Review: Atomos Shinobi SDI

The Atomos Shinobi SDI is plenty bright indoors, but I was interested to see how it would perform outside.

Several years ago, when we moved to using the Canon Cinema EOS C200 as our main camera, we avoided investing in a new camera monitor. That’s because we simply used a Hoodman H400 sunshade with the C200’s touchscreen, a set-up that worked effectively for most shooting situations.

However, times—and gear—continue to change. We began looking at some of the recent 5-inch camera monitor introductions. But the price needed to be right since we were pairing it with more budget-level gear: Fujifilm’s X-T3 mirrorless camera ($1,400) and the Crane 2 gimbal ($500). In other words, a $2,000-plus camera monitor wouldn’t make much economic sense. So, we set our budget at $500 for a monitor and started our research.

The Shinobi SDI is an affordable, accurate 5.2-inch 1080 monitor that’s useful for a number of different purposes on set.

Specifications, Brightness, Weight And Design

I read through the specifications on the Shinobi SDI, and it sounded like a good candidate for what we were looking for. However, one downside was that the Fujifilm X-T3 only comes with a Micro HDMI output, and it’s the only way to get video output out of the X-T3. Still, our Canon C200 has SDI out as well as HDMI. So I knew that I could use the SDI output when using the Shinobi as a small client monitor with cable runs of 20 to 50 feet, as required.

The Shinobi SDI features a full-sized HDMI input (no HDMI loop-through, unfortunately) as well as 3G SDI input and loop output.

Another concern was the brightness of the Shinobi screen. Shooting under direct, bright sun, there’s really no substitute for brightness output from a monitor. The Shinobi is rated at 1,000 nits, which is bright. But I wouldn’t characterize it as “super bright,” as many other camera monitors now advertise. The two other monitors I was considering—the PortKeys LH5 HDR and the new PortKeys BM5—are both considered “super bright” or “daylight viewable” with the lower-cost LH5 HDR rated at 1,500nits while the more expensive (also $499) BM5 monitor is rated at 2,000nits.

Since I shoot with the Fujifilm’s XT-3 mirrorless camera, the only way to send video from the camera to the Shinobi SDI, is via the Micro HDMI port, the worst video connector available.

One of my buying criteria was weight. Since I planned on using this monitor mounted to the Zhiyun Crane 2 extension handle, every additional ounce was a concern. It’s one thing to try to operate a small mirrorless camera on a gimbal smoothly. But it’s another to consider a small mirrorless camera, the gimbal, extension-mounting arm, a monitor, monitor battery, sunshade, an external microphone, cables and filters.

All of this extra weight really can add up, and it affects how long you can actually hold the camera and gimbal steady for long periods of time. That’s important since I mostly shoot documentaries, and I generally follow my subjects through their day-to-day experiences.

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The Shinobi SDI offers some handy tools that neither of our cameras provide, like False Color, which assigns different colors to areas of different exposure in the image. Instead of just showing what parts of the image are overexposed, it gives a more complete picture of what’s going on in the image by using a range of exposure values.

Comparing Three Monitors

To get a better sense of how the Atomos Shinobi SDI compared to the competition, I first considered price, weight and build materials between the three monitors before buying:

  1. Atomos Shinobi SDI ($499): 7.97 ounces, polycarbonate.
  2. PortKeys LH5 HDR ($289): 7.05 ounces, polycarbonate.
  3. PortKeys BM5 ($499): 12.3 ounces, aluminum.

All three monitors are powered by Sony NP-F batteries or DC, and all three have the ability to load custom LUTS.

But I wanted to compare other features, as well.

Atomos Shinobi SDI:

  • HDMI and SDI i/o; 1,000nits; Atomos user interface has a wide array of measuring and monitoring tools; good experience with brand and customer service.

PortKeys LH5 HDR:

  • HDMI only i/o; 1,500nits; PortKeys user interface is not as intuitive as Atomos, although it’s equipped with most video measurement tools. But Atomos has more. The LH5 HDR is lighter than the Atomos. Also, use the Long Arm Control Box to control certain camera functions from the monitor but only for specific cameras.

