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How To Use Magic Lantern Photography Software

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You might not know this, but there is a way to unlock features on your Canon DSLR. Magic Lantern gives you the chance to find an intervalometer on your menu screen, and much much more.

Read on to find out what Magic Lantern is, how to install it and how to use it.

Magic Lantern settings on a Canon DSLR settings screen

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What Is Magic Lantern?

Magic Lantern is essentially software that you add to your camera. You download the ‘firmware’ update to your memory card, plug it into your camera and let Magic Lantern do its stuff.

The software, it should be said, does not overwrite your existing operating system. They run side by side, allowing you to use both at the same time.

As it is open-source, it isn’t made by a manufacturer, but rather a group of people from all over the world. This allows users to download it and further add to or tweak the software.

It was first designed in 2009 by Trammell Hudson, for use in the Canon 5D Mark II. Since then, the Magic Lantern software has grown to cover a large number of other DSLRs, even the new mirrorless range.

I have used it with my Canon 7D, and chances are they have one for your model too. If they don’t have it yet, they are working on it. It’s a slow process, so hang in there.

a Canon DSLR screen installing magic lantern software

Is Magic Lantern Safe?

As Magic Lantern is free, open-source software, and not manufactured by Canon. There are no guarantees. They let you know this straight away – you install the software at your own risk.

Personally, I didn’t have any problems with it. But, before installing it, I did read as much about it as I could. There are horror stories, but the number of them is small.

The most important thing you should know is that the use of Magic Lantern will void the warranty on your camera. Canon will not fix any issues with Magic Lantern crashing your camera.

You might have a camera lying around that has an expired warranty that you could use for this. I used my Canon T2i/550D as a test subject before moving to the 7D.

a Canon DSLR screen choosing magic lantern settings

How to Install Magic Lantern

Installing Magic Lantern is relatively simple. First, head over to the Magic Lantern website, and find the downloads section. The Nightly Builds are the main builds for everyday use.

Find the Magic Lantern software that matches your camera and also matches the firmware installed on your camera. Otherwise, Magic Lantern will not work and could pose problems down the line.

Download the file to your computer, then copy it to your CF or SD card, and then place it in your camera. After Magic Lantern is installed and your camera reboots, you use Magic Lantern’s menu and features through the ‘delete’ button.

The important thing to know is that Magic Lantern doesn’t store itself on your camera. Magic Lantern stays on your memory card and operates from it.

If you use a different memory card, you will not have the ability to use the extra features. Same goes for deletion of the file.

What Version Is My Firmware?

To find the firmware version on your Canon DSLR, turn on the camera and go to Menu. From here, scroll right using the cross keys and locate the icon with spanner named Set-up 3. Here, you should see Firmware Ver.X.X.X.

Check that your firmware is the updated version. To do this, go to the support area of the Canon website. Scroll down and select your camera. From the next page, click on Firmware on the toolbar at the top of the page.

Magic Lantern settings on the Canon DSLR screen

How To Install Magic Lantern – Step By Step

  1. After installing and making sure you have the updated firmware, go to Magic Lantern’s website and then to Downloads.
  2. Find your camera model and click on it. If your camera doesn’t appear here, then there is no current software for your Canon camera. 
  3. Format your CF/SD card. You’ll find this in Menu>Set-Up 1 (spanner icon).
  4. Turn your camera off, remove the card and plug it into your computer via the memory card reader.
  5. Find the unpacked ZIP file from Magic Lantern (magiclantern-Nightly) and extract the files (WinRAR or 7Zip).
  6. Select all files and move them to the memory card. Safely unplug the card and place it in the camera.
  7. Turn the camera on, and head on to Menu>Set-Up 3>Fireware. and set.
  8. Install the Magic Lantern by clicking Yes.
  9. Follow the instructions. It will asks you to turn off the camera, and then back on.
  10. Press the delete/trashcan icon, and then Set to accept Magic Lantern.

Uninstall Magic Lantern

There are a few reasons why you might want to uninstall Magic Lantern. Let’s say you no longer need the features it provides.

Here are two ways to uninstall the Magic Lantern software. By deleting the bootdisk or keeping the bootdisk. Having the bootdisk on your camera will allow you to still use Magic Lantern with other prepared cards.

To delete the bootdisk, go to Menu>Set-Up 3>Fireware when using the memory card with Magic Lantern on it. Pressing set will give you instructions you need to follow, including the fine print.

Some settings might have changed due to the addition of Magic Lantern. To remove these, you’ll need to clear all camera settings and custom functions from your camera. Go to Menu>Camera Settings 4>Clear All Camera Settings>Set.

To keep the bootdisk, all you need to do is format your card. Do not delete any of the files. To do so could harm your camera. Just format.

Magic Lantern settings on the Canon DSLR screen

Main Features of Magic Lantern

Intervalometer & Timelapse Play

Canon cameras do not have an intervalometer as standard, except a handful of models, such as the 80D or  7D Mark II. For every other model, you need an external device, or complicated app and WiFi/Bluetooth connection.

