Reasons to Use an External Video Recorder. A Buyers Guide.


External recorders such as the Atomos Ninja series offer numerous benefits for videographers and filmmakers looking to enhance their recording capabilities beyond what their cameras can offer.

These include:

  • Higher Bitrate Recording
  • ProRes, RAW, and DNxHR Recording (Bypassing Camera Limitations)
  • 4K and HDR Support
  • Improved Color Sampling
  • Longer Recording Times
  • Better Monitoring (and additional tools)
  • Dual Recording
  • Timecode Support
  • More Battery Life and Power Options

Below, I’ve written a buyer’s guide to external recorders, where you can read more about the advantages (and disadvantages) of using one.

See the article Best External Monitors For Recording Video if you’re looking for recommendations.

Inputs and outputs

hdmi and sdi ports
HDMI and SDI ports

The first thing to check is that your camera’s output matches the monitor’s input.

Does your camera have an SDI or an HDMI output – or both?


  • Pros: HDMI is widely used and is compatible with a broad range of cameras and devices. It’s also less expensive and easier to replace.
  • Cons: HDMI cables and connectors can be less durable and more prone to disconnection or damage, especially in rigorous shooting conditions.


  • Pros: SDI connections are more robust and secure, making them suitable for professional environments where reliability is crucial. They also support longer cable lengths without signal degradation.
  • Cons: Devices with SDI inputs and cables tend to be more expensive. Not all consumer cameras support SDI outputs.

Some external recorders like Atomos Shogun Inferno have HDMI and SDI inputs.

Get an external recorder with an HDMI input if your camera has an HDMI out.

Tip: I recommend you secure the cable with a cable clamp so it doesn’t accidentally get pulled out of your camera or monitor during recording.

Use the SDI port if your camera has one. SDI ports are a more secure connection and the industry standard for professional video and cinema cameras.

Read more about the pros and cons of the various SDI and HDMI standards.


External Recorder for video on a camera

Since the monitor screen on your external recorder will be your primary tool, the size, quality, and user interface are essential considerations.

Screen Size

Like external monitors, the most popular external recorders are 5 inches or 7 inches in size.

These great sizes let you place them on your camera or a small articulating arm. They’re also small enough to be placed on a gimbal.

The size you need depends on your needs. Smaller monitors tend to weigh less and be less bulky, which makes them a perfect solution for mounting on top of your camera or a gimbal.

However, if you don’t mind working with a larger camera rig or need a bigger screen, a 7-inch screen is the better option.

If you need a bigger monitor for clients to sit on its stand, use a regular field recorder instead.

On-Screen Tools for monitoring

Here are some of the most important on-screen tools an external video recorder should have. I recommend getting a recorder with a touch screen and the ability to create multiple layouts to switch between these tools easily:

  1. Histogram: A histogram is a graphical representation of your scene’s tonal values. It shows your footage’s shadows, mid-tones, and highlights distribution, helping you avoid overexposed or underexposed shots.
  2. Waveform Monitor: Similar to a histogram, a waveform monitor provides a more detailed view of the brightness levels across your image. It’s particularly useful for ensuring even exposure across the frame.
  3. Vectorscope: This tool is essential for color grading, as it shows how saturated the image is and where the colors fall within the color space. It’s crucial for maintaining consistent and accurate skin tones.
  4. Zebras: Zebras indicate areas of the frame that are close to or are already overexposed. They’re typically displayed as diagonal stripes on the parts of the image that exceed a specific brightness level.
  5. Focus Peaking: This feature highlights the edges of objects in the frame that are in focus. It’s incredibly useful for manual focusing, especially when it’s hard to judge focus on a small screen.
  6. False Color: False color is an advanced tool that assigns different colors to your image’s various luminance or brightness levels. It provides a visual guide to exposure, making it easier to identify and correct exposure issues.
  7. Frame Guides/Aspect Ratio Markers: These on-screen overlays help you frame your shot according to different aspect ratios, ensuring your composition suits various output formats.
  8. LUT Support: Look-Up Table (LUT) support allows you to apply color grades directly on the monitor, giving you a more accurate preview of your final look. This is especially useful for log or flat profiles that need color grading to look natural.
  9. Anamorphic De-squeeze: Some models offer anamorphic de-squeeze options, which are essential if you want to use anamorphic lenses.


The touch screen should be highly responsive to touch inputs without lag. Delays in response can be frustrating and hinder your ability to capture moments promptly. I find Atomos has the best and most responsive touchscreens, followed by Blackmagic Design.

Multi-Touch Gestures

Support for multi-touch gestures, such as pinch-to-zoom or swipe, can significantly improve your interaction with the device, making navigating through menus and adjusting settings easier.


Given that the touch screen is a critical component, it should be made of durable materials capable of withstanding regular use. A scratch-resistant surface is also beneficial.

Outdoor Visibility

director and dp discussing things Custom

Consider the screen’s visibility in outdoor conditions or under bright lights. A screen with good brightness levels and anti-glare properties will be more versatile across different shooting environments.

