Sony Alpha ILCE-7r First Impressions

March 20, 2014  •  2 Comments

Sony ILCE-7R with 24-70 F/4 Zeiss lens

When the Canon 5D MkIII came out, I was a happy Canon shooter. I was looking to upgrade to full frame and wanted to get onto the MkIII band wagon. The price was much higher than I expected and far outside my price range at the time. I was beginning to shoot video and was unhappy with Canon's choice to put crazy high value on cameras with strong video capabilities. The C series, the 1D-C, and even the MkIII...I wasn't Canon's biggest fan.

In a fit of defiance, I bought a Sony NEX-7 instead of a 5D MKII. Spec wise it was every bit as good as my Canon EOS 7D. I immediately fell head over heels in love and before I knew it I was selling all of my canon gear and owned an SLT-a99 and a NEX-5r as well. The small size, large sensors, and the ability to adapt to all of my vintage lenses had me hooked.

I knew that one day Sony would put a full frame sensor into a small mirrorless camera but I didn't expect it to be a 36MP sensor with the new 7r. I've waited a bit just in case there were bugs with these new cameras and despite a few groans from the peanut gallery about light leaks and other non-issues they seem to be fantastic cameras. DXOMark has rated the 7r sensor as one of the best they've tested.

Last week I picked up a 7r and in just a few photo shoots it's living up to all of my expectations. I'm still in the process of evaluating it but there's a very good chance it will replace my a99 as my primary camera. I'll be comparing the 7r to my a99 and my NEX-7 and a Metabones Speedbooster.

Having only used it for a few days, I can give my first impressions about the camera...

The size is perfect. Very reminiscent of old 70's SLR cameras like my Minolta film cameras. For medium sized hands it's perfect. If you have big mitts it might not fit well but there is a battery grip available which might help solve that issue. The camera is small enough that I'd be happy using it for street photography and big enough that I can use it for professional work without getting any doubts from my customers expecting the 'big black camera'.

The sensor is fantastic. The resolution, while too much for many people, suits my commercial photography work perfectly. If you pay attention to the DXOMark data, the ISO performance is very close to the more expensive Nikon D800, D4, and Canon 1DX...far better than the a99, which I was happy with....and all much more expensive cameras. I've taken a few shots at ISO 6400 and forgot to apply noise reduction to in post production because the noise wasn't bad enough. Dynamic range is fantastic, especially at ISO 50. This camera also lets you use multi-frame noise reduction which takes 4 sequential photos and merges them to reduce noise. It softens the image but it's very effective. In good light, the level of detail is unlike anything I've seen outside of medium format film scans.

The menus system is much more intuitive than in previous NEX cameras...a welcome feature. It's all new so requires some getting used to but it's much easier to find what I need so learning it won't take long. Hopefully Sony will figure it out and put the same menu in all their cameras soon.

The autofocus isn't amazing. As good as any other contrast detection only NEX camera. Quick enough in daylight and hopeless in the dark. For most of my work I'm focusing manually using the focus peaking or focus assist zoom anyhow and I don't shoot anything like sports where lightning fast AF is required. Thanks to the digital viewfinder, pair this camera with a fast lens and you can focus manually in ambient light far too dark to see well with the naked eye...try that with your Canon DSLR! This is another reason I'm shying away from the a99. I don't use it much now with autofocus and using it exclusively with manual focus lenses makes the translucent mirror technology useless.

At 4-ish fps, it's very slow but still in the ballpark of the 5D MKIII. The type of photography I do doesn't need a high speed frame rate and on the rare occasion that I do, both my NEX-7 and 5r cameras can do 10fps so I have alternatives which are faster than anything reasonably priced which Canon was offering at the time I decided to switch brands.

Video recording doesn't appear to have any major issues. My NEX-7 cuts out due to heat fairly easily but the a7r can record for hours at room temperature without issues. With the addition of exposure zebras and what seems to be very good video autofocus control, it's an excellent video camera. The only thing missing is the higher bit rate codec but I'm still on the fence as to how important that is. Being able to shoot 60fps at a full 1080p is a much more useful feature to me.

High ISO video recording is also possible. All of my other cameras have a ceiling of ISO 3200 when it comes to shooting video. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the a7r will let you record all the way up to 25,600. I'm sure this looks terrible but it's nice to have the option.

