April 22, 2011

Atomos Ninja Review

The Ninja, by Hong Kong/Australian company Atomos, is one of a growing group of on-camera recorders. These devices enable you to bypass the camera’s compression and record at a higher bitrate on those cameras that have non-compressed HDMI outputs (in the Ninja's case) or HD-SDI. [UPDATE: Atomos now has HD-SDI to HDMI and HDMI to HD-SDI Connect convertors that make it easy to add HD-SDI inputs to Ninja] [UPDATE 2: The Ninja 2 has been launched - better display, HDMI output, compatible with new AtomOS 3.0 firmware]

After a couple of delays due to software problems, the Ninja is now shipping and will be joined eventually by the Samurai, which will record using HD-SDI and have a larger, higher-resolution screen.

The Ninja comes in a handy hard carry case. The kit includes two hot-swappable hard drive caddies, two batteries with a dual charger and a docking station for the drive with FireWire 800, USB 2.0 and 3.0 and eSata connections.


All of these field recorders have three problems they are trying to solve.

First of all: image quality. For example the new Canon XF305 records 50Mbps 4:2:2 while Sony's EX1 and EX3 record 35Mbps 4:2:0 onto their solid-state memory cards. But, they are more than capable of exporting pictures of higher quality via their HD-SDI and/or HDMI sockets (the EX3 doesn't have HDMI, but the newer EX1R does). Field recorders allow you to tap into those higher quality images.

The Ninja records 10-bit ProRes HQ at 220Mbps, ProRes 422 at 150Mbps or ProRes LT at 100Mbps in hardware, and Apple has checked that it is "bit-for-bit accurate" (and gave its approval) according to Atomos CEO, Jeromy Young.

Most DSLR cameras record in H.264, a great codec for a video project ready for upload to the web, but not much fun to edit with. A separate recorder using a more edit friendly codec should make your editor happy and mean less time hanging around waiting for video to render or be transcoded.


Storage capacity. A 32Gb Compact Flash card will hold around 40mins of video at 50Mbps. Most professional cameras can hold two cards, but if you need to shoot a lot of video you will have to keep swapping cards throughout the day. Plus, you typically only have one copy, which can be worrying, especially if you are new to tapeless recording.

With the Ninja you record to a 2.5-inch 9.5mm-high laptop-sized hard drive – disk or solid state. These are not included in the kit but they are readily available. A 500GB drive will give you around five hours of recording time in ProResHQ, 7.5 hours in ProRes422 and 11 hours in ProResLT. Now you can shoot all day and/or have two copies, just in case.

Atomos recommend fast (7200rpm) hard disks rather than 5400rpm ones. If the disk is knocked during recording you may see the Skippy icon – a kangaroo in a yellow diamond – to let you know there is a problem.

If your shoot involves a fair bit of rough and tumble, you should consider buying the more expensive solid-state drives (SSD). At the moment Atomos only recommends Intel SSDs, but new drives come out all the time so it is a good idea to check its checked and approved list.

The drives fit inside the supplied master caddy for protection. If you buy extra drives you way want to buy an extra pack of five caddies for around £25.

screen grab showing 3.99Gb files

During my test of the Ninja I plugged it into a Canon XF105. With its infrared function I wanted to leave it recording the wildlife in my garden all night. With a large battery on the camera and two large batteries on the Ninja, I managed to record for up to ten continuous hours. When I looked at the drive the video had been chopped into 4GB sized files (around 4min 35sec in ProRes 422).


Power management: Having 11 hours of recording time is no use if the batteries can’t keep up. The Ninja has a dual battery system, using common Sony DV batteries. The two NP-F570 batteries in the kit offer around 4.5 hours of power. But, these are hot swappable, so when one depletes, it will switch to the second, and the first can be replaced. So, if you intend doing a long continuous shoot you shouldn’t have any problems. I have some spare Sony NP-F970 batteries, which still had plenty of juice to spare after being on for ten hours.

Ninja dual battery system

At the moment the Ninja only shows battery voltage remaining – not time remaining. This will be upgraded in a forthcoming firmware upgrade.