I don’t recommend buying a monitor with less than 1500 nits of brightness if you often shoot outside in sunny conditions. A sun hood for your monitor can sometimes make a 1000 nits monitor okay for sunny conditions.


The screen’s resolution is essential for accurately monitoring your recordings. A higher resolution will provide a clearer and more detailed view of your footage, which is crucial for focusing and framing shots correctly.

Some monitors allow 4K recordings to be scaled down to FullHD, while others (usually larger screens) allow full 4K monitoring.

Recording Formats

Recording formats refer to the file types the video is saved as, including RAW, ProRes, and DNxHD/DNxHR, among others. Each has its unique characteristics:

Many cameras, especially consumer-level ones, don’t natively support high-quality codecs like ProRes, RAW, or DNxHR due to hardware limitations or manufacturer restrictions.

External recorders can bypass these limitations, enabling the recording of footage in these high-quality formats. This provides greater flexibility in post-production, offering better color grading capabilities and preserving more details in the shadows and highlights.

RAW (fx BRaw or ProRes RAW)

RAW video format captures unprocessed data directly from a camera’s sensor, providing the highest quality and flexibility in post-production. Types of RAW include CinemaDNG, Blackmagic RAW, and REDCODE, varying in compression rates ranging from 3:1 to 12:1.

This allows you to choose between larger file sizes with minimal compression for maximum quality or smaller files with higher compression rates for efficiency.

  • Pros: Offers the highest level of quality by capturing all data from the camera sensor.
    • Provides extensive flexibility in post-production, allowing for adjustments to exposure, color, and more without degrading the image.
  • Cons: Results in very large file sizes, requiring significant storage capacity.
    • Demands more powerful editing hardware and software.

Apple ProRes

ProRes is a high-quality, lossy video compression format developed by Apple for post-production that offers high performance and low storage requirements. It supports multiple resolutions: SD, HD, 2K, 4K, and 5K.

Types of ProRes range from ProRes 422 Proxy to ProRes 4444 XQ, offering a balance between compression rates and image quality, with ProRes 422 being ideal for editing and ProRes 4444 XQ for effects-intensive projects due to its higher fidelity.

  • Pros: Strikes a balance between file size and quality, offering excellent image quality with relatively manageable file sizes.
    • Widely compatible with editing software, easing the post-production process.
    • Offers a range of quality options from ProRes Proxy to ProRes 4444XQ to suit different needs.
  • Cons: Larger file sizes than some highly compressed formats, impacting storage and transfer times.
    • Primarily optimized for macOS, though it’s still usable on other platforms.


Avid DNxHD/DNxHR are video codecs designed for professional video editing. They offer a balance between quality and performance across various resolutions. DNxHD targets HD formats, while DNxHR is optimized for resolutions from HD to 4K and beyond.

Both support multiple compression rates, from low-bandwidth efficiencies for easier storage and transfer to less-compressed options for higher image fidelity, catering to diverse post-production needs.

  • Pros: Similar advantages to ProRes in balancing file size and quality.
    • Offers a variety of resolutions and bitrates to match project requirements.
    • Well-integrated into Avid workflows, a standard in many professional editing environments.
  • Cons: While versatile, it may not be as universally accepted in non-Avid environments compared to ProRes.

Color Sampling

This is probably a good time to talk about color sampling.

Color sampling (4:2:2, 4:4:4, etc.) is crucial for color accuracy and detail in video footage. Improved color sampling means more color information is captured, leading to better color gradation, less banding, and higher fidelity in chroma keying (green/blue screen effects).

This is especially important for professional-grade productions where color precision is key.


A codec is the software used to compress or decompress a video file, with options including H.264, H.265 (HEVC), and others. These affect the video’s quality, compatibility, and size:


  • Pros: Highly compatible with most video platforms and devices.
    • Efficient at compressing video, resulting in smaller file sizes without significantly losing quality.
  • Cons: Lossy compression can degrade quality, especially for footage requiring heavy post-production.
    • Can be more CPU-intensive to decode and edit than some newer codecs.

H.265 (HEVC)

  • Pros:
    • Offers better compression than H.264, reducing file sizes further while maintaining quality.
    • Supports higher resolutions, including 4K and 8K.
  • Cons: Not as universally supported as H.264, potentially leading to compatibility issues.
    • Decoding and editing H.265 footage can be more demanding on editing systems.


Bitrate refers to the amount of data processed per unit of time in a video, typically measured in bits per second (bps). It directly influences video quality and file size; higher bitrates mean better quality but larger files.

Video bitrates can vary widely depending on the codec used (e.g., H.264, H.265/HEVC), the frame rate, and the complexity of the video content. However, there are some general guidelines or common bitrates for HD (1080p), 4K, and 6K video to ensure good quality.

HD (1080p)

  • Low-quality streaming/web: around 5 Mbps
  • High-quality streaming: 8-12 Mbps
  • Blu-ray: around 25-40 Mbps

4K (UHD)

  • Low-quality streaming: around 15-25 Mbps
  • High-quality streaming: 35-45 Mbps or more
  • Blu-ray (UHD Blu-ray): 50-128 Mbps

For 4K content, using more efficient codecs like H.265/HEVC can help reduce the necessary bitrate for a given quality level compared to older codecs like H.264/AVC.


