Would You Pay for a Firmware Upgrade?

Would You Pay for a Firmware Upgrade?

Firmware is the magical sauce that turns the manual operation of your camera in to a fully digital supercomputer, controlling the high precision mechanical instrumentation, making it a thing of artistry. More amazingly, this fundamental component of your camera is fully replaceable. Would you pay for an upgrade?

For non-programmable digital consumer devices such as cameras, you need some kind of software to operate, or control, the mechanical hardware inside. This software is usually produced by the manufacturer and will include some kind of stripped down operating system that runs on the internal computer, along with drivers that can recognize the bespoke controllers on the mechanical components. This all runs instantly at startup so that, to all intents and purposes, it handles in real time just like a manual camera.

It's only when we move to a generally programmable device, such as a smartphone, that it takes longer to turn on but the greater flexibility in components and programmability means it can do an awful lot more. Of course, it tends to be less reliable. How many times has your smartphone frozen or rebooted for no particular reason? Camera manufacturers are continually producing bigger, better, and more fully featured cameras, but it is in their interests for firmware to be as reliable as possible. Warranty returns are expensive (remember the Nikon D600 sensor spots?) so are best avoided.

The benefit of firmware is that it can be updated which means manufacturers can release products that the user can later upgrade. If I was being complimentary, then I would say that a manufacturer is able to add a new feature to a camera at a future date, at no cost to the end-user. Fuji has a reputation for active firmware development, a nice example being the X-E2 firmware release that made it almost identical to the new X-E2S model. Now that is service!

However if I was being critical, then I would say that a manufacturer could incorporate and market a feature that is not fully functional (Nikon Snapbridge anyone?!) and it is then left to end-users for testing before it is fixed. Maybe Nikon learnt from this experience with it's development of EyeAF in the new Z 6 and Z 7 where it is waiting before incorporating it in to the firmware.

Firmware can also be used to switch certain features on and off. Most notably this has been used to change the tax designation of devices, such as the arbitrary 30 minute recording length for videos and video inputs. This affected my aged Panasonic camcorder which had an input socket which was switched off in the firmware so it attracted a lower import duty in the European Union. Same device, different uses (and Ford has a great way to avoid 22.5% import tarrif in the United States by turning a car in to a van!). There is a more pernicious use of this tactic and that is through the availability of unlockable features. Smartphone apps typically have a free ad-supported version and then, with an unlock code, an ad-free, feature rich, version. I've yet to see this in cameras, but how long before you get the option to unlock features? With the rise of the Android camera, the generally programmable camera could really arrive. Whether camera manufacturers will produce APIs to open up their hardware remains to be seen, but purchasable firmware options could be the forerunner of this.

With every camera I've purchased, I've bemoaned the low progress of development features in firmware. For example, the Nikon D700 supports exposure bracketing. That's great, except my preferred modus operandi is to shoot three bracket sets, two stops above and below the metered exposure. The D700 only supports up to one stop. This feature was only introduced in the D810, released in 2014.

When I bought my Sony RX100 M1, and latterly the M2, I wanted to mimic the way I shot on the D700. That is, continuous shooting with single spot focus. It does this with aplomb until you switch to spot exposure, where the exposure point stays fixed to the center of the frame (not with the focus point). This is hugely irritating when you are shooting something that needs spot exposure.

Would you pay to have additional firmware features or fixes on your Canon 5DII?

You can see the direction of travel with manufacturers however. The D700 includes an interval timer mode, sadly lacking on the RX100. This was a great addition, which was used by many professional photographers to shoot time-lapse videos. Once you had shot your images, you then needed download the frames in order to produce the video externally. Nikon therefore introduced a time-lapse feature in the D800.

Both the examples above were for cameras that were primary product lines and you can see how they have evolved through time. The same can't be said of the Fuji X-M1, the first X-series camera to include WiFi and a tilting screen. Sadly, it was orphaned at that point in favor of developing the X-A1. Maybe it had poor sales, or maybe it was too cheap to include the XTrans sensor. Either way, the firmware updates dried up rapidly and it feels sadly lacking in features.

The obvious question is how long should the firmware for a camera be supported by a manufacturer? Most would agree that it should be for whilst it remains a current product. Of course camera bodies can have quite a long shelf life and it would be unreasonable to expect free upgrades for my D700 eleven years after it was first released. But then manufacturers are keen to release firmware updates that support new lens lines, as evidenced by my Fuji X-M1 where the last few releases were purely for this purpose. For products like the D700, D800, and it's descendants, the firmware evolves. New drivers are swapped in to support the changing hardware components, but the underlying feature-set gradually changes.

Why then, can't Nikon produce a version of the D700 firmware that adds multi-stop exposure bracketing? It's probably a case of won't, rather than can't — purely because it requires software additions to the existing firmware and then robust testing. In short, a financial commitment to a product that is no longer manufactured. As an end-user I would happily pay for extended firmware support on my cameras, adding fixes and features. This could be via an annual support subscription or through one-off payments for new firmware versions or features.