Battery info screen


The Ninja with both batteries and drive weighs in at 700g. It has standard 1/4-inch mounts on the top and base of the unit. You may want to buy a variety of 1/4-inch screw-to-cold shoe connectors – especially if they have a ball and socket joint to easily position the Ninja on the camera. I used a small articulating arm to mount the Ninja to my Canon XF305. Which allows you to position the unit exactly where you want it.

An articulating arm to help position the Ninja

You’ll also need an HDMI cable to connect the Ninja to the camera (it's not included in the package). There really is no need to spend a huge amount on expensive gold cables. If the digits go in and come out of the cable you’re fine. That said cheap cables may be OK round the back of the TV, but, might not survive the rough and tumble of being on the road. If the cable falls out during recording you will get the Skippy icon warning. If you are of a nervous disposition you might want to splash out on a locking HDMI cable.

The Ninja comes with a touch sensitive screen/monitor – so it could be used by a director as a video assist or perhaps by the sound recordist to check for a boom in shot.

DSLR users may find the Ninja monitor helpful when doing very low angle shots – when a typical DSLR screen is almost impossible to see unless you lie down on the ground. 

Ninja with Canon EOS7D

The Hague CamFrame

The monitor is there just for a confidence check that you are getting an image and composition is OK. It is not something I would use to help me with focus. But, if they add peaking in a future firmware upgrade DSLR users will find it more useful.

At the moment playback on the monitor is very blocky and stutters. But, Atomos already has that on its to-do list in a future firmware upgrade.


The Ninja interface is easy to master. So, if you don’t like reading manuals you’ll be OK. That said the manual is well written, with plenty of photos to guide you through the set up process.

Ninja Main screen

All the controls are via the touch screen monitor. When you switch on, four round buttons appear on screen - REC (record), PLAY, MON (monitor) and MENU.

Along the top of the screen the Ninja indicates whether there is No Input and once you plug into your camera what resolution and frame/field rate it is receiving.

Next to that it tells you which ProRes codec is chosen for recording. To change it just tap on the screen and it will cycle through the options. In the top righthand side of the screen you can see which battery is being used. If you tap on this you can find out how much battery voltage each battery has left.

In the bottom righthand side of the screen you get an indication of recording time. Tap on this and you’ll get information on the make and model of the drive, its size and an option to format it. Formating will prepare the disk for recording the first time it is used – but it will also delete everything on the disk too.

Drive info screen

I tested the Ninja with several cameras. Using it with the Canon XF305 and XF105 was very simple. Both cameras have a cold shoe mount and a 1/4-inch screw mount – so you can use either way to mount the Ninja. The shortest HDMI cable I had was 2m – which was too long, half that length would have been fine.

We also tried it with our small Panasonic TM700 1080 50p (or 60p US) camcorder, which normally records at up to 28Mbps AVCHD. This non-standard AVCHD format isn't easily editable by Final Cut Pro, so being able to capture it in ProRes should make it much more practical. However, it doesn't seem that the Ninja can capture 50p, instead recording it at 50i (although the pictures are an improvement).


Atomos will have to disappoint Canon HD DSLR users who were hoping to be able to record perfect uncompressed video via their HDMI ports. The video should still be uncompressed (so long as you don't also record in camera at the same time on some models), but it won't be perfect, as it seems that Canon has helpfully included a white square or a red (recording) dot on a corner of the output, which will be noticeable if you try to use it as full HD.

Canon EOS 7D HDMI output with red dot in the corner of the picture

Atomos has asked Canon about this, but it seems that the spoiler may be deliberate to maintain the distinction within Canon between the photographic and video divisions. 

Canon EOS 7D HDMI output with white "zoom tool" box in the corner of the picture

Atomos hadn't detected it when they tested a Canon 7D initially as they shot some footage in a studio with a white background. It was only during beta testing that users spotted it, and further testing revealed the white square on the 7D and the red spot on other models.

Panasonic TM700 HDMI output with 'helpful' info on screen.

