Make your compact camera even more superior with CHDK

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We already know that compact cameras are far superior than integrated tablet cameras. It doesn’t matter if it’s the iPad 2 with its low resolution or the Xoom with more megapixels but lower quality, you simply won’t get pictures with a tablet that can compete with what even a cheap compact camera can produce. If you have a Canon camera, you might even be able to make your camera even more superior.

Tablets have become very powerful photography accessories very quick. That is especially true for the iPad 2, since the fast hardware combined with massive software offerings on iOS make a killer combination out in the field. It’s getting to the point where pairing a compact camera and maybe even an Eye-Fi card with a tablet is a natural and easy as relying on the integrated camera. That is why I’m bending the rules a bit on what constitutes a tablet article and doing this piece on CHDK.

CHDK stands for Canon Hack Development Kit, and is basically a set of custom firmwares for a whole range of Canon cameras (but not all). It has some very powerful features such as scripting that is more for professionals, but it also has features that amateurs would enjoy. That includes the ability to take RAW photos that give you greater control over editing the image afterwards and full manual controls with greater ranges (shorter/longer shutter etc) than you’d normally get. The result is that you can essentially turn a cheap compact camera into a powerhouse of features. It won’t improve the hardware, of course, but it gives you more control over the hardware that’s already there.

Manual control over camera features is the main reason why I chose to put CHDK on my Canon 300 HS. I’ve been waiting for a full release of the 300 HS version of CHDK for months, but finally decided I’d just go with the beta. It has some hiccups, but nothing crucial. Installing the hack is a s simple as putting some files on your SD card. You then boot the camera in display mode, find a new firmware update option in the menu and that will load CHDK into RAM. You can then use a button or button combo to access CHDK’s menus and toggle between camera menus and CHDK. Since CHDK is loaded into RAM, no permanent changes are being made and while CHDK is offered with no warranty I don’t think it has ever killed a camera.

As I was saying, manual mode is why I did this. I love doing panoramas and landscape photos, and one massive problem with that on cameras that don’t have full manual mode is that the camera will change settings depending on what it think is best. You can often tell it to use a specific ISO, shutter speed or aperture, but on compacts you rarely have the option to set everything. That means that once you focus on your target, the camera will make adjustments to try to give you the best photo possible given the options it has left that you can’t control. Very common results of this is burnt out skies because the camera focuses on something that’s much darker, and with panoramas that consist of multiple images the auto-settings are often changed as you move the camera because the new image is brighter or darker than the last. This then causes the stitched panoramas to have varying brightness and it just looks weird.

With Autostitch on my iPad I love being able to take photos for a panorama and then stitch it together on the spot, making sure everything looks good. Before I got the iPad I would get home, put the images into a panorama program and almost cry when the program couldn’t stitch it together properly because of lacking overlap etc. I briefly tried to use the Viliv S5 for on-the-go stitching, but that thing was just way too slow. Even with the iPad though, I’ve still had to bring my DSLR to really get usable panoramas because of the lack of manual mode on my compact camera. I’m fine with snapshot quality images that are just for fun, but the panorama images you get from a camera in auto mode are rarely up to that standard. That’s where CHDK comes in.

Below are some examples of what a difference manual mode (using CHDK) can mean in some situations.

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The top image is the iPad 2’s camera. First off, its focal length is too long for my taste which essentially means that compared to my compact camera the image looks “zoomed in”, as its lense is anything but wide angle. That means that it both required more images taken to cover the same area, and it didn’t get the top and bottom of the image into the shot like on the compact camera. The colors are also washed out, the sky is completely burned out and you can also see areas where it has automatically adjusted settings to compensate for the brightness and caused varying brightness in the final panorama.

The middle image is my compact camera, Canon 300 HS, using stock firmware and hence no manual control. I could adjust a few settings, but in the end it had a life of its own. The result; burned out sky and ovelry bright areas to the left and bottom caused by adjusting settings to make the middle of the image look good. Since the sky is completely burned out and white, you cannot just open an image editor and darken it as there’s no image data to darken.

Finally, the bottom is the same camera running CHDK and manual controls. I set a higher aperture and shorter shutter in order to let less light in and preserve the sky. While some areas of the image are now a bit too dark, I have a better chance of manually fixing that than darkening the middle image as the detail is there, just too dark. Using CHDK I can also save images in RAW format which would have made that task even easier.

The whole point of this article is to show how a relatively cheap compact camera can become even more superior to a tablet camera with a free, 5 minute software hack. Tablets today have the ability to store, edit, geotag and upload images from anywhere, making them the perfect companies on vacations and trips. With integrated cameras that are crap and some very nasty price tags on DSLR-like compact cameras, CHDK here gives you improved functionality on cameras that might cost you no more than a tablet case, if you buy a couple of year old used camera. For me, carrying my compact camera with my iPad has become as natural as bringing the Apple Bluetooth keyboard or a stylus, and I consider the two accessories to one another. Having a decent camera replace your tablet camera really doesn’t have to be expensive, and then Apple, Motorola, Asus and all the others can take their integrated cameras that produce crappy pictures and stick them a certain place.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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