The silent control dial is something I'll miss. My favourite feature of the a99 is the programmable silent control dial on the front which lets you control settings in real time during video recording without causing any noise. This is absent on the a7r. The a7 cameras have the advanced interview ISO hot shoe just like the a99 which means it works with the XLR adapter. I mainly used the silent control dial for audio gain anyhow but the XLR unit has analog dials which supersede the dial. With the XLR adapter I used it to control ISO on the fly silently. The A7r is no worse than most other DSLR style cameras which shoot video so it's not really a minus in the grand scheme.

Speaking of the XLR unit; it's a must have for video because you need to go into the menu to control audio gain in camera on the a7r much like the Canon 7D. Very annoying. When not using the XLR adapter, I'm shooting using dual system audio and have the in-camera set to auto-gain anyhow so it's still better than my previous workflow where dual system audio was the only choice I had. Given the small size of the 7r body, it's much easier to mount than on a full sized camera. Handling the 7R with the XLR adapter on a bracket feels very natural where as on my a99 it feels bulky and awkward.

I bought mine with the 24-70 f/4 Zeiss lens...a great little lens for the money. This lens is about the perfect size for this camera as a stabilized zoom. Any bigger and it might get awkward. The stabilization works well and lets this lens operate in lower light just fine. It's easy to get hooked up on f/2.8 but for live events, parties, and street photography I've come to prefer stabilization as the depth of field becomes too shallow at f/2.8. I'll be curious to see what it's like with the new 70-200 f/4 FE lens. With the 24-70mm lens, it fits perfectly in my Thinktank Urban Disguise shoulder bag with lots of room left for a flash and a fast prime lens without getting crowded or overly heavy...one of my beefs with spacious shoulder bags. By contrast, my NEX-7 is swimming in this bag and the space is wasted. It's possible to put all three mirrorless cameras with lenses in this bag and still have room for an extra lens or a flash in a configuration which makes them all easy to scoop out as needed. Much more convenient than a backpack...My Thinktank streetwalker pro might have become cavernous and obsolete.

I'm on the fence right now as to the fate of my a99. I have a strong feeling that I'll be selling it along with all of my a-mount autofocus lenses. if I need rocket fast autofocus (which the a99 doesn't really have anyhow), I'll swap it out for the soon to be available a6000...currently claimed to have the fastest autofocus period...or a future full frame E mount camera which I'm sure will have better autofocus. I'll be conducting a bit of a test before I make that decision and will post the results here. I'll be throwing my NEX-7 and 5R (with a Metabones Speedbooster) into the mix so I can really tell which cameras are worth keeping around. One thing is for sure, I'm hooked on what Sony is cooking lately...

My happy little Sony familyForgive the quality of the photo...with all my cameras in the picture, this one had to be taken with my cell phone

 


Sony Playmemories Timelapse Camera App 2.0

February 07, 2014  •  13 Comments

One of my more recent camera purchases was a Sony NEX-5R. I like the combination of small camera with large sensor. One of the features of this camera is built in wifi and the ability to download/buy apps via the Sony PlayMemories system. Some of these apps are amazing and some still need a bit of work. One app which I was happy to see added was a timelapse app. I've used the timelapse app quite a lot as it's far more convenient than connecting my other cameras to an intervalometer type device. I've even had the opportunity to shoot for Sony Canada using the camera when I helped them document a release event for the RX1 last year. Several Sony NEX and Alpha cameras now feature app support including the latest greatest A7 and A7R models.

I'm a huge fan of timelapse video and it's a mainstay for much of my video production projects so this was an exciting addition for me. Version 1.0 of the app featured some presets for popular scenes and the ability to customize all of the settings manually. The camera can either bake the final video in camera at 24p or 30p...or shoot a series of stills for external processing...including RAW files with full manual settings! The app even tells you how long your video will be as you set the number of photos and the interval. Unfortunately the number of shots is capped to 990 but this is still plenty for many lapses.

