After enjoying a five year head start in the Digital Full Frame (FF) 35mm market, Sony has received a lot of competition from the likes of Canon, Nikon, the L-Mount Alliance, and to some level even Fujifilm with both their APS-C and G-Format systems. While Sony is still pretty comfortable at the top of the Mirrorless market, their path to system maturation, coupled with, some industry and customer pushback towards their development rate between 2010 and 2015 has somewhat placed them into a more “comfortable” position. Once the generation three bodies were released, beginning with the Sony A9, the pace has generally slowed down to where there is usually 24-36 months on average between an updated body. There are extreme cases like the A7SII which was released in Fall 2015 and is approaching five years without a replacement. In general though, Sony has gotten to a point where they has a mature system with a comprehensive lens lineup without many shortcomings. I’m a person that always looks for improvement. I’m something of a tech head but I also love photography. I first became interested in Sony shortly after they bought Minolta when I handled the Sony A900. I don’t know if it was the FF sensor, the three axis image stabilization, the Sony Zeiss AF lenses, the excellent color out of camera, or a combination of all of the above but I realized that something was a bit different with the files that I saw compared to the Canon files I was used to. This isn’t to make this a brand war, but rather a realization that I saw that Sony was approaching photography not from a standpoint of maintaining “status quo” but innovation of what could be versus what was. It’s not to say that Sony didn’t have it’s “quirks” throughout the years such as BetaMax that never reached commercial success despite being technically superior, proprietary media such as Memory Stick that not many ever adopted, or A-mount that ultimately failed commericially like so many SLR systems that did not have a Canon or Nikon badge displayed up front… they clearly did. With the E-mount I saw the potential immediately in 2010 when I bought a NEX-5. The sensor tech in that camera was clearly better than my Panasonic G1 that replaced my Canon 10D and 20D. I felt the Panasonic was already a bit better than those Canon cameras in image quality but the Sony was clearly better despite having worse lenses early on and a quirky non-traditional menu layout that was meant to be a lot more user friendly for new photographers. The colors from Sony IMO were second only to the color I was getting out of my Leica M9 that I owned at the time which was a camera that sold for about 10x the price new. This camera ultimately paved the way for me to eventually add a A77mkI DSLT to handle telephoto duties where the Leica M9 seemed to come up short for me. It was a useful kit but also reminded me of why I sold my previous DSLR cameras. It was somewhat cumbersome and to get the most out of the camera, I needed to be comfortable with the requirement to utilize larger FF DSLR professional grade lenses. I had no huge issue with the sentiment most of the time here and there but ultimately it wasn’t the best purchase for me long term… simply put Mirrorless wasn’t there yet and I really didn’t care for DSLR and DSLT system as they were largely mature but “dying technology.”
Fast forward about a year or two and Sony shocked the world with the original A7 and A7R. Many flocked to these first generation products expecting a miracle. They would be an affordable entry point for those that wanted a FF “digital back” for vintage SLR and rangefinder lenses… except they really weren’t . Some of that is the fault of Sony for promoting lens adaptation in some territories and part of that is the lack of expectation management people tend to have. Personally, I’m not opposed to adapting lenses provided the end user has a rational expectation and understand the limits of a non-optimized optical path. In short, not all adapters are created equally. Not all vintage lenses are up to the challenge of modern sensors. Few cameras are optimized for use with vintage lenses… really the only one that really come to mind is Leica with their SL cameras… and even still they are a compromised when compared to the lenses being used on their native body. Getting back to the point though I understand how adapting lenses can cover up huge holes in a lens lineup. It’s a bandaid solution and a part of me cringes whenever I read about people trashing cameras and camera systems while 100% only using adapted lenses. It’s a ridiculous notion and one that companies consistently have to talk through… but I digress.
Back to the topic at hand… the State of Sony. With all of their success and with many of their products diversifying into areas based on typical users I pose a question. Is it time for Sony to reorganize and shift their entire camera product line.
Hear me out.
