I know "upgrading is usually better", but I'm curious if that's something that can be done by Joe User who doesn't know how to disassemble a camera, or if you have to do something like ship the camera to the maker for them to do it. So, should I worry about firmware version on my DSLR, and if so, how do I update?
Yes, it's worth worrying about. Generally these fix software bugs or even add new features. It's very expensive and time consuming to get a software product near-bug free at launch — a luxury camera makers don't have in a fast-moving market. Firmware is the "operating system" of your camera, and keeping up with the latest version will make sure your camera is operating at its best.
Cameras companies tend to be somewhat secretive, often fixing things beyond what's listed, so even if the changelog doesn't seem interesting, it's usually still a good idea. However, unless I have an urgent probem, I usually wait a few weeks after a firmware is released to apply it to my camera. I've never heard of a catastrophic firmware release, buy I figure I'll let someone else be the guinea pig.
The procedure varies in details from manufacturer to manufacturer, but in general, you download a file, extract that blob to a memory card (sometimes using a custom program), and power on the camera with some button held. There will be instructions on the support site for your camera. The main risk is loss of power during the upgrade — if that happens, the camera may be bricked — the technical term for "turned into a doorstop" — and need to be sent in for repair (rarely covered by warranty). So make sure you have a fresh, fully-charged battery (or use an AC adaptor if you have one).
It's a completely user level thing to do.
Updating firmware on your camera is commonly just:
- Start with a full battery - its critical this process completes fully once started
- Download the firmware
- Hook the camera up to the computer with USB
- Run the downloaded program from your computer
- Make sure you don't unhook the camera before it tells you to
- Unplug the USB
This is a common procedure but you should definitely, definitely follow whatever specific procedure is listed in your camera's manual. This may include loading from a memory card or other options.
Firmwares are sometimes critical fixes and sometimes just minor bug annoyances. What it fixes may not be critical to the health of your camera, but it could be critical to the way you use it. Consult the specific firmware release notes for more details. On a personal note, I pretty much always keep it up to date.
I'd go counter to the other answers in saying you probably shouldn't update your firmware unless there's a flaw in your camera's functionality that the update solves.
I say this because there's a risk involved, a risk that the firmware update will fail and leave the camera dead, requiring servicing by a professional to restore it to working order. Such operations are of course expensive and leave you without your camera for a period of days to weeks (depending on how busy the manufacturer repair center is that you send it to).
In general yes, you should worry, since it fixes bugs, improves the cameras software or even adds features. However, as with computer updates, there is always a risk that things go wrong or that the update introduces new issues. What I do is, I check what is adressed with the firmware update (this is mentioned usually on the download page), if it adresses something that is important to me I mostly update the firmware instantly. If it does not adress something important to me, I'll do the update at a point where it is not critical or annoying if I had to send it in or hassle to roll back the old firmware.