Magic Lantern: First Impressions

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Magic Lantern is a custom firmware available for Canon EOS line of cameras that unlocks a plethora of useful options. Be forewarned, while this hack has worked without issues for the large majority number of users, installing custom firmware could damage your camera or even leave it completely inoperable. You may be asking yourself, why take the risk? For the majority of users, Magic Lantern is not necessary nor needed, but for power users or professionals looking to squeeze every drop of performance from their rigs, Magic Lantern unlocks the true potential of these devices, especially for video recording. A list of the features the firmware offers is available on their homepage along with a helpful user guide.

At ADS we have been toying with the notion of installing Magic Lantern on our Canon 5D MKIII for some time now, thought we were hesitant to risk damage to our main shooting rig. I recently purchased a much more inexpensive Canon Rebel 600D (T3I) and with that decided to take the plunge.

Installing the custom firmware was surprisingly simple. First ensure you are running the recommended firmware version for your camera. A list of supported cameras and firmware version can be found here. From there, you simply download the latest stable version and unzip the contents to the root of a freshly formatted SD card. Next, insert the SD card into the camera and using the cameras menu system, navigate to the option to update your firmware. A screen will prompt you to restart your camera and tada, you are finished. The whole process took only a few minutes.

At first I couldn’t tell a difference and thought perhaps the installation had failed until I consulted the user guide and discovered how to access the ML Menu system. I was surprised at the number of options I had available for this entry level camera, more than I knew what to do with. Unfortunately this camera didn’t support RAW video encoding as with the higher tier cameras, however a few choice options stood out for me. I could control the bitrate of video recording, increasing the quality of the file and reducing compression. I could enable overlays for my LCD display including audio meters and zebra stripes. However the feature I’ve found the most useful so far is the waveform monitor. This display allows me to check my exposure in terms that made sense to me as a video editor, which will allow me to shoot better and spend less time correcting in post.

There are a ton of other options I haven’t even experimented with, but for the few I’ve checked out, the installation has definitely been worth the effort and we’ll likely be applying the firmware to our other cameras in the future. While I would recommend Magic Lantern to anyone else with a Canon EOS camera, I do caution those wishing to try. Again, installing custom firmware could potentially damage your camera so make sure you read the documentation prior to installing and be prepared to take responsibility for a worst-case scenario. Once we’ve tested more extensively we’ll post again with further impressions.