We all love ‘em: top 10 lists.

Herewith, my completely biased list of the 10 most important things you need to know about Magic Lantern (though not necessarily in order).

1. Audio monitoring

This was the primary reason I first tried Magic Lantern with my Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

No newsflash: it’s critical for filmmakers to be able to monitor audio in real time. How else are you going to know that the wireless lav mics you worked so hard to set right have just gotten a burst of static from a passing truck and you need to reshoot?

Magic Lantern allows you to visually monitor audio levels in real-time. While a whole not-so-cottage industry has arisen from the fact that audio is not Canon’s strong suit (Zoom H4n, anyone? JuicedLink, perhaps?), it sure makes things much easier, less expensive and less bulky when you can feed an audio signal directly into the camera and know what’s actually happening with VU meters.

2. Headphone jack

Even more magical, and another glaring omission on too many Canon DSLR’s: no headphone jack. With Magic Lantern installed, not only can you SEE what’s coming across from your audio source – you can HEAR it, thanks to ML wizardry which can turn either the USB port or the remote port into a headphone jack (NB: you’ll need a special cable like this one to adapt the signal out to a regular pair of headphones like the Bose QuietComfort 15 – or risk damaging the ‘phones).

3. Zebras

Pro cameras have them; the Panasonic GH4 and Sony A7s have them; but most Canons don’t. These are a simple set of visual overlays that show you – without having to put on your bifocals or hope your EVF/Screen is properly calibrated – whether you are blowing out your highlights or crushing your blacks.

4. Focus peaking

What was that about bifocals? Even if you have 20/20 vision, achieving critical focus on Canon DSLR’s is notoriously difficult (before I bought an external EVF, I thought it was me – it wasn’t). Focus peaking is another simple visual indicator to help you determine when the thing you want in focus IS in focus. Truly a gift from the Magic Lantern community.

5. Follow focus

A bit of a surprise when I found this: you can use Magic Lantern to set two different focus points and then let the camera move between them – it’s a software driven focus pull. Very cool feature, though not as flexible as a human being doing the actual job. And, it must be said, both the Canon EOS 70D and Canon EOS Rebel SL1 now allow you to do the same thing more easily in production-robust software.

6. RAW Video

Maybe the single most exciting feature of Magic Lantern, this allows a filmmaker to capture the full power of Canon’s sensors – and the difference in image quality, along with the ability to operate on the footage in post – is night and day compared to the H.264 output. Then again, so is the increase in storage required and the workflow necessary to bring RAW footage into an NLE, NOT in RAW’s favor. NB: RAW doesn’t work on all Canon DSLR’s, and is still very much in process.

magic lantern logo

7. Dual ISO

This is a very clever way of increasing the effective dynamic range of Canon DSLR sensors. The ML community has achieved this by programming the software to identify highlights and shadows – and then to differentially set ISO in those areas (low and high, respectively) to prevent highlights from being blown out or shadows to be crushed. With this written, it is achieved at the expense of resolution in those areas (it’s halved), but the result can be stunning nonetheless.

8. Intervalometer

With Magic Lantern, you don’t need an external remote or intervalometer – it’s built right into the software.

9. Magic Lantern is a Hack

ML is an open source collaboration of truly passionate and brilliant people who wanted to get more from Canon hardware than Canon itself would allow. They’ve done an amazing job.

AND IT’S FREE!

But they are equally clear that they do not – cannot – make any claim to being error-free, nor immune from crashing your entire camera. CAVEAT EMPTOR. I’ve personally experienced successfully loading up ML on one flash card and booting into it, but unsuccessful loading it up on to a second card.

10. These are Things Canon Should Already Have in All of Its DSLRs

Especially with the video-centric Panasonic GH4 and Sony A7s, the marketplace has shifted under Canon’s feet. They may yet rectify this situation at Photokina this fall – but they may not. In the meantime, ML may keep you in the Canon fold for a bit longer.

11. Bonus: If ML Could Prioritize Full Implementation on the Rebel SL1, They Might Have the Beginning of a GH4 Killer – Or At Least Fight it to a Draw (For Now)

I mean to take nothing away from Panasonic’s tremendous accomplishment with the GH4.

And I don’t mean to overstate the case.

But am I the only one who’s looking at the little Rebel SL1 and see that it has better autofocus than every Canon body with the exception of the 70D and can take ALL current Canon lenses; has low light sensitivity on a par with – actually slightly better than – the GH4; and weighs just 370g without battery or SD card and 492g with; and that it is thus lighter than the Panasonic GH4 similarly configured at 560g?

Of course, the GH4 has better dynamic range and color depth according to DxOMark – and a little thing called internal 4K recording, stellar EVF and more — but hey, Canon, are you listening? You could do this if you truly wanted to.

In the meantime, as I’ve written before, thank goodness we have Magic Lantern.

What are YOUR favorite features on Magic Lantern, and what do you think their development priorities should be?

(cover photo credit: snap from Magic Lantern)



Hugh Brownstone

Hugh is a corporate escapee and founder of Three Blind Men and An Elephant Productions.He and the team write, direct, shoot, score, and edit web-centric films; conduct photo shoots; and write copy, white papers, blog posts, and profiles. If it's about telling stories, it's in their wheelhouse.

And always with the ambition of authenticity, humanity and wit.

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