Please be sure to read part one if you haven't already...
I've been a faithful user of a SmallHD DP4-EVF kit for a while now. Having added video services to my portfolio after nearly 20 years of SLR photography, the learning curve was cruel and the DP4 helped me wade through dangerous waters thanks to focus peaking, false colours and other features that were as alien to me as the dark side of the moon.
About a year ago I switched from Canon to Sony SLT and NEX cameras for the majority of my photo and video work. These cameras have proper video auto focus, focus peaking, and other dedicated video features so I didn't strictly need the DP4 anymore to ensure good, in focus, shots. That said however I still feel that my best work is done with the assistance of the DP4 regardless of which camera I'm using.
Because I had the DP4 already in my stable of tools, I was hesitant to buy the Atomos Ninja-2 as it sort of does the same thing and cheaper recorders which don't have monitors built in (like the Blackmagic Hyperdeck Shuttle) can be purchased for cheaper. In the end it took a good sale price, what seemed to be the most intelligent design running, and the promise of a user friendly experience which won me over.
The third and final part of this review will be saved for the recording features of the Ninja-2. Right now I'm just looking at it as a monitor as compared to the DP4. This is a 100% UNscientific comparison and just my observations having owned both for less than a week so take that with a few grains of salt.
A quick comparison of the two...
The Ninja is much bigger and heavier than the DP4. Obviously it does more and holds a hard drive so that shouldn't be surprising. That said, it appears to be built in a very sturdy way with more metal in the chassis compared to the DP4.
Ninja 2 and DP4The Ninja 2 is much larger and heavier than the SmallHD DP4 They both use the same Sony style camcorder batteries that seem to be the staple for video accessories but the DP4 comes with replaceable back plates for Canon, Nikon, and AA batteries. It also comes with a D-tap power lead and a traditional power input where the Ninja 2 uses an AC adapter with a dummy battery instead.
The DP4 can also take analog video input from a dongle cable plugged into the bottom of the unit and has a USB port for powering additional external accessories. Both have headphone jacks and HDMI pass through.
On the DP4, there are 3 threaded mounting points and the sides and the bottom with the option to flip the display though this doesn't work well with the loupe viewfinder. On the Ninja 2 there are just mounts on the top and the bottom though these are the sturdiest places to mount a monitor anyhow.
In addition to the screen protector pictured, the DP4 comes with a folding hood/shade which is a great addition for use outdoors. I would like to have something similar for the Ninja-2 and wish it came with some sort of a hood. The screens are very similar only, as seen above, the Ninja-2 is prone to finger prints because you'll be touching it all the time. They don't show all that bad when the screen is on.
Ninja 2 and DP4The image reproduced on the DP4 is far better than the Ninja-2 but the Ninja has some features not present in the DP4 Side by side, the screens look very similar. The OSD of the Ninja-2 disappears and reappears with a single tap. The live audio levels display is very good (they were recently improved with the latest firmware updates) and very welcome is the on screen headphones volume. Accessing features like false colour, focus peaking, etc. is very easy on the Ninja-2. While the DP4 has some programmable quick buttons, the menus are cryptic and difficult to navigate. I was intimidated by it for a long time before I got used to using it and still make mistakes hitting the wrong button. It's cost me a shot more than once looking for a feature I felt I needed in the heat of the moment.
The image on the DP4 appears to be sharper, brighter, has more contrast, has better colour reproduction, and a more correct exposure. Also, things like brightness, colour, gamma, and more are adjustable so they can be made even better in the SmallHD unit. I've found the default settings to suit me fine. I wouldn't have a clue what to adjust or how to improve them anyhow. That said, I like the fact that the DP4 has so many settings and features. You never know when you'll need a 1:1 blow up or freeze frame or picture in picture. For me, most of these features go untouched. I use it as is with just the Focusassist+ and the Falsecolour programmed to the quick keys.
Ninja 2 and DP4The false colour features of these two monitors is very different. The false colour feature of both is easy to get to. One press of the shortcut key on the DP4 and 2 on screen taps on the Ninja 2. I was surprised to find that they aren't the same at all! Not having any experience with traditional professional video cameras, I honestly don't know what that means but I can see it being very confusing if I wanted to use both monitors on a regular basis. I assume that Atomos and SmallHD have decided to use a different colour system. It could also have something to do with the fact that the image on the Ninja-2 looks brighter and blown out when the exposure looks perfect on the DP4 and on the back of the camera (and to the cameras meter). As it stands I'll be using the DP4 as a monitor more often so I'm going to stick with the false colour there so I don't get confused. One nice feature is the scale on the side of the screen on the Ninja-2. It makes learning the colour scale they use very easy. The DP4 actually has two falsecolour modes; one which colours only over and underexposed parts of the image and one which colours the over, medium, and under exposed areas. The brightness and colour rendition of the Ninja-2 as a monitor gives me some concern as this is not something which is obviously adjustable in the Ninja-2. Fortunately I don't plan on using it as a monitor very often. Once I've field tested for part 3 of this review, I'll know better if it's a real issue or not.
Ninja-2 and DP4Focus peaking on the Ninja-2 is exactly how I'm used to on the Sony a99. DP4 has their own version called Focusassist+ Focus peaking on the Ninja-2 works exactly like it does on the Sony complete with selectable colours. In comparing the back of the a99 to the Ninja-2, the results are identical. SmallHD has their own version of focus peaking called Focusassist+ (though it has traditional peaking as well). Focusassist+ is unique to their monitors and instead of highlighting the sharpest pixels in another colour, it changes the whole image to show strong contrasty edges in the in-focus portions of the image. It can be a bit strange to look at at first and takes some getting used to but, as they claim, it's a very effective way to get quick and accurate focus. I'm fine with either method but sometimes it's nice to have a second opinion.
Also on the NInja-2 touch screen is monochrome mode and exposure zebras. The DP4 doesn't have a zebra mode that I'm aware of but does have a monochrome and blue-only modes in addition to on screen framing guides, cross hairs and scaling modes for cameras which don't output 16:9 images from their HDMI ports.
One more thing to note: The Ninja-2 has a very intuitive battery level display with a menu mode which shows only that in big icons on the screen. The DP4 shows only battery voltage if at all which isn't very intuitive unfortunately. With 2 batteries the battery life is very good so it's not been an issue so far.
Ninja-2 and DP4The non-monitor display of the Ninja-2 beside the DP4 This is how I'll be using these monitors most of the time; with the DP4 acting as monitor and the Ninja-2 acting as a recorder with a very intuitive, very simple touch screen interface. In the above image the Rec and Mon buttons are greyed because it hadn't synchronized the 3:2 pulldown yet for 24p operation. On this screen I can see my timecodes, audio levels, battery status and play back recently recorded clips. The playback shows in the DP4 monitor as it's connected to the output of the Ninja-2.
In conclusion, I think that as a monitor, I'm not sure the Ninja-2 is a great option unless used in conjunction with a higher quality monitor. The DP4 is good but not best in class...I'd consider it entry level for good monitors and as a monitor it appears to be far better than the Atomos. That said, the Atomos can bring features like falsecolour, zebra, focus peaking and audio monitors to cameras which have none of those features PLUS it's a video recording unit. Considering the cost of the DP4-EVF, the Atomos is still a good buy for those who need it. I honestly can't say one is better than the other overall. It's not quite an apples to apples comparison but as monitors go, the SmallHD takes the win on image quality and the Atomos takes the win on user friendliness.
In my dreams there's a collaboration between SmallHD and Atomos which combines the user fantastic interface and recorder from the Atomos with the screen tech and features of the SmallHD...
More on the recording features in Part 3...