6K content is less standardized in terms of distribution than HD or 4K, but for professional video production and cinema, bitrates can be much higher to maintain quality:

  • Cinema/Professional production: Bitrates can range from 100 Mbps to over 400 Mbps, depending on the codec, frame rate, and quality requirements—for example, Apple ProRes or REDCODE RAW codecs for 6K footage demand high bitrates.

Additional Notes

  • These bitrates are approximate and can vary. For instance, using variable bitrate (VBR) encoding can lead to fluctuations around these averages.
  • Higher frame rates (e.g., 60fps vs. 30fps) will typically require higher bitrates to maintain the same level of quality.
  • The efficiency of the codec plays a significant role. Newer codecs like H.265/HEVC and AV1 can deliver similar quality to H.264/AVC at a lower bit rate.

Higher bitrates are crucial for maintaining high-quality visuals, especially when the footage undergoes significant post-production editing, color grading, or effects addition.

HDR Monitoring and Recording

Some external recorders offer HDR recording.

HDR, or High Dynamic Range recording, enhances video content by offering a wider range of colors and luminance, significantly improving picture quality. Types of HDR include HDR10 and HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma).

While this all sounds fancy, there are some things to consider before shooting HDR:

  • Compatibility and Workflow: Ensure that your entire workflow, from shooting to editing and delivery, supports HDR. This includes cameras, editing software, monitors, and even understanding the HDR grading process.
  • Learning Curve: Working with HDR content can involve a learning curve, especially regarding color grading and managing the different HDR formats (e.g., HDR10, HLG, Dolby Vision).
  • Delivery Requirements: Consider where your content will be shown. HDR is advantageous if your primary output is for web platforms supporting HDR or for future content-proofing. However, if your content is primarily for non-HDR screens, the benefits might not be as immediately impactful.

Recording in HDR provides more flexibility in post-production, as you have more information in the highlights and shadows to work with, and I have shot a few times in HLG.

But I’ve yet to see the full advantage of this from an end-user perspective since most of my clients’ audiences watch the content on smartphones or regular computer monitors.

High Frame Rate (HFR) Recording

Some recorders can capture high frame-rate video, enabling slow-motion playback. This is particularly useful for sports, wildlife, and cinematic effects.

Recording Storage Media Options

Samsung t5 alternative BMPCC4K 6K
External SSD hard drives are small, fast, and cheap per GB.

Various recording storage options are available, including fast and high-capacity solid-state drives (SSDs), compact flash (CF) cards, or SD cards, offering flexibility for users who prioritize portability and ease of use.

Additionally, Atomos recorders often feature the ability to use AtomX SSDmini, which is smaller than conventional SSDs but provides the same robust performance, tailored specifically for the compact form factor of Atomos devices.

Pro Tip: Use SSDs for storage as they are much more cost-friendly per GB.

Battery Life and Power Options

External recorders commonly use Sony NP-F style batteries across their range of products, which are widely available in various capacities.

The larger the capacity (mAh), the longer the battery life. For instance, a standard NP-F570 may last around 2-3 hours, whereas an NP-F970 could extend the usage to 6-10 hours under typical conditions.

Some Atomos recorders feature dual battery slots, offering longer overall battery life and hot-swapping capabilities, i.e., you can switch out one battery while the other keeps your recording running.

V-mount and Gold-mount batteries

Some recorders have a D-Tap connector, allowing you to use a larger battery system (like V-mount or Gold-mount batteries).

DC adapter

Many recorders come with a DC adapter, which allows continuous power when working in a studio or near a power outlet. This is ideal for long recording sessions where changing batteries frequently is impractical.

Tips for Maximizing Battery Life:

  • Manage Screen Brightness: Lower the brightness when full brightness is unnecessary to conserve power.
  • Use Larger Capacity Batteries: Invest in high-capacity NP-F970 batteries for longer shooting durations.
  • Monitor Battery Health: Regularly check and replace batteries that no longer hold a full charge as battery performance degrades over time.
  • Plan for Power: Always bring spare batteries, and consider the shooting environment to choose the most suitable power option (battery, DC power, etc.).

Additional things to consider

I’d recommend going with a trusted brand like Atomos or Blackmagic when buying an external recorder for video.

Their recorders are more expensive than lesser-known competitors but offer better quality, features, and support.

This includes frequent firmware and software updates (bug fixes, features, the operation system) and general support – including well-visited user communities online.


These recorders are some of the best external video recorders/monitors on the market and offer various functionality.

Depending on your budget, camera compatibility, and desired features, the best one for you may vary, but it’s hard to go wrong.

An external recorder lets you get much more out of your camera and preview your footage more efficiently.

An external video recorder can help you capture the best footage in almost any filming situation.

If you don’t need the recording feature of an external recorder but still need a larger screen, look at this article about the best external monitors.


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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