Ask A-mount Sony users how they feel about the upgrade path for their dream cameras and you’re likely to suffer the burns of acid rain.
I, myself, have been complaining a lot about the shortcomings of my photon-converter of choice : the A7r. Mind-bogglingly slow wake up times, a shutter loud enough to send a sleeping cat into cardiac arrest, a button layout that seems inspired by the cheeks of a teenager on a pure sugar diet, the list goes on. Not to mention the shaky reliability of my previous NEX cameras and utterly abysmal customer service at the time !
It does appears that Sony, in their massive charge to conquer the global sensor market have left one key stakeholder dehind: the customer.
While clawing their way out of financial hardship, Sony have led what could be compared to a huge military charge on one fortress: the sensor market.
All companies attempt to leverage their assets to the max to turn work into cash. Sony’s asset is sensor technology.
Over a few short years, they have transformed from a walkman manufacturer to a camera maker that many, myself included, far prefer over household names such as Nikon, Canon or Leica. In spite of the frustrations vented above, my A7r consistently delivers the best photos I have ever seen (after owning a Linhof 4×5 super Technika, a Mamiya 7, a Nikon D800e and other landmark cameras).
Let’s not forget that, during that same period, other have been busy rubbing the veneer off their overpriced mid-20th-century offerings to use the brass underneaths as a sales pitch, continued to impose their outmouded incremental numbering system to cover up a permanent status-quo (800-810, 7000-7100-7200, who the heck cares anymore?) or glued together two 2010-tech APS sensors into a 50Mpx flotation buoy.
Sony’s credentials as a serious camera manufacturer aren’t looking so bad now, are they ?
But the real charge ahead has been hidden, played in the C-suites, and resulted in Sony providing sensors to almost all of the major players (Nikon, Olympus, Fuji, Sony themselves …) And it has been fueled by raw innovation. The kind of innovation that has been able to offer unparalleled dynamic range and noise management in the tiny pixels required by a 36Mpix masterpiece, made us dream about curved sensors, layered sensors, shifting sensors, and promises years of goodies to look forward to.
According to more tech-savvy co-author Philippe, Samsung are also up there in terms of quality, though nowhere near in terms of volume (hence price). Sony’s charge has been uncompromising and successful.
And if taking care of imperfections got in the way of achieving the desired results, Sony probably rightly prioritized image quality and innovative thinking.
And I thank them for it.
Here’s the thing, though. When do you declare that good is good enough as start taking into account the little details you have left behind and that are adding up into a large ergonomic debt?
Where do you draw the line? There’s no doubt in my mind that Sony will be soon be able to offer cameras that will outshine the A7r in all aspects of image quality. Somehow this doesn’t tick my box, though.
If, tomorrow, Sony were to offer the following 2 cameras:
which would you choose?
I’d probably opt for the first but Philippe has no second thoughts about buying the latter.
All this is hypothetical, and the next high-end Sony body will be none of these two options but some mix of the two. But have we reached a point where IQ is so good that we should seek improvement at the expense of innovation?
Judging by success of 16Mpix cameras from various manufacturers, I’d be tempted to answer positively. Megapixel count is no longer a strong enough incentive to lure the crowds. And the fact that forward-thinking Canon have just counter attacked with a 50Mpix from the 80s probably confirms this 😉
Whatever Sony reveals in the coming months, I’m pretty sure it will feature a subtle blend of high res, innovative thinking and lackadaisical ergonomics that will both enthrall and exasperate me. But I will be the first to order it, and not only to inject fresh blood into my aging system.
However we feel about some aspects of Sony’s production, they are pushing the boudaries while others cover up aging tech with brass polish and pink leather. And, in a world where democracy is threatened by extremism and deliberate dumbing down of the masses, voting with our money has become an important social act. I will vote for Sony, in spite of the irrate or desperate moments of the past. I will vote for innovation.
However, can’t we all think of another vast corporate that has been driving innovation – and is now treading on Sony’s ground – that has not let user experience and design play second fiddle to pefromance ? AAPL ring a bell ?
So, Sony, please continue to surprise us. But why not hire the new Jonathan Ive and suprise yourself as well ? Win win ?
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The shepherd and the sheep – what a great photo!
I like your article and agree mostly with it, but I am not sure if Sony will stay on its path with the FF e mount. I hope they do, because I invested in a A7r and a few “Zeiss” lenses and I haven’t got unlimited funds to change if they decide to change their direction again.
