AJA Cion Review – All You Need to Know About the AJA Camera

Last year AJA surprised us with the announcement of a high quality, affordable, 4K shooting, cinema camera. The AJA Cion was a tool we were looking forward to use and now, after a long wait and after the public release we could finally analyse and test it thoroughly.
Here is our complete AJA Cion review with some awkward surprises and a long list of pro’s and con’s. This is a camera that needs careful observation before the shooting can start. Read on to see all our findings.

If you plan on shooting with the AJA Cion we recommend you read our new article:
10 important tips to help you master the AJA Cion

In this review we will present objective test results from our labs, compare the camera to other contenders, and try to give you a subjective observation of how the camera worked for us.

aja-cion-review

We will look at the following aspects:

AJA Cion Review – Features at a Glance

Sensor:
The AJA Cion’s sensor has some great technical features. It is a 4:3 APS-C sized global shutter sensor that upon closer inspection had a striking resemblance to the sensor we find in the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K (We do not claim it is the same sensor). The sensor also performs very similarly in terms of lowlight and dynamic range. More on that later.

  • Global shutter CMOS sensor
  • 4K pixel readout
  • 22.5mm x 17mm 4:3 APS-C sized sensor (a little smaller than super35)

Recording Formats:
The camera records in the ProRes format. This is fantastic, a great recording format, easy to edit.
Additionally the Cion does 120fps RAW via the 4 SDI ouputs on the back. This didn’t work with the Atomos Shogun in our tests.

  • Apple ProRes 4444 (up to 30fps) 12-bit
  • Apple ProRes 422 (up to 60fps) 10-bit
  • RAW externally (up to 120fps)

Useful Connectors:
The AJA Cion is a camera that gives you lots of connections. The idea of an “open architecture” camera, that is highly compatible is one that any operator will welcome.

  • 6 SDI outputs in total
  • 2 hdmi outputs (one of them supports 4K)
  • 2 XLR balanced analog inputs (with phantom power + dedicated boost), 24bit 48khz
  • Well positioned headphone jack for audio monitoring
  • Thunderbolt for direct recording via PC (up to 30fps)
  • 2 LANC connectors for remote control
  • D-tap connector to power an accessory
  • and more

Battery (life):
The AJA Cion comes with a 2-pin battery connector behind its back plate so you can install your own V-mount or Anton Bauer battery plate. Battery life is extensive on the Cion. It lasts forever.

  • Standby time on our fully charged 126Wh V-mount battery: 3h 15m

GO TO PAGE 2 → Sensor Tests

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Joseph Tammel March 17, 2015

Great review! Lots of usefull information here.

I really cant believe they have used the same sensor as in the blackmagic camera. It is a many times cheaper camera. Now they have the downsides of it in this camera.

Reply
James Ignaz March 17, 2015

They got the playback part right :)

Lance Bachelder Reply
Lance Bachelder March 17, 2015

Nice review! I had the CION for about a month to test and we found the best image is to always use Normal Expanded vs. Expanded 1. The flat profile of the CION is not the same as other flat profiles like Sony or Canon. Using Normal Expanded gives far better color, skin tones and even right shots. You are right about highlights though, you absolutely must protect for highlights on any shot and a lot of ND is required for bright exteriors etc. I agree there is a learning curve and the camera is probably better suited for experienced Cinematographers and not run and gun indie shooters. You can achieve a very filmic, feature film look with careful shooting.

Sebastian Wöber Reply
Sebastian Wöber March 17, 2015

Hi Lance,
Thanks for sharing your experience here and adding to our findings.
Were you not scared to lose some detail when using Normal Expanded? Did you shoot more carefully using Normal Expanded and checked your shadow details on set? How was your experience there?
Yes Expanded 1 is a bit tricky. AJA doesn’t provide a r709 LUT yet which would help when you’re not a grading pro. It has a blue cast in the darks and high raised blacks.

Lance Bachelder Reply
Lance Bachelder March 18, 2015

Actually saw no loss of detail using Normal Expanded in fact it color times far better than Expanded 1 which we could never get to look as good in post. Yes the image can look crushed when you bring it in but the ability to “see” into what seems like a ruined image is amazing. Even shooting at 320 at night there is so much detail in the 444 master. But I’m looking for sterile Sony or GH4 4K, I’m looking for overall organic cinematic feel which is very unique with the CION and I believe intentional from its creators. It has a distinct filmic “look” that is specifically CION but I do believe there is much work to be done in handling highlights. Don’t know how to load stills here or I’d be happy to show some before/afters…

Sebastian Wöber Reply
Sebastian Wöber March 18, 2015

Lance, if you like send the stills to office(at)cinema5d.com. I might be doing a follow up article with some tips and I’d insert those images with a reference if they’re good.
Thanks for the hints about the Normal Expanded shadows in 4444.
The Cion look is very cinematic, but I think the RED cameras have that tonality even more and with some experience it’s easy to get the Alexa and Kinefinity look that way as well.

