a17 October 2014

Why I love Magic Lantern - Several years later

Old Greenhouse
You probably know that I'm avid user of Magic Lantern custom firmware. I've been using it for a few years (3 or 4) now and I cannot imagine shooting without it anymore!

In the past, I wrote a post titled "5 Reasons why I love Magic Lantern" which turned out to be quite popular and some of you got interested in Magic Lantern thanks to it. However, this post became fairly old and a bit out-dated as it was written more than 2 years ago, so I decided to revisit it and write updated version. Why? Magic Lantern greatly evolved since then by adding a lot of new features, fixing numerous bugs, overhauled GUI and so on.

So today I would like to write about the features that I love most at the moment. Please note that I use Nightly Builds of Magic Lantern. Also note that I will focus on the features useful for still images shooter like me. Although things like RAW video are definitely interesting (I tried it and love the results!) I don't use them in my photography work that much. Ok, without further ado, here's the list of my favourite Magic Lantern features as of today:
  1. Dual ISO - well, this one was a real game-changer when introduced! Many Canon shooters had looked with jelousy at owners of Nikon cameras which are capable of capturing 14 EV of dynamic range, while Canon DSLRs could capture 11 to 12 stops of light.
    But Dual ISO changed it. With a simple trick (ok, not that simple implementation-wise) Magic Lantern team squeezed additional 2 steps of light and so, many Canon cameras can now shoot with 14 stops of dynamic range! Couple this with ETTR feature (Expose To The Right) to have perfectly exposed photos and your images will have much better dynamic range, exposure and lower noise.
    Is there a catch? Yes, as there is no rose without a thorn. Resolution of highlights and shadows is decreased. This might sound scary but in my tests in the majority of cases its hardly noticeable.
    In many cases where I deal with huge dynamic range I still prefer to bracket (to avoid mentioned resolution decrease - just in case) but when dealing with moving subjects I often tend to use Dual ISO as this way I don't have to deal with deghosting. Also it's a perfect choice when shooting hand-held because this way you will avoid the risk of images misalignment. So all places that disallow tripods are good candidates to use Dual ISO.
    BTW, some time ago I wrote a short post about my initial impressions of that very feature here.

  2. Advanced HDR bracketing - this feature greatly extends bracketing feature of the camera. Many Canon cameras (including my backup 50D) can normally take 3 auto-bracketed shots in 2 EV spacing. Not impressive. With Magic Lantern I can shoot unlimited number of photos even at 5 EV spacing (please note that in order to use more than 9 photos you will need to modify config files). There is even an option to automatically detect number of exposures needed to cover dynamic range of the scene.
    Advanced HDR bracketing feature evolved since last time I wrote about it, it now allows choosing bracketing type. You can select Exposure, Flash or Depth-of-Field now.
    I must say that I tend to use this feature a bit less on my 5D MK III, because it supports up to 9 frames in auto-bracketing mode by design, but there is one case when I still do - it's for long-exposure HDRs. If you're shooting in low-light conditions (blue hour, late sunset, before sunrise, etc.) or when using neutral density filter you can often end up with exposures longer than a minute or two. Unfortunately, by default, the longest exposure for any photos in auto-bracketing mode is limited to 30 s. Magic Lantern lets you surpass this limit and so you can take long-exposure HDRs!

  3. Focus assisting features - there are a lot of focus assisting features in Magic Lantern (like trap focus, magic zoom, focus racking, etc.) but my favourite for now is focus peaking. When in Live View mode it displays a set of red (or green, or blue, or yellow) dots where the focus is currently set. It makes manual focusing a lot easier and also a lot faster and precise. Also it's possible to assess the focus just after taking a photo (in Review Mode). 

  4. RAW Histograms - this feature might seem small but it's a really great addition. You probably use histogram to evaluate exposure of your photos, don't you? Then you probably know that it represents levels in a processed JPG file and so it depends on the White Balance and Picture Style? Well, even if you shoot RAW (in such case camera creates JPG preview that is used to calculate histogram)... and that part might be actually quite surprising.
    This means that when shooting RAWs, histograms in the camera lie to us! It might turn out that JPG histogram shows that you're overexposing your photo already while there might still be place for pushing the exposure to the right. So instead of increasing
    Magic Lantern's RAW Histograms don't have this problem - they show real histogram, for real RAW data. They are available both in Live View mode and in image review mode (i.e. just after taking the photo).

  5. RAW Zebras - Canon cameras can show you areas that are overexposed. But as with histograms, the problem is that they use JPG data for finding those areas and so this information might not be really relevant. Magic Lantern to the rescue once more - it has one more interesting feature, known as RAW Zebras, that show overexposed areas using RAW data meaning that they are relevant and precise.

  6. Intervalometer - Magic Lantern has also a really powerful intervalometer built-in. You can set a number of photos you want to take and time between them. Very useful for anyone interested in time-lapses, light trails or star trails photos.

  7. Bulb exposure - although both my cameras can use bulb exposure it has one drawback - I cannot set its length in the camera. Magic Lantern allows me to specify exact exposure time, no matter it's 15, 30, 90 seconds or a few minutes. Very cool :) And useful.

  8. Battery level - now this one is small but very useful. Canon cameras have battery level indicator but it shows a graphical symbol that isn't very precise. It often happenned to me that it showed half ot the battery just to jump to almost 0 after taking a few photos more. Magic Lantern added another battery level indicator, showing percentage of battery level. I don't have to tell you it's much more precise if you know that your battery is on 70% or 60% level.
Ok, if I convinced you to try Magic Lantern, make sure to visit its website and download it:

http://magiclantern.fm/

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