Look Before You Leap

Firmware updates

Just beware that new Firmware Updates may not always result in your happiness as a user.

Fujifilm recently released a new firmware version for the XT-3 mirrorless camera, V3.10. This new firmware version claims to improve some existing bugs and allows for remote control of the Fujifilm XT-3 via gimbals from DJI and Zhiyun, as well as control when mounting the XT-3 to various drones. I have very mixed feelings about firmware updates in general. When we purchased the XT-3 in the fall of 2018, the camera came to us with firmware 2.0. The camera seemed to work fine overall. We only use the XT-3 for video shooting, so we generally disregard all of the new features coming out for the still shooting functions, as they don’t matter for video use.

Firmware updates
This firmware update 3.0 actually degraded the AF functions of the Fujifilm XT-3.

A few months later, Fujifilm issued firmware 3.0, which claimed to have focusing improvements over 2.0 with better face recognition and eye detection. Generally, we mostly utilize zone AF-C and manually move the focusing zone box when following moving subjects, which has worked OK for us. A few times I tried using the face and eye detection feature on the XT-3 for sit down interviews, but even with a relatively still subject, we’ve found that the performance of the face and eye detection simply can’t be counted on. When it locks on and tracks correctly, it works amazingly well, but if it loses lock on the subject, as it often does, the entire image can’t go radically out of focus—not a good thing to have happen in a high profile interview for paying clients, much less on your own projects.

Play It Cautious

I’ve been in the production business for quite a long time and I can relate lots of stories about how many times I, as well as colleagues, clients, friends and total strangers, have been completely hosed by new firmware and software updates, not just on cameras, but on editing systems, PC and Mac OS updates, smartphone updates and many other devices.

I’ve learned that patience is a virtue when it comes to updates. It’s almost always best to let all of the eager guinea pigs update the day the manufacturer issues the update. They can be the company’s free beta testers to find out of there are any unforeseen circumstances when updating the device. More often than not, if you research it, watch YouTube videos and read stories, it’s common for new firmware updates to fix things that were previously bugs or problems but at the same time, the updates often break things that were working perfectly fine. Case in point, our Fujifilm XT-3.

The XT-3, under Firmware 2.0, worked pretty well, it was stable and the AF, face and eye detection worked reasonably well. They weren’t functionally perfect, but they worked to a degree where the results were mostly usable. Fujifilm promised that Firmware 3.0 “Strengthened the accuracy of face/eye detection AF performance. The AF algorithm has been improved along with the accuracy of face/eye detection AF. The ability to detect faces in the distance has been enhanced by approximately 30 percent and AF tracking is now more stable, even when an obstacle appears in the way. The improvements in AF are applicable to both still photos and video recording.”

This was verbatim the number one line item in the firmware update writeup on the Fujifilm site. To be prudent to wait to see how the new firmware performed for users in the real world, I even waited a couple of months and kept reading feedback on the Fujifilm forums and user groups. Generally, the reaction was positive, but I still waited a few more weeks to update my firmware. The XT-3, like a lot of electronics, can’t have it’s firmware “down-versioned” by the user and the body has to be sent to Fujifilm for repair, which generally means being without the camera for a period of a few weeks to, at times, a few months. Unless you’re willing to not be with your camera for a significant amount of time, you’re stuck with the new firmware.

The Day Arrives

Firmware updates
I learned after this update that the user can’t “down-version” the firmware to the previous version. Only a Fujifilm service center can.

After waiting months, I finally sat down and updated the firmware on our XT-3 from Firmware 2.01 to Firmware 3.0. Once I had updated, I checked the new function list on the Fujifilm website to make sure that I had correctly updated the firmware. I sat down to do some tests, and to me, the performance of the face and eye detect seemed about the same. I double-checked the firmware version to make sure the update had “taken,” and it did. What was more distressing is over the ensuing months, I kept noticing that the AF (not the face/eye detect, just regular AF) on the XT-3 seemed to have a sort of “twitching.” Usually, when AF doesn’t work correctly, it will try to focus the lens with a wild swing between macro and infinity, repeatedly, until it locks onto a subject and rests.

