Magic Lantern for HDR – Extending Your Camera’s Bracketing Capabilities

Article by Jim Denham

As good as D-SLRs are these days, they have yet to make one that does everything a photographer might want it to do. For instance, no D-SLR manufacturer has combined the simplicity of operating an iPhone into the operating system of their D-SLR. OK, so that’s a bit extreme, but you get the point – as good as the equipment is, there are limitations on virtually all of them, even the professional grades.

One of the biggest frustrations, especially for those of us who apply HDR processing techniques, is the limitation in auto-exposure bracketing (AEB) capabilities. If you shoot Canon, like me, and own a consumer grade camera (60D), the AEB capabilities limit you to 3 exposures. In extreme light conditions this doesn’t cut it.

Even with the pro models, you are limited to 7 brackets maximum. In most situations, 7 brackets are enough, but paying a couple thousand dollars to gain AEB capability is pretty hard to justify and, if you’re like me, 7 brackets may not be enough for EVERY situation. The flexibility is just not there.

So what’s a photog to do? Well, you could spend a few hundred dollars for a Promote Control (http://www.promotesystems.com/products/Promote-Control.html), an accessory that attaches to your camera and helps you take more control of the bracketing system, as well as time lapse and other neat things. I’ve heard good things about this system, but could never afford the extra dough to warrant the purchase. Maybe someday.

For us Canon shooters, there is another option (sorry Nikon guys), and it’s free. It’s called Magic Lantern (http://www.magiclantern.fm). Magic Lantern (ML) is a third party software that resides on an SD or CF card and runs on top of the Canon firmware to expand your Canon’s photo and video capabilities, including up to 9 AEB brackets. It also has a pretty unique feature called Autodetect, which we’ll get into shortly.

In the early stages of Magic Lantern, there were issues with the product, mainly because it was released too early or people got a hold of the wrong update. ML has addressed many of these issues over the years to where now the product is pretty robust and mostly problem free. With that said, it is NOT a Canon sponsored product and you must consider that and the risk associated with downloading it on your camera.

Installation

It’s pretty simple actually. You download the software files from the ML website and move them onto a freshly formatted card (it’s not quite that simple, but close – follow the installation directions EXACTLY). With the card installed into your camera, run the firmware update process and the software is installed. Once you turn the camera off and back on again, the product is ready to go! The whole process takes just a few minutes once the files are downloaded.

Operation

To access the ML menu (on my 60D), press the delete/trash button (See Picture)

Once in the Magic Lantern menu, use the main dial (shutter speed) to move from tab to tab and use the L/R Wheel on the back to move up and down each sub-menu. Most of  the product is geared towards video – I’m not a video guy but I understand that ML REALLY extends the video capabilities of a Canon camera, so if you’re into D-SLR video, you should give it a go.

The ‘Shoot’ tab, the one with the camera on it, is the one you want for both HDR bracketing and a time lapse intervelometer. The first menu item on this tab is HDR Bracketing. Press the ‘Q’ above the dial to access its controls, or simply press the ‘Set’ button to turn it on.

Once in the HDR Bracketing menu, you’ll find the following controls:

  • Frames – the number of brackets to take; 2-9 and autodetect
  • EV Increment – exposure value between brackets
  • Sequence – the order the camera will take the brackets, such as 0EV, -1, +1, -2, +2 for a 5 bracket set.
  • 2 Second Delay – sets the delay on the shutter before taking the brackets
  • ISO shifting – allows the camera to shift ISO setting to obtain exposures at faster shutter speeds
  • Post Scripts – ML scripts that assist a process called Enfuse, or stacking the brackets to produce an in-camera tone mapped image.

To be honest, I have never used the last two menu items – I prefer to have control over both the ISO and the tone mapping process in post production.

The up and down controls will move through each menu item and the side arrows on the dial will move through the specific settings for each one. Clicking Set will enter your changes. At the bottom of all the menus, in small print, are directions for each item. Pretty handy.

Once you’ve got you desired settings, press either the Trash/Delete button or press the shutter half way to exit the ML menu and start shooting. Once you press the shutter, ML takes over and fires off the brackets for you.

One small issue I’ve found but have not figured how to avoid is that ML will sometimes take duplicate brackets of some or all of the EV levels specified, so you may end up with duplicate -2 EV brackets, or duplicates of all of them. This does not happen every time and it’s likely that I’m triggering it somehow, but have not figured out what that trigger is. It never skips a bracket though, which would be a much bigger concern.