Thanks Volker. It would come as a huge surprise if Sony changed anything to the E mount just now. They seemed committed to it and now have and interesting range of very god lenses covering 95% of anyone’s needs.
That being said, the E mount is small in diameter and flange distance, which some gurus read as an inconvience. I don’t see it, but it may be true and may require a change in the future. Not just now, though. I hope 🙂
I think that a number of assertions about Sony in this article are plain wrong. Sony sensor division and camera division are completely separate businesses. They are managed separately to separate objectives. In fact, the Sony sensor business does not see camera manufacturers as their important customers. They clearly stated that they are interested in two markets: sensors for mobile phones and sensors for industrial applications including the potentially massive automotive market. One of the markets is for hundreds of milions of sensors per year now growing to about a bilion in a few years. The other one will be initially in tens of millions per year. This business is in good shape and is making money for Sony. They of course will make and sell camera sensors for everybody to increase their volume, and they do, including the Sony camera business, Nikon and Canon.
The Sony camera business is different story. It is making loses in a shrinking market with too many entrants.
There is also a certain amount of blind faith in the article in the continuing progress in sensors technology that Sony is meant to deliver. Well, the physics is against you. The sensors currently already capture about half of available light. Decreasing the noise hits the temperature limits. But it is difficult to carry a bottle of liquid nitrogen with your camera. There is some hope in better algorithms, but ultimately the physics still rules. This points back to the quality of glass and here Sony is the weakest compared with the lenses available for Canon including from third parties like the F1.4 Zeiss Otus you used in your beautiful photos.
Critique of Canon also completely misses the point. Their main market are DSLRs and lenses for professionals, enthusiasts and budding photographers. They address every niche in this market – from landscape, architecture, studio to sport. They have unrivalled lineup of lenses and excellent service with well oiled branch catering for professional requirements. Their recent lens designs are nothing short of amazing. Obviously, they would move slowly. There is too much at stake. But they are keeping their customer base quite happy.
Hi Chris, very interesting comment, thanks.
I don’t agree with some points. For instance, I’m not entirely sure Canon are keeping their customer base that happy. They are bleeding customers in the entry segment and many past Canon SLR users are now using their Canon lenses on alternative bodies. The Alt forums are full of examples. And the ISO6400 limitation on their recent 50Mpix clearly points to a technology one generation behind what many others are currently using.
I agree with your analysis of the Sony camera vs Sensor business and feel we may both be saying the same thing from different angles. Sony’s sensor division has won a large battle. They are producing some of the finest tech available and the large volumes they ship and plan to ship enables them to drop prices and envisage investment in even more modern technologies. Yes, the quantum efficiency of sensors is almost 40% today, but we’re still stuck with Bayer filters, for instance, and I’m pretty sure Sony can improve image quality in the future, not necessarily by increasing sensitivity. The per-pixel sharpness of my A7r is nowhere near as good as what Foveon sensors have to offer, for example.
However, what I’m really saying is that I believe that we have reached a point where image quality is so brilliantly good that even if it does get better, that improvement is not as important to me (and probably many others) than making ergonomics and usability better. That’s a very subjective and personal opinion and could be very wrong. But, as I prepare to spend a serious amount of money on my A7r replacement in May, I’m hoping there will be usability gains alongside the increased pixel count 😉
Ive? You must be kidding. This is the guy responsible for the ongoing atrocious form over function approach. Hmmm, no thanks.
Ha ha 😉 That’s a very personal opinion.
I’m not rooting for Apple here. My phone is HTC Android and my computers are all Crimosoft PCs. The whole “locked-in” experience at Apple isn’t my cup of tea. But you can’t argue with the fact that iPhones and iPads are very easy to use, and look good. At least, share value seels to indicate it 😉
On an unrelated side-note: that 5k Retina display is sooooooooo lovely …
I think you’re onto something here, Pascal. Indeed, Sony’s investment into sensor tech, _not_ just for traditional camera systems, has been ground breaking. Canon has had a very difficult time keeping up in this area. Who could’ve guessed that a Sony APS-C sized 24mpixel sensor could out-perform a Canon 5D MkII/III for image quality and resolution?
As for your comparison of Sony to Apple, I’d like to point out that both are first and foremost _electronics_ companies. Not cameras. Electronics. Yet both companies provide rather interesting approaches to making images in terms of applications and network-connectivity. Apple, in particular (and Google Android in response) are leading the way to opening the gates wide to Creative Freedom.
The old ideas of “camera” may be hard for some of us to let go of. The market that cares not how they get there, only that they do, are having the times of their lives.
