Camera manufacturers do their best to keep up with consumer demands and stay current in their technological offerings, but sometimes it’s tough to stay ahead of the curve. For Canon users, Magic Lantern is a way to add new features to your camera that aren’t included in the stock firmware.
Magic Lantern is a free third party firmware you can install on your camera or run from a memory card (recommended) and bring out a veritable ton of awesome new features on your Canon DSLR. Many of those features are videography oriented – definitely a good thing with today’s video-centric needs – but there are also a lot of things that are helpful to still photographers.
Magic Lantern is a little (maybe a lot) on the technical side and it has more capabilities than most users will ever even know exist, let alone use. Moreover, due to its open source nature, you can even write your own scripts to run on your camera if you have the know-how.
While Magic Lantern is pretty amazing, it’s not perfect and there are some important cons to be aware of. It is “use at your own risk” third party firmware and may void your warranty. There have been tales of bricked cameras, though I haven’t known anyone who’s had this happen. I have, however, had a camera freeze up while running Magic Lantern via CF card and was only able to unfreeze it by removing the battery. Since it was easy to resolve after a short “oh crap” moment, it hasn’t dissuaded me from using Magic Lantern.
Since developers have to reverse engineer a camera’s inner workings in order to make the firmware compatible, it isn’t immediately available for new models. Good news for 5D Mark IV owners, it’s been reported that the 5D Mark IV has been cracked and its own version of Magic Lantern is in the works.
I’ve personally only scratched the surface of Magic Lantern’s capabilities with my dinosaur 5D Mark II, but so far the feature that’s seen the most use in my work is focus peaking. Manual focusing in live view sans Magic Lantern means zooming all the way in on a small screen to check for critical focus. It’s not always practical to keep zooming in to check focus if you or your subject moves, so it’s incredibly handy to be able to have a visual representation of focus where the focal plane can be easily distinguished at the normal zoom level. It also adds instant value to inexpensive manual focus lenses, like Rokinon primes, by taking the guesswork out of fast focusing.
Some other features (and there are many more):
- Built-in intervalometer for time lapses
- Trap focus – camera is triggered by subject entering pre-set focal plane
- Motion detection – camera is triggered by motion in the frame
- Advanced audio monitoring
- Adds headphone “jack” for audio monitoring via USB
Feel free to share your favorite Magic Lantern features in the comments.