AJA’s new CION UHD camcorder
NEVADA CITY, CALIF.— AJA’s website advertises its new CION camera as “Science of the Beautiful.” Nobody should dare challenge that assertion. Of all the camrea’s features that I will highlight, and of all the concerns that I might raise, any camera ultimately is judged by the images it produces. AJA has tweaked its color science to create a camera with wonderfully organic color, pleasing skin tones, a wide dynamic range and the ability to get it right in camera.
What is more amazing regarding this latter point is that while the CION lacks deep in-camera paint control like many other comparable devices, its basic gamma and color options can produce an image that requires minimal grading. Or alternatively, shooting with either flat gamma—or no gamma curve at all—provides a base for more elaborate post-production workflows.
The CION camera was introduced at last year’s NAB Show and there’s unquestionably room for it in the current marketplace, as its image quality makes it a great contender for indie production, commercial work or even feature-length productions.
The CION weighs in at slightly less than 7.5 pounds, including its one-pound top handle, but minus its viewfinder, lens, batteries and other accessories. Its form factor is that of an ENG camera with a comfortable shoulder pad toward the rear of the camera.
With heavy lens, mattebox, follow focus and maybe a filter or two on the front of the camera, the shoulder balance was front heavy. Under those shoulder-mounted circumstances, I would very much recommend a rail-mounted bar support or possibly an EasyRig. The camera is also sufficiently lightweight to be used with a Steadicam stabilizer or with gimbal support.
The CION sports a metal PL lens mount that appears to be quite sturdy. Optional third-party mounts are available for Nikon, Canon EF, Canon FD and BNCR lenses. CION’s sensor is an electronic global shutter APS-C 22.5 mm x 11.9 mm device that has a stated dynamic range of 12 stops.
My evaluation unit came in a reviewer’s kit that AJA put together, and as such lacked virtually no common accessory. The camera’s top plate includes holes for mounting a rod-based VF handle. I was supplied a Cineroid SDI viewfinder and Wooden Camera’s VF mount. AJA didn’t miss a trick in positioning every possible input, output or power port. There are ports for an SDI monitor, HDMI 1.3 monitor and D-tap power at the front, as well as two XLR audio inputs. However, as these inputs face directly out, I would strongly recommend using right-angle connectors to prevent any chance of accidental damage on a busy set. Actually, the supplied VF SDI connector was angled; a small issue, but one worth noting.
I found that the unit’s 320 x 240 LCD confidence monitor isn’t really large enough and doesn’t really provide sufficient resolution for critically evaluating images; however, it does provide a look at the scene being captured and also the menu structure.
I discovered that the menus themselves are wonderfully simple: “Status,” “Config,” “Media,” “FPS,” “EI” and “WB.” A knob to the left of the confidence monitor cycles choices and is of the “push to select” type. I found the menus to be snappy and responsive.
Aft-located connections include SDI and HDMI outputs and reference and LTC BNC connectors. For remote LAN-based operation, there’s an RJ45 and one Thunderbolt port for output of AJA RAW at up to 4K 30 frames per socond.
The CION’s stated power consumption is between 38 and 47 Watts and I verified this empirically, getting around two hours of run time from a 90 Watthour DionicHC battery.
The CION records all ProRes formats only internally and AJA has leveraged its years of ProRes recording device technology to produce a clean implementation. Internally it records ProRes 4444 or ProRes 422 HQ at up to 4K at 30 fps. It has a lower internal data rate for ProRes 422 4K/UHD recording at up to 60 fps. There is also a 1080i recording option which records ProRes 422 at up to 30 fps and 1080p at rates up to 60 fps.
I discovered that there’s no internal RAW option, and at the time of my evaluation, there were no external RAW recorders compatible with AJA RAW, but I would expect to see RAW recording from the CION to third-party devices in the not too distant future. The RAW solution at the time of this review is via the camera’s Thunderbolt port to a laptop and RAID with AJA’s CamXchange software or via its four SDI outputs to an AJA TruZoom system, which can record up to 120 fps 4K
I did not test RAW recording, working primarily with ProRes 4444 recorded to AJA’s Pak Media, which is available in 256 or 512 GB sizes. (I am, by the way, a supporter of proprietary media for recording devices. I simply worry about entrusting camera originals to consumer media.) AJA’s Pak media has a long track record for durability and dependability. Honestly, you spend so much on a camera, optics, accessories, production costs, talent, and other items that you really shouldn’t be quibbling over media costs. The Pak256 runs about $700 and the 512 GB version costs about $1,300. They’re worth the price for the peace of mind they bring.
I found that setting up and shooting with this camera to be simple in terms of gamma and color selections. I was concerned initially about the lack of paint menus, but when a camera can produce images like this one does—plus what can be achieved in post—why bother painting the camera for production.
