What is Magic Lantern?
If you own a Canon 600D, a Canon 60D, Canon 5D Mark II, or certain of their predecessors, you might be interested to hear that you can extend the capabilities of your camera for free (although a donation is requested). This is not by replacing the camera’s internal software by a newer version (recommended, but this mainly fixes bugs), but by adding software from a bunch of non-Canon developers. This Magic Lantern software extends the existing Canon software with many new features that target technically inclined videographers and photographers.
Features for photographers
Magic Lantern was originally created mainly for those who use Canon DSLRs for serious video work. I don’t know much about video, so I will only describe features that help photographers.
The features are somehow largely centered around Liveview and likely benefit photographers most who sometimes need to do “slow” photography: they use a tripod, use tethering in a studio to check focus, have a complex setup or simply want to have maximum control. Having said that, Magic Lantern states that it has benefits as well for photographers that are in a constant hurry: it gives you the option of putting certain options that you use a lot under a particular button.
A few of the key features:
- focus peaking – whereby the Liveview image displays which parts of the image are in focus. Useful when you want to carefully control what is in focus. This can be seen as an alternative to tethering your camera to a computer via USB in the studio.
- exposure clipping – the Liveview image can show which parts of the image will be too light and too dark using overlaid zebra stripe patterns.
- more on-screen data – for example the current main camera mode (e.g. M), focal length and focus distance.
- focus loupe – you can see part of the image zoomed in 2x or 3x to check sharpness. This feature is fancier that Canon’s counterpart and can even simulate what a split screen focus aid used to look like.
- interval timer – you can take 100 pictures at 60 second intervals to show a flower opening. Or 1000 pictures at 1 hour intervals of a construction site – all providing you can get your battery to last.
- triggering exposures – the shutter can automatically fire if the scene brightness or content changes significantly. Essentially a makeshift motion sensor.
- automatic HDR – not only can the camera take a series of images at different exposures automatically, but it can take the entire series at one press of the button. It can even determine how many exposures are required automatically (or manually) and give you a rough preview of the merged image. Pretty cool. Essentially this gives your 5D2 a feature found in the 5D3, but without the artsy options: you do your real HDR merging afterwards on a computer.
- improved mirror lockup – flip up the mirror a few seconds before taking the picture to reduce vibrations. The Canon equivalent is relatively tedious to operate.
The actual list of features is about as long as the list of features that your camera originally came with. So some people only use 2 or 3 of the new features. Others actually do read the software manual and experiment around (takes an evening – just like Canon’s firmware).
Installation and risk
There are risks involved in tinkering with complex equipment. My feeling is that the risk is comparable to opening up PCs to upgrade memory. If you never did something similar, you can get someone else to install Magic Lanterns (ML) and show you the basics.
The risk is lower than you might expect because ML doesn’t simply overwrite Canon’s software: it runs as an add-on and (in most cases) you will not see changes to the menus provided by Canon. There is a simple procedure to uninstall ML entirely.
This is essentially how ML works under the hood:
- A minor modification to Canon’s software makes the camera Magic Lantern aware. Comparable to a boot loader on a PC. ML is incidentally not the only party that does this (there seems to be a USB remote controller that uses the same trick to extend Canon’s software).
- Whenever you activate the camera, the firmware first checks for the presence of special non-image files on your flash card. If found, it loads Magic Lantern from the flash card. This does not visibibly delay camera operation. The ML software sits alongside the Canon software in camera memory (RAM). If the ML files are not found on the flash card (or you hold down a button while turning it on), Magic Lantern is not loaded and you get unmodified camera behavior. Alternatively, you can choose to carry memory cards with and without ML.
- Running ML,
- the optical viewfinder information display is unchanged
- the LCD viewfinder for LiveView displays significantly different information
- Canon’s own menus (Menu button) are for 99% unchanged
- you can view ML’s own menus by pressing the Erase button while in Liveview mode
- Whenever you make changes to ML settings this is written to the flash card for the next session. Some changes are also stored in the camera’s non-volatile memory (e.g. when ML menu’s interact with existing Canon features?)
- The ML files stay on the flash card, even if you erase the card using the camera. Actually ML formats the card and then writes the ML files back from memory. If you erase or format the card entirely using a PC, you need to reinstall the ML files onto the card. Until then, you will be operating without ML when you use that card.
Quality and stability
I cannot give you hard numbers, but since version 2.3 the stability seems to be close to that of Canon’s own software. Both have occasional bugs and both try to fix these bugs as soon as possible. ML is an open source project, so anyone with (considerable) programming skills can contribute.
All this doesn’t mean you can never run into a problem: ML software adds complexity to the entire setup, and strange combinations of features may give strange results. But if you stick to mainstream usage of the features (= use them more or less as documented) you should be alright.
Some features are clearly marked as “for very advanced users”. One example is the ability to take pictures in a low-res format while in Liveview mode without any shutter motion or sound whatsoever. A bit weird, and it actually seems to work, but you won’t be using this unless you are a video technician or are motivated enough to figure out how to deal with these “422″ encoded frames.
A final example is a menu item called “Don’t press this”. The user manual just says not to press it. Actually it probably doesn’t do any harm (otherwise why give it such a tempting name), but I don’t want to press it just yet. I suspect it contains a game that is totally not camera related. After all, your camera is just a computer with an industrial strength webcam attached as a peripheral (at least that is how geeks tend to see it).
So far, things are going well with my own use. And ML has thousands of heavy users who rely on it on a daily basis. The documentation is actually pretty good – including the description of the risks involved. But…
- It will only install on the latest version of Canon’s firmware. So you need to upgrade a 5D2 to v2.12 before you can install ML. A sensible choice by ML to minimize risk.
- Running ML will slightly increase battery drain. Essentially because it gives the ARM processor more work to do because of extra features. It will increase batter drain a lot if you start using Liveview more than you previously did.
- ML increases overall system complexity somewhat: it is like upgrading from a 5D Mark II to a 5D Mark III – more features which you may or may not use.
- ML is not available on all currently Canon cameras (notably not the 7D or 5D Mark III so far). ML is written by volunteers and all this is a lot of work.
- Something could go wrong. But the manual explains how to get the camera up and running again in the more common cases. As far as I can tell, the risk of loosing images stored on the flash card is absent, but there is a risk that you may need to briefly remove the batter to recover. A quote from the Magic Lantern FAQ:
In practice, we are doing our best to prevent these situations, and thousands of users are enjoying it without problems. However, this does not represent a guarantee – use it at your own risk.