PortKeys BM5:

  • HDMI and SDI i/o; 2000nits; PortKeys user interface; it’s heavier than the Atomos. Also, use the Long Arm Control Box to control certain camera functions from the monitor but only for specific cameras. (At the time of this review, I wasn’t able to get this unit in to compare it on other features.)

The fact that the PortKeys BM5 wasn’t shipping in time for a big out-of-state shoot I had coming up really ruled it out.

And even though having high brightness was appealing to me, since I’ve been shooting outdoors so much lately on our docuseries, I didn’t like that I’d have to deal with a potentially clunky and unintuitive menu system on the PortKeys monitors. I also wasn’t looking forward to the additional weight of the PortKeys BM5 model for use on our gimbal.

In the end, though, I needed a monitor for an upcoming production that would largely be shot on the road, shooting an ultramarathon in the Florida Keys.

I ordered the Atomos Shinobi SDI for $499, along with $90 AtomX Sunshade. I really wanted a higher brightness monitor, but I had hoped that the sunshade would allow me to use the 1,000nit screen under bright sunlight. And so far, it’s worked: I’ve been shooting with the Shinobi SDI for a couple of months now, and my overall impression has been very favorable. Overall, it’s a very handy tool.

Left: The ¼-inch 20 sockets on the top and bottom of the Shinobi SDI work, but the ARRI anti-rotation connector that the Ninja V features would have been far superior. Right: Up top, eight different LUTs can be loaded into the Shinobi SDI’s memory via this SD card slot on the right side of the monitor.

The Pros And Cons Of Aluminum Vs. Polycarbonate

The Atomos Shinobi is basically just a Ninja V without the recorder. But let me qualify that: One major structural difference is that the Ninja V recorder has an aluminum body, while the Shinobi SDI uses polycarbonate.

The downside is that aluminum construction has a more robust and tactile feel than polycarbonate. Aluminum is also a better passive heat conductor.

But the Blade is a recorder, while the Shinobi is merely a monitor. So I didn’t anticipate that heat buildup would be an issue with a monitor.

The upside is that polycarbonate is lighter, significantly so over the PortKeys BM5. For my use, primarily on a one-handed gimbal with a small mirrorless camera, secondarily on our Canon C200 and rented cameras mostly on tripod, occasionally shoulder-mounted, the minuscule weight of just under 8 ounces was a definite selling point.

This Shinobi SDI features a 3G SDI input with loop output, meaning it supports 1080 but not 4K input.

Toolset, Accessory Mount And Color Accuracy

The Shinobi toolset is deep, and the monitor includes many features with useful functions that help you make sure your images are properly exposed. It also ensures your camera audio is recorded at the proper levels—for example, the basic on-screen toolset Waveform, RGB Parade in black and white, Waveform with RGB, Vectorscope, Vectorscope Zoomed, Histogram, Histogram With RGB, Zebra, several Frame Crop modes and more.

The Shinobi SDI has two ¼-inch 20 mounting points, one on top of the screen and one on the bottom. Unfortunately, the Shinobi lacks the same ARRI accessory mount that the Ninja V has: a mounting system that has anti-rotation pins to keep the monitor from rotating once mounted.

On recent shoots, with the monitor mounted on our gimbal, we found that the anti-rotation function is sorely missed

The screen on the Shinobi has accurate colors, and with the addition of HDR and LUT support, you get what seems to be a fairly accurate representation of what your images will look like back in the edit bay. In my opinion, a camera monitor should be close to broadcast accurate, but I also know that a real, broadcast-accurate monitor for an edit bay can easily cost $20,000. So I’m realistic about how color/gamma-accurate a $500 camera monitor will be.

I loaded in two LUTs for our Fujifilm X-T3 for when we are shooting F-Log and three different LUTs for our Canon C200. The Shinobi’s intuitive and simple menu system makes it quick and easy to choose between the LUTs you want to apply to your signal. The LUTs are loaded into the Shinobi via an SD card slot on the right side of the monitor. The process was simple and painless. 

The Shinobi SDI menus were intuitive and simple to navigate and the locations and implementation of the various functions made sense to me.

In The Field, Battery Life, Menu System And Analysis Tool

The Shinobi SDI screen is a full 1920×1080 at 427 ppi. The HDMI input can accept a 4K or 1080 signal, but the SDI input is only 3G SDI, not 12G, so it only accepts a 1080 signal.

