We all love to hack the sys­tem and get more for less. That’s exact­ly what Canon’s CHDK firmware aims to do: it allows you to add capa­bil­i­ties to unpre­ten­tious cam­eras that only cool cam­eras have. With its help, you can teach the cam­era to shoot RAW, if it does not know how, get an extend­ed ISO range, a time-lapse shoot­ing func­tion, sharp­ness brack­et­ing, and even play Tetris on the cam­era. Read about what CHDK firmware is, how to install it on your cam­era your­self, what equip­ment it will be use­ful for and how the firmware affects the war­ran­ty, read in this mate­r­i­al.

Pho­to: Alisa Smirno­va, Photosklad.Expert

What is CHDK and what cam­eras it is suit­able for
Fea­tures pro­vid­ed by CHDK firmware
How to install alter­na­tive firmware CHDK
Script­ing and pro­gram­ming in CHDK

An impor­tant warn­ing before we begin. It is worth remem­ber­ing that any third-par­ty firmware is some­thing like a con­struc­tion of two chairs stacked on top of each oth­er, which you use instead of a steplad­der. Yes, with its help you can reach the chan­de­lier in the cen­ter of the ceil­ing, but there is always a risk of falling to the floor. With a steplad­der, it will still be more con­ve­nient and sta­ble.

Exper­i­ment­ing with the firmware may dam­age the cam­era and void the war­ran­ty. Firmware is best used on a cam­era that has already expired war­ran­ty ser­vice.

CHDK (Canon Hack Devel­op­ment Kit) is an alter­na­tive soft­ware that is loaded into the cam­er­a’s RAM and enhances its capa­bil­i­ties. For sim­plic­i­ty, it is often referred to as firmware, and we will use this term too. But, strict­ly speak­ing, CHDK is not a firmware, as it is loaded every time from a mem­o­ry card, with­out replac­ing the orig­i­nal firmware. And if you no longer need the CHDK, just insert a blank mem­o­ry card and your cam­era will boot with the orig­i­nal firmware with­out any add-ons.

CHDK is exclu­sive­ly for Canon cam­eras. But not for every­one: basi­cal­ly, firmware is devel­oped for com­pact cam­eras with Dig­ic 2 — Dig­ic 7 proces­sors, for exam­ple, Canon Pow­er­Shot G7 X Mark II, Canon Pow­er­Shot G1 X, Canon Pow­er­Shot G16, Canon Pow­er­shot SX730HS. A com­plete list of com­pat­i­ble cam­eras can be found on the CHDK com­mu­ni­ty page. You can also down­load the firmware there.

Shoot­ing in RAW. Not all com­pact cam­eras can shoot in RAW (for exam­ple, Pow­er­Shot SX170IS), this fea­ture can be added using the firmware. Shoot­ing in RAW has a num­ber of advan­tages in post-pro­cess­ing. But it also has a num­ber of dis­ad­van­tages.

More­over, RAW can be saved both in the stan­dard Canon .CRW for­mat and in the open .DNG.

Extend­ed ISO val­ues. The firmware allows you to set the sen­si­tiv­i­ty out­side the stan­dard range of the cam­era. For exam­ple, Canon G11 in nor­mal mode allows you to change the ISO in the range from 80 to 3200, and with alter­na­tive firmware it can be raised a few more steps, up to 10000, and shoot in dark­er con­di­tions. Of course, it will not shoot as well as the Nikon D780, but it will allow you to shoot more than the cam­era allows by default.

Zebra. Allows you to high­light the over­ex­posed and under­ex­posed areas of the frame with col­or. Use­ful for those who are learn­ing to shoot in man­u­al mode. Zebra can be set to a sen­si­tiv­i­ty thresh­old at which it high­lights prob­lem areas. Such an advanced zebra can only be found in firmware, or in pro­fes­sion­al Sony mir­ror­less cam­eras. For exam­ple, Sony Alpha A7S III.

