Why revive the 5D? Why use a Ninja Blade?
Over the last few months, well, since I got my A7S, the first high end camera I purchased has been gathering dust in a camera bag. It occasionally sees daylight when I need a HD B-cam, but even then, the limitations of using it made me consider upgrading. Of course, I’m talking about the 5DmkIII. It’s the staple first higher end DSLR for video productions, but since moving further in my film and video career, sometimes it just does not fit the bill. Not in terms of image quality, but in terms of how it handles video internally.
I originally purchased the 5DmkIII back in December 2013 when I officially started the production company, and it was the staple camera for many of my video shoots because of its wonderful full frame image quality. It’s agreeable that the camera can do the job, but for productions such as live events, shoots or interviews that run on for too long, without a decent recording codec or pro audio I/O, the 5D is still not a video camera. The hesitation to stay by the camera and hit record when the 29 minute timer comes close is all too well with the 5D, as well as trying to capture the video as flat as possible to allow for some grading in post-production, with already compressed H.264 footage.
Although the Atomos Ninja Blade has been around for some time, I never considered using it with the 5D, purely as I now shoot with the A7S and Shogun. However, even if I required a b-cam I would still be restricted by the internal functions of the 5D. The Ninja Blade allows the expansion of functionality of the 5D from a DSLR with video capabilities to essentially a video camera.
I was recently out shooting an event for a local shopping centre, in which I needed a small footprint for run and gun style filming, so I opted to combine the 5D with the Ninja Blade. Why not use the A7S? The 5D has a lovely image and I can use my native EF mount lenses of it. I rig the A7S in a Movcam cage, and as mentioned before I wanted to stay light on my feet. I chose the Manfrotto 755CX-3 tripod as its very lightweight and small.
There are a number of reasons for choosing the 5D, firstly I know the location well, and at some places it is darker than others so I needed to hold on to the shadows with little noise from ramping up the ISO. Recording externally to the Ninja Blade in ProRes 422 is a much better format to be capturing in as it is much less compressed than the internal H.264 format. In post this means I have much more latitude for adjusting the exposure, luminance and colour temperature as more data is recorded. Shooting internally on the 5D with a high ISO makes the noise much more visible, and is harder to adjust the image due to the compression.
The second reason (and is linked to the first) is that the Ninja Blade has a larger 5” screen than the 5D, plus monitoring functions such as a waveform monitor, peaking and frame guides, all of which I used while filming. Using the waveform monitor is a reliable way of checking exposure, especially avoiding crushing the blacks or blowing out the highlights, which are pretty unrecoverable once it has been captured. I often shoot with a 100mm F/2.8 macro lens for telephoto-portrait shots, but the focusing needs to be spot on. Peaking comes in handy here so you avoid focus creeping while framing up shots.
The size of the Ninja Blade made it great to work with too; it was simply rigged on the cameras hot shoe with a micro magic arm so I could still see the camera settings. It fitted into my style of ‘live event’ filming well which is an essential piece of the puzzle when choosing equipment. Even with the two small NPF batteries loaded in the recorder it was still lightweight, and lasted for the entire 5 hour shoot! Its power usage makes it very reliable if you need to hit record and leave it to capture remotely.
Again linked to its long battery life, you can simply hit record on the Blade and it will keep recording until you hit stop, it runs out of battery or the SSD is full. One of my big gripes about using DSLR’s (or any camera that isn’t a video/production camera) is the 29 minute recording limit. Using the Ninja Blade overrides this as it takes the image straight from the sensor, bypassing the internal processing in camera and therefore allowing you to capture way over the 29 minute limit. Like mentioned above if you need to leave a camera recording for a while, rest assured that the Blade can do it.
Understandably you could load the Magic Lantern on the 5D for the ‘recording restart’ function, but this is unreliable, voids the camera warranty and could brick the camera all together. Is it worth the risk?
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of the Ninja Blade. I often get caught up in being able to capture in 4K with the Shogun, but reign myself back in because the majority of clients only need HD. That, and once the final film is uploaded to Vimeo or YouTube it is compressed by their processing too. HD isn’t dead just because we can shoot in 4K on the GH4 or A7SII. I’ll certainly be rigging up the 5D mk III with a Ninja Blade for my future shoots, it has been revived as a functional and practical video camera!
EDIT - I forgot to mention that the Ninja Blade will work with many DSLRs and other cameras either via HDMI or SDI. From a 600D to a C500 or an old Sony Z1 video camera, the device will still work!