Do camera manufacturers owe you future firmware upgrades when you buy a camera?

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One of the nifty benefits of technology is that we live in a world where products can be updated or upgraded after buying them. This includes obvious things, like computers, phones and tablets, and less obvious ones, like TVs, cars, or remote pet feeders. To my surprise, I recently discovered a firmware update for my oven, but since the release notes don’t say, “This update fixes a bug that will burn down your house,” I haven’t bothered to install it.

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This also extends to cameras, and it benefits photographers because new firmware can enhance a camera’s performance and extend its lifecycle beyond original expectations.

In the early days of digital photography, receiving firmware updates for cameras was rare; they existed, but almost solely to fix bugs. More recently, manufacturers began rolling out firmware upgrades, which go a step further to add new features or improve the performance of existing ones. Today, it’s not an uncommon expectation that many products will receive one or more substantial upgrades over their lifetime.

Promises vs. expectations

The operative word in that last sentence is expectation. An expectation isn’t a promise. It’s rare for camera manufacturers to promise future firmware upgrades in advance, though it happens. Case in point: when Panasonic announced the GH5 II and GH6, it explicitly stated that it would release firmware upgrades after launch to add features to those models.

But expectations and promises are two entirely different things, and we frequently encounter camera owners who criticize companies for not releasing more significant firmware upgrades for their favorite product.

The Panasonic GH6 is one of the few camera models that promised a future firmware upgrade when announced.

Further, when a new model comes out, we sometimes hear from owners who contend that a manufacturer could have (or should have) added its new features to existing products via firmware. This often occurs when a newer or higher-end product is based on hardware similar to existing models. Most recently, we saw examples of this following the OM-1 Mark II release, though it’s by no means unique.

This raises the question: Are manufacturers obligated to provide you with firmware upgrades when you buy a new camera?

A manufacturer’s obligation to you

We all want the products we’ve already purchased to be improved. It’s a benefit of technology that didn’t exist until recently, and it’s a meaningful one. But don’t mistake the benefits of getting a nice firmware upgrade with a manufacturer’s obligation to give you one.

“Don’t mistake the benefits of getting a nice firmware upgrade with a manufacturer’s obligation to give you one.”

When you buy a camera with a specific set of features, the manufacturer’s obligation is to deliver those features to you. Assuming it does, you received what you paid for, even if the hardware is capable of doing more. Increasingly, cameras are built on platforms that use similar parts, and manufacturers may segment products based on features enabled in firmware. Those willing to spend more will get more sophisticated features or higher performance.

The Nikon Z9 has received multiple firmware upgrades since its release, adding features as varied as 8K/60p internal Raw video capture and bird subject recognition.

Similarly, when your favorite manufacturer comes out with a shiny new model, know that it will likely do things your current model won’t, even if the hardware could support it.

I’m not suggesting that camera manufacturers shouldn’t provide upgrades to existing products. Quite the opposite. It’s good business, shows goodwill toward customers, and instills a sense of loyalty to a brand. I’m saying there’s no guarantee you’ll get one for any particular product, however, so you should plan accordingly.

Upgrade considerations when buying a camera

First, unless it was promised, don’t assume that your camera will ever do more than it did on the day you bought it. You can only plan your purchase based on what a product is now, not what it might be or what you hope it will become. If an upgrade is released at some future date, that’s a bonus.

Second, accept that you decided the camera was worth what you paid for it when you made the purchase. If a new or more expensive model comes out, you’re not entitled to any additions it brings, even if you believe your camera could offer them.

The OM-1 is the OM System’s flagship camera, but some users have expressed frustration that it hasn’t received more substantial firmware upgrades.

I’m not an absolutist. Are there times when a camera manufacturer has an obligation to provide updates? Sure. If something doesn’t work or there’s a legitimate bug in a camera’s operation, companies should fix that and make it right. But that’s very different than owing you future features or performance enhancements just because you hope or assume you’ll get them.

If getting firmware upgrades is essential to you, buy a camera from a company that promises one before you buy it, but even then, understand there’s a chance it won’t materialize if the company changes business priorities down the road.

The good news is that even if your camera never gets an upgrade, that won’t prevent it from doing everything it did when you took it out of the box. And when your favorite manufacturer comes out with a new model to replace the old one, don’t dwell on the fact that your camera doesn’t get the latest features. Instead, celebrate the many photos your existing camera has allowed you to capture since you acquired it, and know that you didn’t miss opportunities while waiting for a new model to arrive.