Having the camera create the video in camera sounds great and it can be handy for quick turn around time or fun little videos. In practice it leaves zero room for error compared to shooting individual images...especially RAW images. For example the sunrise preset allows you to change many settings but locks white balance at 5500k. On a cloudy day, especially in the winter, the final video looks pretty blue. Exposure can be off as well. Shooting RAW images can help correct both of these issues. You can't stop and restart the camera when it makes the video in camera and if the battery dies prematurely, you lose the final video.

Version 2.0 just came out and Sony added what they call exposure tracking in the sunrise and sunset preset modes plus the custom mode to smoothly adjust the exposure through the timelapse recording. Getting this exposure correct is the holy grail of a good sunrise or sunset timelapse so I was very curious to know if it would work. Normally you have to babysit the camera and make exposure adjustments as the day gets brighter or darker and then blend everything together in post. Software like LRTimelapse can handle this quite easily but having it taken care of in the camera could save a significant amount of time by allowing me to let the camera run without me AND by requiring less work afterwards to process the images. This is especially the case if you can't babysit the camera to check and adjust the exposure manually.

Here's a quick video showing the interface and menu options. As you can see there is a surprising number of settings you can adjust from the menu.

Playmemories Timelapse App 2.0 Menu

I wanted to test this out to see if it actually works as advertised. I know from playing with hacked cameras in the past that it's entirely possible to have a camera average out it's exposure to eliminate the variation of exposure from frame to frame which results in a flickering effect in the final video. Normally I shoot RAW and then use software to adjust the brightness of each frame up or down accordingly to create a flicker free smooth transition through the video.

With Aperture priority mode, the meter in the camera adjusts the shutter speed as light increases or decreases. The tracking program in the timelapse app prevents the shutter speed from changing wildly from shot to shot. Most of my tests showed the shutter speed change in a very regular and even way. None of the test videos I shot required deflickering as part of the editing process. The only issue is that the exposure is based on meter readings so it's not perfect. Strong backlight (like from a setting sun) can under expose the foreground significantly. Shooting RAW stills instead of the video mode allows this to be corrected during the edit.

As always, I used the view of the front street from my living room as a test. 990 frames and 1 minute intervals (the max), the camera will run for 16.5 hours. This requires the AC power adapter. And with temperatures running around 20 below, I didn't want to do it outside either. The two videos below show just how effective the exposure tracking is. Shot with the NEX-5R and the Sony 16mm pancake lens at f/9 and a daylight white balance. The first is the straight out of camera images converted to video. The exposure is pretty good but the white balance doesn't leave for a flattering video. The second was processed with Lightroom 5 and LRTimelapse allowing for a slightly different crop, full retouching of the images, and a smooth transition in white balance between night and day scenes. The result is significantly different. Both videos have been sped up 2x so that the 16.5 hours runs in 16.5 seconds.

Playmemories Timelapse App 2.0 Test Unedited

Playmemories Timelapse App 2.0 Test Edited These videos also demonstrate some of the finer details of shooting a timelapse. It's very important you know everything about the scene you're shooting. When I set up the camera at 4am I carefully cleaned the glass and shielded it from glare with a lens hood. What I didn't realize and what I didn't notice until I saw the final images is that the outside of the window was also dirty. This is obvious when the direct sunlight is coming in later in the video. There are also reflections from some light in my living room later in the video that I didn't anticipate. If this were a video of a one off event, I would have seriouly compromised the quality of the final product by not considering these things before hand.

On another note, one of the common criticisms I hear of the Sony cameras is battery life. With an EVF, constant liveview, and a smaller than average battery, it's assumed battery life is poor. In the majority of my tests, getting 720 or more shots and over 2 hours of continuous shooting was no problem. Even in cold temperatures, getting over 400 shots was no problem. For lapses with very long intervals and a high shutter count upwards of the 990 limit, I use the AC adapter.

This is a great addition to an app that I already welcomed with open arms. The 5R is very small and easy to mount in strange places making it a perfect camera for shooting timelapse video with the camera placed remotely or where it's inaccessible. I'll certainly be putting this to good use in the future.


Lens Review - Tamron 200-500 f5.6 SP

January 20, 2014  •  4 Comments

If you've been keeping up with my blog, my Facebook page or my Twitter feed, you know I'm a fan of old lenses and Tamron Adaptall lenses in particular. There weren't many great lenses made with Adaptall mounts but I have most of the lenses worth owning. One which I'd always wanted to try was the 200-500mm f/5.6 SP. This was the pro equivalent of their 200-500 variable aperture consumer lens and came in two versions before they stopped making them in 1992 after nearly a decade of production.