An Obscure Problem

What I was experiencing on the XT-3 was nothing like this. The AF was locking onto the subject fine, but if you shot a subject that was completely stationary, like a vase of flowers on a dining room table with the camera on a tripod, hands-off, with no change in lighting, the camera seemed to be frantically trying to micro-adjust the focus ALL OF THE TIME! These weren’t large swings of AF, this was a busy little tiny “twitching” of the focus that wasn’t very noticeable on a moving camera with moving subjects but was incredibly noticeable on a stand-up interview or tabletop shoot. Using the scenario I just talked about, I put my hand on the XT-3’s lens (in this case, the XF16mm f/1.4 WR), and just as I had suspected, I could feel the focusing motor on the lens. Despite the stationary camera, subject and lighting, the camera/lens NEVER stopped adjusting the focus.

I used the XT-3 on two client projects, both times, luckily for me, as a second angle camera, and I noticed that even with perfect lighting, the camera was constantly slightly going in and out focus. Thankfully, with the main camera angle looking good, the focusing issue didn’t cause our shoots to fail, the footage from the A camera salvaged it, but the editor could only use very small snippets of the second angle from the XT-3.

It’s been difficult to even explain this issue to other users, it’s a subtle problem and if the footage is only ever displayed on a 4-inch smartphone screen, many people won’t notice or see it. I began to see it when viewing my 4K footage on my 27-inch iMac Retina screen and once I saw it, it was impossible to unsee it. Since the discovery of these defects, many others on the Fujifilm users’ groups and boards have seen it and experienced this defect. Fujifilm has promised to issue a new firmware update that will reduce or mitigate this issue in January of 2020. Time will tell if the new firmware will fix the issue. In the meantime, our XT-3 has become a less used and valued camera as we pretty much can’t count on the AF anymore and can only shoot with the XT-3 using manual focus. For handheld and tripod shooting, manual focus can work. For gimbal and motion control work, the primary purposes we bought the XT-3 for, AF is integral to the work.

The Sony Firmware Approach

Firmware updates
The new Sony FX-9 will ship without features that have been promised by Sony in a future firmware update.

Firmware updates aren’t always just used for fixing bugs and issues with newer cameras. Some manufacturers, Sony being one of them, regularly update their cameras with new features via firmware updates. Sometimes these updates are to install features that were promised at product launch. Sometimes these updates just generously “give” the user new functionality with their cameras; most famously the Sony F55 and F5 have both received firmware updates for years with a continuous flow of new features and refinements. Sony is also known for selling new features via firmware updates as they have recently for the top-of-the-line Venice digital cinema camera.

I have mixed feelings about this. Generally, I believe that manufacturers should tell their sales and marketing departments to just wait on releasing a new camera if key features of that camera aren’t ready. Sony isn’t the only company that engages in this practice. My own C200, when it was launched, could shoot proxy low bandwidth video files when shooting the camera in its native 4K Cinema RAW Light format. The idea was that an editor could use the .MP4 low-resolution proxies, perform the edit and then conform the project with the RAW files, only having to ingest the exact files used in the edit.

Firmware updates
Yes, even Apple’s AirPods have frequent firmware updates.

Problem was, at camera launch, the .MP4 proxies and the 4K RAW CRM files had different naming conventions, requiring the tedious workaround of having to rename either the proxy files to match the CRM files or vice versa. Canon promised a new XF-AVC version of the proxies, but it took them more than six months to actually deliver the new XF-AVC version of the firmware so that the proxies could be used in lieu of the RAW files and then have the RAW files conformed. Canon did eventually deliver on their promise for the XF-AVC version of the codec, but in the meantime, a lot of C200 users were frustrated with the workflow challenges.

To Deal With Firmware Updates      

Firmware updates
If you’re an iPhone user, how many times a year do you see a message like this? How many times have you regretted updating your device’s firmware?

I’m all for manufacturers making the products we buy and earn a living with better via updates. As a user though, here are few rules that I use that may apply or be helpful to your situation.

  • Always ask yourself if the new updates have features you really NEED or are they just things that sound cool and you might want?
  • If you do decide to update software or firmware, wait as long as possible so that you can gather more data about other users’ experiences, problems, solutions and concerns. As I learned with our Fujifilm XT-3 FW update, sometimes even waiting months, you can still get hosed on new firmware updates from small glitches and issues that not everyone experiences or can even notice that may be huge for you and how you work.
  • Never buy a piece of gear with new features in mind that may or may not have been promised or delivered. Think of every product you buy as 100 percent finished. Manufacturers have a long record of promising new features or saying they’re “considering” adding new features and then for any reason out of hundreds, those new features are never added, resulting in frustrated customers.

I hope you found these observations about firmware and software updates helpful. Proceed with caution.