Firmware: The Most Important Part of Your Gear That You Might Be Ignoring

February 27, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Sometimes, as photographers (and rightfully so), we have tunnel vision directed at the creative side of our art.  Lighting setups, editing techniques, the “best way” to do a black and white conversion on an image are just a few examples of the things on which we, as artists, tend to focus.  The other side of the coin is our physical gear – camera bodies and lenses that are suggested as the saviors for our art, boasting ISO numbers in the hundreds of thousands, and lenses that are faster, lighter, contain more elements, have some crazy image stabilization feautres, etc.  These things are both important (though having the latest and greatest gear is probably the most controversial photography topic EVER), but what we don’t pay enough attention to as much is the maintenance and updating of our current gear.
 

Firmware can be just as important, but the vast majority of photographers I meet either don’t know how to update their firmware, or are completely unaware that firmware updates exist at all.  In simplest terms, think of updating your firmware in the same way you’d update to the latest version of iOS / Android on your smartphone.  Firmware updates bring new features and better efficiency to your camera, and are fast and easy to install.

What is Firmware and What Does it Do?
Digital cameras, in their most basic electronic form, are a housing for tiny computers (microprocessors) that have their own memory and operating systems (firmware) that allow you to control the way you capture images via the camera’s menus and buttons.  Firmware also controls autofocus, exposure, JPG image processing, in-camera noise reduction and so many other important functions that are integral to shooting. Without firmware your camera would not be able to operate.


But firmware doesn’t stop there.  In some newer lenses like the Sigma Art / Contemporary / Sport series or the Fuji X System (which I use exclusively), you can also update firmware in your lenses themselves to allow them to communicate properly with newer cameras, or improve the autofocus performance, for example.

 

Why Update Your Firmware?
Updates generally address bug fixes or enhance features that may have gone out to consumers already. 

When a new camera hits the market and the public begins to use it more heavily, bugs are often identified by users themselves.  Through contacting tech support, or posting on forums, these bugs are communicated to the manufacturer and investigated further to build fixes for them via firmware updates. Some of these fixes can be minor, but the updates can also fix more crippling bugs like autofocus problems, battery-draining issues, or the camera unexpectedly locking up.

Other reasons why firmware updates are released is to include new camera features such as added languages, or to have manually adjustable settings that were once solely automatic. Some updates are to support new optional accessories for your camera (e.g. wireless functions or GPS modules, etc.). These updates are basically free upgrades for your camera
 

How Often Should I Update My Firmware?

Firmware updates aren’t always necessary – some cameras never have updates.  As a general rule, I check with Fuji once a month to see if a firmware update is available.  Typically, firmware updates align with new product launches, and since Fuji seems to release new products weekly, I feel it best to keep close tabs on the updates they provide – I would likely pick the same cadence for Sony cameras since they are also making updates to continue to make mirrorless cameras a more viable DSLR-replacement option.

For the big two, Canon and Nikon, every 3-4 months is probably reasonable to check the firmware on your camera if you have a newer model made within the past couple of years.  There will be fewer updates for older cameras, but I’d still recommend checking every 6 months or so. 

If you’ve never checked your camera’s firmware, now is a good time to do it.  You will find links below to help get you started for each major manufacturer, but instructions are generally available on the “Support” or “Drivers” page for your model camera on the manufacturer’s website.

“Release Notes” will also generally accompany new firmware updates so that you know exactly what is being improved with each update.

Read The Instructions!!!
 

I cannot stress this enough… Be sure to read the instructions carefully and completely before updating the firmware on your camera.  While firmware is a very easy thing to upgrade, remember that it is also like the central nervous system for your gear – I’m assuming you don’t want to end up having a dead camera! If the battery fails during the firmware update or the update is interrupted in some manner, you risk having a camera without usable software and will have to take it to the manufacturer to fix.
 

Typical steps to update your cameras firmware*
* Sample only – Please read your own firmware update instructions for your camera model

  1. Check the firmware version on your camera – it will be shown on one of the menu options
     
  2. Check to see what the latest version of firmware is available for your camera on the manufacturer’s support page
     
  3. Read the instructions carefully
     
  4. Download the firmware
     
  5. Install a fully charged battery into your camera
     
  6. Format a memory card in your camera (read your manual if you aren’t sure how to do this)
     
  7. Place that memory card into a card reader connected to your computer (do not connect via a cord from the camera)
  8. Copy the firmware update file into the top-level (root) folder of the cameras memory card
     
  9. Safely eject the card on the computer
     
  10. Place the memory card back into the camera (remember to power off the camera any time you remove a card or open the slot door)
     
  11. Follow the instructions to update the cameras firmware
     
  12. Unless instructed to do so, don’t touch any buttons, or switch the camera off during the process
     
  13. Check to see that the camera is running the newly installed firmware version as you did in Step 1 above


by Richard Krueger


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