I don’t do a lot of video, if anything at all. For this reason I, like many others fellow photographers, have ignored till now a piece of software that every respectable videographer uses since the beginning.
I’m talking about Magic Lantern. In short, it is an alternative firmware, free and open source, that works in parallel with the Canon one, unlocking an awful lot of features. I will repeat below the advice that the Magic Lantern team gives: like everything that works on the hardware this firmware can brick and / or destroy your camera. It is highly unlikely, but it is possible. So, if you don’t want to take the risk, please don’t install it.
“Magic Lantern is not approved nor endorsed by Canon in any way, and using it will probably void your warranty. […] Use this software at your own risk.”
That said, I haven’t had the slightest problem in installation or in use. And the Magic Lantern team label their last release, the 2.3, as production-ready, meaning that is not a beta anymore.
The last “Unified” stable release works with a bunch of different cameras:
– 5D Mark II
– 50D (you can shot video too!) & 60D
– 500D & 550D & 600D
If you feel adventurous you may try the “Nightly build” – a version still under development – that supports also:
– 5D Mark III
– Eos M
– 1100D & T3
Here you can find a general introduction to the project, how to install and disinstall it, ect.:
And at the following link you can get your copy:
Now there are many reviews out there written from a videographer point of view. This one will be from a photographer perspective, instead.
I’m really happy with the extra features and the customizability of Magic Lantern, so much that I think that Canon should learn more than a trick or two from them and make those functions available straight from the factory, giving that there are no hardware limitations, but just laziness in writing the firmware.
The only, manageable, cons are:
1) the camera, having more code to load, takes maybe a second more to start. Not a problem whatsoever, at least with the 5D Mark II; I never turn the camera off anyway, unless I’ve done shooting.
2) the Magic Lantern team claims that, for the same reason, the camera drains a bit more juice from the battery. With the camera in standby this goes from the 5%/h of the default firmware up till the 10%/h (a whopping 27%/h on my own camera!) of the Magic Lantern one, depending on how much features are switched on.
Now we will examine individually a few of the – tons! – of additional functions enabled on a Canon 5D Mark II by Magic Lantern that are interesting from a photographer – again, not videographer – point of view.
You can choose a different Picture Style for visualization on the Live View screen, with respect to the one you will register your images with.
Really handy if you, like me, tends to shot Raw using the flattest picture styles you can get. The flat style helps keeping the contrast at bay and the highlights in shape, given that you want the maximum possible quality to be delivered to the raw converter of you choice. But at the same time, with a flat style, you can have problems judging your photos and if you achieved the correct focus. Just enable this voice and choose a nice and contrasty Picture Style: problem solved.
Zebra stripes that appear on areas under or overexposed – or both, your choice – in real time in Live View. Really invaluable, and you can also set the thresholds for them to appear.
Did you hate the Sony Nex cameras, but you wished your own camera had their amazing focus peaking capability? Done.
This is my favorite function. I actually installed the thing, at first, exclusively to have this. It is – again, a bit like on the Sony Nex – a magnified view (up to 3x, and you can define how large the patch has to be) of the focus point inside the normal view that you can switch on/off just half-pressing the shutter button. This way you can check focus in a breeze and precisely, without loosing sight, literally, of the big picture. Moreover, you can also enable in the function submenu two kinds of split-focusing simulations, both of which work surprisingly well.
My second favorite function. The cropmarks are masks – you can also make your own – to help you composing through the Live View. I loved my Hasselblad, so I end up a lot of time shooting in a square format. Now I can check directly on camera if the composition works. The only downside is that you can see them only when Live View is in “Movie mode”.
You can download the masks I made here (two 6×6 – one with a grid the other one plain – and two cinematic 16:9 – also one with grid and the other plain):
https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/9763620/Cropmask_MagicLantern.zip [important: do not simply copy the following images, they are just for reference but they are not in the correct format]
And from this guy here you can learn how to make your own masks with PhotoShop (or MS Paint, if you are on Windows):
This can show a transparent overlay that can be generated from any image in Play mode. It is a godsend for multi-exposures lovers and to line the various shots in panoramic photography.
