Investing in the right piece of gear can make all the difference to the workflow of your project and add flexibility to your filmmaking.

This week we’ll take a look at the versatility of the external video recorder – what it can do, its benefits and why creators should consider using one.

Figure 1 : Pro Video Camera with External Recorder

One of the great features of a consumer video camera is the ability to save high quality video on a locally installed memory card.  However, for production quality exceeding that of the web, you will need a better quality image with less compression and substantially higher bandwidth, as well as much more capacity.

Even cinema grade cameras may be limited by their internal card capabilities to low bandwidth recordings, while others will offer up CFast or XQD card options that have substantially greater bandwidth, but still lack the throughput for ProRes 422 or similar higher quality options.  Some cameras that can shoot in Cinema RAW cannot even store that footage internally, requiring the use of a license, adapter, or other external recorder.

Quality Options

The first question to ask is what your maximum expected quality demand will be.  For those transitioning from stills cameras, RAW sounds great, but be cautious if you’re planning to shoot in RAW only.   RAW is a storage consuming monster of substantial proportion.  Consequently, we see more demand for DCI 4K or 4K UHD shot in Log mode, and passed through a compression methodology like ProRes or DNxHD, DNxHR, and others.  At this time, it makes sense to consider a 4K UHD capable recorder at minimum that can record at ProRes 4.2.2 in 10 Bit.  Even if you do not have a 4K camera or one that outputs in 10-bit, that’s the short-term direction for manufacturers with higher bandwidths and less compression moving ahead.

Display Options

External recorders come with and without a display.  My recommendation will always be a recorder with a display, because of the increased functionality at minimal cost increase.  These displays will be larger than your viewfinder or popup panel, will have typically higher resolution and may be capable of being colour calibrated, which is a very big deal.  Most of the better units include useful cinematography tools such as a Waveform monitor, Vector Scopes and Parade Scopes.  You will need at least a Waveform monitor to get your exposures maximized.  The other benefit is you may not need to buy an external monitor, because one is part of the recorder.

Storage Options

Media cards are nice, but are very limited in size and extremely expensive once you get to useful amounts of storage.  High bandwidth, low compression video uses a lot of space very quickly.  In a recent test shooting in CInemaDNG at 4K UHD, I discovered that a 64GB CFAST card would hold just over five minutes of video.  By using an external recorder, you move from cards to Solid State Drives.  These you can source for a much lower cost per gigabyte.  I can buy a 512GB SSD for about half the price of a 64GB CFAST 2.0 card and so can you.  Some recorders offer dual drive bays, so you can hot swap storage without shutting things down.  Shooting time is very valuable.  Everything that you can do to reduce time away from shooting is a good thing.

Recommendations

There are a number of highly respected external recorders in market.  As recommended examples, I suggest the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q+ and the Atomos Shogun Inferno.

 

 

The Shogun has hot swappable batteries while the Odyssey hot swappable storage.  Both are built tough, both have lots of touchscreen activated value added features, both feature a variety of file formats including RAW support for select cameras.  Knowing your required file formats and bandwidth needs is integral in selecting a recorder.  If you have questions, you can email me at ross@thephotovideoguy.ca and I will assist you as I can.

Summary

If high quality video, particularly longer form video is part of what you do, or want to do, an external recorder isn’t going to be an option but a necessity.  You’ll want (and need) a larger display and a lot more storage capacity, and a proper external recorder is going to do the job better than any alternative.  These recorders are not particularly inexpensive or expensive, and solve a number of real world challenges.  You know you’ll need one, now’s the time to start your research.

Thanks for reading, and until next time, peace.

Ross has been a photographer for over four decades. He has worked as an apprentice, is a professional photographer, videographer and imaging educator. Ross leads workshops, seminars, photowalks and delivers customized mentoring programs. He is also an instructor with Henry’s Learning Lab. You can read more of his thoughts, read product reviews, watch videos and listen to the Make Better Photos and Videos podcast at www.thephotovideoguy.ca.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ross Chevalier

Ross has been a photographer for over four decades. He has worked as an apprentice, been a professional photographer and a photographic educator. He is an amateur videographer and offers mentoring programs. He is an instructor with <a href="http://www.learninglab.ca">Henry’s Learning Lab</a>. You can read more of his thoughts, read product reviews, watch videos and listen to the <em>Make Better Photos and Videos</em> podcast at <a href="http://www.thephotovideoguy.ca">thephotovideoguy.ca</a>.