit headroom. If you're doing basic adjustments to the footage and it's not a project that requires pixel obsession, 8-bit will do just fine.
I won't go over Prores vs DNxHD, there's plenty of articles on that. Suffice it to say they are both HUGE steps up from mpeg/avchd typical codecs in many cameras out there. And yes, you can edit Prores if you're on a PC, I've done it plenty.
Briefly i'll mention one of the other big reasons to record to a higher level codec: high motion. If you record something like rustling leaves or rippling water, or anything where a large portion of the frame is occupied by lots of random movement, low bit-rate codecs break down. You see a compression artifact called macroblocking, because codecs like mpeg2/avchd look at the frame in blocks. See, these codecs are very efficient because they split the video up into keyframes, and after each of these frames they base the compression off of the changes in the following Group Of Pictures.(not republicans) So, if it's saving data by compressing things that don't change between frames, what happens when things are changing a lot? Macroblocking, that's what. So that's where babies come from. Wait, wrong speech....
They were nice enough to allow not only SSDs, but also spinning disks. I'm sticking to SSDs though, as spinning disks/moving parts don't excite me anymore, neither does any other added possible point of failure on my camera rig. SSDs are now .50cents a gigabyte. Spinning disks are best saved for your edit station in RAID(another story for another time)
Aside from the LANC port, you can also trigger the camera via the HDMI port. Meaning, when you press record on the camera, the ninja starts recording as well. This is beautifully seamless, and if your camera supports it, makes the ninja all the more compelling of a match for it.
Quirks? What else?
The only true quirk i found was that the touch screen, while very nice overall, had some icons/scroll bars which would a bit tricky to get right. For instance, the zebra control slider was a pain to get right at 100, it kept jumping from 95 to 105. Another oddity was that as i was trying to shoot a demonstration of the menu, it was ignoring my taps pretty constantly, i found that if i just touched the screen, no reaction, but if i put a finger on the case as well, it would register touch. It wasn't connected to anything, and i didn't notice any trouble when it was rigged up to the camera, so perhaps it needs a ground. Either way, i only noticed it while disconnected, not something that affects normal shooting since you do in fact need to connect it to record anything.
Sum it up already
It's clear that i like this thing. So what don't i like? Well... It tops out at 1080. 4k is now the golden child, and i don't plan on purchasing anymore 1080 cameras, so it seems a bit like investing in the past. It's not entirely wise to think that way though, because 1080 didn't all of a sudden become poor looking because of 4k, on the contrary; it looks incredible. Hundreds of big movies back this up. But if you're a working shooter, and your clients are asking about 4k, than that's a story you should tell to the shogun, Atomos's $2000 4k recorder.
The dilemma atomos created for me was the introduction of the ninja star, their tiny, screen-less, $300 recorder. Adding that to my C100 would be a pretty unobtrusive way to up the codec, and would give me the option to have an external monitor or not as i so choose based on what i'm shooting. But to have it all in one polished package is very compelling indeed.