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Atomos Ninja

| September 18, 2010

Announced during IBC 2010 was the Atomos Ninja a new Portable High Quality Video Hard Disk Recorder for DSLR Cameras priced at £795+.
The Atomos Ninja offers to by pass in camera compression to record your pristine, uncompressed images straight from your DSLR or camcorder’s HDMI out only (no SD HD SDI) then directly to Apple ProRes – while you’re recording! Units available December 2010.

We know from checking that one of the guys involved with the Ninja is ex Blackmagic Design so they have a good background for this sort of stuff.
What we are unsure of is the blanket claim of being able to read and record straight off cameras sensors.

You can retain all the visible quality of the original pristine video, straight off the sensor, and you can record it for hours, not minutes.

Good news if true for Canon 5D MKII 7D 550D/T2i etc cameras and the people who run them.
Trammell Hudson has said in an interview that when you hit 5X and 10X zoom on the Canon cameras to check focus then that is a clean read off the sensor that you see.

Have the Atomos Ninja guys worked out reading and recording sensors clean from low end cameras; the mid range cameras? Or have Atomos worked out successfully how to read and record clean images off high end cameras? We will have to wait till December to find out just how clean and uncompressed the images come out.

Enter The Ninja from Atomos Video on Vimeo.

Here is The Atomos White paper:

The Atomos Ninja Advantage

The Atomos Ninja (Ninja) unlocks even greater quality from your HDMI-equipped DSLRs, and gives you the potential for virtually unlimited storage. With a built-in monitor screen, easy-to-use controls and a professional-quality codec, it’s the essential companion for your video-capable digital camera.

This white paper is for Video Professionals and Photography Professionals who would like to be, or are already recording high quality video using HDMI-equipped Video Cameras or HD Video-capable DSLRs including compact digital cameras.

Contents:

1. Introduction and background
2. Ninja overview
3. Ninja’s quality advantage
4. Ninja’s storage advantage
5. Ninja’s workflow advantage
6. Conclusion: Ninja transforms the way you work with video

1. Introduction

It’s easy to forget that the first digital cameras were basically terrible. No matter how clever the technology seemed at the time, they were really little more than a clever trick, because there was no getting away from the fact that they took pictures worse than a freeze-frame from an old VHS tape. A picture of a horse could just as easily be a camel, or an old Volkswagen.

Then, about ten years ago, we entered the era of the megapixel. Digital cameras with more than a million pixels started producing images that looked like photographs. As long as you didn’t make them too big, the advantages of shooting digitally started to take over from the drawbacks.

Surprisingly soon after that, camera sensors appeared with more pixels than high definition video cameras: around 2 1/2 megapixels.

A few people at the time asked whether these cameras could be used as HD camcorders, and were told by the industry that even though the picture resolution was good enough, it simply wasn’t possible to get all that data off the image sensor quickly enough for video, and that, even if you could, there would be too much of it to store in the camera.

All of that was true then. But it certainly isn’t now.

With camera sensor resolutions into double-figure megapixels, and incredibly powerful on-camera processing, sensors are now capable of supplying HD video at full frame rates. Meanwhile, the industry has adopted HDMI as an uncompressed video connection from the camera to the outside world, HD flat screens are now ubiquitous, and computers are powerful enough to edit even HD video.

In a way, it couldn’t be better. Cheap HD cameras. Movie-type effects with a wide variety of lenses. Superb low-light performance. It’s a great time for photographers to broaden their professional horizons and start to work with video.

Almost everyone is impressed the first time they see the quality of video you can get from a good digital still camera; mostly because DSLRs have great lenses. People aren’t used to seeing video with a narrow, controllable depth of field, which is what large sensors and wide-aperture lenses bring to moving pictures. The movie industry has known about this for almost a century.

But it may surprise you that the video you see played back from a DSLR isn’t as good as it could be. Look closely and you’ll see that it sometimes looks “blocky”, and where there are sharp edges, they might have “fringes”. Film a field of grass, or a hedge that’s moving in the wind, and you’ll probably find that there’s very little detail; just a mass of fizzing green blocks.

The reason? Compression. There’s so much data coming off the sensor that it would fill up the camera’s solid-state storage in no time at all. And even if you had enough memory, it probably wouldn’t be fast enough. So the camera compresses the video data to make it fit on the memory card and to lower the bitrate, and it does this by sacrificing quality. This is exactly the opposite of what you want.

Ninja solves this problem. You can retain all the visible quality of the original pristine video, straight off the sensor, and you can record it for hours, not minutes.

Ninja has a host of other benefits as well, and we’ll look at these in the next few pages

2. Ninja overview

Ninja is an affordable field recorder for HDMI-equipped DSLRs, compact cameras and camcorders. It provides higher quality than in-camera recording, as well as virtually limitless storage.

