Friday, 22 April 2011

The magic lantern shines brightly

While reading up and researching HDSLR cinematography, we’d heard quite a few things about this Magic Lantern “hack” for Canon DSLR’s. What we heard sounded pretty amazing – this “magic code” not only enhanced the features of a DSLR but added brand new ones, including features usually only found in dedicated video cameras, such as Zebra markings (used to warn of overexposed areas in a shot). And it was free!
But it also sounded a little bit too geeky, too complicated to install etc. Neither of us are particularly technically minded when it comes to software, programming etc, so we approached with caution. But, after a fair bit of reading up, and googling, it turned out to be pretty straight forward. 

Warning – installing Magic Lantern firmware will void the warranty of your camera and there is a SMALL chance you could damage it, so it’s really something you have to be sure about. We decided it was worth the risk – the features we read about were too exciting not to give it a go…

So we installed it. So what’s now different about our camera? Well, we now have onscreen audio meters, manual audio gain, selectable input sources and the ability to disable Canon’s AGG (automatic gain control) doing this allows you to capture much cleaner audio.

We have several new focusing features and something called Qscale – the Q stands for quality and this setting allows you to capture video at a higher bit rate than Canon’s default H.264 codec compressor (the H.264 codec is used to compress recorded HD video files so as to fit more video onto the memory card, you then “decompress” these files, using specialist software, when you have them on your computer). Some of the test results we’d seen online looked quite impressive, with some showing a distinct difference in image sharpness between Canon’s default setting and the Qscale set to its lowest settings (the lower the setting, the higher the bit rate) particularly with the camera set to the lower ISO settings. 

Canon’s default setting is up to 36mbs, which is, apparently, equivalent to  -8 on Magic Lantern’s Qscale. -16 allows you to capture at about 82mbs! We did some testing ourselves, shooting on a bright sunny day – anything less then Qscale -12 and the recording cut off within a few seconds, and even that was extremely sensitive to ISO and exposure settings. Whenever a shot was over exposed recording would stop. Our first thoughts were that maybe our SD cards weren’t fast enough, even though they’re all class 10 (recommended for serious video work) Sandisk “Extreme” cards, and seem to be the best currently out there.

After doing some more googling, we found out that a class 10 card is supposed to be able to handle up to 80mbs… looks like we’ll have to experiment a bit more with this feature if we think the difference in picture quality is really worth it. It’s a sharp reminder that we’ve still got a bit of a learning curve ahead of us.

Now to the focusing features. Magic Lantern gives us Focus assist, which draws a red line around the objects in focus, this comes in pretty handy. One thing we were really itching to try out was the Rack focus feature. The great thing about the rack focus is the amount of control you have over the speed of the focus action. Our test is below…

There is also a very primitive auto focus for video – but none of the settings really impressed much, having said that, it won’t be too long before the guys at Magic Lantern refine this feature, and the fact that they’ve even managed to implement a basic version is very exciting.

In our last post we said that the one thing we found a little frustrating about the Canon Rebel T2i/550D (pre-Magic Lantern) were the ISO settings – well now we have a much wider choice… and we can now set the ISO to 160, 320 or 640, the recommended settings for the 7D (which our camera is pretty much the same as, when it comes to video). This feature alone is worth the hassle of getting your head around Magic Lantern.

We also now have a Kelvin white balance option (as you can see in the above photo) – Kelvin white balance is used by the pros and Magic Lantern allows you to set the right colour temperature for your shot incrementally, so you can warm it up or cool it down as much as you like. We love this feature.

As mentioned earlier, we also now have Zebra markings which point out the overly bright areas and the under exposed areas (red is for over exposed and blue for under exposed).  We’ve always found this incredibly useful when setting the exposure of our shots when working with dedicated video cameras. But perhaps better than that, Magic Lantern also allows you to display the histogram (which is another valuable guide for correct exposure) in a small box visible in the LCD screen at all times – it was a pain having to switch screens to check the histogram before…

Ok, the picture's not great, but you should be able to make out the zebra stripes in action alongside the histogram, two valuable tools to help ensure correct exposure for your shots.

There are several other enhancements and new functions, but these are the ones that caught our attention and the ones we’ve so far had a chance to play around with.

Someone has said, somewhere online, that the Magic Lantern firmware update doubles the value of a camera like the Canon Rebel T2i/550D, we don’t think they’re too far wrong.

Find out more about Magic Lantern, including links to download, here…