Reply
Iain March 17, 2015

Under 9 stops dynamic range? I had high hopes for this camera! I’ve just checked their website and they are claiming 12 stops. Could there be something wrong with the sensor you used? Have you asked AJA to comment on you’re findings? Here’s a link to their brochure and ’12 stop dynamic range’ claim. Or does you’re test confirm it is the BM sensor and owners will suffer the same inconsistency of results that BM 4k owners have witnessed.
Really disappointing result when a 5D with H264 is producing a greater dynamic range than a ‘professional’ video camera with ProRes 10bit!

Sebastian Wöber Reply
Sebastian Wöber March 17, 2015

We tested two different camera bodies. There were no inconsistencies.
We have had good communication with AJA and also sent them our findings and RAW test chart frames concerning dynamic range. Their reply was that AJA rates the Cion at 12 stops, but have given no further comments yet.
It is likely that AJA’s approach to rate dynamic range is different to our’s. Commonly people refer to “usable dynamic range” when talking about a camera’s latitude. This is what we try to find in our tests and it has taken a year to get a ratings system that we can apply to many cameras.
A global shutter sensor generally has lower dynamic range.

Reply
Iain Philpott March 17, 2015

Thanks Sebastian for further clarity. I guess like all camera tests there is no substitute for picking it up and seeing if it works for you. I love the image coming off of it but 8.5 stops emmmmm!

Sebastian Wöber Reply
Sebastian Wöber March 18, 2015

Exactly, you should try the Cion before you buy it.
The dynamic range doesn’t affect picture quality, but it is limiting if you’re used to something else.

Oscar Goldman Reply
Oscar Goldman March 18, 2015

Lots of of information missing. WHAT MEDIA DOES IT RECORD ON? From your mention of this “Pak Dock”, I’ll assume it’s some proprietary thing.

This article also doesn’t describe lens-mount options.

This thing is three times the price of the BlackMagic 4K, but offers no advantage over it except ProRes 4444 and a higher max frame rate. It has no raw recording, and uses overpriced proprietary media. Does Aja offer a Canon mount? If so, how are the lenses controlled?

Sebastian Wöber Reply
Sebastian Wöber March 18, 2015

Hi Oscar,

Thanks for pointing out your questions. Of course there is more information I could have provided, but I felt the review was already quite in-depth and shouldn’t extend a certain length.

The Cion uses proprietary media with a proprietary card reader.
Cion is open to third party lens mounts. At this time there are: CanonEF/FD, Nikon F/G-Mount, ARRI Bayonet and B4 ENG. To control an electronic EF lens you need to connect the mount via a cable to a box and that costs $2000…

PiDicus Rex Reply
PiDicus Rex September 24, 2015

There’s also 1 E-mount and 1 M4/3rds mount, both wearing adapters for K-mount lenses. :)
Making your own mounts for the Cion is a touch tricky, but massive props to Aja for making the sensor FFD (back focus) adjustment very simple.

The Pak Media is probably the biggest limitation of the Cion – not only is it a proprietary interface (with what I suspect is an mSata drive inside), it is also formatted in HFS, which is particularly a pain in the ar** for Windows and Linux users.

It should be in exFat to be as flexible as possible.

Che Broadnax Reply
Che Broadnax March 18, 2015

When the CION was first announced, I was overjoyed because it looked as though somebody had finally figured out that an ergonomic design and the appropriate professional input/output options were what we all wanted and weren’t getting from cameras in the DSLR form factor or all the little boxes (BMCC, RED Scarlet/Epic, etc). AJA seemed to be taking a play out of ARRI’s book and designing a camera that looked, felt, and behaved like a camera.

The discovery of a bad menu system that can only be operated from the smart side is a huge strike against this camera. How many times does an Op ask an AC to change the ISO or FPS for them? All the time. I can’t imagine telling my Op, “sure, just move your head so I can do that.” ARRI’s menus are probably the best in the biz right now, but RED ONE’s accessibility of menus was the best — available via the EVF, the rear menu, customizable user keys all over the damn thing, and of course the (best, for my money) onboard monitor. Unfortunately their menu system was preposterous, and the EPIC and SCARLET have lost major points by stripping their systems down and requiring expensive add-ons and hiding the power button inside the record button and all manner of counter-intuitive and non-ergonomic choices.

It feels as though AJA didn’t think about how a camera would be realistically used. If it’s even going to be shoulder mounted (as the built in shoulder mount suggests they were thinking), then the operator either has to be able to operate settings from their own shoulder via an EVF or easily accessible user customizable keys, or the menu operation should be accessible to an AC working from EITHER side of the camera via an onboard monitor or keys accessible on each side. Unmounting a camera to do basic settings switches is not tenable on set.