When it’s in use in the field, I find that you don’t gain anything by feeding a 4K signal to a 1080 monitor screen. It looks fully detailed and precise enough to judge focus with a 1080 input signal since it’s just a 1080 native screen.

In a 5.2-inch display, even if it was a true 4K screen, it wouldn’t matter; you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. (If you haven’t seen it, this online TV monitor viewing distance calculator, stari.co/tv-monitor-viewing-distance-calculator, is a handy reference guide for where resolution and distance converge and are a factor in the degree of sharpness apparent in a monitor.)

Battery life on the Shinobi SDI is excellent. Using one of my large Sony 7800mAh NPF970 batteries, the monitor ran for about eight to nine hours.

Navigating the Shinobi menus and tools is a pleasant, intuitive experience, and it’s one of the primary reasons I chose the Shinobi over either of the PortKeys monitors. With the Shinobi, all of the functions are accessed through two screens of icons at the bottom of the screen. It’s very much like perusing the controls on your phone. It feels intuitive and natural in comparison, and I could easily do it while holding the gimbal without having to put it down.

The Shinobi has a new “Analysis” tool that I find handy for a quick “all systems” check. You tap it and instantly see a slightly shrunken version of your subject, flanked by a waveform at the bottom, histogram to the right bottom, vectorscope to the right and audio meters above the vectorscope. This is a great way to get a quick check of every most commonly used monitoring feature all at once.

One of the coolest options is that you can adjust the brightness level of the scopes, making the lines thinner or thicker for checking the resolution of the measurement.

I’d recommend purchasing the AtomX Sunshade (above, left), which is a must with the Shinobi SDI. The screen is visible outdoors on cloudy days, but in bright, direct sunlight, the shade helps the image visibility.

AtomX Sunshade Accessory

With the Shinobi’s 1,000nit screen, if you decide to purchase it, you’ll also want to purchase the AtomX Sunshade. Buying it was a bit confusing because the sunshade is marketed as being only designed for the Ninja V, but, rest assured, it also fits the Shinobi SDI perfectly. While I bristled at the price ($90 for a small plastic ring that clamps to the monitor and a small folding sunshade that inserts into grooves in the ring!), I must say that functionally, it’s easily the best sunshade I’ve used.

In the bright Florida sun, with the addition of the AtomX sunshade, I was able to view the monitor, compose and easily nail focus and exposure. The shade is small and light enough to not really be a factor as far as weight and size, but its depth shades the monitor screen an adequate amount to make viewing in most circumstances practical.

One advantage of the 1,000 nit screen is that colors are generally a bit more accurate (super bright monitors typically compromise color accuracy for brightness). Additionally, a 1,000 nit screen uses considerably less energy, prolonging battery life and shooting time.

On a recent documentary shoot for “Year On The Water,” a character study about two female athletes, the AtomX Sunshade helped the Shinobi SDI perform flawlessly on the challenging two-day shoot.

The Bottom Line: An Exceptional Value

At $499, the Shinobi SDI is an exceptional value, and I don’t regret choosing it over any of the other competing monitors available in the sub-$500 price range.

For me, the Shinobi offers the simplest and easiest-to-use software/interface of any monitor on the market I’ve seen, paired with proven reliability and solid LUT and HDR support.

Its 1,000 nit rating means that it’s useful for shooting outdoors on cloudy days or in indirect sunlight sans the sunshade, but in bright sun, the sunshade is a must. I was impressed enough with the Shinobi that I bought one, along with the AtomX sunshade, and have been using it the past two months in a variety of situations. It’s been a valuable addition to our camera packages.

The Shinobi SDI will be useful for gimbal shooting, as well as with almost any camera I rent, borrow or own. Unlike cameras that seem outdated every few months, I anticipate that the Shinobi SDI will give me years of useful performance, and if my experience with it is anything like the past four years I’ve had with the Ninja Blade, it will have been a wise investment.

If you need an affordable camera monitor, I strongly recommend this Atomos monitor. It’s an excellent choice for a versatile monitor for shooting projects on a tight budget.

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