Monday, October 14, 2013

sony's pivotal mirrorless move

Sony α7R
I'm a died-in-the-wool technologist, even when it comes to photography. I have always been fascinated with the technology that goes into manufacturing any camera, from the lenses (optics) through the mechanical construction, the electronics involved, and especially the chemistry of the film and the sophistication of the digital sensor. It's amazing that the camera can do all it's asked of it, regardless of manufacturer.

Of all the types of cameras that I've really taken an interest in, contemporary mirrorless (again, regardless of manufacturer) are the most interesting because of the challenging problems the scientists and engineers have had to solve in order to build a compact but highly functional camera. In particular I've followed the sensor advances over the years and watched image quality climb (especially with μ4:3rds) to exceed film and rival one another such that there's very little difference any more as you move from the smaller sensors such as 4:3rds through APS-C up to 135mm sized sensors. And I think that, with the quality of the smaller sensors as good as they are these days (and getting better all the time), Sony's camera division stepped back and decided to do something truly innovative.

And so we have the not-yet-officially-announced Sony α7/7R, nee NEX 7.

All of what I'm about to comment on is taken from the rumor sites, specifically mirrorlessrumors and sonyalpharumors.

Sony's Major Pivot

It should be noted that Sony is a major sensor supplier to its own camera lines as well as to a lot of manufacturers such as Pentax (APS-C), Nikon (APS-C and 135mm) and Olympus (4:3rds). Canon is notable in that it makes all its own sensors, which when ranked on the synthetic benchmark site DxOMark, puts it at a distinct disadvantage to Nikon, Sony, and to a limited extent Olympus (specifically APS-C to 4:3rds). As I said, synthetic benchmarks...

Because of the heated competition, ironically helped in part by Sony's own sensor division, Sony's camera division had to step back and really think about how they wanted to compete in a tightening market. And I think I now see where Sony is headed. Here are my admittedly limited Sony predictions for the very near future.
  • Sony drops the NEX brand name completely, calls NEX cameras α. Sony caused no end of confusion in the market when it released the NEX cameras along with the E mount. Sony already had an A mount camera series that used both APS-C and 135mm sensors. Sony further muddied the waters by using the same APS-C sensor with the NEX series, but shortening the flange-to-sensor distance in the E mount. It then proceeded to release a high-end camera, the NEX 7.

    Sony had inadvertently produced two competing camera lines under its own roof. That's a recipe for failure for both. By comparision Canon and Nikon have their two lines with but one mount. With both manufacturers the APS-C camera lines always get short shrift, especially on the Nikon side. Sony's situation was worse with two separate lens mounts (and having an adapter really doesn't help). Sony can't really afford to support two complete camera systems, and so something had to give; Sony has decided to merge both, centered around E mount, with the best of both lines giving Sony a new direction.

  • Sony drops the pure α line. Even if Sony were to drop mirrors (the SLT system) completely with its next generation of sensors, it would still have a mount and mirror box to support. The cameras would still be large, and the mount would still be an issue. Sony, therefore, is going to phase out the α mount in favor of the E mount. Sony already has an α mount to E mount adapter, and rumor has it a new generation will be introduced with the α7/7R bodies.

    Sony already signaled its intentions with
    α APS-C cameras when it introduced the α3000 E mount camera. Complain all you will about the α3000, but it's the future for Sony APS-C cameras. They're now down to just one mount (E) with APS-C across the board. That leaves 135mm, and that's what the α7/7R bodies are supposed to accomplish; one mount to rule them all. If Sony does continue to make α mount cameras, then it will be a lone successor to the α99. That will be Sony's only α mount camera until the E mount has enough lenses established to replace all the α mount lenses currently in stock.

  • Sony has a real digital back to compete with every other 135mm digital camera manufacturer. The α7/7R pair make a powerful digital back that can, with proper adapters, mount any other 135mm lens out there, even if it's just for manual focus. That means every Leica, Nikon, Canon, old Pentax, Minolta, Yashica, Olympus, whatever, from the original film days to today, can be mounted on those bodies and made to work at their designated 35mm focal lengths. No more funky cropping.

    Leica in particular, with its $7,000 M 240, is going to be hit particularly hard. There are only so many
    folks willing to buy a Leica body when a Sony α7/7R can be had for a fraction of the cost. And I would be willing to bet all sorts of my money that the Sony sensors are going to wipe the floor with the Leica sensors. When Leica is spoken of as legendary, it's the lenses first, then some of the bodies, and it's always the film bodies, not the digital.

    As for Nikon and Canon, this is an official notice that neither can make shit mirrorless cameras any more. As for Olympus and Pentax, I have no idea what will happen, but perpetual cynic that I am, I don't think it's all that good. Having said that I've watched Sony really screw things up in all its product lines. If Sony doesn't screw this up, then Sony will really create a powerhouse with its two new cameras. That's if Sony doesn't screw this up...

  • This marks the official end of the SLR. Curmudgeons and hipsters can and will scream all they want at the mirrorless electronic cameras, but the days of optical viewfinders are officially numbered with this release. And they should be. The arguments about the poor quality of EVFs can no longer stand against current and future releases. If the rumors are true, then the α7/7R will use the same EVF found in the Olympus E-M1, which should be a resounding endorsement of that EVF design and implementation. Every other manufacturer better get on the stick (I'm looking at you both, Canon and Nikon) or suffer the consequences.
I see the same kind of play being made by Sony that Olympus made when it shifted from 4:3rds to µ4:3rds. In Olympus' case it was a long and painful affair, with Olympus just now providing a decent µ4:3rds body, the E-M1, to properly operate all the legacy 4:3rds lenses. Sony hopefully has been paying attention and will have decent operation of α mount lenses on E mount bodies, especially 135mm glass, out of the gate. If the performance is good with these bodies then Sony will be able to retire the α mount as I predicted. If not, then Sony can use the α99 and its follow on as a back stop until the performance is tweaked. But α mount is going away just like 4:3rds did, and for the same general reason. Sony needs a unified camera mount that is scalable across still and video cameras, far lighter and more compact then its current pure α mount, and E mount is it.

I truly wish them great success.

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