Hack your 400D (and more)

Ever wish that your 400D was more like, oh say, a 7D?  Turns out it can be, with just a little software hacking.  Because honestly, many of the differences between the Rebel series and the xxD or xD lines are software based.

Photo Credit: raingrove, junior member @ photography-on-the.net

Turns out that on the 400D, several features are missing simply because they were never “turned on” in the camera’s firmware.  Features like 1/3 stop ISO selection, expanded ISO range, and spot metering.  Granted, none of this is going to get you a bigger sensor or more frames per second, but it will take a solid, older model camera and give it a much-needed upgrade.  And here’s how:CHDK is the Canon Hack Development Kit, a group of tech-savvy photographers who have managed to “hack” the Canon firmware in a variety of cameras so as to unlock additional features and capabilities.   They’ve been around for a while; you may have heard of them but never bothered taking a look.  That was true for me, up until recently.  Primarily because the idea of hacking my camera simply hadn’t seemed useful – in part because many of the models CHDK has hacked are Powershot point & shoots.  (Although enabling RAW shooting on your P&S is pretty cool, and definitely takes away some of the luster of the G12 and S95.)

As for actually performing the hack, there’s an excellent thread on it over at Photography-on-the-Net: Firmware Hack Rebel XTi/400D.  The instructions are there and are pretty easy to follow, with links to the CHDK software on the CHDK forums. (The instructions seem to indicate that on certain smaller memory cards, only steps 1-5 are necessary…that may be true, but I still had to go all the way through step 8 for the install to work properly, on my older 4GB card.)

Before anyone gets scared and starts checking their warranties, let me reassure you – your warranty has already expired, and even if it hadn’t, it seems it’s almost always possible to flash the firmware back to an approved Canon version.  CHDK states that their hacks are all temporary, although they do admit that there may be risks involved, which they outline in their FAQs.

So how does it work?  Pretty damn well!


Canon 400D @ ISO 1000

The image above was shot at ISO 1000 – something that was previously impossible on the 400D, which natively only allows full-stops of ISO adjustment, a feature that I’ve always found annoying at best.  The enabled 1/3 stop adjustments are great, especially with prime lenses in low light environments, where ISO 800 isn’t quite enough, but you don’t really want to go all the way to ISO 1600.


Canon 400D @ ISO 80

Alternately, here’s a shot with the ISO set to 80.  It looks silky smooth, although ISO 100 does as well, in good light.  I’m not sure how useful ISO 80 really is, or if it even really offers much improvement, but it was at least fun to try.

I will admit, I haven’t shot at ISO 3200 yet.  The 400D has always impressed me at ISO 1600 – it’s native upper limit – but I’m hesitant to push any camera much beyond that point, unless it’s absolutely necessary.  However good the results may be, they’re still going to show a lot of noise.  But it’s good to know it’s there if I need it.

So in exchange for 15 minutes spent setting up software and flashing the camera, I’ve got spot metering and ISO increments – definitely a good trade off in my mind.  I was also pleased to find that the instructions for obtaining the shutter count work – my 400D is just over 15k actuations, which puts it roughly halfway through it’s estimated lifespan, which is better than I’d expected.

If you’re interested in getting more out of your 400D, think about CHDK.  Same thing if you’re a Powershot user – some of the things they’ve unlocked are pretty incredible.

After further review: I’ve been using the firmware hack in my 400D since writing this post and can’t imagine being without it now. (I even accidentally formatted the card and erased it once, and was in a bit of a panic until I got it installed and working again.) The 400D is am amazing camera that just keeps plugging along, doing everything I ask of it and churning out great images. The CHDK firmware made it even more responsive. Having ISOs in ⅓ stops has been a huge help in fine-tuning exposures. And spot metering is truly helpful in instances when you need it. It’s like getting a free upgrade – and as far as I can tell, there’s no harm to the camera. Formatting the CF card erases the firmware hack, and everything just goes back to factory-spec.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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  1. Canon has just cancelled the warranty on your 7D and permanently banned you from membership in CPS

  2. I tried this and it has breathed some more life into my XTi. I have been walking around with my 50mm 1.4 testing the envelope at 3200 and I am very impressed. I particularly like the spot meter feature.

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