An Unexpected Crossroads

Without a doubt, the most startling new camera that has been launched this year is the Sony a9 mirror-less camera which is aimed squarely at the professional photographer’s market. Technically it is a startlingly fast stills camera that can shoot at an amazing 20 frames per second, focuses brilliantly and does not suffer from the ‘mirror black out’ which is the curse of all mirror-less cameras when it comes to action photography.

So it should be game, set and match for the ‘old’ technology of the DSLR of Canon and Nikon or perhaps not ? It could be that this tour de force illustrates some limitations which are a lot more than purely technical.

Fan Boys

I’m afraid that once you get involved in the type of hardware or equipment required for any activity you end up with what I call the “fan boy syndrome” which boils down to people becoming blindly loyal advocates of particular brands, models, methods etc. It arouses lots of passions as people advocate their favourite ‘thing’ as the “only way to do something” and is fundamentally boring particularly as it often becomes totally divorced from the function or purpose.

My passion is photography but to read the reader’s posts and comments on particular technologies you wonder if they actually ever take photographs because they seem far too hung up on the kit. There is one thing that always makes me smile, it is the people who hysterically condemn Canon and Nikon for not including 4k video capabilities in their mainstream (cheaper) cameras whilst Sony and Panasonic do, according to them, this is “OUTRAGEOUS !” This is a classic case of people probably not actually doing any video on their cameras and instead wanting a “go faster” stripe in the cameras feature set but one they will never use.

The reason I say this is mainly because if you are a stills photographer that comes to video and gets involved in the whole process of planning through to post production, you quickly realise just how complex it is and regardless of the format or film rate you are actually shooting your video in. Beyond this, if you grasp the basic technicalities involved, it becomes rapidly very clear that high quality video means spending substantial amounts of money on purpose designed kit, it is not such a simple thing to graft those features on to a standard stills camera.

The Technologies

Essentially the stills cameras we have today are evolutionary animals because both still lean back to the older technologies that spawned them. The DSLRs come directly from the SLRs of the wet film age, all that happened (in simple terms) was that they removed the film back and replaced it with a digital one. The mirror-less designs come from early pocket digital cameras and camcorder technology where an electronic viewfinder rather than an optical one is used.

Eventually and in the not too distant future, these technologies will meld into one that combines the best of both technologies but what will determine this and the speed at which it happens are mainly commercial rather than technical considerations. Put crudely, if you have an expanding market so that the R&D costs can be spread across many hundred thousands of copies of the product, development will be vigorous but suppose the market is static or actually falling ?

If we go back to the 1970s and early 80s, SLR cameras were selling in some volume but they were also a bit complicated to use so the appearance of high quality compact cameras that still shot 35mm film but were simple to use, very rapidly undercut the market for SLRs. We have a parallel situation today except it isn’t really about the “type of camera”, it is about the type of device, people are turning away from cameras and instead using their smartphones which have got better as “cameras” for both stills and video have improved greatly over the past couple of years. However, it is much more than that, simple software to enhance pictures plus having the images in a digital format means that they can be transferred rapidly to Facebook, Instagram and any other social media platform instantly. It is likely that the whole concept of owning cameras apart from those pursuing a creative career, is “for older people” only and this would not be strange as I can remember being told that the demographic for photo magazine readership was “Male and over 50” some 10 or 12 years ago.

So whilst interchangeable cameras reached a peak of almost 17 million units back in 2013, sales since have fallen back to 11+ million units for 2016 and total camera sales of all types for 2017 are projected to be around 20 million or less. These figures are important because they represent the total market and within that, each brand will have a market share and it is this figure that will govern the pace and amount of investment in the technology rather than what is technically possible. Also you must slice and dice even that market share into the market share of particular types of product, such as those dedicated to specific types of end use, so forecasting the future is not simple.

Back to the Sony a9

The following as is, is a comment I posted to a camera website and it broadly covers my perspective of this particular camera.

“The Sony A9 is undoubtedly a brilliant camera and looking into the not too distant future, it is undeniable that camera models will move to something more like mirror less designs rather than DSLR but there is a parallel here to motor cars. In the future all cars will be ‘electric’ whether pure or hybrid, the question is if you are going out to buy a car today, this very day, would you buy an electric one or a conventional ‘infernal combustion engine’ one ?

