06 Aug

Can you do serious work with Magic Lantern? Featured

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Can you do serious work with Magic Lantern? Can you do serious work with Magic Lantern? Canon


Someone asked us the other day whether it was safe to make a commercial production with Magic Lantern software running on a Canon EOS 5D mk III. There are several answers to this, and it's by no means certain that any of them are "yes". In order to understand why, it's a good idea to look at this question in the light of two completely different scenarios


First of all I want to say that I'm a huge admirer of the work that Magic Lantern does. None of what follows is a criticism of them or their work. It is more a reflection of what it means to use a product in a professional context, and how to asses the risk of using software that does not have the same history of testing as professional equipment from a large Japanese manufacturer.

Design and Production

First, let's look at how a major Japanese manufacturer designs and makes a product.

When a new camera comes to market from one of the major players, it's rarely the result of a back-of-an-envelope idea. What's more likely is that the product has been in planning for more than a year, and that it's based on a perceived gap in the marketplace. It will be developed in a way that minimises the need for additional tools and technology, while still giving the new device a competitive advantage.

It's a complex process, that's well tuned. And it's also why you don't often get big surprises from big companies - but what you do get is a product that is generally delivered on time, and which is absolutely rock solid. Which is what you want if your business and your reputation depend on it.

Most of all, these products are tested to within an inch of their lives. There's almost no chance of something slipping out with a serious bug. In fact, this happens so rarely, that when it does, it's big news. Even though modern cameras are largely software-defined devices, buying a camera from a big Japanese manufacturer is as close as you can get these days to buying a "thing" in the old fashioned sense.

Reliability of Magic Lantern

Now, let's look at it from the Magic Lantern angle (and this isn't just about ML: its about anyone who "hacks" into a product to gain functionality).

First of all, let's get rid of the idea that because the ML software is running on Canon's hardware it must be reliable, because the moment you install a single byte of "alien" code on a third-party's product, all the testing is completely invalidated. In a sense software like ML's would be treated by the original manufacturer as one giant bug.

You can expect absolutely no support from Canon if you're running other people's software, and no sympathy either. And you can understand why: not only do Canon not have any control over any foreign software installed on their cameras, but this represents a disruptive attack on their business model as well. Remember how we said that each new product is planned and fitted into the optimum place in the manufacturer's product hierarchy? Well, running software that means a camera costing a few thousand dollars can challenge another one in your range that costs five times as much is a situation that's not likely to be welcomed with open arms.

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  • Catching fire? Really dude?

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  • Hi Ronnie

    If you read what I'm saying, and the overall tone of the article, I'm not saying that it's going to catch fire. What I am saying is that if you push stuff beyond it's design limits then unpredictable things can happen. Processors, pushed hard, heat up. So do sensors. It's a fact. It's also a fact that all the evidence shows that ML software is reliable and does not cause problems. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't discuss issues in a general way.

    I'm not trying to be alarmist here. To understand what might happen, you have to look at the most extreme case and work your way back from there. Read the article again with that in mind.

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  • It's useful to look at the actual limits, as I mentioned above... you may find they're not really being pushed. That's the case with the raw video hack. You just have to realize that it's a modification of regular still raw photography -- which is why it's working to some extent on the non-video 50D -- rather than a huge expansion of what video mode does.

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  • Just a thought: At SIGGRAPH 2013 this year I talked to a Canon rep about the hack and show him some stills. He seemed convinced the the hack was not actually delivering true RAW and that there were noticeable problems. I am not big into the technicals (which he dove through) but to my eye, the image looked great. I think he was just upset that ML is innovative where Canon isn't

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  • Checkout Alex Fox in a real world production "RAW vs h264" video using Magic lantern hack.


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  • Having once been employed in the privileged position of Australian National Sales Representative for one of the two major Japanese broadcast lens manufacturers and working directly with the Japanese Managing Director, I can say with some conviction that the work done by organisations like ML will be very difficult to embrace by any Japanese company. It's all about a 'loss of face' and if you know the Japanese 'way', this can be very confronting.

    On one hand, their legal advisers may urge the threat of court action but on the other, sales are booming. (especially of older models and that phenomenon can create another dilemma for producers of consumer equipment) I suggest that although this dilemma will be causing much angst back in the Tokyo boardrooms, we are not likely to see any 'official' acknowledgement any time soon.

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  • As a hardware designer, I'd claim the risks of ML are being exaggerated here.

    Yes, there's always the chance of encountering a software bug. It's not as if ML isn't tested, but it's certainly not being tested under the same conditions as would be production firmware at Canon. So yeah, this could potentially give you a bad day on a shoot.

    But damage the camera. Unlikely if not impossible. Just take this suggestion: "Pushing raw, uncompressed video around a device that was only ever intended to work with highly compressed media means stressing components to their limits - and possibly beyond". Uh... no. Let's just take my camera, the Canon 6D (not supported yet, but this also has the slowest burst rate, so it's a worst case among the pro models for this exercise). If I'm shooting full 20Mpixel raw stills at full rate, that's 4.5f/s x 20Mpix/f = 90Mpix/s. If I'm shooting raw video at 1080p24, that's 24f/s x 2Mpix/f = 48Mpix/s... just over half the data rate.

    If the camera wasn't video capable, I'd have some concern of overheating the sensor. But it's video capable, so it already supports 24p/30p video, so that sensor is being properly cooled... other than the raw video mode for the 50D, which doesn't actually have a video mode. Some possible concern there, but probably not a huge one.

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  • Dave,

    These are all good points. Thank you.

    What I didn't perhaps make clear enough in this piece is that it was written almost from a philosophical angle, and definitely from a "what if" angle. In other words, what's the worst that can happen? I'm a great fan of ML and their software. I think it's an amazing achievement and that - once it matures - their software will be very reliable.

    All I'm saying is that when your (professional) life depends on it, you'd better be absolutely sure that the particular combination of third-party software and your hardware are going to work.

    It's a bit like saying: "If someone installed alternative software in a Boeing 747 and made it hover, would you take paying passengers on it?". If you were an established airline with a reputation to protect, and with safety laws and regulations to adhere to, no, you wouldn't. Not without the plane passing the same tests as any other commercial airliner would have to. But if, on the other hand, you found a group of passengers who accepted the risks, and were prepared to sign away their normal rights to be protected under aviation law, then, yes, absolutely go ahead and start your alternative airline - which will have huge advantages over conventional ones.

    And in the course of time, these modifications, as long as they're proved safe, will probably become mainstream and the other airlines will all want to incorporate them.

    Sorry to go on at such length. I hope this makes sense. It's been a long day :)

    Comment last edited on about 2 years ago by David Shapton
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  • Given the price drop on the Black Magic cinema camera and the upcoming Pocket cinema camera (which is apparently shipping now), there's not really any rational reason for anyone to use a dSLR as a primary cinema camera any longer.

    Intuitively it would seem like this is an incentive for Canon and Sony and Arri and Red to compete in the lower price brackets, but I'm guessing that at least in the near future they won't bother, because none of the Black Magic cameras are worthwhile stills cameras. That makes them inherently less versatile than any current dSLR, even though they're a much better choice than a dSLR for cinematic use.

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  • I don't know what it is but the RAW footage doesn't seem like RAW to me. I'm not sure I'm the only one as many people are still going with Black magic for RAW.

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David Shapton

David is the Editor In Chief of RedShark Publications. He's been a professional columnist and author since 1998, when he started writing for the European Music Technology magazine Sound on Sound. David has worked with professional digital audio and video for the last 25 years.

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