As I wrote here: https://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2017/06/the-story-i-glossed-over-about-real.html I was a bit miffed at myself for not diving deep enough into the Panasonic fz2500 manual (page 180; thank you dear reader...) to know that, in addition to providing a clean 10 bit, 4:2:2 HD file over HDMI, the camera was also capable of providing the same configuration but in 4K (UHD). For a product that costs around $1200 this is an amazing feature. The closest competitor in the Sony realm is a dedicated video camera called the PXW-Z150 which sells for about $3200 (USD).
Once I'd been made aware of this capability I started researching to find out which external video recorder might be the best one for my needs. I settled on the Atomos Ninja Flame which provides the ability to accept the 4K files from my fz2500, but also from every single one of the Sony cameras I routinely use in my work.
The difference in the outputs to the card and to the camera are pretty big. The greater bit depth means more distinct colors while the move from 4:2:0 to 4:2:2 means less color interpolation. The payoff is when one goes to edit the files. The color transitions are
better and the color, overall, seems more accurate and true. I've been satisfied (for the most part) with the color and tonality I've gotten from the files I shoot in camera to SD cards (8 bit, 4:2:0) but I wanted to see if I could get better flesh tones and richer color by bypassing the camera's compression and limitations imposed by SD card speed.
I spent last night charging the two, large, Sony batteries for the Atomos Ninja Flame, and I also spent time reading the long version of the owner's manual. This morning I started pulling out cameras and figuring out the personality quirks of each. With the Sony you have to have an SD card in the camera in order to engage video at all. You also have to start the recording using the camera's red record button or you will be recording a smaller, less detailed file to the recorder. These are important things to know!
With the Panasonic fz2500 (which is not on the short "supported" list of cameras on the Atomos site) you don't need to have an SD card loaded and you can set up the camera to trigger the recorder when you use the camera's red, record button as well.
Consumer cameras like the RX10iii, the Sony A7Rii and the Panasonic fz2500 use file types with fair amounts of compression when they are set up to write to internal memory cards. The Sony's use an XAVC-s codec and the Panasonic uses a different type but both sets of cameras max out delivering 100 mbs. That's a maximum speed but not the routine speed of information writing to the cards. The rate is variable and depends on subject movement, noise, etc.
One of the major advantages of using an external recorder to capture the video is that the recorder can take uncompressed content and write it to a much less compressed and information-lossy file type like ProRes HQ. Or ProRes 422, or ProRes LT. With much more information to work with and many fewer processing artifacts to worry about the files are easier to color correct and exposure correct in post production editing.
When I edit in Final Cut Pro X I find I get the best results by transcoding the regular camera files to ProRes 422 when I import them. This takes time and is one more step of conversion which can cause some small image degradation. With the external recorder the uncompressed information from the camera is being written directly into the format which is optimal for the editing program. Win-win.
The only real downside of using an external recorder and writing 10 bit 4:2:2 files in ProRes is that the files are much bigger than the camera files would be and take up much more space. I bought the recorder with a 256 Gb SSD drive and when I look at the menu on the recorder I find that writing the files in ProRes 422 at 4K gives me about one hour of record time. If I wrote the files in the highest quality mode, ProRes HQ the 256 Gb SSD would give me about 36-38 minutes of recording time.
I'm quickly becoming interested (at least for my own fun work) in the compromises presented by using ProRes LT. But that's going to take some time to experiment with.
If all I used the Atomos for was recording 10 bit 4:2:2 video from the Panasonic I would feel I've overpaid for the privilege but the unit offers a bunch of amazing features that will make life on location soooooo much easier.
The unit is a 7 inch, high resolution monitor that can effectively be used outdoors on sunny days and remain readable. The unit comes with a full hood, if you feel you need one. It blows away the brightness of any of my camera screens and that's a plus for anyone who is working in and out of mice lighting.
The monitor screen itself is one of the best I've ever seen and can be hardware calibrated, if necessary.
The range of focusing aids, scopes, exposure aids and compositional aids is tremendous. All of a sudden I've got a vector scope, I can punch in for incredible fine focus (goodbye seeing focus problems on the RX10iii in manual...), I can see an RGB parade, have different flavors of focus peaking ---- you name it.
Since audio is bundled in the signal coming from the HDMI you'll be able to monitor audio via headphones even on cameras like the Sony a6300 which lack a headphone jack. You can also keep an eye on audio levels right on the Atomos screen ( a feature I really learned to love on my Aperture VS-2HD monitor).
The Ninja Flame can accept two of the ubiquitous Sony batteries and they are hot swappable. You can change out one while the other continues to power the unit. With the rapid charger and good battery management you should be able to use two batteries to cover most of a long shooting day.
One downside only. The unit, with the batteries attached, is too heavy to use in the camera hot shoe and, in fact, has enough mass that it makes even a cage mounted camera on a tripod too unstable when doing quick camera moves or touching the screen on the monitor to make changes. I've got mine mounted on a C-Stand right next to the camera and I think that's a smart way to go. I can bumble around with settings and not cause camera vibration. That works for me. If I need to work with the monitor directly on a cage I would use the hot shoe stabilizing connection point on the cage I'm using to make it more stable. But I'm not sure any of the 7 inch and bigger monitors were intended to be part of mobile, ENG configurations. That's why we have EVFs...
I've got a bit to learn but from what I've seen so far I am convinced that this is a big step in the right direction.
If you are considering buying one of these external recorders and you have an inkling that you may be using one with a Panasonic GH5 you might want to consider the step up to the "Shogun Flame" model. You get a few more pro features like SDI connectors and a balanced audio input but, more importantly, you can record at 60 fps in 10K. On the Ninja Flame you can only go to 30 fps at 10K.
Yes, you'll be able to record at 60fps, 4k in camera with the GH5 but I think if you do a lot of work you'll want to be able to write to ProRes as you shoot.
One more benefit to an external recorder is that in 8 bit settings you'll be able to write to the internal camera card and the recorder simultaneously which gives you both ProRes and a back up. Nice.
Let me know what I'm missing!
Here's what I bought:
You'll want to splash out for the accessory kit (it's extra) which gets you the case, batteries, charger, etc.
No card is included so you'll need to source a good SSD that is compatible. See Atomos.com for approved models. It's kind of a buying adventure....