Being that my 60D only has a 3 shot AEB, I would have to take 3 separate AEB shots to get -4 EV to +4 EV. Taking those 3 shots means touching, and possibly shaking, the camera between bracket sets and also means time between them having to change settings on the camera. That can sometimes mean ghost removal that otherwise might not be necessary and running the align image command in Photomatix even though all frames were shot on a tripod. With Magic Lantern, it’s set it up and press the shutter once, it does the rest.

Now the cool part! In the Frame submenu is a command called Autodetect. Instead of choosing the number of frames for the camera take, you can let the ML software determine the total number of brackets based on the histogram produced in the 0 EV shot. You set the composition, aperture and ISO settings, put the Exposure Compensation to 0, and press the button. The camera takes the 0 EV shot and examines the histogram to see how far it needs to go to expose for both the highlights and the shadows and takes that many frames. Now that is cool!

At first, I didn’t trust it too much, but now, unless I just want a basic 3 or 5 bracket set for bringing out texture, I let ML take my brackets for me. Here’s an example.

Below is a 0 EV picture taken at pretty much high noon on a sunny afternoon somewhere in between Nacogdoches and Houston, Texas. With the harsh afternoon light causing heavy contrast, I normally would have taken 9 brackets to capture the detail in both the highlights and shadows.

With autodetect in play, it only took 5 frames, 0 to +4 EV at 1 EV increments. It saved me 4 shots along with time and storage space on my card and I had all of the brackets I needed to fully tone map the shot. The brackets and finished image are below.

Conclusions/Observations

The biggest problem I have with the product is that I forget to turn it off which can be a pain because you can miss getting a shot due to the auto bracketing kicking in and running when you don’t want it to. Good thing is, it’s easy to turn off by pressing the Trash/Delete button and the Set button on the dial and it’s off.

Another frustration is why Canon, and Nikon for that matter, can’t incorporate this kind of technology into their firmware so that people don’t have to add third party software to their camera or buy additional, expensive accessories to gain the capabilities.  I can see where HDR bracketing may not be their priorities in the big scheme of things, but it would be nice just the same.

OK, so with that run through of the Magic Lantern product, here are what I consider the pros and cons to the software.

Pros:

  • Only press the shutter once to obtain up to 9 brackets
  • Eliminates additional handling of camera and aligning of images in post
  • Does not interfere with Canon menus
  • Autodetect feature can save time and storage space
  • Easy to install
  • Free
  • Additional camera capabilities for video and other photo features like bulb operation for long exposures and an intervelometer for time lapse
  • Did I mention it was free?

Cons

  • ML only operates on the CD/CF card it’s stored on and the camera loses the functionality if cards are changed. This has not been a problem for me as I use a 32GB SD card and haven’t had to change it out. Could be a problem if you have to change cards a lot
  • Third party software not affiliated with Canon. It could harm your camera, although I have not heard of this happening
  • Sometimes duplicates brackets

There is a risk in using third party software in your camera – I can’t emphasize that point enough. With that said, the users I’ve talked to have never had an issue and I can say for a fact that I’ve not had any either – my camera still works perfectly.

Even as the functionality and quality of D-SLRs continue to improve with each new model that comes out, even the pro models have limitations to their capabilities. For those of us who use HDR processing in our workflow, Magic Lantern software can offset some of these limitations and add some useful functionality to Canon cameras that can make the bracketing process much quicker, efficient and more fun. And it can do it all for free. Did I mention it was free?

If you are interested in the product, go to http://www.magiclantern.fm/ and check it out.

Jim Denham

Jim loves all things photography, but the obsession with the medium started with HDR and it continues to be a main tool in his processing belt. Jim’s portfolio consists of images both from his hometown area of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, as well as images from many towns around the US.

website: http://www.jimdenhamphotography.com/

Smugmug Galleries: http://jimdenhamphoto.smugmug.com/

  • Bob Mulholland

    I’ve been using Magic Lantern on my T2i for awhile now. I like how it automatically removes the three exposure auto-bracketing limit.

    The one con I don’t agree with is switching out cards. Why not just format all of the memory cards to use with Magic Lantern ahead of time? That’s why I do.

    • Paul M

      Absolutely right Bob. Once its installed you just forget about it. When you have to format the card again it asks if you want to format and keep the ML file or format the whole card overwriting the ML file. So its never an issue.

