The Atomos Ninja Flame is one of my favorite pieces of kit! I was using it on a video shoot yesterday and I can tell you now, it is truly amazing.
Okay I know what you’re thinking… the Atomos Ninja Flame is hardly a budget piece of equipment, what is it doing on BudgetProPhoto.com?? When they were first released they were $1395 (£1295) each!
But that was three years ago, and the price new has come right down (£847 on Amazon.co.uk now, $795 on Amazon.com) and… more excitingly… they are starting to appear on the second-hand market!
That’s where I got mine, second-hand from Wex Photo and Video for an admittedly still eye-watering £580. But I’m going to explain why that was worth every penny.
Using an External Monitor
In my work I have used an external monitor for my camera for a couple of years now, but I’ve been using a super low-cost, budget monitor – the Neewer 7 inch NW759. I use it primarily when shooting video, but I also use it on most shoots as a client monitor. If you’re shooting in a studio then of course it is helpful to be tethered to a computer on a big screen. But if you’re on location a small monitor is much better than trying to show the client the back of the camera.
Why I Needed a New Monitor
As with all of my kits, I started cheap and only invested in a more expensive option later. When I find that I am using that kit regularly and there is specific functionality that the cheap option doesn’t offer me, then I upgrade. And even then I am only ever going to be looking at second-hand options.
I spent a few weeks researching, looking into what was available and deciding what I wanted this monitor to do. The Atomos Ninja Flame is not just a monitor. It is also a stand-alone external recorder – it has a 7.1 inch full HD monitor (not a lot of monitors do this, even if they say HD). And it has a processing unit and a hard drive on which to record.
Why do I need an external recorder? To be honest, I probably don’t. Not really. 90% of what I shoot ends up being displayed on websites, YouTube, Vimeo etc. And I wasn’t in the market for an external recorder when I started looking. What I wanted was specifically looking for was an external monitor that would do a better job than the Neewer 7 inch NW759 that I was using.
I was looking for three things – more reliability, better resolution, and more brightness.
I will write a review of the Neewer 7 inch NW759 monitor another time, and I’ll put the link here when it’s done. But to summarize – it is a perfectly decent, functional monitor.
It might be that I was a bit unlucky because my NW759 monitor is has a fault. About every 10 or 15 minutes the monitor will switch itself off and switch itself back on again, the whole cycle taking 30 to 40 seconds. Sometimes right in the middle of shooting. I spent a few weeks of testing with different cables and testing the HDMI-out ports on different cameras. Not until I had done that was I 100% certain that the monitor was faulty. By which point I’d used it so many times and had it for so long that I couldn’t return it. It will stay in my kitbag as a helpful backup to the Ninja Flame.
So that was what I was looking for – a straight external monitor. I started looking around at the options and discovered something quite quickly. With monitors, more so than many pieces of photo and video equipment, there really is a quality chasm between the super cheap and the high quality. The Neewer NW759 units cost $160 on Amazon, the equivalent size and resolution from SmallHD costs $1,499 on Amazon. And there really isn’t a huge amount in between.
New vs Used
After trawling the used photo and video gear websites for a couple of weeks, I eventually found this Atomos Ninja Flame selling for £580. It is one of the best monitors on the market. And for the same price as some alternative high quality monitor options, you also get all the video processing. And you get an external hard drive.
The Ninja Flame
Here’s how the Ninja flame works. Almost all good quality DSLR and mirrorless cameras will now have an HDMI-out socket, all Canons, Nikons, Sonys and Panasonics will.
What many people don’t realise is that this HDMI socket outputs a clean, uncompressed signal almost directly from the back of the sensor.
What your camera records to its CF, C-Fast, or SD card, is a heavily compressed video stream. The camera “sees” in extraordinary quality, incredibly high resolution. But it couldn’t possibly hope to cram all this information onto an SD card. So, it had it has to package it up in such a way that it can all fit onto a tiny card. The problem is, of course, that once the camera has done this, much of that wonderful clean, crisp quality that was there when the image arrived in the camera, is lost forever.
Internal Camera Recording vs Ninja Flame
What an Atomos Ninja Flame allows you to do is take the video signal before it gets squashed by the camera and crowbarred onto an SD card. It records that clean high-resolution image in a different way outside of the camera.
You can still record on the camera as well, you haven’t lost that. But it gives you a second option for both frame rate and resolution (and by resolution we mean compression).
Yesterday I was out shooting with a Sony A7R2 and the Atomos Ninja Flame unit. The A7R2, using PAL frame rates, can shoot at 25, 50, or 100 frames per second. At 100 frames per second it can only do 720p, not 1080p, and certainly not 4K.
The Ninja Flame’s Quality
I believe (I’m sure I read somewhere, but please correct me if I’m wrong!) that 50 frames per second is the maximum you can pump down an HDMI tube. So that’s the best an external recorder is ever going to do.
