DSLR cameras are fabulous for low-budget, DIY filmmaking, but high quality cameras are quite expensive (4K cameras such as the Panasonic GH4 and the Black Magic Cinema camera run $1700 to $3000 respectively, Black Magic Pocket is $1000, and the Canon 5D Mark III sells used for $1400ish – and all of these are prices for the camera body only with no lenses). Many of the less expensive cameras still go for $800-$1000.
But the Magic Lantern hacks for Canon DSLRs offer some very cheap options for building a true DIY production package. By far the biggest bang for the buck is the Canon 50D, a 2008 camera released without video functionality but with the hack can shoot both compressed (with the H.264 format, the same format all the Canon video capable cameras record in) and raw HD video.
The Canon 50D sells used for about $400. Even when adding in all the elements you will need to shoot video (a fast CF card, one or two lenses, a sound recorder, and a tripod), it’s possible to acquire a full package for under $1000. There are some limitations of course with this cheap DIY approach, but for new or even experienced filmmakers who have a miniscule budget, the possibilities are pretty amazing. Here’s some sample footage I shot today with a newly hacked 50D:
UPDATE 1/14/2015 – I recently shot this night-time footage with my 50D. I used the “Nifty-Fifty” (Canon 50mm/f.18) and shot mostly in “crop mode” at ISO 3200. Check out this post for info on post-production workflow.
A simple google search will reveal a lot of articles and posts exclaiming the amazing capabilities of the 50D, but there is less clear or organized information about installing and using Magic Lantern on the 50D. The information is out there, particularly in the Magic Lantern forums, but it is very decentralized and not easy to sift through. So I’ve decided to put this post together as a detailed how-to manual to hack your 50D.
What You Will Need to Shoot Raw Video on a 50D
Realistically, you will need several batteries (this camera drains them very quickly) and probably at least two compact flash (CF) cards, but here are the basics:
- A 50D camera (obviously)
- A lens (cheap Canon Zoom lenses abound, and there is a cheap 50mm 1.8 prime if you intend to do low-light shooting)
- A battery
- A 32 or 64GB 1000x flash card (the Komputerbay card seems to be the cheapest with the fastest results and is available on Amazon for example for $200 or less. 128GB cards don’t seem to be fast enough, so the 64GB is the best bet. Other cheap cards may not write fast enough for full HD raw video. For example, I first tried out the Transcend 64GB 1000x, but only got write speeds of up to 81 MB/s, which is only fast enough to shoot about 1 minute of full raw HD at a time. The Komputerbay cards reportedly get 90-120 MB/s, which will be fast enough for continuous shooting)
You will probably want/need a tripod and a sound recorder/mic as well, as the 50D does not have built in sound capabilities. But none of the Canon cameras record decent sound anyway, so I recommend investing in one of the Tascam portable recorders, which can be purchased for under $200, and doing dual system recording (don’t have a clapboard? Just use your hands, or have your subject/actor clap at the beginning of each shot).
What You Need to Hack a 50D
- The latest Canon 50D camera firmware
- The latest Magic Lantern stable release
- If you want to install raw video capabilities, the latest Magic Lantern 50D nightly build
- A fully charged battery
- A CF card 32GB or under (doesn’t need to be the CF card you use to shoot video)
- An external CF card reader (these can be purchased for about $15)
- A computer (Mac or PC)
Checking Your Firmware
If you are buying a used 50D, it is likely you will first need to update the firmware of the camera. To check your firmware version, turn on your camera and press the Menu button. Scroll to the third yellow wrench image, and at the bottom of the menu it will say “Firmware Ver. xx.” If the number doesn’t match the latest version on the Canon website, which is currently version 1.0.9, you will need to download and install it. There is a detailed PDF with installation instructions included in the download.
Installing Magic Lantern
For your first install on the camera, even if you ultimately intend to run the latest nightly build in order to enable raw recording, you need to first install the latest Magic Lantern stable release. Otherwise the nightly build won’t work.
Magic Lantern has a detailed install guide on their website, which you should definitely read through. Here are the install directions copied directly from their website, with my edits/notes about specifics to installing to the 50D in red (as the install instructions try to be generic to cover all the supported Canon cameras).
Step 1. Preparing the Camera
- Use a fully charged Canon battery (original, not third party);
- Remove any accessories from your camera (such as battery grip or external flash);
- For first install, use a simple CF card (32 GB or smaller). 64GB cards and larger will not work for first install (but you can use them with ML, see below).
- Make sure you have a card reader.
- Double-check your Canon firmware version (for the 50D, as of May 2014, it should be version 1.0.9)
- Rotate your mode dial to Manual (M) position.
- Recommended: Restore your camera to default settings (Clear settings, see picture above). Remember this will reset all canon settings and removes custom picture styles!
Step 2. Installation
- Format the card in the camera (low-level format– this option didn’t exist in my 50D. Just do a regular format by putting the 32GB or smaller CF card in the camera, turning the camera on, pressing the Menu button, scrolling to the first yellow wrench, and selecting “Format”).
- Remove the card from the camera and attach it to the computer with the CF card reader
- Unzip all of the files from Magic Lantern zip archive to the root of your card. (The Magic Lantern installed comes in a zipped compressed format. Double click on the zip file on a Mac to open with Archive Utility, or use a program such as 7-Zip or WinZip to open the folder in Windows. When the folder has been uncompressed, copy all of the files in the folder onto the main folder your CF card).
- Remove the CF card from the reader, insert it into the camera, and turn the camera on.
- Launch the Firmware Update process. (Same as with checking/updated the original Canon firmware, go back to the third wrench on the Canon Menu and select the “Firmware” button, and then “OK” to update it to Magic Lantern.
- If the card LED is blinking for more than a few seconds, upgrade your Canon firmware from the links above (even if you already have the correct firmware version number!) and try again.
- Once you see the green confirmation screen, restart your camera. Done.
- If something goes wrong, check the Troubleshooting section.
Installing the Latest Nightly Build
If you only intend to use H.264 compressed video, you are done installing, but if you want the capability to record raw, uncompressed video, there is still one more step.
- Download and unzip the latest Magic Lantern 50D nightly build (be sure to select the version for the 50D, as versions for the other cameras won’t work on the 50D.
- Remove the CF card from the camera and connect it to your computer via the CF card reader.
- Copy all the files from the unzipped night build onto the CF card.
- Disconnect the CF card from the computer and insert it into the camera.
- That’s it! You don’t need to update the firmware again, but if you go to the firmware screen in the menu, you will see the latest nightly build listed.
- Repeat this install of the nightly build onto every CF card you will use to shoot video. If you forget to install the nightly build onto each card, you won’t get the Magic Lantern menus and capabilities when you switch cards.
Before you are able to shoot video, you will need to enable certain functionalities in the Magic Lantern menu. This is an area I have found there to be a dearth of information about, so I will cover some of the particulars of setting up Magic Lantern and, especially important, how to get high enough write speeds to shoot raw, in my next post: