Buying Cameras in the Age of Firmware Updates

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Okay, not really, but choosing a camera these days when that same camera can change so much from year to year can make buying decisions all the more difficult.

Let me start out by saying the willingness of camera companies to essentially completely overhaul their camera multiple times throughout the product life cycle via downloadable firmware updates is a good thing. A very, very good thing. On multiple occasions in the last five years, I have purchased a camera that I thought to be really amazing, only to be essentially gifted a newer, better camera only a few months down the line after version 2.0 of the firmware arrived. This development means that, when buying a camera from many manufacturers, you can almost expect to get three cameras for the price of one. You get the initial model, which is promising but with bugs and quirks, the second edition where the 2.0 firmware update improves a handful of bugs but still doesn’t quite reach the level of perfection, then the 3.0 version, where you suddenly find you have a camera nearly unrecognizable from the one you took out of the original box.  

In some cases, like in the case of the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7, the changes can be drastic. Still a DSLR shooter, for the most part, I was not an early adopter of the Z system. I ended up seizing on a Z 6 only this year for its video capabilities and because it happened to be at a ridiculous discount at the time. While I didn’t buy the camera when it was first released, I couldn’t help but hear about how bad the autofocus performance was on the Z system. But, by the time I bought my Z 6, long after the release of the latest firmware, I encountered very few issues with autofocus at all. Surely, this was the result of the multiple firmware updates since its initial release. Because I never owned the Z 6 with the 1.0 firmware, I can’t speak to how it performed, but the one I bought has been a joy to use.

But, of course, that goes to a larger question. How do you know how to properly evaluate a camera when many of the more nitpicky issues can be so easily solved via firmware? It’s hardly a problem specific to Nikon either. All I heard about the Canon EOS R5 for months leading up to its release was how epic the 8K was going to be. Then, all I heard about upon its actual release was how the camera was an epic fail because of overheating issues in 8K. Then, with firmware updates, it appears as though many of those issues have been resolved. So, those people who canceled their preorders after the initial overheating backlash may now find themselves wishing they had kept their place in line.

Of course, the obvious question is why can’t manufacturers just get it right straight out of the box? In all my years shooting DSLRs, I have kept my firmware up to date, but I never felt as though it fundamentally changed the camera. Rather, updates would just fix small bugs and sometimes not even be worth worrying about in the first place. But, nowadays, it seems with mirrorless cameras especially that the idea of massive firmware updates is built into the release strategy of the camera.

I’m guessing there’s a marketing logic to this. Perhaps the companies have set release dates that can’t be changed without upsetting stockholders. Perhaps they worry that if they delay the release of their new camera systems by a few months to fix the bugs that they will be scooped by the competition and become yesterday’s news. My own inclination might be to delay the release a couple of months until you can fix the overheating problem, just as an example, so that you can avoid the bad press. Then again, others might say there’s no such thing as bad press. The autofocus question continues to dog Nikon even though the Z 6 with the current firmware is more than capable of consistent autofocus. Yet, that memory stuck so hard in early adopters’ minds that upon the recent release of the Z 6 II, the autofocus performance is all anyone really wants to know about.

So, how do you as a shopper protect yourself? If you buy a new camera today, there’s a good chance that it will be improved via firmware. But can you really bank on that? What if they never quite find a way to update the most important issue to your workflow? Or what if there’s something in the physical camera design that makes certain improvements impossible?

Then again, if you are heavily invested in one camera system, but a competitor releases a 1.0 product that beats the socks off of your own brand’s 1.0 version, how quick are you to make a shift? Let’s go back to our Z 6 example again. If you are a heavily invested Nikonian and gave up all hope for the company after the initial Z 6 performed poorly with autofocus and you sold all your gear to go to a different system, only to have that same Z 6 transformed by firmware three years later, then you might end up with some serious buyer’s remorse and likely a thinning wallet from having bought into an entirely different system.  

The problem is that when we are shopping for newly released cameras these days, we are not really shopping for finished products. We are shopping for what a system currently is, but also for what that system could become. This makes it very difficult to compare apples to apples.

So, instead of getting too wrapped up in the more nitpicking aspects of a camera, I try (sometimes more successfully than others) to take a broader picture view before purchasing the camera. For instance, clearly, the original Z cameras weren’t perfect. But having used Nikon professionally for almost two decades, I have enough faith that they will be able to figure it out. Until they release a camera that is out and out unusable, I tend to trust them because of my own experience. Even things like not having two card slots, which isn’t something that could be fixed via firmware, isn’t something that’s going to cause me to sell off 15 years worth of legacy glass and bodies because another brand’s version did have them. It might mean that I continue to use my existing DSLRs rather than switch to mirrorless until they release a mirrorless body with two card slots, but it’s unlikely to make me immediately jump ship altogether.

Likewise with Canon. If you are a Canon shooter and have a long history with them, you are likely to believe they will be able to figure out the overheating issue. In actuality, it apparently only took them a few weeks to improve in that area. You might also be likely to stick with them for reasons that don’t involve the camera itself. Perhaps you really like their RF glass. No matter what brand you buy into, the lenses will be around far longer than the camera bodies, so falling in love with the lenses or other accessories in the brand ecosystem first can overcome a myriad of firmware hiccups.

Other cameras may have hiccups in their 1.0 releases, but they still are the best fit for your particular workflow and existing gear. Or maybe sticking with a particular brand’s color science helps you maintain a consistent look that you are known for in your photography. There is a number of reasons why we choose the brands that we choose. And now, more than ever, it makes financial sense to consider an entire brand ecosystem rather than getting ourselves too wrapped up in the bugaboos of a camera’s initial release. That doesn’t mean that you will always have the best camera on the market. For the most part, different camera brands these days will continue to leapfrog one another as to who is the king of the hill. With dramatic firmware updates, these lead changes can happen every few months. But, by giving a camera system time to improve, you will likely save yourself a lot of money and heartbreak by not switching brands back and forth in search of a perfect camera that doesn’t actually exist.

Of course, there are perfectly logical reasons to trade in all your gear and switch brands. And just as companies can earn our trust over years of service, they can also earn their dismissal by showing signs that they have stopped listening to customer concerns and their product quality is decreasing. But, in the age of firmware, you can’t be too hasty to pronounce a final judgement on our technological toys. There’s a good chance they might just grow on you.


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