First Impressions

I found mine in mint condition at a local pawn shop for $300 including the stitched leather lens cap to cover the massive 95mm filter threads. While many of these lenses weren't worth much when they were new, this lens was worth thousands...enough that on a 1983 B&H Photo price list I dug up on the internet, it's the only lens that said "CALL" in the price column. There really was no lens like it when it was new and even today there aren't any modern equivalents even from the deep lens catalogs of Canon or Nikon.

My copy came with the lens cap and an internal Skylight filter but not the fancy case it would have come in when it was new. Despite that it's in fantastic shape and looks like it's rarely been used. I knew it was a good deal but when I got it home and had a chance to check the numbers, I learned that this was the second generation version of this lens which was an improvement over the original design which wasn't an 'SP' lens and only had a constant aperture of f6.9...bonus!

The lens itself is a beast and like all well built classic lenses it's all metal and glass. The zoom is completely internal and the focus spins and extends the whole front of the lens. It has huge 95mm filter ring surrounded by an integrated hood. With the hood and focus fully extended it's VERY long. One note about the filter size. I don't intend to use this with any kind of filter on the front. This lens has an internal filter which can be removed on a tray out the side of the lens. It's much easier to carry and buy 43mm filters than 95mm filters. The front element is recessed enough that I'm not all that worried about the need to protect the lens. It's going to be on a monopod or tripod nearly every time I use it so it should be fine. The lens has D-rings for it's own strap so if hand holding does ever happen, some additional security can easily be arranged.

The focus is smooth but not so tight that it won't creep slightly if you lower the lens straight down. The zoom ring is tight and everything works perfectly. It has a tripod foot which is pretty small and very close to the camera side. I immediately put a long Jobo lens foot on it so that it can be properly balanced on my tripod. with a camera such as my NEX-7, the pair is VERY front heavy.

The image quality of the lens is quite good. I wouldn't put it up against any of Canon's newest, biggest 300mm+ L primes but at $300 this lens is punching way way above it's weight. Stopped down the sharpness is pretty good and so far I haven't seen any big issues with flare, or vignetting. CA seems to be what you'd expect from a lens of this vintage and it's 30+ year old lens coatings. At larger apertures purple fringing is pretty bad but completely correctable in Lightroom so I don't consider it to be a big deal. Distortion isn't terrible and vignetting is only an issue at larger apertures.

The potential for a lens like this is pretty amazing when you factor the cost. With a crop sensor camera on it, the 500mm becomes 750mm and with a teleconverter (this lens was designed with teleconverters in mind like all long lenses) you can bring that up to 1050mm or 1500mm or even 2100mm full frame equivalent if you stack both of them on there and throw a crop sensor behind it!). There's loss of quality of course but it's always a compromise with devices like that. Tamron made a limited edition 2x teleconverter specifically for this lens. I'm always on the hunt for one but few were made and they are exceptionally rare. I have both of the regular 1.4x and 2x SP teleconverters...both were easy to find in good condition and dirt cheap. If shopping for a 2x Adaptall TC keep in mind that the element on one side protrudes and will actually touch down first when you set it down. I looked at 6 or 7 before I found one that didn't have scratching in the centre of the element. Look for one with caps at least. They're both common and unpopular enough that you can pick them up new in the box off eBay for very little money.

Performance

Despite having a constant aperture, this lens needs lots of light. Shooting hand held on an overcast day shutter speeds need to be in excess of 1/1000 to get a sharp image especially since you need to stop the lens down to at least f/8 to the best image quality out of it. In my testing on one day in particular I needed an ISO setting of 2000 to 3200 in the middle of the day to get the best quality images. For the tests I did below I really needed to wait for a clear sunny day so that I had as much light as possible to work with.

I took the lens out for a dry run with my Sony a99 and NEX-7 to see what it could do with both a full frame and crop frame sensor and with the teleconverters to see how far I could stretch things and how much they would impact quality. The above photos was taken with the a99 at 500mm hand held at Elk Island National Park of a lone wandering buffalo. The lens let me get a close shot without having to get TOO close. the overcast day forced ISO very high and the image had to be sharpened and adjusted in Photoshop before it looked passable. A monopod would have made things much easier but this guy came out of nowhere and it was this shot or nothing that day. This is certainly a lens that makes you plan your shots...especially with the lack of autofocus.

