CHDK – the Canon Hack Development Kit is a very neat bit of software that allows you to add lots of new and exciting features to Canon compact cameras, and is something I’ve been wanting to try out for ages.

I’ve been on the lookout for a cheap as chips digital camera for a while now, with the purpose of using it for things like underwater photography / space program / CHDK hacking. I was able to buy a nice PowerShot A480 for about £30 on ebay (they’re about £100 new on Amazon). It’s small, light, and works off AA batteries – although is a bit fussy about what type of AA battery it takes (prefers NiMh). Imagine a box brownie type camera for the noughties – cheap and super simple to use.

The A480 has a ten megapixel sensor and was launched in 2009 – although newer cameras are now in the 14 megapixel+ range a lot of this is besides the point since lens quality starts to become a limiting factor. It even has a 3.3 zoom, although with a camera like this it’s generally easier to take a few steps forward. It’s still infinitely better than the camera in my mobile phone.

CHDK is a download that sits on the SD card in the camera – the software loads off the SD card when you switch the camera on. It sits fairly neatly alongside the existing camera firmware (you can still access all your normal menus), and if you switch to an SD card without CHDK your camera reverts to it’s default state.

There’s a really easy to follow guide on the CHDK website – the only hitch I encountered was having to use a loader script since I’m using a mac – other than that everything worked smoothly.

The difference it’s made to the camera is incredible – it can shoot in RAW format, and you have complete control over aperture, exposure, ISO and a whole load of more advanced things like colour balance and flash power. There’s a huge array of settings to discover and play around with, but for me the real killer feature is the scripts.

Accessed through  CHDK you load a script from the Scripting parameters -> load script from file menus, and then run the script by hitting the shutter button whilst the <alt> text is displayed. I did a bit of experimenting with the time lapse script and created the animation below.

This is the sort of movie camera functionality that I always dreamed of when I was little – back then the only option was cine film / video, and even with that it wasn’t really in the budget of a 10 year old. It’s a blurry first attempt, but I’m quite into creating doodles.

CHDK alone is a really good reason to invest in a simple Canon compact, and although the site comes with lots of disclaimers, as I’m sure it voids warranties / Canon will come and hunt you down etc etc it’s a fairly easy way to dip your toe into the world of hardware hacking. Long may it continue!

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