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.
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.