Here’s the full list of Ninja features:

● Limitless, low-cost storage
● Better quality video than the camera’s own recording format
● Touch screen for User Interface and monitoring
● Hot-swappable drives
● HDMI input
● Lanc input and output
● Uses standard affordable Sony batteries
● Hot-swappable, “circular use” batteries for limitless battery use

Ninja preserves the original quality of the video by taking an uncompressed video feed directly from the camera, bypassing the camera’s own compression, and, instead, using a visually-lossless compression format that is not only kinder to the video, but makes editing easier and faster. Using your older, slightly slower computers for HD production for longer with Ninja’s workflow,

The price of 2 1/2” drives has plummeted. Ninja uses these fast, cheap storage devices to record at the lowest possible cost per gigabyte.

A built-in touchscreen doubles as a monitor for incoming and recorded material, and as a user interface for managing the device.

Clever, “circular” battery management means that you never have to run out of power during a shoot.

Better quality, unlimited storage, and a faster, more efficient workflow. All from one low-cost, highly portable device.

3. The Ninja quality advantage
How Ninja improves the quality of your recordings

The first digital cameras, with their extremely low-resolution pictures (by today’s standards) needed very little storage. A 32 MB (thirty two megabytes) memory card was enough for dozens of pictures.

Today’s 12 or 16 megapixel photos, if they’re stored as raw pictures, might need ten or more megabytes of storage each. Luckily, HD video’s resolution is lower than that: it’s only around 2.5 megapixels. The problem is that you need 24, 25, 30 or even sixty of these pictures per second.

Most of us are still just about old enough to remember floppy disks. They’d have been no good for storing HD video: you’d need around 75 of them per second for HD storage. For an hour of uncompressed HD, you’d have to find 270,000. That’s a pile nearly half a mile high: not exactly a practical proposition.

But floppy disks are long gone. In there place we’ve got several options: DVD, USB flash drives, etc.; each with hundreds of times more capacity than the humble floppy. But not even the fastest flash memory card can handle uncompressed HD data rates. We’re talking about somewhere between 1.5 and 3 gigabits per second. Only the fastest, most expensive disk arrays can record reliably at that speed.

Ninja’s aim is to provide cheap storage, and to do it in a way that improves quality. The trouble is, storage that can record uncompressed video isn’t cheap.

But Ninja has a solution that preserves the quality of your video while using cheap storage. It does it by using a different type of codec (a codec, “COder/DECoder”, is industry shorthand for a type of compressor): a professional one, called Apple ProRes.

Apple ProRes is Apple’s professional video codec. It compresses video very mildly. It’s a kind codec, visually lossless across many generations. In the video industry, it’s called an “intermediate” codec, which means that it is optimised for capturing and editing video. It is not designed as a “delivery” format. You edit with it, and then convert to whatever type of video you want to give to your client, or upload to YouTube or Vimeo.

Recording to Apple ProRes preserves the quality of the video much better than recording to one of the consumer “delivery” codecs like AVCHD, MJPEG or Long-GOP MPEG-2. These codecs, which are the ones that DSLRs and Pro Video Cameras normally record to, are designed to package video so that it occupies very little space. Their priority is low bit-rate rather than quality.

The bitrate-oriented codecs are incredible pieces of technology, but they have a serious drawback: they throw away so much information to achieve their low bitrates that there is very little of the original picture information left in the compressed video. As little as one fiftieth – or even less – is left to reconstruct a picture.

To be completely fair, they don’t do a bad job when they’re used in the right context. They only throw away information that shouldn’t be missed. But it’s not a perfect process. The video is so tightly compressed that it degrades very quickly if it is processed, or if it is re-compressed. This is exactly what happens when you edit a video.

The good news is that with Apple ProRes, it isn’t a problem.

Another issue is that the complexity of the delivery codecs means that it takes a lot of processing power to compress and uncompress them. This limits the ability of computer-based editing systems to work with multiple streams of material.

By recording to Apple ProRes, which is visually lossless, virtually all of the quality of the video from the sensor in the camcorder or DSLR is preserved, because you are bypassing the compression stage inside your camcorder/DSLR. Because of this, you will be able to edit your video in a higher quality than if you had recorded it on the camera/DSLR. In fact, using Ninja to record to Apple ProRes is about as close as you’ll get to recording “raw” video.

To use an analogy (which probably doesn’t bear too much technical scrutiny!), imagine that you need to store a famous and very valuable watercolour painting, but you haven’t got much space. Apple ProRes would be the equivalent of gently rolling it up. You could unroll it at some time in the future and it would look perfect.

