Canon might want to consider putting a certain Trammell Hudson on the payroll. Hudson has developed an enhancement to the firmware of the Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR camera to make the already impressive camera an even more attractive option for shooting professional video. Dubbed ‘Magic Lantern’, the new firmware includes both audio and video fixes and is a completely open platform, meaning users are free to extend the Magic Lantern firmware themselves.
Since the 5D Mark II’s stock firmware was a little lacking in the audio department, that’s the area that Hudson has targeted with the first release, but there are a few video enhancements as well.
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The audio enhancements include on-screen audio meters, manual gain control and disabling of automatic gain control (AGC). Video enhancements include crop marks for filming in different formats (16:9, 2.35:1 and 4:3) and zebra striping for overexposed areas.
Magic Lantern isn’t actually written to the 5D Mark II’s ROM. Rather, it is run off the camera’s CF card and loaded into RAM after selecting “Update firmware” from the menu. This means when the camera reboots, the RAM is flushed and the camera reverts to the Canon firmware. For this reason Magic Lantern is unlikely to brick your camera, and there have been no reports of it doing so, but with all hacks of this sort there is always a risk.
Magic Lantern owes a debt of gratitude to those responsible for the CHDK firmware enhancement who reversed engineered the Canon firmware by using a LED to blink raw machine code and released it under the General Public License (GPL) for others like Hudson to learn from. The CHDK firmware they developed works in the same way as Magic Lantern, to provide a number of pro-level features for Canon’s line of point-and-shoot digital cameras.
The development of Magic Lantern and CDHK highlights the fact that many products aren’t living up to their potential. Whether it be leaving a certain function for the top-of-the-line model, or just omitting some functions altogether, many product lines are differentiated, not by hardware capability, but by software. That differentiation is increasingly under threat, however, thanks to hackers who, understandably, want a product to be all that it can be.
Through all of this it needs to be kept in mind that the 5D Mark II remains primarily a still camera and there are obvious limitations to its video capabilities, like 12 minute recording time and no auto-focus (though Magic Lantern argues the latter can be overcome by using a follow-focus system like the RedRock microFolowFocus). But it's undoubtedly a great example of what open source can achieve.
Magic Lantern is based on Canon’s 1.1.0 firmware and a pre-release version is currently available for download as donationware.