A quick side note in regards to the Metabones Speed booster. I tried mine with the NEX-7 and this big lens thinking that I'd be able to turn it into an f/4, 500mm powerhouse of a lens. It's a nice sentiment but unfortunately the speed booster doesn't work all that well with long lenses which have very wide rear exit diameters. Unfortunately with this lens there is some hard vignetting. It can be cured with a about a 1.1x digital zoom in camera but it's not really worth the hassle. Normally the crop factor you get with a crop sensor is a desirable trait with lenses this long as it makes a long lens very long.

The most common comment I get regarding my use of old manual focus lenses is the lack of autofocus. It's amazing to me how many people think that without autofocus, it's impossible to get things in focus...especially if they're moving. On a modern DSLR this can be true as the with most cameras the only focus assist comes in the form of a live view zoom. On both my Sony a99 and NEX-7 which have focus peaking and electronic view finders, getting focus is relatively easy. True capturing fast action isn't going to be nearly as easy but with practice it's not hard at all. With peaking AND the focus assist zoom, it's possible to be MORE accurate than the built in autofocus at the cost of speed.

Testing an old lens like this takes a bit more care and attention than a modern lens because of the lack of EXIF data. I actually have to take paper notes to remember my aperture and zoom settings for each frame so I can report them back here. For this reason I kept things fairly simple.

I took a series of boring photos from my living room of the HVAC unit on the roof of the building across the street from my condo. It's very uninteresting but has everything I need to test a lens. Dark and light areas, a strong contrast in front of the bright sky, and stickers with very fine print (especially from a couple of hundred feet away).

The lenses I used for these comparisons were:
Tokina AT-X Pro 80-200mm f2.8 zoom for Sony/Minolta
Tamron Adaptall 200mm f3.5
Nikon Nikkor 180mm f2.8 Ai-S ED (modified for Sony/Minolta mounting)
Tamron Adaptall 200-500mm f5.6
Tamron Adaptall 1.4x Teleconverter
Tamron Adaptall 2x Teleconverter
Vivitar 500mm f/8 Mirror lens

Photos were taken with all lenses at similar focal lengths and aperture ranging from wide open to f16. I won't post all of those boring photos but here are some interesting comparisons I made. The below photo is 4 lenses at 200mm (or close) and with apertures wide open.


These lenses all turned in an average performance. The 80-200 zoom was my least favourite but I've since created a correction profile for the lens which fixes the CA and vignetting very well. The 200mm Tamron prime lens showed poor contrast and some colour shifting which is easier to correct in post but left the images straight out of the camera very flat. The 180mm Nikon and Tamron 200-500mm lenses were my favourites despite some vignetting; both showed good results considering their age. Stopped down to around f8 or f11, all lenses performed as is to be expected with the primes looking sharper than the zooms. The Tamron 200mm prime still has contrast issues and the newest lens of the bunch, the 80-200mm Tokina is OK but not as good as the other lenses.

500mm mirror composite500mm mirror composite
Mirror lenses have been around for ever and the design hasn't changed much over the years. My copy is made by Vivitar and is a perfect example. For a 500mm lens it's very short and very light weight. As you can see from the image above, the image quality is typically poor, the aperture is fixed, and the bokeh looks wonky. Here you can see just how big a difference there is between a good mirror lens and a proper zoom with glass in it.on

DSC00001-2DSC00001-2
This above photos is not a crop but rather the combination the NEX-7, the 200-500mm lens and both teleconverters. This provides a 35mm equivalent of 2100mm!!! My experience with teleconverters in the past had me convinced that this image would be the worst of the day but I was pleasantly surprised. Of all the photos in this review this is the only one which has been edited just to show what's possible. No sharpening just some adjustments to boost the contrast a bit. I never expected to be able to read the fine text on the stickers of the HVAC unit. For some scope on how long this is, here's the view around 50mm...

