There is no doubt that Nikon and Canon are putting a lot of effort in creating better video features in their flagship DSLR cameras. One of the most talked about new features has been Nikon's clean, uncompressed 1080p output from the camera's HDMI connector. Both the Nikon D800 and Nikon D4 DSLR cameras allow for this feature, but we've wondered just how useful are these new uncompressed files? We decided to test the new Atomos Ninja 1080p external recorder to see if these 12x larger files gave us better image quality for our own video projects.
The one big gripe a lot of film makers had with previous DSLR cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II was that the HDMI output from the camera contained compressed video and was obstructed by camera settings and menu text. Basically the HDMI output was only useful as a composition and focus aid. Nikon recognized this concern, and now you can record uncompressed 1080p footage directly to an external recorder without any display overlays (sorry, Canon users, this feature isn't available yet in the sub $6000 DSLRs). The idea is by recording externally you should have more latitude for post processing as well as sharper footage because each file contains more data and increased bit rates. The days of super pixelated footage or jittery fast action sequences are gone for good....or are they?
To test the new Nikon D800's uncompressed footage, we used one of the most affordable recorders currently on the market. The Atomos Ninja runs about $1000 and contains pretty much everything you need to get started recording video externally. We ran a few tests before we set out to film the example footage shown in the video above. We set the Nikon D800 picture setting to Neutral, turned Active-D Lighting Off (which we found did not affect in camera or Ninja files anyways, apparently it does not work with video), and made sure the footage was set to the highest 1080 quality possible.
The only settings the Ninja allows you to tweak are compression settings so we opted for the highest quality Pro Res setting to give us the largest files possible. NOTE: We did find that the Ninja shipped with a firmware that did not support the Nikon D800 so we had to update it to the 2.2 Version which fixed some banding issues that made the footage completely useless.
Below are screen captures of our result footage (click for full res). We zoomed into some of the files to 200% and 400% to see exactly what the compression and sharpness looked like on both files.
As you can see, the Ninja files have much more contrast for some reason which crushes the blacks and blows out the highlights. Even when manipulated in Adobe Premiere CS5.5, we could not recover any of this data despite having 12x larger files. I think the files do look more "polished" than the flatter D800 files but the whole point of recording uncompressed footage is so you can control the grading in post.
If you look closely at the 200% cropped images from the water fountain, you do see that the Ninja files are sharper and offer a bit more movement detail than the Nikon D800 files. However, this increase in sharpness is minimal when viewed at 1080 and would probably be less an issue if you applied a little sharpening to the D800 files. Also this increased sharpness in moving water comes at the expense of highlight detail in the water found in the middle of the fountain.
In conclusion, we were really surprised by our findings. Before our tests, we thought the Atomos Ninja would provide us files with more latitude for better post processing. What we actually found was the Nikon D800 files contained more detail. The Ninja files, while ever so slightly more sharp, had more contrast than the D800. This increase in contrast destroyed data in both the shadows and in the highlights and provided less editing latitude compared to the files directly out of the camera. The only thing we can think of that could have affected our findings was that either the Nikon D800 or the new Atomos Ninja firmwares are still not correct for complete compatibility. At the moment we cannot find any reason to pair the Ninja up with the Nikon D800 camera but perhaps it does serve a purpose for other video recording devices that have horrible native compression algorithms or short recording limits.
Here is a vimeo version which usually looks better compression wise than Youtube: