Magic Lantern Firmware – Canon 5D mark II

Godafoss waterfall rainbow
Godafoss waterfall rainbow

I often used to wonder why all the top brand DSLRs have there maximum shutter speed at 30 seconds. Then I saw the price of the special remote controls. 

For normal photography, the range of available shutter speeds (up to 30 sec) is more than enough But when you start playing with night photography 3o seconds is a bit limiting.. Especially if you are taking HDR exposures or Magic Cloth Photos in the dark.

The firmware is the software that determines a digital camera’s features, such as high iso noise reduction, highlight warnings, video frame rate, etc. Most top camera brands like Canon, Nikon and Sony will provide regular updates to their firmware which you can download and install.

Canon Hack

For Canon Cameras, there is a FREE firmware called Magic Lantern. Magic Lantern (ML) is an enhanced upgrade to the Canon DSLR firmware. If you have a Canon DSLR and like experimenting with digital technology, then Magic Lantern could be for you.

But Wait!

Magic Lantern can break your camera and using it could void your camera warranty. If this concerns you, get back to safety NOW.

Canon EOS with Magic Lantern
Canon EOS with Magic Lantern

Firmware Enhancement

If you are still reading, then welcome to the Magical Kingdom! If you follow the instructions carefully, Magic Lantern is going to give your Canon DSLR so many more features.  According to the ML website, you can have the same ‘Camera Breaking’ issues with Third Party USB controllers.  In fact ML has been known to rescue Cameras broken by 3rd party USB remotes. 

The critical points to successful installation is following the instructions to the letter.  Having up-to-date canon firmware is very important because the Magic Lantern software is reverse engineered from this. 

If you try to install Magic Lantern on an older version of the Canon Firmware, then you will have problems. 

Personally, I wasn’t prepared to take the risk with my Canon EOS 5D mark III, but I did install it in my Canon EOS 5D mark II.  This was my older back-up camera, so it wouldn’t have been such a great loss if it went wrong.

Exposure Control

The Magic Lantern Firmware will let you have more control over your exposure.  It has the ability to program longer exposures and has more options for exposure bracketing.   Some handy ISO and Aperture settings will let you get even more from your Canon DSLR.

High Dynamic Range

Most pro DSLRs have an Auto Exposure Bracketing feature that will take three exposures in succession. Normally you would have the meter centered and adjust the over-exposure and under-exposure so they are separated by a few stops.

Magic Lantern will let you take several bracketed exposures to cover a greater exposure range.  This is really useful for HDR photography.  To be honest, when I was taking HDR landscapes, I would only take 3 exposures.  I felt that 3 exposures was enough for a Natural dynamic range. 

For Northern Lights HDR, I would generally use manual mode or even Bulb for really long exposures.  Subjects like the interior of a Cathedral or Photos from inside an Ice-Cave can require most than 3 exposures. 

For these last two examples, the ML firmware can help.  It will let you program several exposures for challenging light conditions.  It can also let you program the length of your exposure in Bulb Mode.

Expose To The Right

ETTR is a function that will automatically expose your photo so that very few (or zero) highlight pixels are lost.  Exposing to the right is the recommended technique to get the most from digital sensors.  The ETTR feature in Magic Lantern will get your exposure correct every time.

ISO settings

Magic Lantern can create new ISO settings with Negative gain.  This can be useful for lower iso values such as iso50, iso80.  ML negative gain iISO setting will have less noise than the standard Canon ISO settings.

Magic Lantern Exposure settings
Adjusting the exposure parameters on the Magic Lantern menu. Most of these settings only work in Manual (photo and video), and some of them work in P, Av and Tv too.

Aperture

The ML firmware will give you more control over your Aperture settings.  It will allow you to fine tune your exposure with 1/8 stop increments.

Live View

Canon’s live views are among the best in their class.  I find them incredibly useful for exposure, focus and composition.  Magic Lantern will give your live-view lots more functions.  The Focus Peak feature will display blinking dots where your focus is. 

This is very useful for fine-tuning your focus in a Landscape scene.  You can also check what percentage of your photo is in focus. The Magic Zoom feature gives you a box within the live-view which you can zoom into and fine tune your focus. 

The Motion Detection system can trigger the shutter if there is a detected change in the live-view mode (great for wildlife).

Live View Grids
Composition grids, cropmarks and templates for Live View.

Video Controls

The more modern Canon DSLRs have high end video built in.  Having the ML firmware can give you extra features that can be useful for serious Film Makers.  Magic Lantern give you greater control over exposure and has useful features such as exposure lock for more professional results.

Time-Lapse Intervalometer

DSLRs are not great for time-lapse photography.  They have limited shutter actuations, so if you take thousands of frames for a one minute video, this can soon leave you with expensive shutter repair bills.  ML can make time-lapse movies from your Videos.  You can set the interval and it can create a time-lase movie alongside your regular movie.  Personally, I would just speed up the movie in a Video Editing Software.

Modules

Modules are add-ons for people who are already running Magic Lantern successfully.  Some of these are in Beta and you can help the development by trying them out.  Here are a few examples.

Bulb Utilities

This module will calculate your exposure with a Neutral Density (ND) filters.   The famous Big Stopper ND filter will make it impossible for your camera to calculate the exposure because it makes the scene so dark.  If you are using a 10 stop filter, you normally have to compose, expose and focus with the filter off.  If you use really strong ND filters, this can make your long exposures more accurate.  You get a reading of the light with the filter off, enter the strength of your filter and Magic Lantern will make the correct exposure. when the filter is replaced.  You could achieve this with a calculator.  For a 10 stop filter, multiply the normal exposure by 1000.  This Magic Lantern module will do this for you.

Burst Mode Preview

When you photograph something in Burst Mode, like an erupting Geyser or fast moving birds and the preview is normally turned off while you are shooting. You have to go back through your images afterwards to see if you got the shot you wanted.  This is a module that shows a live preview of the captured images during a burst sequence. It only works in RAW mode.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed having the Magic Lantern on my Canon EOS 5D mark II.  I was really into all the new digital photography techniques and this firmware gave me a creative edge.  I was able to take several HDR exposure, make time lapse films and program a Focus Stack.  I never tried, but it would have been possible to make a time-lapse with focus stacked HDR exposures, if I wanted to.

Supported cameras:

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Canon EOS 5DS R
Canon EOS 6D Mark II
Canon EOS 90D

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By Tony Prower

Tony Prower spent over 15 years photographing the landscapes of Iceland. Tony Prower is a pioneer of the Magic Cloth Technique and ran thousands of photo tours in Iceland over 10 years.

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