Conclusion

The Tamron 200-500mm f5.6 SP lens is an excellent lens. Certainly there are better lenses but for the price that this lens can be found, you won't find anything else to compare it to. It's a bit soft wide open like many lenses but is much improved around f11. There is magenta fringing in the high contrast areas of an image but it's easily corrected in Lightroom. Manually focusing this lens is easy thanks to the focus assist feature of the Sony cameras and would make a fine wildlife lens. It's a pain to handhold but it can be done. This lens is also shows a good contrast...possibly better than any of the other lenses tested.


Random Photo Day - Hazy Poplars

January 16, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Hazy PoplarsHazy PoplarsPoplar trees on a hazy winter afternoon in Elk Island Park.

 

A photo of some poplar trees on a hazy winter afternoon in Elk Island Park. The light was poor and the Buffalo were nowhere to be seen.

Photo was taken with a Sony NEX-7 and Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 M. It was HDR processed in Photomatix.

 


Atomos Ninja-2 - Part 3 - Field Test

December 20, 2013  •  2 Comments

Please be sure to catch parts one and two of this three part post...

 

For this test I'm going to be using a few set ups to get some test results. First I'll be using both the Atomos Ninja-2 and the SmallHD DP4-EVF with my Sony SLT-a99 on my newly rebuilt shoulder rig in some real world testing. I'll also be using it to record from my Canon XA-10 and from a GoPro Hero3 Black. In all cases I'll be recording in both devices at the same time for some A-B side by side samples.

The XA-10 is a camera I keep expecting to grow out of but always find a use for. Last year it was Canon's smallest, least expensive pro camcorder (now replaced with the XA-20). It has all the features standard to a pro video camera which aren't present on DSLR style cameras making it a perfect camera to set and forget. I honestly wasn't sure what to expect from pairing the Ninja with this camera but it's on the compatible list of cameras so it needs to be tried. The XA-10 is the most storage friendly camera I have as it has 64GB of internal memory and two SD slots. With the ability to span recordings from one slot to the other, the capacity for long recordings is unmatched...especially with lower quality compression. As a favour I filmed a local seniors association christmas theatre show using the XA10. It was the perfect opportunity to see what the Ninja could do.

The first thing I noticed was the weight. Clamped to the handle of a fluid head combined with a lightweight camera like the XA-10, the fluid head had to be locked often to keep it from falling over. It took some repositioning before I found a neutral balance. Compared to the small, light XA-10, the Ninja is a boat anchor.

The other thing I noticed was that the screen was far brighter than the built in screen on the camera...not brightness brighter but exposure brighter. Images which were properly exposed (or appeared to be) on the camera screen looked blown and washed out on the Ninja. This was both annoying and made it difficult to use the Ninja-2 without the built in monitor.

I tested zebras and peaking on the Ninja and found that with both turned on, the image becomes so cluttered and noisy combined with the above exposure issues that it's nearly impossible to see what's going on in the scene. This is especially true with scenes with small, fine detail...like the wide shot of a choir.

That said, the ease of use was phenominal. The XA-10 touch screen interface is bulky and cumbersome by comparison. As a recorder, it's simply amazing.

The audio meters on the Ninja-2 are also much more advanced and finely detailed than those built into the XA10...I liked this a lot. Switching meters off on the camera de-clutters the screen some what...a good thing if the screen is already small and cluttered.

The filming took place in a community centre gymnasium with some harshly coloured LED stage lights and little else other than the fluorescents in the ceiling...a good test in other words as I wanted deep shadows...typically where AVCHD falls flat.

****As a quick aside...I'm having issues with the USB dock for reading the hard drives. As of this writing, I'm using the hard drive in a different enclosure (modified to fit the Atomos drive casings) while I go through the trouble ticket process with Atomos...which hasn't impressed me so far****

The results of this test were a bit shocking. There's almost no difference between the footage recorded at 24p 24Mbps AVCHD and the ProResHQ recorded by the Ninja! The video looks identical and only freeze frames blown up to 400% or more show the slight differences. I didn't even bother posting a comparison video...it's just not worth it. Below are TIFF rips from the footage actual size and blown up so you can see for yourself.

This is the original frame...

XA-10XA-10

And here are the blow ups of the XA-10 and Ninja-2 side by side...the only place you can see a difference...


