Everything You Wanted to Know About Camera Firmware

firmware_108975854.jpgOk, so I’ll bring you in on a secret there is no such thing as camera firmware. Keep reading to find out why.

Every once in a while Canon or Nikon will issue an announcement calling everybody to upgrade the camera firmware of one of their cameras.

The last camera firmware event to flood the web was Nikon’s firmware upgrade to the D3, which was announced with great PR, withdrawn with even greater PR and then finally re-published.

Let see what exactly is camera firmware and why do we care what is the firmware version inside the camera. [image by julian-]

UPDATE: there is such a thing as camera firmware – firmware is a spesific kind of software.

What is Camera Firmware

And now I can say it again: There is no such thing as camera firmware. HU?? That’s a shock isn’t it?

So what do they mean when they say that a new camera firmware was released? To understand that, we need to understand that the camera (and I am going to make a huge abstraction here) is made out of three parts: an optical part, a sensor and a tiny computer that does image processing; transfers the images to a flash card, shows images after they were taken and more.

The firmware is the software that runs on the computer inside the camera.

Why is it called firmware and not software? The first reason is a convention used in the software/hardware industry that calls every software that is running on a designated chip (like the one in the camera) firmware. The other reason has to do with a legal binding that allows the camera makers to treat this piece of software as part of the hardware.

Now that we understand that camera firmware is just a piece a complex world of software. We can see how this software controls the camera and understand in which ways firmware upgrade can improve our camera and what are the camera hardware limitations.

In the early days of Nikon D series, Nikon constructed the Nikon D70s. A great camera very similar to her your sister the Nikon D70. There were three main differences between the two cameras: LCD Size (2.0′ Vs. 1.8′), Remote control options (D70s added MC-DC1) and better menu system in the D70s.

With lots of disappointed D70 buyers, Nikon was quick to release a D70 firmware upgrade that matched the capabilities of the D70 with the capabilities of the newer D70s.

This upgrade improved some of the focusing aspects of the D70; improved the camera to computer communication and of course changed the menu system to a more puking yellow slick design. The firmware upgrade did not change the size of the LCD screen.


What are the things that can be controlled via firmware software?

Menu display and GUI (graphical user interface); Usage of the image processing processor (The DIGIC III is a great piece of CPU, but will do nothing without the software to tell it what to do); Enable or disable various camera features (like maximum flash sync, sync starved strobists read on); some of the tuning parameters for the default RAW to JPG conversion; the functions assigned to each camera button and more

What can not be changed (really never) and is really dependant on the hardware of the camera?

LCD size; Number of Mega pixels; basic processor capabilities (if the noise reduction algorithm sucks, no firmware upgrade will help), the physical location of buttons on the camera and some more.

Updating The Firmware

As I mentioned before, every once in a while camera makers will call for a firmware upgrade. We now know that firmware upgrade is the way to upgrade the software in the camera.

Performing a camera firmware upgrade is usually a three steps process: 1. download the firmware 2. Load the firmware on flash card 3. Upload the card content into your camera.

1. Downloading the firmware
Most big camera makers will release an announcement about a new firmware to the net, and if you are reading camera related forums and blogs you are most likely to see it. You can also have a peek at the firmware page of the big camera makers (Canon, Nikon, Sony SLRs, Sony P&S, Fuji).

2. Loading the firmware on your flash card
This is really simple, just drag and drop the files from the previous step to where the firmware upgrade page tells you. You may also need to format the card, depending on the camera model. (Some models can also be upgraded via a USB cable)


3. Loading the firmware to the camera

In this step you will load the software image (i.e. firmware) into the camera internal memory.

It is extremely crucial that there will be no power outage during the download. This is because during the software download you overwrite the current software and if you get into a power loss you’ll have half of the old software and half of the new software, which will surly not work together. Sadly, the mechanism that can save you and download a new software altogether is now just a chunk of corrupted memory in your camera.

Should you upgrade?

The answer is usually yes. You will get all the lovely updates the camera makers advertise in their releases (plus some that probably fixed without anyone knowing about.

Hacking the firmware

As any software camera firmware can also be hacked. And by hacked I mean replaced with a better version. Sounds good? (Hey! Canon users,) it get better, the CHDK does not even requires you to change the firmware on your camera, just place it on your memory card and you can expose allot a lot of useful camera features:
- High-Speed Shutter & Flash-Sync
- Add RAW image format to cameras that don’t export this file type
- adding live histogram
- much more

If you’ve had a good experience with CHDK, please share it with us on the comments section.

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