However, some DSLRs apparently have HDMI output that is pristine (the Sony Alpha models and Panasonic's GH2 have been reported as working, although we don't have them so can't check). The Ninja also works perfectly with any video cameras they've tested it with, such as the Panasonic AF101 and Sony's F3.


It has LANC input/output for control (as well as the 4.3-inch touch screen). For audio, it has a mini-jack stereo input, or can record up to six channels of digital audio via HDMI (if the camera supports it), and a headphone jack.

Ninja connections - HDMI, LANC and audio
Atomos are committed to upgrading the firmware on a regular basis. So, features will be improved and added in the coming months.

Menu screen

If you press on the Ninja's menu button and then the Ninja Info button you can check which firmware version is currently running on your unit. The Ninja we recieved for review was on version 1.02. On the firmware download page they were up to version 1.04 so I thought I'd have a go.The first thing to do is download the zip file from the download page.

Then go to the instruction page and follow the instructions precisely.

The two important things to remember are to format the drive, using the Ninja, before you start and attach fresh batteries to the Ninja so that you don't lose power during the upgrade.

Once the drive was formatted I placed it in the master caddy and copied the firmware file over, which took a few seconds.

copy the firmware file to the formatted drive

Then I placed the drive in the Ninja and switched it on. There were coloured bands flashing at the top and bottom of the screen for about and minute (to prove it was doing something) and then it switched itself off.

coloured bands flash during the upgrade

Version 1.04 successfully upgraded

When I switched back on and checked the firmware was the new version 1.04. All very simple and exactly as outlined on the Atomos website.


Once you’ve finished recording, you place the drive in the master caddy into the docking station, which can be powered via the mains or by the FireWire connection.

Ninja Docking station

Firewire and USB 2.0 and 3.0 on docking station

If time is short you can edit straight off the drive. In fact if a whole shoot fits on one drive it could be the editing drive and archive all in one…at least in the short term.

But, us nervous types will be backing up all that data. This is all very simple just connect the Ninja drive and drag and drop the ProRes files onto the drive you usually edit from and away you go.


  • Good value: It costs €795, £695 or $995
  • Well built and should be robust, especially with solid-state drive
  • ProRes is wonderful to edit (not just for Final Cut Pro users, as other non-linear editors can use it too, even on Windows with a plug-in) – you can even plug in and edit from the drive
  • Higher quality video, which might not be easily evident when you just compare the two side by side, but will be once you do anything to the video, especially for something like colour correction, where having the 10-bit 4:2:2 images will allow you do much more subtle colour grading
  • Small – it makes the AJA Ki Pro Mini look like the Ki Pro Maxi
  • Easy to use interface


  • Uses HDMI, which isn't usually a locking connection
  • No HDMI pass through (so you can't plug it in to a better monitor)
  • No HD-SDI connection (which is coming in the Samurai)
  • Low-resolution monitor (480x270 – compared to 5-inch and 800x400 on the Samurai)
  • Limited playback capability – although this will be improved in future, it's a much lower frame rate than normal (not helped by the low resolution)
  • No XLR audio inputs (unlike some of its, admittedly more expensive competitors)


The Ninja is a well built and easy to use device. It has evolved since we first saw it at IBC2010 and Atomos has obviously listened to feedback from potential customers. If you have a Pro camera with HD-SDI you may want to wait for the Samurai. But if your camera has HDMI output this is a cost effective way to back up your video on the fly at a higher quality than your removable flash media.

If you are a DSLR owner you need to check whether your camera will work with the Ninja… or hope Canon relents and issues a firmware upgrade to remove unnecessary on-screen icons.

So, is it worth buying? Certainly, if you have something like a Panasonic AF100/AF101 (although it will only output 8-bit video), any of the Sony 35Mbps XDCAM EX range (including the PWM-F3), or the little Panasonic HCK10 point-of-view camera, all of which have been approved for HD use by the BBC, but only when they are recording to an external recorder at 50Mbps or above. It is currently the least expensive such recorder on the market, and it works well – although there are still some things to iron out.