Which leads me to ask. Riddle me this: How are images being consumed these days? by whom? and why?
A lite article on the topic – http://spectrum.ieee.org/consumer-electronics/audiovideo/the-ubiquitous-camera
A stronger look at what’s impacting the world of image-making – http://blog.vincentlaforet.com/2015/02/24/prediction-the-age-of-the-standalone-still-camera-is-coming-to-and-end-for-all-but-pros/
FWIW I think Vincent’s wrong (and he likely senses it, too). The need to pay someone to monkey a huge, complex image-maker for event, illustration, and product work is going away.
I strongly believe we are at a turning point where pleasure of use is as important as image quality to most photographers in the world. And, as the image quality of Smartphones progresses, the more difficult it will be for traditional cameras to justify their aging ergonomics.
A couple of days ago, I wanted to create a timelapse and was stunned to discover my 2 grand 36Mpix camera didn’t have the feature built-in. Not only that, but the app I had to download to work around this was so unbelievably stupid to operate that I just gave up. I just can’t wrap my mind around the decision process that led to something so unbelievably dumb to be shipped. Yet it did and it is bound to hurt the brand a lot when others are giving you such great convenience and narrowing the quality gap at such a speed …
Thanks for the interesting links.
Yes but couldn’t Sony just be a little more open about what they have done/are doing/intend to do?
I’m not in the heady today world of full size sensor/f1.4 glass and still they continue to astound me by their apparently unconcern for the feelings of their customers.
I’ve just bought a second hand (just) A57 only after reading ALL that has been written about the A58.
Why did they do that?
I’m forced to conclude it was a purely commercial rationalisation of what was left of their beginners end of the range.
The A57 is a fantastic upgrade on my old A350 and has already got me ‘communing’ with the hardware again.
So what other explanation is there than downgrading the excellent viewfinder and screen for purely commercial reasons? OK, they supposedly fitted a better sensor as if that was all customers were interested in, but surely not!
All this says that Sony have a problem understanding what we expect or are things very different in Japan and the US, or even everywhere except here?!!
Culturally, Asian companies do not listen to customers as much as those in other parts of the world. Corporate decisions are not contested. This may play a part in what you are feeling today.
And your comment confirms what I feel too: today, some customers would be more interested in seeing ergonomics catch up with the electronics rather than lag behind.
We can’t condemn Sony for choosing strategies that seem unfair from the outside. It’s terribly frustrating for the customers that have been “trapped” but Sony do need to make a living, they have fought a tough battle out of the financial red, and and we don’t know what the internal constraints are.
I feel that all of these companies have strong points and negatives. But Sony seem to be doing far more for the evolution of image quality than most of the others, hence my support. I too have been “hurt” in the past, but looking back at the good times vs the frustrations, the balance is extremely positive, which is why I want to support them.
Somehow I find the latest A7r firmware update has improved the camera startup time tremendously. Not sure if you’ve updated your camera firmware though
Yes, it is better with the firmware update. In fact, from the Off position, it’s not that bad. But when it pauses, it still seems very slow and not always the same duration. Sometimes it gives out that loud shutter noise when switched off, sometimes it doesn’t. Quite strange. Still, I’ve got used to it and it doesn’t matter so much when reviewing the brilliant images.
The shutter firing when the camera turns off is part of a cleaning procedure.
Really? THanks Martin!
Great article! I’ve got the simply brilliant a7r and 24-70 zeiss zoom. The lens is much better than the 28-70 Sony, but in the end the sensor really makes up for most drawbacks!
Also l agree with Phillipe about more megapixels! Sharp brilliant pictures and you can dream of competing with Ansel Adam’s 4×5 (forget 8×10 contacts though!).
But just for the record, I wish Canon success with the new 50mp cameras, as has been pointed out, for professional’s their lens line-up ( eg. 17mm tilt/shift, etc.) makes a big difference.
Could you tell me which Otus lens and adapter you use and how good is the adapter?
Actually, an Ansel Adams exhibiton was held in London last year and I flew over specially to see it. His photographs are stunning in every way, but I do believe the A7r gives us as much information as one of his 4×5 plates. What the larger format adds is that smoothness and effortless quality that the OTUS has in spades. So we are lucky to have so much power at our disposal in such a convenient package, these days.
Please don’t think I’m attacking Canon in any way. While not drawn to their camera or lenses in any way, I don’t wish them anything but success. My point was simply to state that Sony seems to be pushing much harder to advance the limits of what is accessible to amateur photographers, today.
