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The Magic of Magic Lantern on a Canon dSLR

T1i/500D Main LCD w/Magic Lantern running

T1i/500D Main LCD w/Magic Lantern running

I finally got to loading the Magic Lantern firmware onto my Canon T1i/500D and I am so excited! Magic Lantern is a firmware add-on for Canon dSLRs that enhances their use. It does not replace the camera’s built-in firmware, so you can use the camera as expected. It can be easily bypassed, too, so you needn’t be afraid to try it out. If I had known how easy this all was, I would have tried it years ago.

Magic Lantern adds capabilities that Canon doesn’t provide, relaxes unnecessary limits, and provides a bunch of convenience features that would take a lot of thought and pushing of buttons to configure. It unlocks advanced features to Canon’s entry- and mid-level dSLRs (currently, T1i/500D, T2i/550D, T3i/600D, 50D, and 60D, and separately 5D Mk II), making them more usable. Arguably, many of the features should have been included in the camera from the factory.

The Magic Lantern web-site has sufficient explanation of installing and using the firmware, but I thought I would lend a bit of personal insight to encourage you to try it.

Installing

Installing Magic Lantern is very easy and is adequately described on its website and PDF included in the download package, but I wanted to highlight it so that you see how simple it is:

  1. Make sure your camera’s firmware is up to date.
  2. Download and unpack all the files into the root directory of an SD-card (or CompactFlash, if that’s what your camera uses).
  3. Insert the card into the camera and use the firmware update menu to update. The update just takes a few seconds (shorter than updating firmware from the factory because it isn’t replacing the camera’s built-in firmware).
  4. Configure the features you will use.

Magic Lantern does not install itself in the camera, it runs from the storage card (e.g., SD-memory card) directly. While this slows down the camera’s startup time, a bit, it means that you can completely bypass Magic Lantern by inserting a card that does not have the software on it (you can also disable it on the same card, if you don’t have a spare handy).

At this point, anytime that card is inserted into the camera, the Magic Lantern features will be available. You’ll need to go through these steps for each card you use, in order to have those features available, regardless of which card is being used.

Also, after you’ve configured how you want the firmware to behave—on one card—you might want to copy its configuration file (magic.cfg) to all the other cards so that the settings are consistent across them all.

Now go play. And have the user guide handy (though help is included in the camera menus, as well). If you don’t want to wade through their course documentation, read on.

Usage

Some of the usage controls are a bit confusing. Since some of them weren’t immediately obvious to me. The Magic Lantern menus are not integrated into the standard menus; instead, press the [Trash] button, while the standard screen is displayed on the LCD, to enter the menus.

Magic Lantern Full MenusThen use the following to navigate the menus:

  • Up/down/left/right navigation through the menus is mostly the same as the standard menus, using the same dials or [↑]/[↓]/[←]/[→] controls.
  • Use the [Set] button to toggle through settings (On/Off, for example)
  • Many options have multiple settings; [Set] moves forward through the settings, sequentially; the [Play >] button is used to move backwards through the list.
  • Some settings toggle off/on and can be further configured via the [LiveView] button.
  • There are help description screens for each menu item; press the [Disp] button to see them (you might need a magnifying glass to read them though).
  • Magic Lantern short menus

    Magic Lantern short menus (compare this with the image above)

    The [Menu]button toggles between the full menus and shorter ones. The shorter ones exclude, mostly, the settings related to Live View, video, and audio related features; so if you use the camera for its traditional use, you can probably simplify matters with the abbreviated menus, once you’ve configured them.

Features

There are so many features, I have not explored them all. The descriptions displayed by [Disp] button are pretty good (but too tiny); you will probably want to view the PDF file describing all the features. Here is a partial list:

  • Unlocked limits on built-in settings
    • Wider ISO range
    • Wider flash exposure compensation range
    • Control over audio gain in movie-mode
    • Better shutter speed, zoom, focus and aperture control in movie mode
  • New features, particularly for LiveView and movie use
    • A built-in intervalometer,
    • Audio memo attachments,
    • Remote triggering by clapping your hands
  • Convenience features that reduce the number of menu settings needed to perform particular functions
    • Multi-image capture for HDR and
    • Auto mirror-lockup

Here are are some of the features I am excited about.

Long Exposures

Magic Lantern Bulb TimerLong night shots (that I wrote about before) sometimes require longer than the 30 second limit that Canon has built into most of their cameras. That means using the camera’s Bulb setting and manually holding the shutter open. Magic Lantern’s “Bulb Timer” feature allows you to preset a duration for the shutter to be held open in while in mode—relieving you from having to hold the button for minutes at a time.

The bulb setting keeps the shutter open as long as the shutter button is pressed. The term is a hold over from the beginning days of photography that allowed the shutter to be opened for as long as necessary for the photographer to light the flashbulb. You can get to the bulb setting on a Canon dSLR by setting the camera to Manual mode and scrolling past the slowest exposure time setting until the screen shows “bulb”.

HDR and Exposure Bracketing

MagicLantern HDR menuMagic Lantern HDR options
If you are in the habit of bracketing your exposures (like when planning an HDR composition), then you may have to go through several mechanations to set up the camera to shoot them. Then more settings to allow you to shoot them sequentially, with a single press of the button. The “HDR Bracketing” feature lets you do that in a single setting. It also allows more shots and a wider range of exposure bracketing than the camera’s standard settings.

Using the LCD to check detail… Fast!

Magic Lantern Zoom in Play modeYou can press and hold the [+] button when viewing an image on the LCD panel to zoom in and check picture sharpness, but you have to press and hold or press, press, press to zoom in. Setting the “Zoom in PLAY mode” to “Fast” allows you to zoom much more quickly (or zoom immediately to the pixel level), making this a more useful feature.

Time-lapse Photography with a Built-in Intervalometer

Nikon dSLRs have had intervalometers built in for a long time. With Canon, you have to buy a separate (not cheap) plug-in. Magic Lantern allows some very powerful setup (not all of which I understand, completely) to enable to camera to take a timed sequence of pictures—for days, if you want. Make sure you have a fresh set of batteries (or, better yet, an AC adapter)!

And More, Much More…

Rather than relying on the self-timer or buying a Canon accessory to remotely trigger the camera, you can use the microphone to listen for a clap which will take the picture. (I don’t take pictures of myself, but it seems like this could be useful—or fun, at least).

The “Focus Trap” feature will trigger the camera to take a picture, once a moving subject gets within focus range. Perfect for certain kinds of sports (I can’t wait to try this out).

There are a bunch of LiveView, movie, and audio settings. I don’t use those features much; they seem useful and powerful… we’ll see.

Caveats

There are two annoying things to be aware of, when using Magic Lantern software

  • When removing a card, watch the LED to see that it is not locked up (looking for the software on the card). If this happens, you need to remove the battery, briefly.
  • When the camera comes out of sleep mode, it takes about 3 seconds—on my camera—for the Magic Lantern features to be recognized.

In Conclusion…

Adding the Magic Lantern firmware to your Canon camera unlocks capabilities that are available on more pricy models and adds conveniences for photographers that begin to probe advance photography techniques. There are few side-effects, so try it out, if you don’t like it, just reformat the card (or at least disable the cards boot-bit) and you are back to normal—in a pinch, you can simply put in a storage card that doesn’t have Magic Lantern on in it.

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