Reviews

Testing the Cion

CION1Does AJA’s first camera offering, the Cion, combine good design with functionality? Our resident cinematographer, Harvey Glen, gives us his verdict

 

Straight out of the box, the AJA Cion 4K camera looks cool!

The brown suede shoulder pad and the wooden finish top handle give it an instant contemporary fashionable aesthetic.

The camera is built in a traditional ergonomic way with a design that seems friendly to the camera operator. What’s more, it weighs only 3.4kg.

As standard, it comes with a PL mount setting, straight off the bat setting itself up as a real digital camera. You can also get third-party EF, B4 and G-mounts, should you need them.

An AV lock plate fits on the back of the camera, so it’s easy to power and has all the professional BNC inputs/outputs you would expect from a professional digital cine camera. It also comes with 4x 3G-SDI outputs for 4K, Ultra HD, 2K, HD and HDMI. Also present is AJA RAW HFR output of up to 120fps. The camera supports an Ethernet connection for real-time video preview and two balanced XLR inputs, which can run at line/mic/48V for our friends in the sound department.

The AJA Cion also has the option of a bottom bracket so you can mount bars for your matte box. AJA manufactures a set of purpose-built bull bars for hand-held operation. These bull bars are well designed and very comfortable to operate, and avoid ‘Frankensteining’ the camera.

The AJA Pak media, available in 256GB and 512GB, mounts at the top of the camera near the battery plate and is secure and nearly impossible to knock.

This camera’s physicality has been well thought-out. It even has a sliding bracket for a viewfinder, which can be set at your desired increments for best viewing angle and position.

However, AJA doesn’t manufacture a viewfinder for the camera so a third-party one is required. I’ve heard of people using the TV Logics Alphatron, which retails for around $700. Personally, I used my Atomos Shogun monitor for my test shoot, which I mounted via a Manfrotto magic arm in one of the many screw threads on the handle.

Anyone who has read my reviews knows how much I love a viewfinder…but for the camera price of $4,995, reduced from $8,995, something has got to give, and I guess it is now 2015… so using a monitor is acceptable these days.

The menu is controllable from a small screen on the inside/ operator’s side of the camera. This does also provide a low-quality picture, but it’s certainly not designed to shoot from. It does allow you to know that your camera is functioning correctly, so it’s a confidence checker really. Maybe you’ll need to troubleshoot your external viewfinder/monitor to be sure the camera is functioning correctly. It is also a reference for playback, although not ideal picture quality.

Accessing the menu or the user interface from the same screen is clunky and could be improved.

Once you’ve changed settings a few times, you do get used to it, but for me, it’s certainly the weakest point of the camera.

Now let’s get down to the tech specs:

The highest in-camera recording resolution is 4K (4096×2160) progressive

• 4K (4096×2160) progressive up to 120fps Ultra HD

• Ultra HD (3840×2160) progressive

• 2K (2048×1080) progressive

• 1080 HD (1920×1080) progressive

• 1080 HD (1920×1080) interlaced 25/29.97/30

The camera records Pro Res 444 up to 30fps; over that, it drops to ProRes 422.

As it stands, straight out of the box, it doesn’t shoot RAW, but what can you expect for the low price tag? It certainly is a lot of camera for the dollar. For many projects, to be completely honest, shooting RAW can be a pain and too time-consuming in post.

However, if RAW is what you’re after and on a budget, then you can output 4K up to 120fps using the additional AJA Ki Pro Quad solid state recorder. This has just been reduced to $2,995. So, certainly an option worth considering to future-proof your investment.

ProRes is a decent format and compatible with almost everything and very easy to work with. There are Gamma options, including Flat, if you want to have more control over the grading. The native ISO is 320, and with a recent firmware update, it can push all the way to 1000.

However, for today’s standards, a native 320 is quite low and not ideal in low-light situations. The higher ISOs are quite clean, so they can be used when you don’t have the light. Lighting for the base is definitely preferred, for the best image quality.

For my test shoot, I shot fitness model Marissa working out at the Smart Fitness Gym. I chose to shoot late afternoon around 3-4pm, when natural sunlight floods into the workout area. I kept the ISO at the native 320 and used Xeen PL mount prime lenses. This was a perfect combination for the camera. I believe. When launched, they will be $2,500 per lens.

These lenses open to T1.5, which is very impressive and makes an ISO 320 not so bad, quite functional. As I was shooting during the day in abundant light, I used a 1.5ND filter to reduce the amount of light and depth of field.

The Cion AJA camera has an APS C-sized (CMOS) – 22.5mm x 11.9mm. A 35mm sensor with a global shutter is present, so no issues of picture skewing (reminiscent of the 5D days).

It also has an Optical Low Pass Filter (OLPF) and combined IR Cut Filter built-in. This is a very clever move, as this reduces artifacts like moire, aliasing and infrared contamination that many digital sensors experience.

In my test filming, I wanted to see how the camera deals with highlights, over-exposing, shadows, underexposing, skin tone and detail. The camera claims 12 stops of dynamic range; in reality, I think 10 stops is more realistic.

If you are not using the external RAW recorder and shooting in ProRes, you have to protect your highlights, otherwise they will blow out – and once they are gone, they are gone.

Optix Digital, Dubai kindly came on board to cut and grade the footage for the test. Colourist Jasper Taylor graded the footage and noted the highlights were quite pink in some shots, and we had lost a lot of detail in the whites, which were clipped. The mid tones were quite dense, but we could get enough detail out of the material.

Due to the material not being LOG, you’re more limited with what you can do, but there’s enough to play with, especially if shot well.

Take a look at the film here: https://vimeo.com/135966345.

There’s a mechanical back focus adjust on the Cion’s magnesium body, which allows precise alignment of the lens to sensor, to ensure the lenses measure correctly to their marks.

Overall, the AJA Cion is a very decent camera. I enjoyed shooting on it. You just have to remember that it’s not a RED or an Alexa, and not priced like them either!

With the in-camera ProRes recording, you can’t push it as much as you would those cameras, but you certainly can do a lot.

The menu could certainly be improved, but for most applications, this is a very worthwhile piece of kit, especially for under $5K (without viewfinder or monitor).

AJA’s marketing slogan is “Science of the Beautiful” – is it beautiful?

Well, I think so, but you don’t have to take my word for it. In the Middle East, AJA has launched the TRYCION programme, where you can test it out for yourself for free. All you need to do is register at www.aja.com/trycion/emea/signup.

Give it a go and judge for yourself, it’s worth a look!