The OTUS lens I’m currently using is an 85/1.4. It is a beautiful lens in every possible way and I love it dearly. It is only a review loaner and will have to be returned some day or other. That will be a sad day indeed for Casa Susan. The adapter is a Nikon to E-mount adapter from Novoflex. There is a very slight rotation play, but that doesn’t seem to affect image quality at all. Every single image is stunning.
nice article and pics
I remmber reading a interview with head of sony cameras ages ago, around rx1, rx10, qx launch time, and that he wanted cameras like that, so they made them. it looks like they dont care about a mount any more, which is maddness, because its a fine system that just needed some lens upgrades, and with ssm 2 and the new 5 axis ibis, those lens designs would of lasted a very long time.
so to know that, and to know all that sony could easily do with a mount (parts bin specials) but dont, is distintly puzzling. and pushing a77mk2 as hard as mr burns pushes a rock….
Hi Paul, it’s possible Sony tried both mounts and retained only the most profitable. Or maybe there is a future for A-mount we don’t know about. A past patent for a hybrid mount might indicate the future for A mount users ? It’s unlikely Sony will let so many users hang, but it may take a while.
The RX1, RX10 and RX100 are not system cameras. They are purpose build fixed solutions. Having them fills little niches and makes money. They were quite successful except for RX1, which was priced badly. It should be priced at $1,000 mark and it would sell like hot cakes at its release time. These cameras do not conflict with systems cameras. As I read the history, Sony inherited A mount from Minolta from the 35 mm film days. They figured out that no matter what they do they cannot break the Canikon duopoly. Then they tried SLT in A mount. Did not work either. Then they invented E mount for NEX – APS-C. This got some traction. But the market was crowded. So, they shoe horned full size sensor for use with the same E mount. Kind of worked. And no competition. Hence the success of A7. I do not think that we’ll see any investment in an A mount camera. Sony has no traction in this market i.e. DSLR like cameras. They are just milking the shrinking installed base with minor upgrades to existing lenses, which are probably necessitated by manufacturing needs anyway, like new coatings.
Hi Chris, yes Minolta was acquired by Sony in 2006 to create a platform around their electronics. A smart move considering that some Minolta lenses were very good. I’m not sure the A7 base is shrinking, though. Certainly hope not 😉 My guess is Sony have experimented with various formulas and is pursuing the most promising idea, which is only logical. I’m pretty sure they’re here to stay and hope they manage to find a way of satisfying the existing A-mount user base (of which I am not). Go E-mount if you ask me.
I have dived into the deep end. I have been a Canon user since 1988 when my Minolta Srt101 decided to jump onto the crochet around a pool. I decided wisely at the time to go Canon. That relationship has lasted through some 8 or 9 different cameras and a posse of lenses. This past year I had to make a decision on upgrading my two bodies and after a lot of soul searching decided to go Sony.
So I bought two A7II bodies and the f4 Trinity. So far I am very happy with the decision. I did try to use an adapter with the Canon lenses and found it was pretty much useless. I have a set up primaries with adapters, and have settled on Olympus Zuiko lenses for now as the perfect complement to the size of the 7.
This week I get my 720nm IR converted A7II back from Lifepixel, I am so stoked. I decided to jump knowing that the A7RII will be out in the next 6 months. I did so because I need to shot now, and at this point I am not sure what the additional mp will really get me. I am already dealing with a massive increase in data, and all of that extra data carries a price with Computer processing and backup strategies.
To think that I got all of this for under $3200 for the two bodies today, vs. waiting for Canon to get their shit together…
Wow, very interesting. I was a canon man as well when I switched to digital. I then moved to Nikon and now Sony. So pretty similar experience. Not much could make me change again, I’m so happy with the image quality and alt lens range. Thanks to my co-author Philippe, I was able to try 3 Zuiko lenses on the A7 and really liked them a lot. Being heavily invested in Leica-R, I didn’t get any, but I can see how you’d make a lovely system out of them.
What do you plan to use the IR converted camera for? Astronomy?
I’d guess that the body price is no longer a differentiator. Canon 6D bodies are regularly selling now for $1,600 in US. So, this is $3,200 for a pair just like your two A7II. Admitedly this is slightly lower resolution, but not by much. As we tend to change camera bodies often these days, the resale value is important.
What is really important is the lenses – what you need from them and how much are you willing to pay for this functionality.
By the way why the Canon EF to Sony adapter was useless, as you said. And which one did you use?