Hacks for DSLRs started to become a popular topic among motion shooters when stories began to come out regarding how regular off-the-shelf cameras were being modified by major TV and movie productions to create small super cameras. In those early days of HD video-capable DSLRs, the motion features of the cameras were just beginning to be understood. Since then, DSLR filmmaking has exploded in popularity, and many DPP readers are experimenting with it, if not doing it regularly as part of their business.
Among DSLR shooters who use their cameras for motion capture, there’s a long-running conspiracy theory that many manufacturers purposely truncate their cameras’ abilities. Like any good conspiracy theory, there’s no shortage of explanations as to why they’d do this, but the most common that’s put forth on the Interwebz is that the manufacturers don’t want to cannibalize their high-end filmmaking tools. It makes for a great story, but is it true?
Magic Lantern has been making "software add-ons" for some Canon cameras for years. The company has developed quite a following in filmmaking circles for their 7D, 5D Mark II and, most recently, 5D Mark III software. What they call a software add-on is commonly referred to as a "hack." In the case of the 5D Mark III, the hack allows for RAW video output. Like any RAW file, images produced by the hacked DSLR are free of compression and have more dynamic range than the output you can achieve with the regular stock camera.
In performance automotive circles, this process is similar to reprogramming a car’s ECU—its "chip." With a simple "ECU Flash," a car’s horse-power is instantly boosted by 20% or more. Why don’t the car manufacturers simply employ the software engineers who have discovered how to do this? Just like with cameras, the same conspiracy theories abound. But a car is a pretty complex machine, and creating extra horsepower by reprogramming a chip to control the combustion isn’t necessarily a good idea for the rest of the engine. The entire engine has been designed around a series of balancing acts, and by suddenly changing the power output by 20% or more, that balancing act can be thrown into disarray. This is why reprogramming the ECU usually results in immediate termination of your warranty.
Which brings us back to hacks for capturing motion with your DSLR. The modern DSLR is a technological wonder. A film camera was a light-tight box with a precision shutter, a light meter and a mechanism for holding and advancing film. A DSLR is a super computer with the ability to process massive image files, analyze subject matter, and track motion and more. The complexity of the electronics is substantial, and just like car engineers, camera makers are engaged in a balancing act to make their components work perfectly together. In addition to the possibility of conflicts, there’s a possibility of considerable excess heat buildup when the internal circuits are pushed beyond their designed specs. A camera hack can throw that balance out of whack, and that can result in catastrophic data loss. In extreme cases, it can also render your DSLR into a useless brick. That’s not common, but it can happen, and on Magic Lantern’s website, they have this specific disclaimer:
"Use at your own risk, we are not responsible for any damage to your camera."
You can find hacks for just about any digital camera these days. Besides the multitudes available for Canon cameras, there are several popular video hacks for high-end models made by Panasonic. They do everything from boosting ISO performance to increasing available frame rates. Like all hacks, they have the potential to create internal conflicts that will result in significant problems with the camera.
On the upside, you can definitely squeeze a lot of performance out of your DSLR if you’re willing to take the risk of hacking it. Getting RAW motion output from a 5D Mark III is very cool indeed, and being able to shoot a GH2 or GH3 in extremely low light will enable you to get footage that’s almost impossible otherwise. If you’re going to hack your camera, do your research and be aware that you’ve changed its internal balance. Get a feel for how the internal balancing act changes and how you can mitigate things like increased heat buildup.