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?

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.

Log in or register to post comments

41 Comments

Absolutely not.

Thomas H's picture

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.

JetCity Ninja's picture

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.

Mike Gillin's picture

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

Ted Nghiem's picture

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.

michaeljin's picture

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.

Scott Wilder's picture

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.

David Love's picture

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.

Robert Callahan's picture

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.

Robert Callahan's picture

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.

Robert Callahan's picture

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.

Ryan Mense's picture

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

Jarrett Porst's picture

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...

Benton Lam's picture

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.

Adam Palmer's picture

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

Motti Bembaron's picture

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

Motti Bembaron's picture

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

Blake Aghili's picture

That's when I decide to switch brands :)

Yes.

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.

user-206807's picture

Firm what?

Marcus Joyce's picture

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.

Cristian G.'s picture

Absolutely not.

Duane Klipping's picture

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?

More comments