In some circles, installing custom or aftermarket firmware like
CyanogenMod on a $200 phone is enough to garner street cred, while in
others, such minor trifles are fit only to be scoffed at. For those
who do not flinch at danger, there is Magic Lantern, a GPL-licensed
replacement firmware for high-end Canon digital SLR cameras. The current
release is version 2.3, which offers a wealth of
improvements for shooting video, plus a growing list of
enhancements for still photographers.
Magic Lantern regularly makes releases for a fixed list of Canon models,
at the moment including most of the models from the EOS 600D and up. The
supported list focuses on cameras using Canon's DIGIC 4 chip and newer
models. Recent DIGIC chips include an embedded ARM core which makes
writing custom software possible, and the cameras can load and run firmware
from an inserted memory card without overwriting the existing firmware.
Consequently, projects like Magic Lantern and CHDK (which targets point-and-shoot
models) can provide firmware that adds new functionality with minimal risk
of bricking the camera — or of voiding the warranty and losing out on
Canon's much-loved hardware service offerings. There is still
risk involved, however, particularly for new camera models.
Magic Lantern was initially focused on improving video
recording functionality. The first model supported by the project was
the EOS 5D Mark II, a camera which started a minor revolution by
allowing high-quality HD recording in a compact form. But for some
budding filmmakers, the stock firmware simply left out too much.
Magic Lantern added usability features like crop marks in the preview
window, more precise control over ISO speed, white balance, and
shutter speed, and a number of miscellaneous add-ons like on-screen
sound meters for the audio input.
The current development work is focused on the EOS 5D Mark III, for
which the third alpha release was unveiled
on January 6. Installation
requires unpacking the build onto a supported Compact Flash or SD
card, making the card bootable, and loading it into the camera. The
download package includes the firmware image plus several folders full
of auxiliary files such as the focusing-screen overlays.
Normally, the card can be set to automatically boot the camera into
Magic Lantern, but this feature has not been enabled in the
pre-release builds for the EOS 5D Mark III.
The 5D Mark III release is still incomplete in other areas as well; a
good portion of the features enabled for other camera models are still
unimplemented for the 5D Mark III. The issue is that some Magic
Lantern features (for example, changes to live preview and information
display) can work without touching any of the camera's persistent
settings, but others require altering properties saved in onboard
memory. The team has simply encountered too many unsolved problems
with accessing and setting the 5D Mark III's stored settings.
Developer a1ex reported
that the stability test froze the camera and required a cold reboot
and clearing all of the camera settings to restore functionality. For
a piece of hardware with a four digit price tag, some caution is
Still, there is a long list of features which are enabled in the
5D Mark III builds of 2.3. As is to be expected in light of the
project's emphasis on digital film-making, most are related to video, but not
all of them are so esoteric that a semester of cinematography class is
required. The gradual exposure function, for example, allows the user
to switch from one exposure setting to another while still filming;
Magic Lantern will smoothly transition through the intermediate
shutter and ISO speed settings, so that the change fades in (so to
speak), instead of hitting all at once.
But there are more unusual features, too. The HDR video mode, for
example, shoots twice as many frames as normal, alternating the
exposure of each: one set to properly expose the highlights, and one
set to properly expose the shadows. Combining the results into a
single video stream is not easy, though, and needs to be done in
post-production software. So far no tool exists for Linux users,
although there is a script
using the open source VirtualDub and Enfuse applications.
The majority of the Magic Lantern features enabled for the 5D Mark III at
the moment are of the display or composition aide variety, though. But this is not to
say that they are merely cosmetic; some offer important enhancements.
For instance, the "display gain" feature brightens the live preview
window so that items in frame are visible even if it is pitch black
outside. That allows the user to compose a decent-looking foreground
when doing night shooting or astrophotography, which is a nearly impossible
As a still photographer, I am more interested in some of Magic
Lantern 2.3's features that are not yet available on the 5D Mark III.
To be honest, though, there are so many features
these days that nearly every user will find some of them useful given
a random subset. That is a testament to the development team's
creativity. More important, of course, is that such aftermarket firmware allows the camera owners to do more (and better) creative work. To Canon's credit, the company has not cracked down on magic Lantern or CHDK — in fact the company adeptly steps around the issue of whether using either project is a warranty violation. Those users with camera models supported by stable
builds of 2.3 should consider giving Magic Lantern a try — but should
do so with open eyes. With a well-tested model, there is relatively
little risk of doing damage to one's camera, but there is virtually no
recourse should something go horribly wrong. Perhaps the best advice
is to say cowboy up, but do your reading first.
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