If you’ve got one of Canon’s amazing video-capable DSLRs, you know you’ve got a powerful camera. What you may not know is that you can add some incredible features, for free, with an open-source firmware add-on called Magic Lantern. Here’s how.
Note: if you’ve got a point and shoot camera, be sure to check out or guide on turning your point and shoot into a super camera. If you’re simply new to DSLR video, you’ll want to learn how to record great video with your DSLR.
What is Magic Lantern?
Magic Lantern is probably best explained by its creators in the video above, but it is essentially an enhancement that works on top of Canon’s firmware to provide great new features to your video-capable Canon DSLR that you’d expect to see on a professional video camera. For example, you have much finer control over audio, can overlay a zebra pattern to see overexposed areas of the frame, add custom crop marks for various aspect ratios (like 2.35:1), set up programmable focus, and more. It’s incredibly easy to install (which we’ll walk you through in a minute) and will let you do things with a DSLR that have generally only been possible with cameras that may cost more than your yearly wages. To get more information directly from the source, download the firmware; you can check compatibility with your particular Canon DSLR at the Magic Lantern Wiki. Now that you know what it’s capable of and where to get it, let’s dive into installing and using it.
How to Install Magic Lantern
Magic Lantern works on more than the Canon 5D Mark II, but since that was the first camera it was made for and it’s the one that I’ve got, that’s what we’re going to use as a model. You should do the necessary research about your camera model and its compatibility before you begin this process. While nobody, to date, has broken their camera with Magic Lantern, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Just be informed before you start playing with it.
Magic Lantern isn’t a firmware upgrade or replacement, but rather software that runs alongside the installed firmware. This means it needs to be compatible with your camera’s firmware version. In the 5D Mark II, Magic Lantern is compatible with firmware versions 1.0.7, 1.1.0, 2.0.3, 2.0.4 and 2.0.8, but you need to match up your camera’s firmware version with the version of Magic Lantern that supports it. For example, Magic Lantern 0.1.6 only supports 5D Mark II Firmware 1.1.0. Later versions won’t work and your camera will freeze up.
The Magic Lantern download page only has version 0.1.6, 0.1.5, and 0.1.4 available, so if your Canon firmware version is later than 1.1.0 you get the pleasure of trying to figure out where to download the latest version of Magic Lantern. To make things easy on yourself, update your 5D Mark II to version 2.0.8 (which is the latest as of the time of this writing) and download version 0.1.9 via the Google Groups posting. If you ever want to find other versions of Magic Lantern, the Magic Lantern Google Group is your best place to look.
Once you’ve download version 0.1.9 (or the version you needed), you’ll unzip the download and see these files:
Copy the magiclantern.fir file to the root of your CompactFlash (or, for some of you, SD) card and put it back into the camera. If you’ve upgraded your firmware on the 5D Mark II before (and chances are you have), this process should seem familiar. So should the next steps.
All you need to do is go into your settings where you upgrade your firmware (if you’re using a 5D Mark II, it’s the last option under the third yellow wrench as pictured above). That option should just be the version of your firmware. Select it, tell the camera you want to upgrade, and once you confirm it’ll seem to reboot. If it’s been more than 10 seconds, take your battery out and put it back in because you did something wrong. If the camera is functional again within a few seconds, congratulations! You just loaded up Magic Lantern.
Important note: the Magic Lantern firmware works in conjunction with the installed Canon firmware. It does not change it. In order to use it, you need to load it through the process just described each time the camera boots. It can sometimes be hard to tell when this is, so just remember: reload Magic Lantern using the previously described process if you can’t access it when your camera is running. This means you cannot delete the magiclantern.fir file from the root of your CompactFlash card.
How to Use Magic Lantern
The moment you go into Live View mode on your camera you should notice some changes (like audio signal meters along the top of the frame and zebra patterns on overexposed areas), but if you want to start messing around with the settings you need to press the Picture Style button to bring them up. Are you wondering which button that is? Me too. I just pushed a bunch of buttons until I found it, but here’s a graphic to save you the trouble (unless you like pushing buttons):
On the 5D Mark II, it’s the button below the MENU button. From there you’ll have a whole bunch of settings to play with, and you can navigate through your options with your camera’s joystick (and select by pressing in on the joystick). Let’s take a look at them all from left to right.
The audio panel was one of the original reasons Magic Lantern was created in the first place: Canon didn’t provide any control over audio levels. While better control came with firmware update 2.0.3, you still get much more control from Magic Lantern. You can set the output volume of the camera’s audio, increase the gain to make the recorded sounds louder (which you can also do easily in post), and set the gain for the left and right channels of the audio input separately. You can also turn auto gain control (AGC) on or off. Turning it on will make the camera adjust the audio levels automatically based on the loudness of the audio coming into the camera. Finally, you can choose the source of the audio, which is essentially a toggle between the camera’s internal microphone and the 1/8″ external input source on the side of the camera. By default, Magic Lantern ignores the camera’s internal microphone.
The video section gives you control over the zebra patterns. You can turn them on or off and set the threshold. You can also specify crop marks for different aspect ratios, but you need to create a BMP file and load it onto your CompactFlash card with the firmware. An example is included along with the firmware you downloaded. You can also toggle the histogram and waveform displays on and off from this panel.
Bracketing is what you use to take multiple exposures with one shutter press. This is commonly used in HDR photograhy. By default, your camera will takes three exposures: one normal, one under-exposed, and one over-exposed. You can also specify how over- and under-exposed each of those shots will be by selecting a range. Magic Lantern takes this a bit further by letting you specify a much wider range between photos and also take more than three. Currently you can go all the way up to 13. I’m not sure why you’d need that many, but the option is there if you’re in the mood.
What is probably my favourite part of Magic Lantern is the focusing features. What this feature does is rack focus mechanically. If you don’t know, rack focusing is moving the lens’ focus from one point of focus to another. Say if you’re recording video of a person walking from one point in a room to another. Chances are they’re not walking in a straight line and are coming closer to or moving farther away from the camera. You’ll need to adjust focus as they walk and this can be difficult to track. The focus panel lets you set a start and end focus point and how long it should take to move from one point to the other. This way you can make the camera perform the rack focus operation for you. How you can do it is hard to explain but much easier to see, so take a look at the video below for detailed instructions:
Debug, Boot and PTP
These last three sections are sections you can ignore. Unless you’re participating in the development of Magic Lantern, stay out. Everything you want and need can be found to the left, although if you’re curious about things like the temperature of your CMOS image sensor you can poke around in the debug menu for that and other neat information.
That’s all there is to it. Now you’ve got an inexpensive video-capable DSLR with features that rival cameras that cost more than university tuition.