What Is Camera Firmware?

Understanding the essential software that makes your camera function

A digital camera plugged into a laptop.

Allison Michael Orenstein / Getty Images

Firmware is the software that tells the hardware how to function. And just as with other devices, keeping your camera's firmware up to date is essential.

What Is Firmware?

Camera firmware is a DSLR's basic software and coding, which the camera maker installs at the time of manufacture. The software is stored internally in your camera's non-removable memory, and its settings persist even when you turn your camera off. It's the heart of your camera, controlling all its functions from the various features to essentials such as autofocus and image processing.

Firmware isn't an application or program, per se. It is to the camera as an operating system is to a computer; without it, your camera simply wouldn't work.

Why Updating Firmware Is Important

From time to time, some camera manufacturers release firmware updates, which enhance performance, add new features, and address bugs. As such, you should check for firmware updates periodically.

Not all cameras are subject to firmware updates. Check the manufacturer's website to be sure.

Although firmware updates are designed to improve the functionality of DSLRs and other types of digital cameras, not all are essential to the camera's operation. You might find some minor updates, such as additional languages for menus, aren't necessary for your particular situation.

A Typical Firmware Update Procedure

The process for updating your camera's firmware depends on your camera and manufacturer, but it usually follows these very general steps. The screenshots here are from several different cameras to give you an idea of what to look for.

  1. Check your camera's current firmware version using the menu on the LCD.

    Canon EOS camera system status screen
  2. Compare the version number against the current release on the manufacturer's website.

    Canon camera firmware update download page
  3. If a more recent firmware version is listed, check the release notes to see if it includes updates that are essential or that you're interested in adding to your camera. If so, follow the instructions on the website to download the appropriate version.

    Be absolutely sure that the firmware update is applicable to your camera's make and model. Attempting to install an incompatible update can seriously damage your camera.

    Sony camera firmware update screen
  4. Copy the firmware file to an SD (secure digital) card that fits your camera. Some cameras also allow you to update via a USB connection from your computer to the camera.

    SD card
    The Nintendo 3DS/3DS XL utilizes SD cards for data storage. Image © Nintendo
  5. Remove the SD card from the computer and insert it into your camera.

  6. Ensure that your camera is plugged into a power source or has a full charge. A power failure in the middle of an update can damage your camera.

  7. Find the firmware update utility in your camera's menu and follow the prompts to update the firmware.

The update process can take a few minutes.

Tips for Installing Firmware Updates

Some firmware updates are region-specific. Make sure you download the appropriate one (e.g., North America, if that's where you use your camera).

Some cameras have Programmable ROM (PROM), which allows new information to be added to the system. Others have Electronically Erasable PROM (EEPROM), which allows information to also be erased. With the latter, you're not stuck with firmware updates if you don't find them useful.

Read your camera's instructions very carefully. Search online to find out if other users have had issues with the update you're considering.

Bad updates can render your camera useless, in which case, you'd have to send the camera back to the manufacturer or hire a camera repair shop to fix. Do your research before updating your camera's firmware.