Software, Hardware, Firmware
With the fast pace of technology these days, it pays to keep reasonably up to date. Just how often you upgrade, though, is up to you.
We're all used to updating software. In the old days, we bought the new version and installed it by inserting a CD or stack of floppy disks into our computers. Over the years, things have progressed, and we can now download upgrades directly from the manufacturer over the internet. Increasingly, our software updates itself, or prompts us to begin the process.
Adobe makes the most popular photo editing software for professionals and serious amateurs. Even with the recent competition from upstarts such as Skylum, DxO, and others, Adobe still rules the roost. Like many photographers I know, I continue to dabble with many of these, but at least so far, I keep coming back to Lightroom and Photoshop. When Adobe moved to the Creative Cloud licensing model, they fully embraced the world of software that updates itself over the internet. At the same time, they embraced the revenue stream that subscription software provides. It's a double-edged sword. By simplifying the update process, they locked their users paying on an ongoing basis for the right to use software that isn't truly ours anymore. I suspect that someday I'll be updating to something other than Adobe.
We're also used to updating hardware, although most of us refer to our hardware as "cameras" and "lenses." We update our hardware whenever we become convinced that it's our gear that is holding us back, preventing us from reaching our full potential. Depending on how old your camera is, and on how much you've improved since you acquired it, this may be a reasonable assessment. But more often, buying a new camera serves only to rule out equipment as the limiting factor. Most of us would be well served by reviewing how we use our gear before concluding it needs to be updated.
Thankfully, standardized lens mounts allow us to upgrade individual components as we see fit rather than having to replace everything all at once. I like that. Sometimes, I'll read of people switching systems entirely, either from Nikon to Canon, the reverse, or occasionally something else altogether. When I first started, Canon had just pissed off their customer base by redesigning their lens mount from FD to EF at the beginning of the EOS era. One of the primary reasons I went with Nikon was that they hadn't done anything so heinous. Of course, now we're into the mirrorless era, so I suspect I will eventually upgrade from my beloved F-mount to the larger diameter Z-mount.
As its name suggests, "firmware" falls somewhere between hardware and software. You can think of firmware as being the low-level instruction set that drives your camera or other hardware. Your laptop has firmware known as BIOS. Even some lenses with built-in microprocessors feature upgradeable firmware. I own two Sigma ART lenses that can be updated but required the purchase of the Sigma USB Dock to do so. It looks like a rear lens cap that's considerably thicker than usual and has a USB port on the side. It didn't cost that much extra, I guess, relative to the cost of the lenses themselves. Even with free, downloaded upgrades, there's sometimes a cost.
The process of upgrading camera firmware works similarly across brands. You copy the necessary files to a memory card, put it in your camera, and access the appropriate menu options to instruct it to replace the current firmware. Users sometimes ask if they can update their camera firmware without a card reader, but you need one to get the files onto the card. If you're still plugging your camera directly into your computer to read images, it's time to buy a card reader.
You may be wondering if you need to upgrade your firmware. After all, the process is a bit of a pain, at least if you've never done it before. After all, no firmware upgrade is going to give your camera sensor more megapixels. Nor will your Sigma lens magically double in focal length. But these things do bring with them at least some tweaks and fixes that the manufacturer thought important. They may correct bugs you haven't run into or noticed yourself. But they may add a new feature like direct wi-fi or improve focus near the edge of the frame. Most firmware changes won't be dramatic, but they could be just what you've been needing.
To make sure you find out when an update is available, make sure to register your product with the manufacturer. Or at least keep an eye out on their website or those of media sources that cover your brand. There's nothing worse than not knowing you have a free firmware update available. Or that a new version has been released for some piece of hardware you rely on. Exactly how frequently you should check is an interesting question, and something you'll have to prioritize based on your own needs. But then again, not all of us upgrade our software or hardware with the same regularity either.