So, a plea to camera manufacturers (and particularly looking at Sony who not only produce the most user unfriendly firmware, but also orphan it rapidly)… please keep supporting the firmware in your cameras as your loyal customers want it. I, for one, am willing to pay for it.

Would you pay for firmware and, if so, how much? Drop a comment below of the fixes or features you'd most like to see.

Copy image courtesy of Lucas Favre via Unsplash, used under Creative Commons.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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Absolutely not.

Actually this scenario of paid firmware was mentioned by me and others in the context of subscription model for software, which Adobe started to enforce. Imagine that firmware in your camera, lens and whatnot is "rented to you," and you have to constantly bleed money for the device in order to operate it. A real horror scenario, related to firmware upgrade for pay, but a step further.

This would be an end to a millennia old principle "purchase an item and use it for as long it functions." Software makers claim that since they constantly provide a series of upgrades, their service is indeed an ongoing effort, or a stream of "substance," just like a running water or electricity or internet access and bandwidth.

I am sure that in case of firmware many people will say: It depends if the new version provide new functionality. This is a rabbit hole, and automatically we will face numerous edge cases what is a bug fix, versus a new function versus a minor improvement.

you can't compare firmware update with a full software like adobe.

for me this is not a simple “yes” or “no” question. it greatly depends on if we’re talking about adding new features and improving old ones, or simply just fixing bugs throughout the product’s lifecycle.

Totally agree. There is a large difference between patching/correcting bugs and issues, or adding or greatly improving things.

Absolutely not.

After a product is officially end of life? Sure. I would love to see manufacturers open up end of life cameras for folks like Magic Lantern to come in.

Depends entirely on what the firmware is updating. If they are updating it to fix a problem or adjust the camera's features to utilize new technologies that they are introducing in lenses or accessories, then no. If they are actually adding significant new features or functionality, then I would consider it.

Yes, I would pay for an annual firmware for $25-$50 As long as the upgrade brings with it features of their latest and greatest cameras.

I'd pay for a different file codec for 4k on the 5d Mark 4 with focus assist, zebra, etc. Video was the biggest extra when upgrading from the Mark 3 and it sucks with 4gb for a minute of video. Even with the bad ass auto focus, it's no use to me.

Everyone saying "No" needs to remember you shelled out money for the features that were advertised at the time of purchase. If the firmware is fixing bugs, then I'm totally on board with you, but if you're expecting new features to be added via firmware and think you shouldn't pay for it is just crazy. I have a Sony a99ii and I'd gladly pay over $100 for additional features via a firmware updated, but if it's just fixing bugs that the user base discovered, that should be 100% free.

When has a camera manufacture EVER released a "firmware" update that was game changing to the camera itself? I have never updated my firmware and was like wow, I would have paid $100 for that. To each their own though.

The recent Sony firmware update for the Sony a7 line and a9 was very significant depending on your use of the camera.

A7R3...Wasn't impressed enough to pay $100 for it. To me, those "significant updates" should remain free unless it really is game changing. Maybe going from 4k 30p to 4k 60p or even 120. I would find that extremely useful.

I gotcha. Everyone will view added features differently.

Fuji's firmware fixed poor focus on their X100 line, so i'd say that was game changing for the camera itself.

To me, that sounds like Fuji released a product way too soon and all they did was fixed their mistakes, but to each their own.

If pay up to $100, maybe more depending on what it was. But don’t tell them that.

Nope. Most of the existence of firmware updates are to correct performance issues with the hardware functions. My debate notes: I did have to update the money I paid. All my dollars worked just fine didn't they...

It's not an amount of money that influences whether someone would pay, but the feature that one would get for their money.

I've got a E-M10 Mark II, AF's nothing to write home about, nor am I in a big hurry to replace it. But I'd pay some amount of money to get eye AF, how much, I don't know off hand.

There are a whole host of other problems - customers generally undervalue software development, especially for photography because there's a lot of math base research, a lot of testing (hopefully), and to sustain that, the price may be higher than customers are willing to pay for.

Opening up and allow third party to add apps opens a lot of risks too. Shitty apps may mar the camera company's reputation; amazing apps that's available on multiple platforms may force the manufacturer to become more of a utility than a brand that people look up to.

I would def have paid for the last one sony came out with that moved to full time eye af. I use that daily.

Nope. It's part of the camera's functions.

What next? paying for cameras monthly on a subscription base?

That's when I decide to switch brands :)


So, I buy a $2000 camera -- a few years later, there's killer new features out there but now I need to drop $3000 but my camera is perfectly fine.

Oh, a software/firmware update will give me major performance upgrades and extend the life of my camera?

Game on.