Gamma selections are the starting point. However, you should avoid clipping as nobody yet has a magic formula for recovering anything that’s hopelessly blown out.
I tested first with gamma disabled. This turns off all the gamma correction and just records the image as “de-Bayered” from the sensor. In grading this footage, I merely worked with midtones and shadows, only reducing highlights when I needed to raise the midtones. This is sort of like shooting in “log” on cameras that offer a logarithmic gamma curve, but not really, as there’s no compression going on that needs to be returned to a Rec709 space, usually by a look up table.
“Normal,” “Normal Expanded,” “Expanded 1” and “Video” are the options for in-camera gamma processing. While these are self-explanatory to anyone who knows anything about cinema, AJA explains that “Expanded 1” is most useful where there are high-key portions in the image. The “Video” mode, of course, most closely resembles a low dynamic range Rec709 signal. In some test shooting in my living room with a subject partially in shadow and looking out a window with bright sun on the snow, I found that “Normal Expanded” provided the optimal range. As with any camera, run your tests in your shooting scenario to see what works best.
Likewise, there are basic color correction settings: “Flat,” “Skin Tones,” “Normal” and “Video.” Again, DP’s should experiment. I found that I preferred “Flat,” as I like control in post. However, I emphasize again that the CION can shoot an image that requires minimal post-production work should you choose. (Budget and time constraints often trump many billable colorist hours.)
The native ISO of the camera is 320, up from the release version of 250, enabled by the v1.1 firmware. This also enabled me to shoot at exposure indexes of 320, 500, 800, and 1000. In a quick first-look test of the 1000 index, I found that noise levels were not all that unpleasant, and the noise I did observe even had something of a film-grain look. (I don’t advocate using noise to achieve film grain as these are really very different, but in this case the differences were not glaring.)
During my evaluation, I really wished for a higher native sensor ISO. The global shutter is to some degree a limiting factor, but this is the age of high ISO cameras. The obvious answer to low ISO is lighting, so in many, but not all situations, this issue is really moot. However, in lower budget or more challenging shooting environments, it isn’t always possible to light the way we did when shooting film. I found that when working outdoors, an external ND filter may be needed as the camera has no internal ND filters.
White Balance can be achieved in 3200, 4500, 5600, unity or AWB modes, and I found that setting proper exposure may take you back to film days. The camera has an excellent histogram, which can be configured either to logarithmic or linear displays with information about luma, luma+rgb, red, green or blue signals. I discovered that when using the Cineroid viewfinder there is a video waveform available. However, I found that this is a camera where you might want to break out your light meter. (In a way, I really like a camera that gets back to the basics of filmmaking where the director of photography and operator concentrate on composition and lighting, and I don’t miss all of the camera clutter.)
The CION accommodates two channels of audio, but four channels might make it more useful in some applications.
After using the camera in some real world shooting applications, I do have to raise some concerns over its construction. In addition to a topside media slot, its fan vents through grilles at the top of the camera. There is additional ventilation on either side of the front and I can see some of the electronics package through those vent holes. I don’t like seeing electronics and am really concerned about the possibility of dust and moisture ingress. (I discussed this with AJA, and while they’re confident of their construction, they do recommend the use of a “slicker” temporarily placed over those holes when the camera is used in a dusty or moist environment. This actually makes sense for any camera but I do have to raise the concern.)
The bottom line is that AJA has produced an admirable first release of a camera that produces high-quality and extraordinarily pleasant images. The feel is rich and organic. Even in video modes, there is none of the edginess and sharp knee that gives away a “video look.” It’s easy to configure, can be operated by a single operator or a crew and gives you “just-enough-but-no-too much” control. It’s limited by relatively low ISO as compared to other cameras, RAW options, only two audio channels and some construction concerns.
I’m disappointed too that the CION only offers one media slot. Likewise, I have some concerns about that top-mounted media slot with its spring-loaded door and no other cover, as I feel that any sort of top-mounted slot could potentially allow the engress of both dust and moisture. I would hope that future versions of the camera will address this and other construction issues, as well as come equipped with at least a second media slot.
However, this is a camera that an indie producer can actually afford to own. Its price point will allow a small production organization to purchase multiple cameras instead of one.
I feel that this UHD camera occupies an important niche in the crowded field of digital cinema cameras today and is a product that should be well-worthy of consideration by serious filmmakers.
Ned Soltz is an industry veteran who shoots, edits, produces and writes about products and industry trends. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
Indie production, commercials, as well as lower-budget cinema applications
4K/2K/HD recording in all ProRes formats, rich organic images, gamma and color pre-sets