The Canon Hacker’s Development Kit

I own two Canon video cameras, an XL H1, and an HV20. The first retails for about $7,000 these days, and the second can be picked up from just about anywhere for around $700 (or you can get a slightly newer version, the HV30 for just a little bit more). If you’ve read my reviews, you know that the divergent prices reflect some serious differences in professional capability.

The interesting thing is that under the hood, the cameras are pretty similar. Yes, the XL has 3 CCD chips behind a big interchangable lens, and the HV only has one miniscule CMOS chip behind a little fixed lens — not to mention some serious differences in manual controls and connection ports for things like timecode, genlock, and HD-SDI — but the actual brain of both cameras, the chip which processes the images, runs the viewfinder, mixes the audio, and encodes the HDV, is the exact same Digic DV II chip.

The same is true of Canon’s still cameras. There are a lot of differences between their big black SLRs and their little silver point-and-shoot cameras, but most are run by identical Digic II or Digic III digital signal processors. It’s cheaper for Canon to develop a single powerful chip that can handle consumer and professional processing than to design and manufacture multiple chips, so we get the same processor whether we buy a $1200 SLR or a $120 pocket cam.

So, why don’t we get access to the same features for a tenth the price? First, those who want a point-and-shoot camera generally want to point and shoot, not mess with a bunch of complicated settings. Also, the tiny form factor of the consumer cameras means there is a limited amount of space for all the controls that would be needed to adjust a bunch of settings quickly. And finally, most manufacturers want to maintain a big difference in features available in the consumer and professional cameras to protect the market for the more expensive products.

But, with a little aftermarket tweaking, you can access more professional features on the point-and-shoot Canons. A bunch of clever hackers have cracked the firmware that the little cameras run, and added new features supported by the processing chip. All you need to do is download the new firmware, called CHDK, and run it from a memory card in the camera. It doesn’t break the existing firmware; all it does is add a ton of new menu options to a new “alt” mode.

This will allow you to control the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed independently, and expand that shutter speed to extremes far beyond the original limits; anywhere from 64 seconds to 1

  1. Very cool. I’ve been checking your stuff out at Vision Forum. My Canon HG20 (basically, an HV20 that records to HD/SD) just came in last night. Thanks for the article.

    - Wyatt Roberts

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