Much of your digital camera, including its sensor, LCD screen, lens, buffer, and autofocus, is controlled by microprocessors running firmware. Firmware is essentially the operating system of a digital camera, whether it’s a point-and-shoot or a DSLR. And just as a trip to Software Update can give you downloads that fix OS or software glitches and add functionality, some camera manufacturers polish the user experience after a camera has been released with firmware updates.
Firmware updates are not always necessary. If you find an update for your camera, but it doesn't have any bug fixes and the added features don’t apply to you (such as a new language you don't speak), you may want to skip the upgrade altogether. But more often these updates fix bugs or add cool new features and improvements. For example, the latest Sony NEX 5 firmware update makes major updates to the user interface, allows the softkey function to be customized for quick settings access in creative exposure modes, gives the camera 3D Sweep Panorama abilities, and adds autofocus support for fourteen Sony SSM and SAM lenses.
Step 1: Set an update schedule
It is a good practice to check for updates right after buying a new camera, and then check again three or four times a year. Unfortunately, camera manufacturers don’t usually put resources into developing firmware for older models, so once your camera is two generations old you can check less frequently. But don’t give up completely—the Canon Rebel XS, a 2008 beginner’s DSLR model that has seen 7 Canon DLSR brothers released since, received a firmware update as recently as October 2010.
Step 2: Look-up the current firmware version
Though many point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras allow firmware updates, not all cameras display the current version in the same place. Generally, the information is buried in the settings menu, the last option among the date setting and LCD brightness. Instructions for finding the firmware version number for individual camera models can be found in the manufacturer's update instructions.
Step 3: Find the firmware page for your camera
Once you have this information, the next step is to check the camera manufacturer’s support and downloads site. Browse or do a keyword search for the camera model, and the download links and install instructions should be simple to find. To help you find the latest firmware versions for your model, we've compiled a list of the download pages for 12 major camera brands. Firmware updates are sometimes located in Drivers, Downloads, or Software sections.
Olympus (Download the Olympus Digital Camera Updater application)
Step 4: Read directions and take precautions
It is extremely important to read the exact update directions for your camera carefully, as the process varies from camera to camera, is usually permanent, and if something goes wrong it cannot be easily fixed. This shouldn’t discourage camera owners from updating their cameras, as the process is safe when directions are followed to the letter.
To ensure that everything goes as smoothly as possible there are a couple common safety measures you can take: Always make sure to have fresh batteries in the camera and do not turn it off during the update—if this power-hungry process is interrupted, the dead batteries could equal a dead camera that will need to be serviced. And make sure you use the recommended equipment such as specific memory cards or particular brands of USB cords.
Step 5: Install the firmware
Some manufacturers make the firmware update process really simple. For example, Olympus owners can download the Olympus Digital Camera Updater application, which will automatically check a connected camera for outdated firmware and walk the user step-by-step through the update.
For most brands, however, you have to do a bit more work. The exact process varies depending on your camera brand and model, and each manufacturer provides detailed instructions on their site explaining exactly what to do when you locate an update for your camera.
The typical update process goes something like this: A compressed file or installation application that contains the firmware update (or updates, if it comes in two parts) specific to your camera is download to your computer. After downloading, the firmware can be dropped onto the top level of a blank, freshly formatted memory card. Next, eject the card from card reader, insert it into the camera, and follow the directions for initiating the update from the camera’s menu.
With some brands the camera can be plugged in with a USB cord and the firmware updated directly from your computer. The camera companies that provide an updater application use this method.
If you are not comfortable updating your own firmware, or if something goes wrong during the update process, take the camera to an authorized dealer or contact customer service for your brand.