If you're using your DSLR or mirrorless camera for filming, you're likely familiar with the limitations these cameras can present for this type of work. While each new model offers more options, accessories can enhance your filming experience. An external recorder is one such accessory.
I have been using DSLR and mirrorless cameras for filming a lot during the past few years. During that time, I've come to realize that this kind of work is completely different compared to photography. Also, filming with a camera primarily designed for photography introduces certain challenges. While general filming doesn't typically pose major issues, as you delve deeper into more serious filming, these issues can become increasingly frustrating.
While recent camera models have made strides in addressing these issues to some extent, they can never truly replace a dedicated film camera. In essence, when using a camera for filming that is basically designed for photography, compromises have to be made.
The LCD screen is an indispensable tool when filming. While the viewfinder can be used on occasion, the LCD screen often provides the best means to assess focus, exposure, and, of course, composition. The constant use of the screen during recording can be considered as one of the most significant distinctions from photography.
Using the small three-inch screen can be challenging. Its positioning is often far from ideal and sometimes even impractical. For instance, using it on a gimbal can be less than ideal, and the external connections can complicate matters when using a fully articulating screen to improve the viewing angle.
Choosing an External Recorder Rather Than an External Screen
The solution to the limitations posed by a built-in LCD screen is clearly an external monitor. I had considered purchasing one for quite a while. Initially, I looked into simple external monitors, which are available at reasonable prices. However, I decided to take it a step further. A monitor with recording capabilities would offer numerous other advantages.
Eventually, I decided to buy an Atomos Ninja V from the secondhand market. This external monitor not only provides a larger screen but also offers the capability to record video on an SSD. I believe it's one of the best investments I've made for my video work. I have six reasons why I believe every filmmaker should seriously consider this accessory.
1. Expanded Screen Size
The larger screen was my initial motivation for buying an external monitor. It significantly improves the usability of a DSLR or mirrorless camera for filming. Moreover, the screen's resolution is no longer restricted to your camera's built-in LCD screen.
While some integrated LCD screens have seen resolution improvements, they're primarily focused on photography. In contrast, an external monitor is designed to the needs of filming and its associated resolutions.
2. Enhanced Monitor Positioning Flexibility
A notable drawback of the rear-facing LCD screen on a camera is its limitations regarding positioning during filming. An external monitor introduces a higher degree of flexibility to position it in any way that suits your needs. Whether it's on a video rig, a gimbal, a tripod, or the hotshoe of your camera, an external monitor simplifies camera operation.
3. Diverse Recording Formats
Many cameras offer a restricted range of recording formats. While these formats are usually sufficient for typical usage, having access to more professional recording formats opens up possibilities. For instance, the Atomos Ninja V offers ProRes RAW or ProRes 4.2.2 recordings.
This way, you're not confined to the format options provided by your camera. It even allows you to use a more affordable camera while still capturing formats that are typically exclusive to pricier camera models.
4. Improved Tools for Monitoring Exposure and Focus
External monitors offer a wide array of tools, including various waveforms, false color overlays, zebras, and more. Focus can be checked with higher precision, facilitated by the larger screen size.
With the Ninja V, I can preload various LUTs (Look-Up Tables). This enables toning log footage to prevent the washed-out appearance when viewing the monitor while recording.
Furthermore, the LUT can be directly applied to the recorded footage. Alternatively, you can apply the LUT to an outgoing HDMI signal while simultaneously recording the unaltered signal.
5. No Recording Time Limits
Thankfully, an increasing number of cameras now offer extended recording durations. The 30-minute limit has been extended to an hour or more in many cases. However, these durations can sometimes be constrained by the recording format itself. High-quality formats can lead to high operating temperatures, with the risk of triggering safety shutdowns of the camera.
Although the Atomos Ninja V also generates considerable heat, there's no concrete limit to how long you can record. I've recorded in one of the highest-quality formats for over an hour and a half without encountering issues.
While I prefer shooting shorter clips, there are situations where longer recordings are necessary. With the external recorder, this won’t be an issue.
6. Simplified and Cost-Effective SSD Recording
I appreciate the ability to record directly onto an SSD drive. You can purchase a 1 TB or larger SSD drive and use it with a dedicated SSD adapter. Alternatively, specialized SSD drivesm like those from Angelbird, are available for purchase.
Although the latter options are pricier compared to internal SSD drives used with an adapter, they're still more cost-effective than high-end memory cards for your camera. For my Canon EOS R5, I require CF Express Type B cards, which come at a significant cost. This is particularly true for capacities exceeding 256 GB, which are advisable for high-quality video recordings. Additionally, connecting an SSD drive to a computer is far simpler than transferring data from one or two memory cards.
There Are More Benefits, I’m Sure
I'm truly content with my Atomos Ninja V and wish I had acquired one much sooner. The secondhand unit I bought included a V-mount plate, V-mount battery, and the necessary tools for connecting it to a camera. With the announcement of a new Ninja recorder, it will become much easier in finding a used one on the secondhand market.
The Atomos Ninja V is a fantastic accessory that will elevate your filmmaking endeavors. Undoubtedly, there are more advantages to using an external recorder beyond those I've highlighted. Perhaps you can think of a few more. I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments below.