Not with Magic Lantern. One of the best features of Magic Lantern is the use of an intervalometer, right there, in your settings. It isn’t a basic one at that.

This feature will let you:

  • decide how often to take a photograph (1, 2, 3 seconds etc)
  • when to start the process (take a picture, after 3 seconds)
  • when to stop the process (after 400 shots)

Set it up and let it run.

The timelapse feature lets you view the images you captured using the intervalometer. It will continue to loop until you stop it, but it means not having to use the preview wheel to scroll through hundreds of stills.

Focus Peaking

Focus peaking is more of video function, as it lets you see where your focus falls when you film. It is where you are more likely to use manual focusing.

Personally, this was my favourite feature for capturing live music at nighttime. My Canon 7D couldn’t autofocus effectively in the dark, and this made everything easier.

Similar to the Lumix GH%, you get blue areas that show you where your focus is falling. Perfectly focused shot every time.

Bulb Timer

Bulb modes on DSLRs are generally a pain. Without the use of a shutter cable, you would need to physically hold the shutter down for the length of time you needed. Not great if you have a three-minute exposure. Or 20 minutes.

Magic Lantern has a bulb timer that allows you to program how long you want the exposure to last. It ranges from 1 second to 28800 seconds (8 hours) in increments of 1 second.

Half pressing the shutter release starts a 2-second timer, and then it exposes to the time you set.

Magic Lantern intervalometer settings on the Canon DSLR screen

Trap/Motion-Detect Shutter Release

A year ago, we reviewed the MIOPS camera shutter. This little device sets off the shutter release based on a few sensitivities; flashes of light or sound.

With Magic Lantern, you can do similar things. A trap shutter release allows you to place your camera somewhere and leave it on. When a subject enters that focusing zone, the camera will automatically capture an image. Great for wildlife.

The motion detect version allows your camera to shoot images when something moving enters your scene. Pretty advanced stuff for a decade-old Canon camera, huh?

Focus Stacking

Focus stacking is a feature that macro photographers will love and is a great feature from Magic Lantern. By enabling ‘Follow Focus’, you are free to set the start and endpoints of where you want your lens to focus over a sequence.

Once started, your camera will do the minute changes for you, which is really helpful at such wide apertures. Clicking on ‘Run Focus Stack’ starts the process, giving you a sequence to work within Adobe Photoshop.

Super Imposing Images

There are times when I really needed this superimposing images feature. For me, it would really help with my double exposures, but it could help anyone who has a specific project where every subject needs the same amount of space/position in the frame.

Basically, you choose an image, and it layers it on your LCD screen in an opaque manner. This lets you see the image partly, while still letting you see what your camera sees.

It lets you line things up nicely, making it great to return to the same spot for the same image.

Choosing global draw from the Magic Lantern settings on the Canon DSLR screen

Auto ETTR (Expose to the Right)

This doesn’t mean that your camera only meters for the right side of your image. It does mean that it will meter the scene’s exposure so that it falls on the right-hand side of the Histogram.

What this gives you is a lighter overall image. By exposing to the right, you are adding in more light, keeping detail and pixels in the darker areas of your scene.

This is great if you have a particular over-exposed style. Or, your scene is dark and the subjects just don’t have the final exposure your heart desires.

Magic Zoom

The magic zoom feature lets you create magnifications of 1:1, 2:1 or even 3:1. When using Live View mode, you’ll get a focus box showing the magnification you chose. Use the manual focus ring to get the correct sharpness.

If you have trouble getting the shot sharp, green bars let you know when optimal focusing has been achieved.

Advanced White Balance

For most of us, the white balance does a pretty good job getting us close to the temperature of the lights we use. But, they could be better. Magic Lantern adds a much finer increment change between the Kelvin units.

This allows the user to get closer to the light’s real temperature. The amount of change will depend on your camera model, as it will let you reach 5000k more on 5D models.

Magic Lantern 'Magic Zoom' settings on the Canon DSLR screen

HDR Bracketing

HDR bracketing allows you to capture a scene with three or more shots, that when layered, offer a much wider dynamic range. You can do this in-camera already, but this version gives you much more control.

For example, you can capture up to nine images of each scene. The exposure value can be set to 1EV increments for the entire sequence. You can even get scripts that show you a tone-mapped image.

Shutter Count

My Canon 7D doesn’t show me the shutter count or actuations. ~This isn’t great, as it could stop working at any time. Granted, this isn’t a feature I would use often, but I would find it useful in gauging how long my camera shutter has left.

Head over to the Debug Menu and it will tell you how many shots you have taken. It will also tell you how many were taken using Live View.

It will even tell you how many you can expect to take with your model of Canon camera.

Display Info

Magic Lantern has lots of information running all the time. Some of it is useful, but most of it will not give you anything helpful.

With Magic Lantern software installed, you’ll get the exposure settings, mode, the focal length you are using with the focal distance. The battery meter is much better, showing you an actual percentage.

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