Any of the Delivery codecs would store it in much less space but would do so by folding it, sharply, many times. They could make it fit into a very small space indeed.

But the drawback would be that the creases never come out.

Apple ProRes has several other advantages.

10 bit recording

In digital photography and digital video, the number of bits tells you how many colours can be reproduced. Simply put, each extra bit doubles the number of colours – so ten bits will give you four times more colours than eight bits. And, remember, the “8 bits” refers to a single colour channel. In video there are three colour channels, so if you add two bits to each of those, you get a big increase in the number of colours. It’s important because when you’ve got a gradual colour gradient – a blue sky, for example, if you haven’t got enough bits, you’ll be able to see the boundaries between colours. They look like contours on a map.

Even if your camera only outputs 8 bit video, it’s still better to work with a 10 bit codec, because all subsequent editing and processing will be done at the higher resolution. Imagine, even if your original was only 8 bit, adding a subtle colour tint. If you did that at only 8 bit resolution, you’d be adding contours to contours, whereas with 10 bit per channel resolution, you’ll get a much smoother effect. The bottom line is that it’s much better to work at 10 bit resolution than 8 bit, whatever the source of your video.

Higher Colour Sampling Resolution

Apple ProRes stores more spacial colour information than the delivery codecs. Think of a red object with sharp edges: a bus, or an old fashioned UK post box. Broadcast-quality video uses a system described as 4:2:2 to encode colour. Very broadly, it means that colour information is recorded with half the resolution of brightness information. This works perfectly OK and gives very good pictures, because we only need relatively low accuracy with colour information to be able to reconstruct a picture: our eyes and our brains do most of the work, filling in detail by implication rather than explicitly. So our red object will still look pretty sharp.

Consumer video tends to use another system, called 4:2:0. This gives even less colour accuracy, but is still capable of good results. The trouble is that if you repeatedly encode a scene with 4:2:0 colour sampling, the quality will degrade quite quickly. A red bus will look more like an outline surrounded by an vague cloud of red.

Colour resolution is a big concern with effects like colour correction and chroma-keying (where a subject is filmed against a blue or green backdrop, which is later replaced with a video of Times Square, Sydney Opera House, or a weather map), and can degrade the results drastically.

Variable bitrate encoding

Apple ProRes can vary its bitrate according to the material it is encoding. For a complex scene, it can use a higher data rate to ensure that all the detail in the video is accurately captured. Simpler scenes, like a sunset, or a “talking head” only have the bandwidth allocated to them that they need.

With Variable Bitrate (VBR), Apple ProRes is able to store video economically, but without the visual damage that occurs with fixed-rate codecs when their maximum bitrate is exceeded.

Record direct from the sensor

Recording directly from the camera to Apple ProRes is about as close as you can get to recording uncompressed or “Raw” video.

With still pictures, “Raw” has a very specific meaning. Raw pictures come direct from the sensor and have virtually no processing applied to them. Some people think of them as a “digital negative”. Each camera manufacturer – and sometimes each model within a range – has a slightly different Raw format – each needing its own specific software to decode it.

Photographers like working with Raw because they can apply their own tastes and preferences to the picture, without having pre-chosen levels of sharpness and colour-balance imposed on their work.

But the biggest feature of Raw pictures is that they are uncompressed. There’s more detail in Raw pictures because all the original data is still there.

It’s not quite the same with video, because there will always have to be some pre-processing in the camera to turn the output from the sensor – which might have, say, 14 megapixels, into a standard video frame-size, like 1920×1080 HD. Televisions and monitors expect to see video in standard sizes. The ability to get uncompressed video out of a camera is a huge advantage. Fresh and uncrumpled by severe compression, it will give better results, whatever format you choose for the output of your project.

In normal use, Pro Video Cameras and video-capable DSLRs take the raw output from the sensor, convert it to HD video resolution, and then pass it to the camera’s video codec, where it is compressed. To play back the video, the camera de-compresses it, and sends the resulting uncompressed video through the HDMI port to your television or monitor.

This is also how it would work if you wanted to “capture” recorded video from your camera onto your computer. Even if you were to use a capture card that allowed you to store uncompressed video on your computer, that material would already have been compressed in the camera: the damage would already have been done.

Ninjas workflow actually gives you better pictures than working with an uncompressed capture card, because it bypasses your cameras compression system.

It’s also worth mentioning that working with uncompressed HD data rates on a computer can be a challenge. You need very fast disk drives, and, you’ll be severely limited in the number of streams of video you can play simultaneously. Again, it’s better to work with Ninja and Apple ProRes for the maximum in editing performance at the highest quality.