The areas shad­ed in red are over­ex­posed, this frame needs neg­a­tive expo­sure com­pen­sa­tion / Pho­to: Alisa Smirno­va, Fotosklad.Expert

Brack­et­ing in con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing. Adds not only stan­dard shut­ter, aper­ture, or ISO brack­et­ing capa­bil­i­ties, but also focus brack­et­ing, a fea­ture found only on expen­sive pro­fes­sion­al cam­eras such as the Canon EOS R6, Nikon Z7 II, Fuji­film X‑T4, or Olym­pus OM‑D E ‑M1 Mark III. Of course, an old com­pact cam­era will not give the same image qual­i­ty. But it will allow you to prac­tice focus stack­ing before buy­ing an expen­sive pro­fes­sion­al cam­era with this fea­ture (and to under­stand if you need this fea­ture or not).

The firmware has a lot of func­tions and fea­tures, some of which may seem some­what strange. For exam­ple, there you can find a read­er for texts, a flash­light (illu­mi­nates the screen with white light) and even a few games.

Play on the cam­era in Tetris? Eas­i­ly! / Pho­to: Alisa Smirno­va, Photosklad.Expert

Also, using the firmware, you can get the inter­val shoot­ing mode, motion detec­tion and a num­ber of oth­er advanced fea­tures. To do this, you will need to addi­tion­al­ly find and install spe­cial scripts, they will be dis­cussed below. First, let’s see how to install the firmware.

To install CHDK, you will need a blank mem­o­ry card and an archive with suit­able firmware. The card needs to be for­mat­ted (this can be done right in the cam­era), after which we unpack the archive with the firmware files onto it. After that, turn on the cam­era in view mode (to do this, instead of the ON / OFF but­ton, press the view but­ton), and look for the “Firmware Update” / “Firmware Update” item in the menu.

We select the update, click OK and wait until the alter­na­tive firmware is loaded into the cam­er­a’s mem­o­ry. / Pho­to: chdk.fandom.com

If every­thing went well, the CHDK logo will appear on the screen, and the cam­era will be ready for use.

Canon Pow­er­shot G11 loaded with CHDK firmware. The arrow marks the but­ton for switch­ing on the alter­na­tive cam­era mode / Pho­to: Alisa Smirno­va, Fotosklad.Expert

Now the cam­era has two modes of oper­a­tion: main and alter­na­tive. The main one is prac­ti­cal­ly no dif­fer­ent from work­ing on native firmware, all but­tons per­form the same func­tions. And all the most inter­est­ing, for which pho­tog­ra­phers install this firmware, is in alter­na­tive mode. To enter this mode, the “S” but­ton is used by default (it is also the print short­cut but­ton, a print­er icon is usu­al­ly drawn next to it).

After press­ing this but­ton, the func­tions of the cam­era but­tons change. So, by press­ing the “Menu” but­ton, we will not get to the stan­dard Canon menu, but to the CHDK set­tings menu.

CHDK set­tings menu on Canon G11 and its most inter­est­ing tabs: Advanced fea­tures, RAW options, Scripts / Illus­tra­tion: Alisa Smirno­va, Fotosklad.Expert

Now you can enable and con­fig­ure options that are not avail­able using the stan­dard menu. After the addi­tion­al fea­tures are con­fig­ured, do not for­get to press the “S” but­ton again, and return from the alter­na­tive mode to the nor­mal one.

Even more pos­si­bil­i­ties are giv­en by the use of scripts — spe­cial pro­grams writ­ten for CHDK. Some of the most use­ful ones come with the full ver­sion of the firmware.

Inter­val shoot­ing. Of course, mod­ern SLR or mir­ror­less cam­eras can do this with­out any addi­tion­al firmware (and some of them, like the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, can inde­pen­dent­ly assem­ble a time-lapse from the result­ing pho­tos).

