This year Canada has been over run with the US Black Friday shopping tradition and I was able to pick up an Atomos Ninja-2 and two Sandisk Extreme II 240GB SSD drives all for about $260 off the regular retail prices. I've had a few ideas as to how I could use the Ninja in my workflow but wasn't sure due to a lack of reviews with Sony hardware. I took the plunge and decided to just find out for myself how well it would work.
Since abandoning Canon and switching to an all Sony set of hardware, my video workflow has changed a surprising amount. Many of the little bugs involved with shooting video on a Canon or Nikon DSLR simply aren't issues with the Sony STL-a99. While it's Sony's first attempt at a pro grade camera with strong photo and video features, it's (in my view) one of the best options out there for the money. I also use a NEX-7 and NEX-5R as professional cameras. Both fill their niches very well and while they shoot good video, they also have drawbacks just like many DSLRs.
Despite all of the great video friendly features of the a99, one of it's limitations compared to other hybrid video cameras like the 5D III and the GH3, is the codec. While Sony's AVCHD codec is exceptional, it tops out at 24Mbps at 30 frames per second...good but not great.
The a99 isn't capable of RAW like a Canon with the Magic Lantern hack but I've never been a fan of RAW. The workflow is just too bulky and slow and requires far too much storage.
The a99, however, does sport a clean HDMI output with full 4:2:2 colour while the internal recording is only 4:2:0. In theory, recording the HDMI stream gives you better quality and lets you record with a less lossy compression, preserving more of the detail of the original image. Recorders like the Atomos Ninja let you capture that stream. In the case of the Ninja 2, straight to Apple's ProRes codec in 422LT, 422, or 422HQ quality settings and directly to a 2.5" hard drive.
I should note that the list of cameras which have a clean HDMI out are small but growing. Unfortunately my Sony NEX-7 and 5R don't have clean outputs but my Hero3 cameras and Canon XA-10 do so I should get a lot of mileage out of the recorder. I'm hoping that in future Sony E-Mount cameras, there will be opportunity to use the Ninja. These small but powerful cameras have become a staple to the way I run my business.
Older Ninja kits came with 2 batteries and a hard carry case. This version only has one battery and no case but seems to come with a better quality hard drive USB dock and battery charger. Other than the Ninja 2 itself and 2 hard drive caddies, this is what comes in the box:
Atomos Ninja-2 power accessoriesLots of power accessories come with the Ninja-2 The AC adapter is a nice touch and the plethora of international plug adapters is nice as well. These Sony stye batteries are the same used with most of my video accessories so the charger will be a spare.
I've been playing for a few days now and I can say two things about it...it's bulky, heavy, and sturdy, plus it's incredibly user friendly. I'm used to my SmallHD DP4 monitor so this is a tank by comparison but way easier to use. the all on screen touch menu is a dream compared to the click-wheel menu system on the DP4. In playing with it for just a few minutes I was already recording. A quick scan of the online manual led me to the more advanced features. There aren't too many of those...it's pretty straight forward and does what it says without too much fluff. I intend to use mine as an easy to use touch screen recorder more than a monitor but I often record with more than one camera so having an extra monitor now should come in handy once in a while.
The 240GB drives record for hours...anywhere from 2 hours and 50 minutes to over 6 hours! depending on which quality setting you choose and at 24p. With two drives and some restraint on the record button, it's enough for any job and dumping footage to a computer is faster than ever thanks to a speedy drive and the included USB3 dock. 480GB drives are coming down in price and SSD drives in the Terabytes are becoming available so the room for growth is certainly there. There is no options other than ProRes or the Avid editing profiles (which are optional an unlocked with a special code from Atomos). It would be nice to be able to record to a high bit rate AVCHD or h.264 without 30 minute limits but it's not something which would be desirable all that often.
I haven't put it through it's full paces yet but that will happen soon. Here's what I've observed so far...