I am a Canon DSLR shooter but at 10fps from my 7D MkII, that’s more than enough for me, 20 fps would be hideous and massively time consuming in post ! The other thing is that even if I had the money, I wouldn’t buy the IDX MkII because it is not aimed at keen amateurs like me, it is a professional tool for working photographers and this is where Sony has a problem. The camera body is brilliant but without the lens line up to match Canon and Nikon plus the professional support how many of the existing target market will be ready to switch ? New users no problem but will that give Sony sufficient volume and profits to keep them in the game ?

This now brings me to Sony itself. It is a “corporate” which has historically been more often brilliant in the design of consumer electronics but is also ruthless with markets that don’t generate sufficient returns in terms of profits. They made excellent PC laptops, not cheap, very high quality but exited the market some 5 years back because of a lack of profits. They have already hived off their image processors into a separate division plus cornered the market in supplying 1″ sensors, the A9 is a flagship not a volume product but only the 6000 series and their compacts lie in pure consumer territory will the market generate the profits Sony expects ?”

Explanations on the Above

Footnote explanations on the above: The a9 is an “action camera” aimed at the professional market and despite being £4,500 for the body only, is actually cheaper than the two products it is trying to topple, the Canon 1DX MkII which costs £5,200 body only and the Nikon D5 which costs £5,200 body only as well. However the real issue concerns the “glass” or lens, whilst adapters to take other brands can be used, native lenses will obviously perform better and the type of Sony lens required to match the a9 body will cost a similar amount of cash to the actual body. The point being and as obvious from these prices, this is a niche market segment for people earning a living through photography which equals, low volume sales.

An Interesting Review

There is an interesting on line technology magazine called Newatlas that covers any and all kinds of technology and the following review appeared there which really is typical of the type of reviewer who doesn’t have to pay for the kit. The headline really sums up the whole though that doesn’t mean it is not worth reading: “Sony a9 review: This mirror-less DSLR-killer moves the goalposts”

http://newatlas.com/sony-a9-review/50610/

Amusingly in this review is something on video that made me smile. One of the biggest complaints levelled at Canon in particular is that they “Keep 4k off their lower end products just so that they can charge more for selling it in their more expensive kit”. It would seem an odd thing for them to do as both Panasonic and Sony include it right across their ranges however, I’ve often pondered just what the technical limitations might be involved in this as clearly there is a huge amount of data being moved around the pipeline in 4k video. I think we get some concept from the following quote from the above review:

“Frame rate options are a little disappointing, though. That beautiful 4K image only goes as far as 30 frames per second, and slow motion in 1080p gives you 120 frames per second. It’s a little odd, given the obscene speed at which this camera writes stills. Realistically, it’s enough for the majority of jobs; and perhaps Sony needed to leave themselves somewhere to go with the inevitable a9 II.”

Conclusion

In judging the Sony a9, we are looking at a loss leading “halo” product for Sony. However the thing to understand about the Sony business model is that whilst they are prepared to deliver peerless technology, only if they can make sufficient margins to justify keeping their engineers and resources putting in the R&D effort so Sony doesn’t do “cheap” and is looking for decent returns on it’s investments.

Their more mainstream product is the Sony A7R II which is also a pretty good camera but that costs around £2,500 body only which puts it price wise in the expensive category for most retail customers. It is likely that we will see some of the “good stuff” from the a9 put into an A7R III in the near future. The question mark with Sony is not whether they will remain in the imaging business, they will but in exactly which way ? They are big in designing and manufacturing image processor technology and via a separate division are already a major supplier to competing camera brands, they may see their future more in that market, who knows ?

Sooner rather than later both Canon and Nikon will start to compete strongly in the mirror-less market this is inevitable because whilst Sony is a “Consumer Electronics” business, both of them are historically camera/imaging companies.

The ‘mirror’ will go simply because it is a lot of engineering and cameras will be cheaper to make without it but there is also the other thing, sales volumes. Even the keenest photographer doesn’t churn their kit on an annual basis, most of us keep our kit for a few years before we upgrade and if you have a lens collection, there is little incentive to switch brands so unless you have a rising market, volumes will drop, will that suit Sony ? Also and if they are smart, when Canon and Nikon do make their moves, they will incorporate the ability to use their existing and considerable lens ranges in their new models.

My bet is that for us keen amateur photographers the future is likely to be less frequent innovation and higher unit prices for our kit but such is the robustness of the Canon kit I already have, it is likely that it could ‘see me out’ at my age anyway 🙂

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