XA-10XA-10 Ninja-2Ninja-2

If you look closely enough, there is a tiny bit more detail in the Ninja-2 though in many of the shots that just resulted in more gain noise than actual detail. The AVCHD compression does a good job of cleaning up the noise to reduce storage requirements.

I can only conclude that in this case the AVCHD codec is optimized for the small sensor in the XA-10 and that other than for workflow benefits, there isn't much reason to use the Ninja with this camera. In my case that's a relief. I can continue to use the XA-10 as I always have without worry that I could be getting more out of it.

My test with the a99 as much more controlled. In this case I set up a simple scene in my living room and recorded using several combinations of camera and Ninja settings to see what would result. At higher ISO ambient conditions, the results were similar to that with the XA-10. I think there's just too much noise when the ISO or gain is high for the Ninja to really stretch it's legs. When I set up another scene in front of some big windows and got the ISO down to 400, then I started seeing some interesting differences. 

At 24p, as with the XA-10, the difference can barely be noticed. In the first shot of my dog Ellie sleeping, and at an ISO of 3200, I can't tell any difference between the internal 24Mbps AVCHD codec and ProResHQ. In the second shot of a couple of my cameras, there are slight differences in sharpness and detail but you have to blow up the image several times it's normal size to even begin to notice. This scene was shot at ISO 400. Both were shot with a Nikkor 180mm ED Ai-S at f/2.8

This second example is just of the cameras but at various camera and Ninja settings. I was surprised to see that there were strange interlacing problems with shots taken at 30p (60i according to the camera). These issues reduced detail in the Minolta's faux leather grip and in the lettering on the front of the lens significantly. There was also a moire introduced on the ridges of the focus ring. This was recorded by the Ninja-2 when recording at 60i but not at 30p with a 2:2 pulldown. With the pulldown the images look as sharp as they do in 24p. In this example at least the Ninja-2, set up correctly, showed a great improvement of image quality. I likely didn't notice this before because I almost never shoot 30p. The majority of my footage is 24p, with 60p shot for overcranking.

On that note, it appears to be possible to record 60p in the camera and 30p in the Ninja-2 at the same time without issue. The only problem being selecting an appropriate shutter speed.

If you work with ProRes a lot, there are definite benefits to using the Ninja. With enough footage recorded, transcoding to ProRes HQ alone can take at least several hours even with a fast computer. If you're like me and do everything on a MacBook Pro, that pretty much stakes claim to your computer resources and sets your project behind from the start.

Speaking of MacBook Pro computers, the drive dock which comes with the Ninja-2 has dual USB ports. One for data and a supplimental one for extra power. The Macbook pro only has one USB on each side making plugging both in without a hub impossible.

So where does that leave me after this completely unscientific test? Well I have to say that it's an impressive piece of technology but doesn't quite live up to all the hype. As a monitor, I wasn't impressed. It does an OK job but compared to my SmallHD DP4, it really fails. The Newer models of Atomos recorders now come with the ability to adjust screen settings using a monitor calibration unit but this option isn't available on the Ninja.

As a recorder, I'm very happy with the controls and the ease of use. I like editing in ProRes so this can save me a lot of time. Even more if I edit directly off of the hard drives that the Ninja-2 records to. I have to admit that I was expecting amazing things from the ability to record straight to a very high bitrate ProRes file but the results didn't knock my socks off. I'm not sure if that's because the latest AVCHD codecs are that good or because the HDMI output is still only 8 bit 4:2:2 compared to the 4:2:0 captured in camera. I'm sure in time I'll find scenes where the Ninja puts that to good use but in the examples I've tested with, they're nearly identical. It may come into play when images require a lot of colour grading and post processing.

In the writing of this article I found a good one about recorders at B&H Photo which explains a lot of these funny terms and technologies. If you're curious about reading a thing or two about it, check it out here.

Because of what the unit can do, and despite what it doesn't to well enough for me, it's still been a good purchase and I'll be using it on a regular basis with my video work. Because of my disappointment with the monitor quality, I might have been better off with the Blackmagic Hyperdeck Shuttle but I'm not a fan of designs with built in batteries which have to be recharged...seems like a recipe for a bad day in the field. The bottom line is that this is a piece of hardware which compliments the rest of the system and doesn't have to take the place of the internal codec.

 

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