But with the Ninja flame attached to the A7R2 you can have the A7R2 recording at 100 frames per second in 720p, and the Ninja Flame recording at 1080, or 4K, at 25 frames per second. So you can keep shooting in max quality but also have that lower resolution high frame rate video as well. Amazing!
The HDMI feed leaves the camera before the image has been downrezzed to 720. The 720p for 100 frames per second is an artificial restriction placed on the internal workings of the A7R2 to allow reliable data recording. Clearly recording 100 frames per second is hard work for any camera. The camera is having to deal with four times the amount of information every second than if you were shooting at 25fps. So the A7R2 reduces the resolution to allow that data stream to be reliable.
So, having that extra recording option was extremely tempting on the Ninja flame. And when I found an option that was cheaper than a high quality monitor only, I snapped it up.
Ninja Flame Review
And here are my thoughts on the Ninja flame, after using it for five or six shoots.
It is amazing.
As with any piece of equipment, it is not absolutely perfect. Because there is no such thing as perfect. But it is very good. Here are my good points and bad points about the Atomos Ninja Flame.
Atomos Ninja Flame – good points
- The screen is a thing of beauty. It is clear, crisp, colourful and bright.
- It’s plug and play, initially. Despite all the options, and potential for complication, the Ninja Flame works right out of the box. You don’t have to send a day in the settings first. Just plug in your HDMI cable, switch it on and away you go.
- The screen is huge! Not only is it extraordinary quality, it’s also massive. If you’re going to go to the extent, expense and trouble of an external monitor, I never quite understand why anyone would choose to get a monitor that is only an inch bigger than a screen on the back of your camera. Go big or go home.
- S-Log – The monitor is set up and designed to handle log filming (S-log or C-log) as well as HDR, 4K, 50p/60p etc., it really is an advanced monitor. If you’re shooting S-log (on a Sony) you can choose to apply a LUT to the footage as it is displayed on the monitor. It will be recorded in that wonderful, flat, grey style of S-log, ready for grading later. But the monitor will display, in real-time and on playback, an estimation of what the image will look like post-grading.
- Unique 50/60p 4K recording, I don’t know of many recorders that offer that, and certainly not ones that are bonded to such a high quality monitor.
- Hot swappable batteries – I’m always amazed at how few options there are available that offer this functionality. What it means is that the monitor has two battery slots, and you can change one battery while the other battery keeps the monitor and recorder running. Which of course means, no need to ever break the action, or break an actor’s flow to change batteries on the monitor/recorder. Of course, the camera doesn’t have hot swappable batteries, so it’s a little meaningless, but it is a great feature. And it means you’re only watching the camera battery instead of all the batteries!
- Codecs – this is the Ninja Flame’s heavy hitter. You can record a 4K or 1080p image in DNxPro HD, or Apple Pro Res HD 422. So you get the maximum possible quality and the very best codecs available. Because the Ninja flame has a solid state external hard drive (not actually included! See bad points below) it is not concerned about drive space. This is about maximum possible quality and the best possible picture. And it really does give you an extraordinary high-quality picture. You pay for it in data storage, but it’s worth it. (For reference my Sony A7R2 recorded 39GB on the SD card yesterday at 100fps, the Ninja flame recorded 390GB at 50fps)
Atomos Ninja Flame – bad points
- Screen in sunlight – all the blurb about the Ninja Flame gooes on about the 1500nits of brightness. That is supposedly amazing. I don’t know what it means. But I was sold on “really bright screen” and the sales pitch says that you can even see it in really bright sunlight. This is crap, you cannot see anything, and you sure as hell can’t see enough to focus properly. I wouldn’t be at all bothered by this, except that Atomos claim you can see clearly. I also have a big issue with the fact that the Atomos branded sunhood costs £150 ($150)!!! For a piece of cardboard!
- Big and heavy – not as heavy as something this size could be, but handheld with two NP-F batts on the back, you notice it. (I shot this morning using a Sony A7R2 with MC-11 converter and Samyang 24mm decoupled lens on a Zhiyun Crane 2 with follow focus, plus the Ninja Flame, and it was HEAVY, my arms and shoulders are really aching now).
- Does not come with a hard drive – I’m guessing this is to keep the costs down. And Atomos would tell you it’s so that you can choose your own hard drive and therefore get exactly what you want. But what’s confusing is the difference between a hard drive and a caddy… loads of websites proudly claimed that they included two caddies with the Ninja Flame. But only with some research did I realize that this was just the plastic holder that you slot your own hard drive into. The Ninja Flame itself comes with nothing.
The conclusion – GET ONE!
Ummmm… I’m racking my brain, trying to think of anything else I don’t like about it, but I can’t really think of anything. It is an amazing monitor and recorder.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the footage recorded on the Ninja Flame IS noticeably and significantly better quality than the internal recording. I have compared them side by side and recording Apple Pro Res HD 422 gives an extraordinary crisp, sharp image.
Like I said at the top… worth every penny!
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Love and hugs, the BudgetProPhoto team x