Transform Your DSLR Into A Supercharged, Professional Video Camera

Transform Your DSLR Into A Supercharged, Professional Video Camera

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.

Photo remixed from originals by Miss Katrina Beers and Carole Smith

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.

If you make a mistake that causes your camera to freeze up, just remove the battery and put it back in. This should solve the problem.

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.




HDR photograhy


Debug, Boot and PTP

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.


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