I'd love to get even more use out of a body and consistently focus my money on new lenses and lighting gear.

Firm what?

Can you imagine where this would lead to?

Make one camera and use licences to differentiate different models.

It gets worse. Say a license is "limited" to 10,000 shots and then you have to top up... To get it back.

This would lead to massive gimping on cameras.

Absolutely not.

No plain and simple. When you pay a grand or more for the camera the updates should be free.

Are you starting a test balloon for the industrie?

No. This seems like extortion, because the people producing the firmware are the ONLY ones that can do so.
This would only encourage camera companies to release less features, and charge extra for new ones. No.

EC with auto ISO in manual exposure mode on my GX8, please. I'd pay $50 for this.

Yes for more functionality. I'd pay for a7II upgrades similar to the ones Sony released for the A7III. I'd love animal eye focus for my cats.

The question is way to generic.
Would I pay for bugfixes? Definitely not
Would I pay for new features? Probably
A camera is a specialized computer.
Do pay for bugfixes on your operating system? No.
Do you pay for new programs? Yes

In the ancient days of computing there was a thing we called The Magic Screwdriver (aka Golden). You bought a (mainframe...that dates me...) and if you wanted an 'upgrade', the technician would apply - seriously - a software patch.

And then one day a customer figured out that there was a Go-Slow routine in the machine. So they disabled it, and Bingo! Instant performance. The manufacturer was shitty about that. Not sure how that story ended.

Be careful — It's a trap!

If you pay for firmaware, it becomes a market. On a market, you get products. Some are useful, most are not. So if I start to pay for firmware upgrades, the manufacturer starts rolling out firmware updates on a regular basis to catch the money. It will become a subscription, with a subscription plan. That means you pay for version 1.1, and get 1.1.A for free. A bug fix update.

Then you have to pay for 1.2, and so on. One day, Version 2.0 will roll out. You have to pay for that. You pay $20 for an upgrade from your 1.9.f, but as a user of 1.2 (all later are less useful for your work), you pay $199, incl. the 2.1 and some bugfix upgrades.

You see what happen? Today, firmware upgrade is a tool to get costumer loyalty. That's great. Then, firmware upgrades become a market. Believe me, we have enough markets.

So, my answer is: No.

Wow I am very surprised by the results of this poll! I would definitely pay for a firmware upgrade if it offered a feature or features that I really needed or wanted. As a Nikon shooter I know that you'll rarely if ever see the thing you need or want added. Most companies want to save major upgrades for future camera's and I pretty much have never had hope in a future update. So I would definitely pay up to $100 or so for a feature I needed and I am shocked most of you wouldn't, but I bet many of you may change your mind if something was available that you needed or wanted badly...wouldn't you?

Wow I am very surprised by the results of this poll! I would definitely pay for a firmware upgrade if it offered a feature or features that I really needed or wanted. As a Nikon shooter I know that you'll rarely if ever see the thing you need or want added. Most companies want to save major upgrades for future camera's and I pretty much have never had hope in a future update. So I would definitely pay up to $100 or so for a feature I needed and I am shocked most of you wouldn't, but I bet many of you may change your mind if something was available that you needed or wanted badly...wouldn't you?

If there was sufficient demand, I'm sure that someone would have started offering them. I know that my "legacy" models have capabilities, but the firmware is the limiter. Nikon really doesn't want those old bodies clogging their service centers. I would consider paying $100-150 to improve bracketing, or frame rate on my out of warranty body. Is it really that much different than wiping a 10 year old MacBook and loading Ubuntu?

Even Microsoft and Apple have gotten away from charging for upgrades to their operating systems. They are included in the initial price of the product. Camera firmware should be the same thing. Manufactures should take into account the cost of future firmware updates in the initial cost of the product. Firmware updates are usually bug fixes which should be the manufacturers responsibility, or compatibility updates for new products such as lenses, again, should be the responsibility of the manufacturer. Firmware updates may also be performance related, which helps keep a companies camera system relevant in a competitive market. Rarely are firmware updates new features for older cameras ... well, Fuji excepted. That was one of the reasons I moved to Fuji when I migrated to mirrorless from Nikon. I have not been disappointed. Fuji has improved the firmware with bug fixes, performance increases, and even some features since I purchases my X-H1 a year ago. When I shot Nikon, there were firmware updates, but I do not recall any fresh new features introduced in any of those updates. Just think, a few years down the road when cameras are more commonly connected devices to the internet, advertisements will be displayed on our LCD screens and view finders, and the discussion will be not subscription models for firmware updates, but subscription models for ad-free camera use.

What I think is going to happen is basic firmware will be included with the camera. If you want a feature, such as focus stacking, that will be an additional cost to unlock. If you want bracketing, be prepared to pay for a $29.99 unlock code, etc.

I have two Sony A99ii bodies, I don't know what a firmware update is because I've never gotten one.