Living dangerously: Custom firmware hacks unleash your inner camera


posted Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 11:00 AM EDT

If you like to live life a little dangerously, the folks over at DIY Photography have just published an article that might be of interest to you and your digital camera. If, on the other hand, you find yourself altering your path to avoid walking under ladders and crossing paths with black cats, you may just want to don your peril-sensitive sunglasses and sit this one out.

Today, we're talking firmware -- and not the kind you nonchalantly download from your camera manufacturer's website. These are firmware hacks, and while that word is often bandied about by the media for anything even slightly out of the ordinary, these truly are hacks.

For obvious reasons, camera manufacturers aren't given to providing any more access to their source code than is absolutely necessary under the terms of open source licenses and the like. It's also common for manufacturers to put roadblocks in the way of third-party firmware, where they can. As a result, third-party firmware is typically made by decrypting and disassembling some or all of the stock firmware, and then making modifications.

As often as not, these modifications involve a combination of intuition and no small measure of trial-and-error, but if successful, they can unlock features of a camera that were disabled in the official firmware. (Manufacturers often share code between multiple cameras in different product lines, simply disabling routines in more affordable cameras to provide differentiation from their higher-end models.) And occasionally, third-party firmware goes further, adding entirely new features to a camera.

Thankfully for those of us who aren't software engineers, but who simply like to tinker with our cameras to maximize the bang-for-the-buck ratio, folks with the technical knowledge of how to tweak firmware often share the results of their efforts with the community. Of course, there's still the task of finding out whether third-party firmware exists for your particular camera, and that's where DIY Photography's article comes in. They've published a roundup of all the third-party firmware projects they could find, along with details on compatibility, which features are added or changed, and where the firmware and its installation instructions can be found.

Of course, having your hands on the firmware is one thing. Plucking up the nerve to use it can be another entirely -- first time out, it can seem a little intimidating. If you're hesitant, many of these projects have their own forums and user communities, making it easy to get advice and confirm whether others have had any issues. So what are you waiting for? Roll your sleeves up, hop on over to DIY Photography, and see whether your old camera can learn a new trick or three!