In the medium term: There will soon be a lot more recorders for you to choose from. The newly announced Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Shuttle (see our review of the Shuttle) will only cost $345 and will record uncompressed video. If you want the best for less, this is it – however, big caveat: uncompressed images are huge. If you are recording for any length of time, you'll need lots of big, expensive, SSDs. It is a great option for certain types of work where you want the maximum quality and don't need long recording times, but if you want a compressed system, to save space and allow you to edit the pictures as quickly as possible, ProRes is a great choice.

Being able to do real-time ProRes compression in the recorder is where a lot of the extra cost of the Ninja goes. The real choice for many then will be between the Ninja and the Samurai (which could ship sometime over the Summer or maybe in the early Autumn). At £929, €1,095 or $1,495, the Samurai is still very good value (about 50% less than the admittedly excellent AJA Ki Pro Mini, with its XLR inputs, both SDI and HDMI, and Compact Flash card recording).

If you have an HDMI camera, you should certainly shortlist the Ninja. If your camera only has SDI, then the Samurai would be your value choice. If you need to do both, then look to: AJA; Fast Forward Video's $2,495/£1,695 sideKick HD recorder/monitor which also records ProRes to SSDs; or the upcoming sub-$3,000 Sound Devices PIX 240 recorder, which can also record using the Avid DNxHD video format (there will also be a PIX 220 that is HDMI only and expected to be under $2,000). And if you want even higher quality recording, then the more expensive Gemini 4:4:4 (under $6,000) from Convergent Designs will be the one to watch. However, except for the Ninja, the Ki Pro Mini, and Convergent Designs' industry-standard 8-bit nanoFlash, none of those are shipping yet.

[UPDATE: Other reviews are creeping out. Here's one by LA filmmaker, James Boyd.]

[[UPDATE: Atomos has introduced new Samurai Blade with a sharper monitor and upgraded operating system (AtomOS5) – it has also cut the price of both the Samurai and Ninja-2]]

By Christina Fox


  1. Thanks for the comprehensive review - one of the first! Just a couple of clarifications: the reduced playback quality is temporary only. We will upgrade it in a firmware update to be released soon. Playback will then be to the full quality of the screen and full-framerate. All Ninjas will be upgradable and the process is simple; as described in the review.

    Even though the screen has a relatively small resolution, many visitors to the recent NAB show said that they preferred the Ninja's screen to their camera's LCD. They remarked that it's bigger, brighter, and has more accurate colour. And it goes without saying that our screen has a higher resolution than the recorders out there that don't have a screen at all!

    Dave Shapton
    Atomos EMEA

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for the very interesting review.
    Do you know the exact HDMI output specifications of the XF300/305?
    Is it 10 bit 4:2:2 and most importantly progressive?

  4. You write that longer recordings will be broken up into 4GB segments. With a consumer Canon camera (Vixia) I've seen the same and experienced that at those seams a little gap exists. Have tested whether the Atomos is indeed seamless?

  5. Hi,
    Please add our upcoming devices, uncompressed or high quality compressed open codec Cinemartin recorders.

    SFVe HDMI 4:2:2 for 3.295€
    SFV HDSDI 4:4:4 at 4.995€

    Up to 3x drives (2.5 inch), size a litle bit like cinedeck. VMount & DC. High brigh. 7' LCD, SATA 6G. Uncompressed or up to 300mbps. NLE capable.

    Pre-orders will have a better price.

    Check at: http://www.cinemartin.com/

  6. how du u get audio in? i dun see any xlr inputs...

  7. You would typically get audio embedded along with the video from the camera via the HDMI connection. So, if your camera doesn't have XLR inputs, you either have to have a separate audio interface (such as one from Beachtek) and input via the mini-jack connection), or you have a separate audio recorder, like the Zoom H4n, take an audio feed via mini-jack and then sync in post.

  8. What I have done when recording just to the ninja is just used the 1DC punch in for a second without the need to stop rolling. Seems lazy but is actually very handy sometimes. I’d also like to see false sharpness added when peaking is sometimes not efficient possible.
    Buy Atomos Ninja Blade