      • Michael Lein

        How do you format a card to use with Magic Lantern ahead of time? I have the 7 D and have not done any firmware updates or tried Magic Lantern yet, but I am interested in doing so. Seems like the newest firmware update doesnt work with ML yet though, so I might have to try to find the older firmware update.

  • Don

    If I understand correctly, you need the memory card that ML resides on in the camera. If you replace the card with one that doesn’t have ML, does it boot regularly as it did before installing ML?

    • Stuart Dyckhoff

      Absolutely Don. You can (or at least I do) hot swap your cards and all you lose is the additional functionality that ML brings.

      • Michael Lein

        But according to another post you can just copy the ML files to every one of your cards and it will always be available… still debating on trying this, so no real world experience yet :)

        • http://www.ChurchTechy.com stubbyd

          Michael – since my comment above (a year ago) I have indeed installed (not copied) ML on to all my SD cards to ensure it remains available whatever card is in.

          As to whether you try it or not well I can only say that I’ve used ML for close on 3yrs now and haven’t had a problem with it. But it’s your camera, your choice.

  • Paul M

    There is an equivalent software for Nikon and Canon cameras. It is called Helicon Remote. I believe it does all Magic Lantern can do but they were nice enough to include Nikon cameras capable of Live View. I use the version for Android so I can tether my Asus Transformer Pad to my Nikon D7000 with USB cable. So if I have my Nikon stuck up in the air on a painters pole or I just want to use the HDR or Focus Stacking features its all done with a push of the button.

    • Stuart Dyckhoff

      Helicon Remote is different to ML in that ML resides on the card in the camera and not as an individual app running from your tablet of choice. You also ideally need Helicon Focus at an extra cost – ML is 100% free unless you opt to donate.

      • Paul M

        The reason I mentioned this is, besides the $40 cost of the registration licence its the only software that will remotely control a Nikon. The free software will work but will allow shooting only in the basic jpeg mode. Whether the software resides on the tablet or lies hidden in the SD card is of little consequence. Not being one to buy software I paid for the licence and have no regrets. I almost considered getting a Canon just to be able to use ML. Its a sweet piece of software. Any Canon dslr owner who doesnt have it installed is really missing out.

  • Stuart Dyckhoff

    I love me my MagicLantern and my 60D. I was first introduced to bracketing shots by a Nikon shooter whom had a wi-fi based remote control where he could set the brackets, etc … when I realised all I could do was 3 without faffing I was most disappointed and as you point out the options are limited and costly.

    Then I found ML and even donated to such a great cause. Love the extra functionality you can play with like taking a shot if it detects movement and changing the EV of the live view for night time shots. Can’t praise it enough.

    BTW, I don’t get the extra bracket issue but I do forget like you to turn it off :)

  • Chris Maskell

    Great post Jim, well written too

  • ADRIAN EVANS

    Funny, i was only saying to Jimmy a few weeks ago about needing a magic lantern tutorial, Great job Jim

  • Paul M

    To save some confusion it would have been nice to include Canon in the title of this article…..Magic Lantern for HDR — Extending your Canon Camera’s Bracketing Capabilities.

  • Stef

    Everyone, just go to Canon’s support site and send them an email regarding thatomto bracketing function. I did that and received an answer that my feedback is much appreciated and they will pass it on the firmware department. I guess that this would help to see expanded auto exposure bracketing features in future releases of the firmware. It won’t hurt you to spend five minutes on that.

  • seaside7

    I have a NIKON and I can shoot 9 frames……Sorry Canon users.

  • thebush

    Thank you Jim for reviving Magic Lantern and giving me the courage to try it out. It works wonderfully. I bought a used Canon 50D a while ago which overexposed every damn thing and I had almost given up on it because I didn’t have the faintest idea how to reset it except to underexpose shots. Thankfully, when I decided to do the firmware update and install ML, all the settings got reset and I now I have a “new” camera which actually does what I want it to do and then some.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ScottFrederickPhotography Scott Frederick

    Awesome Jim, I’m glad you’ve found a “free” workaround.

  • Nikon_bob

    What a great find. My T2i is a amazing camera, and now it complete.

  • http://poortravelblogger.com Poor Travel Blogger

    You can have this program on as many cards as you like. Just drag the same files from one card to the other cards and you’re golden.