Obviously, the low dynamic range is something of a shock, especially in light of the decent color reproduction.

In all, it seems like the most promising feature of the camera, the open architecture and ergonomic design are essentially canceled out by the difficulty to operate during a shoot. One day or ten days of training won’t help the fact that the controls are blocked by an op’s face.

Too bad I can’t afford an AMIRA.

Sebastian Wöber Reply
Sebastian Wöber March 18, 2015

I could not agree more to everything you said. When you play with the menu a bit you will also realise how time consuming its operation is, because of the illogical structure. Glad there are other cameramen who understand what a bad menu means.

PiDicus Rex Reply
PiDicus Rex September 24, 2015

Really?
I found it very easy to get used to, and easy to adjust settings without dropping it off my shoulder.

Having them pop up in the monitor output would be a nice touch.

If using a first or second AC, I’d prefer they accessed the settings from the PC, so a wifi unit that clipped on to the back and plugged in to the ethernet port would make more sense.

I’d also prefer not having an extra battery sucking built in monitor on the wrong side – there’s a second set of monitor outputs for that, or you can use HDMI to feed the operators EVF and SDI for the AC’s, while feeding the rear outputs to the video village.

The only limitation I found with the SDI, is that it’s not 12G on the main outputs – Quad SDI isn’t common or price competitive compared to 12G recorders.

Rakesh Malik Reply
Rakesh Malik March 18, 2015

I suspect that Aja is assuming that an AC would be using a web interface to update camera settings, rather than the on-camera menu system.

Sebastian Wöber Reply
Sebastian Wöber March 18, 2015

The web interface is the fastest way to do basic setup on the camera, but I don’t think an AC would like to run behind a camera with a network cable and change settings, it will need a table, because the web interface also requires searching for the right setting each time.

Mattia Santino Merli Reply
Mattia Santino Merli March 18, 2015

Not a tipical run and gun camera, the lack of nd filters, proprietary recording media, frustating menu are all disavantages that make me think if the guys at AJA had ever tried other cameras… The ergonomic seems fantastic but at this point is more a cinema camera then a doc style one, so I don’t understand the chose to make it so ergonomic, a this point make a cube like others… Anyway, thanks for the review, very exaustive (the missing infos can be easily retreived on the web…). I love the image that produce but in this case I would go on the BMPC 4K…

Reply
Attila March 18, 2015

Hi Sebastian! I could not find this info on your site, did you measure the NX1 with this test chart? I wonder how it compares to the mentioned cameras.

Sebastian Wöber Reply
Sebastian Wöber March 18, 2015

I think NX1 has 10.1 stops, but this was on the old firmware. We have not re-tested it since the firmware update came out that made significant improvements.

Reply
Tim Naylor Naylor March 18, 2015

A bit disappointing in all especially in light of the FS7 and perhaps Kinefinity for low cost 4k. The DR and low sensitivity for my uses make it feel dated before it’s out. Regarding ergonomics, while I see the attempt to make it shoulder friendly, I find this and the FS7 still have the shoulder pad too far back in what looks to me to be a front heavy design once you load it up with MB, FF, etc. Proprietary cards and no internal ND’s also relegate this. I just can’t think of a good reason to get this over an FS7.

Daniel Curtean Reply
Daniel Curtean May 29, 2015

Because it now (as of recently) costs $4K? But even still, the URSA Mini has the same sensor, and far improved features, as well as even cheaper price. Hard sell, I was super excited about this camera before, but with the latest batch of bat-shit crazy camera designs, its a tough world for competitors.

Still a fantastic image, one of the best outside of Arri or RED or Sony F series.

PiDicus Rex Reply
PiDicus Rex May 29, 2015

In regards to the Single Operator vs 1AC/DP operation and ease of access of menu operations by the 1AC, I refer you to page 65 of the Cion user manual..

Sebastian Wöber Reply
Sebastian Wöber May 30, 2015

Please elaborate

PiDicus Rex Reply
PiDicus Rex September 24, 2015

Page 65 – “Chapter 6: Web Browser Remote Control”

The interface is really quite simple to use, though the connection to the camera would benefit WiFi connectivity, so the AC can change settings via a networked tablet or laptop.

But don’t bother with file transfer – you can’t transfer files while recording (which we know someone would try,..) and you can only move one file at a time.

Reply
Dan E May 13, 2016

I’d be interested in knowing if the new firmware update (1.3) changes this review at all. Would the camera fare better in sensor tests now? This review was the kiss of death for me buying this camera.

PiDicus Rex Reply
PiDicus Rex May 13, 2016

Given some of the sample frames from some users, I’d say the answer is a big yes.
Still not the ’12 stops’ that both Aja and BMD list for that sensor, but certainly more detail in both highlights and shadows.
Check this sample out that popped up on Vimeo, wait for the the shots with light fittings in the backgrounds, huge improvement.

https://vimeo.com/164867795