4. The Ninja storage advantage

Apple ProRes is a mild compressor. It doesn’t reduce the bitrate or filesize by as much as MPEG-2 or AVCHD and similar. Because of that, it doesn’t reduce quality, either. But, also because of that, Apple ProRes files are much bigger than you could fit on your camera’s memory.

So Ninja lets you use extremely low cost hard drives to record directly from your camera’s uncompressed output, into Apple Apple ProRes. The type of hard drive that Ninja supports, 2 1/2” notebook drives, are easily big enough to store hours of HD material. These drives are the perfect size for swapping in and out of a Ninja in the specially-designed disk caddies.

Ninja’s versatle disk interface is designed to give you options that you can chose depending on the nature of your work.

If you’re working in a relatively static way that doesn’t expose the Ninja to harsh vibration or shock, then 2 1/2” drives are ideal. They’re fairly robust but you have to be careful with them, especially when they’re spinning.

For harsher environments, where there’s a lot of vibration and the possibility of moderate to severe shock, you should chose Solid State Disks. These are more expensive than spinning disks, but incredibly robust, and very fast. It’s easy to transfer your material from an SSD to another drive at the end or even in the middle of a shoot, so that you can re-use them immediately.

To sum up: If it’s bullet proof ruggedness you need then use SSD’s, but for milder use, choose cheaper, reliable hard hard disk. You always get the twin benefit of being able to edit and store video in a higher quality, and save money at the same time with low cost storage.

2 1/2” Hard Disk Drives are now so cheap that it makes complete sense to use them as a long-term storage medium as well. In fact, Ninja gives you all the advantages or recording to a hard disk, while retaining the reassuring “hold it in your hand and put it on a shelf” type of convenience associated with tape. Modern disk drives are incredibly reliable, and should last for years. In fact, they’re now an extremely viable archive medium.

It’s important to understand that Ninja is not just an external hard drive. It doesn’t download files from your camera. It works in a completely different way. It records video, directly from the sensor in the camera. This is the key to the advantages it brings: you’re not transferring already compressed files.

You can always archive your projects as a finished DVD or Blu Ray, but if you want to put an editable project into long-term storage, you can simply put your Ninja hard drives on a shelf. They’re so cheap that they’re the same or cheaper than the cost of tape storage – with the huge advantage that you can load your project back into an editing system instantly – without re-capturing.

Ninja makes it easy to work with hard disks. They’re small, lightweight, and easy to swap in and out. And because they’re designed for mobile use, they’re pretty robust – although you should always try to avoid subjecting them to harsh treatment, especially when they’re spinning.

5. The Ninja Workflow Advantage

We’ve already seen how Ninja can enhance the Pro Video Camera or DSLR video workflow, increasing quality and reducing costs. Here’s how it works in practice.

To make a recording, put your camera into “Live View” mode. This ensures that an HD video signal from the sensor is sent down the HDMI cable. Plug the cable into your Ninja, and select record. It’s that simple.

What’s happening here is that uncompressed video is being converted to Apple ProRes format, and stored onto Ninja’s hard disk, bypassing the compression stage in your camera.

When you’ve finished recording, take the disk out and – using the supplied adaptor – connect it to your editing computer in any of a number of ways: eSATA, Firewire 800 or USB2/3.

Once you’ve attached the Ninja media drive to your computer you can either copy the material across to your main drives, or you can edit directly from the Ninja drive. Either is fine, but of course if you’ve got extremely fast disks on your computer, you’ll find that you can edit more simultaneous streams of video in your edit if you copy the material to them.

How does Apple ProRes work in all of this? It works almost without you having to think about it.

If you’re using a Mac and editing with Final Cut Pro, then you don’t have to do anything. Just select Apple ProRes as the editing format for your project, and that’s it.

If you’re using a PC, you’ll have to download the latest version of Apple’s QuickTime. This will include a Apple ProRes codec that will show up in your editing software’s list of format options, if it is supported. Most packages will support it, so you can work with your Ninja-captured material seamlessly.

6. Conclusion: Ninja transforms the way you work with video

Ninja has the power to deliver better pictures, and cheap, virtually unlimited storage. It simplifies your workflow and works with any suitable HDMI-equipped camera.

If you’ve got several cameras you can use Ninja with all of them. For a complicated shoot, you can use Ninja to capture the images from the main camera, and then move it to a DSLR where you need a special Depth of Field effect or simply a wider choice of lenses.

And of course you can use several Ninjas for multi-camera shoot, when you can easily consolidate all the footage in your edit.

Ninja is small, dependable, and simple to use, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a hobbyist, semi-pro or serious film-maker: Ninja will transform the way you work with video.

Atomos website: http://atomos.com/

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Category: Camera Gear

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