But there are times when it is a pity to use an expen­sive new cam­era. But the old “soap box” worth a cou­ple of thou­sand rubles can be safe­ly left on the porch of a tourist house to shoot the night fog, and go to bed your­self.

To work with scripts, you need to press the but­ton for switch­ing to the alter­na­tive mode (S), then the FUNC / SET but­ton (it is locat­ed in the cen­ter of the joy­stick) and select the “Load script from file” item. A list of all scripts avail­able on the map will appear on the screen, from which you can select the one you need. In addi­tion to those includ­ed in the kit, scripts can be found on the Inter­net.

The down­loaded script files must be put on a mem­o­ry card with firmware, in the CHDK / SCRIPTS fold­er, and they will also appear in this menu / Pho­to: Alisa Smirno­va, Fotosklad.Expert

We select the desired script from the list, and a win­dow of its para­me­ters will appear in front of us.

The built-in script Inter­val­ome­ter (left) has only one con­fig­urable para­me­ter — the inter­val between frames in sec­onds. But its advanced ana­log, down­loaded from the Inter­net, Ultra Inter­val­ome­ter Zoom (on the right) allows you to set a delay before the first shot, turn off the dis­play dur­ing shoot­ing to save bat­tery, and even use zoom dur­ing shoot­ing / Illus­tra­tion: Alisa Smirno­va, Fotosklad.Expert

After set­ting up the script, select “Back” to exit the set­tings menu. To run the script, you need to press the shut­ter but­ton with­out leav­ing the alter­na­tive mode.

The sec­ond inter­est­ing script is Motion Detect (motion detec­tion). When it is launched, the cam­era starts to mon­i­tor what is hap­pen­ing in the frame, and as soon as the bright­ness in one of the tracked areas changes notice­ably, the cam­era will take a pic­ture. So the cam­era turns into a cam­era trap.

On the left is the Motion Detect script at work, the track­ing areas are vis­i­ble. On the right is the script set­tings menu, in which you can set the sen­si­tiv­i­ty (Trig­ger Thresh­old) and trig­ger delay (Trig­ger Delay) / Pho­to: Alisa Smirno­va, Fotosklad.Expert

Motion Detect can be applied in dif­fer­ent ways. You can track what your cat is doing while you are at work. At the same time, unlike inter­val shoot­ing or video record­ing, the cam­era will only fire when some­thing hap­pens in the frame, and you will not have to look at how the mus­ta­chioed sleeps on the couch for hours.

You can put the cam­era with the script enabled on the race track, and the cam­era will auto­mat­i­cal­ly shoot the ath­letes run­ning past while you shoot in anoth­er place. And if you set the delay to zero, you can try to remove the light­ning.

Fly­ing flock of pigeons. The pic­ture was tak­en dur­ing test­ing of the Motion Detect script / Pho­to: Alisa Smirno­va, Fotosklad.Expert

The scripts them­selves are writ­ten in the uBa­sic lan­guage, and if you are good at pro­gram­ming, you can try writ­ing your own script for CHDK. And even with­out under­stand­ing any­thing in pro­gram­ming, you can open the fin­ished script in a reg­u­lar Win­dows notepad and edit the para­me­ters. This is what the script looks like Motion Detectopened in Notepad.

By swap­ping a and b, you can change the num­ber (and size) of cells to track. By the way, if you look at the pho­to of the cam­era with the script run­ning, you will see that the grid is set to 12 by 12 cells.

In gen­er­al, CHDK should be con­sid­ered as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to get acquaint­ed with the inter­est­ing fea­tures of old­er cam­eras with­out buy­ing them. If, for exam­ple, you tried to shoot time-laps­es on a flashed cam­era and you real­ly liked it, you should choose a cam­era that can shoot them with­out danc­ing with tam­bourines. For exam­ple, Olym­pus OM‑D E‑M1 Mark III.

Or after work­ing with the firmware, you may real­ize that you can­not live with­out shoot­ing RAW or using high ISO val­ues. Then you should look at full-frame cam­eras.