Photo Credit: Magic Lantern

Top 10 Things to Know About Magic Lantern Hack for Canon DSLRs

In 5D, 5D2, 5D3, 70D, 7D, GH4, Magic Lantern, Photography, T3, T3i, T4i, Video by Hugh Brownstone10 Comments

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 the 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 and blog posts. Hugh also writes screenplays (he recently optioned a TV pilot) and just published his first eBook (Apple's iPhone: The Next Video Revolution). If it's about telling stories, it's in their wheelhouse.

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

is a risk to install it in my canon 70d? in case of any problem, is possible to uninstall or i will lose my camera?
in photo, it presents any benefits?

HughBrownstone
HughBrownstone

@ThalisValle There definitely IS a risk -- this is nature of open source. It's not a high probability that it will turn your camera into a brick -- but it will feel very significant if yours is the statistical outlier!  I suggest you go to the Magic Lantern forum and seek out other 70D users who have gone through the process.  Great group of folks, and usually happy to share their knowledge.  Good luck!

PashminuMansukhani
PashminuMansukhani

Wow! the number of features and enhancements should shame the Canon guys!

xterraracing
xterraracing

 it recently bricked my 5D MkII, after over a year of trouble-free use. I had it permanently installed, so I would recommend only running it off your card, and definitely uninstall it if you are shooting stills.

CDGMediaDesign
CDGMediaDesign

How did you fix the brick issue on your 5D MKii?? Was yours the stable release or night build? And why "definitely" uninstall if shooting stills?

I'm worried about it happening to mine; same camera, just wanting to take more precautions. Expensive device I paid you know.

xterraracing
xterraracing

Did not fix. Camera still not working. I haven't tried every option to fix it yet though, just most. I was using the stable release, never night builds. I had that installed for a long time without problems. Then had a still shoot to do and decided to do it tethered, which I hadn't done with ML installed before.. Trying to use EOS Utility is what caused my problem. I also had some custom profiles installed, which seems to have caused problems for others. If I had only run ML off the card instead of permanently installing ML, I would have been in the habit of uninstalling and that might have avoided the problem. The Canon software utility trying to talk to the hacked OS corrupted something. I got the camera to work in full-auto, eventually and that's where it's at still. So I recommend not running ML while using  the camera for stills. There are quite a lot of damaged cameras from ML, if you read forums. It's not as safe as people think. Hence their warning disclaimers.

planetMitch
planetMitch moderator

@xterraracing first, I didn't think there was a way to install Magic Lantern "permanently" (i haven't tried every option)... second, have you re-installed the standard firmware?

xterraracing
xterraracing

@planetMitch @xterraracing you can set it up so that you don't have to manually load it from the card every boot up. "Auto-boot". The camera firmware is permanently patched to allow it to automatically boot up ML when the camera turns on. You can't just re-install the Canon firmware. You have to actually use ML to uninstall ML. Unfortunately the damage done left the camera unable to load menus in manual mode which is necessary for firmware updating. It didn't just crash the camera that once, it left it permanently disabled ('bricked'). Have a look at their forum for camera emergencies. You'll see a LOT of damaged cameras, though very few 5DMkIIs. As they have added much deeper tool sets to more and more cameras, the potential for harm has increased. If you try to run the beta-builds for Raw recording on the 5DMkIII for instance, you're in very scary territory. I'm not at all against ML, it's amazing. But people should understand that the risks are very real. It's kind of a Catch-22. You're probably running ML cause you can't afford a proper high-end imaging device (like RED), but if you run ML you risk destroying something you can't afford to replace. My recommendation is to run it on a dedicated 'for video only' camera, and buy a back-up. Or just get a GH4. I'm hopeful eventually we can figure out how to fix the camera. Remember, there's no tech support, you're kind of on your own. Right now it's in storage.

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