If you happen to have a Samyang 8mm fish-eye lens this is for you. It lets you preview the rectified image generated from the lens.
Guess what? It is a spotmeter active 24h/7 in the middle of your image that gives you values in a 0-100% scale or in the RGB 0-255 values. If you love Ansel and the zone system you should be more than happy now.
It is an extended shutter and / or Iso bracketing. You can variate the shots up to 5 EV, let the camera auto-detect the number of necessary frames, preview the fused frames and even generate an Enfuse script to align and merge the files once they are on the computer.
Exactly what you think. You can program it with a delayed start up to 8 hours, decide the duration between two shots or stop after X pictures.
Bulb / Focus ramp
It is a feature for people who like to shoot time-lapses. It adjusts the exposure level while the light changes (hint: think “sunset”).
You can now program exposures up to an 8h (yes, hours) length.
LCD Sensor Remote
This is awesome. You can actually shoot the camera, and even enabling mirror lock-up, just waving you hand in front of the LCD. No touching necessary. Goodbye vibrations and cable releases! Wait, it’s not all, because…
Audio Remote Shot
…you can also release the shutter just snapping your fingers! And naturally you can also use this for shooting bullets piercing water filled balloons. 🙂 But wait (again), because you can also…
…have the camera shoot all by itself if it detects movement – or, in alternative, changes in the exposure levels – in the framed area. And for this – and the Audio Remote function – you can even tune the sensitivity.
Similar to the preceding function, and well known to every sport photographer. You focus where your subject should pass, and wait. When it will be in focus the camera will shoot all by itself.
If you do macro, you know you need this. With this function you will be able to capture a series of pictures of the subject, each of which with a little displacement of the focus plane. Once downloaded on the computer you will have to join them – the camera does not do this for you – and you will have a nice, impossible-to-get-otherwise, extended plane of focus.
LV Contrast / LV saturation
This two let you tweak the aspect of the pictures as they are displayed during Live View (but not how they are registered). This way you can, for example, pump the contrast to focus more easily or desaturate the image to compose straight in black & white.
LV Display Gain
With this one you can push the Live View display up to 7 stops more. It means that you can focus withe relative ease in pitch black darkness (astro & concerts photographers, are you listening?).
Image Review Settings…
Here you have a subset of options:
> SET+MainDial: with this you can compare two images, one on top of the other, with a diagonal split (look at the example below)
> Image Review: this alone can convince you to install Magic Lantern. You will not have to press “Play” anymore to zoom in an image, but just push the “zoom in” button
> Quick Zoom: even better. With this enabled one push on the “zoom in” button and you are at 100%; one other push and you are back at the image fitting on the screen.
Live View Zoom Settings…
Another interesting subset of options:
> Zoom 5x & Zoom 10x: you can enable / disable them indipendently
> Auto exposure on Zoom: switch the preview on autoexposure if you zoom, so you can check focus even if you legacy lens is stopped down to f/16 and you don’t have the “Exposure simulation” on in the Live View options
> Increase SharpContrast: increase sharpness and contrast when you use the Live View zoom, to facilitate to check for focus errors
> Zoom on Half Shutter / Zoom with Focus Ring: you will be able to engage the Live View zoom just half-pressing the shutter button or – with certain Canon lenses – just rotating the focus ring.
This – duh – counts the numbers of shutter & Live View actuations of the camera.
It is not calibrated, but it reads the EV level of the ambient light hitting the back of the camera. I may be mistaken, but I think that, doing a bit of homework, I should be able to use this function as a “poor man” incident light meter when I’m too lazy to bring a proper one.
Another welcome function is the tiny percentage value that appears over the battery indicator in the rear screen, so you’ll know that those nice full-bars battery is actually going down pretty fast…
Last thing: please keep in mind that:
– in addition to this already really long list, Magic Lantern gives you also literally dozens of video-specific functions that I didn’t mentioned here
– almost each of the photographic functions listed above it is customizable to a great extent.
So the only way to get to really know this software is trying it firsthand.
In conclusion, a great firmware that needs only to suck up less battery power to became a perfect one.
Rating: [5 if they will manage to limit the battery drain]