Master Guide to Rigging a Nikon D800 or D800E (Part 7)

In this part I’ll cover external recorders and cables for the Nikon D800 and Nikon D800E.

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Stop asking for or expecting perfect film-like quality from the Nikon D800 and Nikon D800E. If you do manage to get exceptional quality, it will probably be due to the production values you put into your project, and the skills of the Gaffer, DP, Editor and Finisher.

On most prosumer cameras (Below $20,000), the 10-bit 4:2:2 uncompressed that “supposedly” comes out of an HD-SDI or HDMI link is only marginally better than the in-built compressed recording. Do you honestly think the engineers in these companies don’t know what they are doing? A lot of research goes on to hit the sweet spot as far as compression codecs go, and even if a manufacturer makes a mistake, there is either an official firmware update, or an unofficial patch (like for the Panasonic GH2).

The point is, the external recorder is only good for extreme chroma keying and visual effects, and if your footage is 100%, you are already getting 99% from your compressed codec. On the Nikon D800 and Nikon D800E, the external recorder will give you at most a 1% improvement in quality.

The Nikon D800 and Nikon D800E outputs 8-bit 4:2:2 1080i uncompressed video via the HDMI port.

This uncompressed stream is like a wild flood that needs to be tamed – which means compressing it to a more manageable file. The most popular intermediary codec choices at the moment are Apple Prores and Avid DNxHD. If you have a PC-based workflow, I strongly recommend DNxHD over Prores. In fact, I prefer uncompressed video over any intermediate codec, but that is another story. Since the D800 is a new camera as of this writing, external recorder manufacturers are still scrambling to take the best advantage of the data stream.

The only recorder that has officially announced support for the Nikon D800 and Nikon D800E is:

Atomos Ninja-2 Video Hard Disk Recorder

The Ninja 2 has the advantage that you could also use it as an external monitor.

Other external recorders, theoretically all equally capable, are:

Other recorders exist, of course, with greater capabilities and higher prices. Personally, I feel it might be better to go with a higher end camera in that case.


SSD Drives

The Atomos Ninja records to 2.5″ disk drives – either spinning drives (cheaper, heavier and fragile) or SSD drives (expensive, lighter and robust). The data rate would be approximately 1 Gbps so 3 Gbps drives are fine for our purposes. I recommend SSD drives, like the:

Intel 320 Series 160 GB SATA 3.0 Gb-s 2.5-Inch SSD

A 160GB drive should give about 20 minutes of uncompressed data. If a recorder is transcoding footage to a lighter bit stream, then you’ll have more minutes per GB of footage. By carefully calculating your workflow requirements, you should be able to figure out the lowest possible GB size drive for your project. Don’t just buy 160GB because that’s what I linked to.

You’ll also need backup, so don’t forget to add more disks and a laptop on set. Personally, I prefer a laptop over an SSD Reader. If I’m backing up data, why not review it at the same time?

One important thing to note is that while recording to an external recorder, you cannot record to the memory card. In fact, it can’t even be in the camera. So, as a quick trouble-shooting tip, if you’re having issues – look in your card slot first!

CF and SDHC Cards
The internal codec bit rate is on average well below 50 Mbps, or 6.25 MB/s. A class 10 card (10 MB/s) is good enough, but for professional shoots, I recommend Sandisk CF and SDHC/SDXC cards only:

SanDisk 16GB Extreme Pro CF Card

An external recorder will need to be attached to the rig via a connection plate or its own base plate, depending on the size of the recorder and load balancing setup you have planned. If you choose a rig from a good manufacturer, then it shouldn’t be an issue.

HDMI-HDSDI Converter
If your monitor is HD-SDI only, then you’ll need a converter to convert the HDMI data stream to HD-SDI. It looks like this:

Blackmagic Design HDMI to SDI Converter

HDMI Cables

Cables are often overlooked pieces of gear. Don’t go cheap here, or you might as well not use them. The Nikon D800 and Nikon D800E has HDMI C (Mini) ports. Try to get about 6 feet – you never know when you’ll need the extra length.

Zacuto Z-HDMI 18 inch Mini Male (Type C) HDMI to Standard Male (Type A) HDMI Cable

That does it as far as external recorders are concerned. If Part 8 I’ll cover audio gear.

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6 replies on “Master Guide to Rigging a Nikon D800 or D800E (Part 7)”

  1. I agree with everything said above. It is nice to see someone that is saying and doing the right thing! The only real advantage then for use of an external recorder would be for long duration shoots. Weddings, basketball games, etc, would suffer from camera shut-down or overheating before the function was done. I am experimenting with short films, but i would like to do more of the before mentioned. Nikon looks to be the best mix of good quality video and stills, without going off the deep end.

  2. Very interesting article, Martin! Thanks for sharing.

    It does say “When running on the “Auto” setting in the HDMI menu the D800/D4 (no SD card inside) will output a progressive signal based on the settings in the camera.”

    However, I’ll need to see an independent verification from either a scope or another manufacturer to believe it!

    External recorders have been known to misrepresent signals. On the other hand, it is entirely possible the signal from the HDMI is a psF signal. That’ll be good news!

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