There was a time that the A7 line was marketed as a “basic model” but I’d argue that the “basic model” is probably the best all around product they make and everything else has become far more specialized. For instance the A7 line has always had two additional variants, the R and the S. The R was always the high resolution model… but it also became the first A7 model (Specifically the A7RII) to do internal 4K (UHD) video. The S was always the lowlight high sensitivity model but it somehow became known as the “video” model since it was the first model that could record 4K (UHD), though it required an external recorder to take advantage of this feature. As such, many people have begged, pleaded, cried on occasion, and some have ultimately given up until recently on a successor to the A7SII which was released nearly five years ago.
The A7 body should continue as it is. It’s the basic all around model that fits the needs of most people whether they’re photographing weddings, photojournalism, occasional sporting events, model shoots, etc. Perhaps the megapixel count can be raised to provide somewhere between 24 (current amount) up to 32 megapixels assuming it can keep the same excellent lowlight performance… or perhaps they can scale back the pixel count to fall somewhere between 18-24 megapixels to increase sensitivity and provide more than enough pixels for most needs.
The A7R should morph into the A8. At this point it is different enough that it can be it’s own thing. It’ll focus on the idea of high resolution photography whether it’s commercial with some lighter video functions that allows the end user to capture video as needed.
The A7S line should first end and second morph into an Alpha X (AX) that’ll highlight the hybrid nature of a more video natured camera where photographic applications are more of an afterthought. This camera would completely break away from the traditional hybrid SLR form factor and grow somewhat in size for the purposes of adequate cooling while maintaining features video creator desire. Perhaps this camera can offer many of the features of the more fully features FX9 but in a smaller light package with fewer external connections. This camera would feature a single XLR input, a full size HDMI, a traditional 3.5 microphone, and a headphone jack in camera. This camera would do DCI 4K up to FF at up to 120fps, be able to record internal H.264, H.265, ProRES, and AVID DNxHR as standard codecs, provide external RAW video (ProRES RAW and BRAW), and 12-bit color at a minimum. It would be compact, look like a smaller version traditional cinema camera (along the lines of the RED Komodo) with the ability to mount an external video and audio recorders, in addition to an aftermarket EVF. It also should implement an A9 style AF system. It would also be the first camera from Sony to feature a Global Shutter with built in ND filters. Ultimately this can be the camera to replace the function of the FS5 and FS7 camera in a shrinking camera market while also moving slightly upmarket to between a traditional photography hybrid system camera and a dedicated large sensor cinema/ENG camera. This can be the model that videographers, cinematographers, and indie filmmakers would go crazy for.
The A9 is likely fine with what Sony is doing but perhaps there’s room for a APS-C version for action shooters in the form of the A6. Same features as the A9… just with a smaller sensor and priced similarly as the base A7. As previously mentioned the camera market is already shrinking and Sony already does a great job at continuing sales of older models at a more value friendly price which allows potential users to purchase a great camera option at a bit of a bargain.
Above the A9 there’s room for a true professional body upmarket and I’m gong to call it the “Alpha Pro“ (AP) Model for now. What this could be is a camera that offers a 64-80 megapixel sensor that can also “pixel bin” in order to “super sample” color data to provide images 1/4 the original size with full color data. This can also be where Sony experiments with a new simplified touch based menu similar to say what Blackmagic Design or Phase One utilizes on their cameras. Additionally Sony could make it so that it integrates with the smartphone app on a deeper level. Users would be able to define internal crop mode options and make the menus are complex or simple as wanted. Don’t want video menus? No worries hide the options from the camera and add them back through the app when wanted if ever. Just want Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manuel modes? Cool just eliminate the other modes on the digital LED mode selection wheel. Want high resolution imagery? Shoot in standard mode. Want maximum color reproduction and speed? Shoot in that mode. Want a basic user mode? Select that from the get go. Want deep layers and sub menus? Choose the advanced user mode. Additionally Canon has shown with their RF lenses that there is a market for premium lenses that don’t follow the traditional SLR offerings like the “f/2.8 trinity” lenses. Perhaps Sony can introduce a line of lenses above the G-Master lenses in maybe the G-Pro lenses. Sony could make a 20-50mm F/2 zoom, a 55-110mm f/2 zoom, and a 100-200mm f/2 zoom which could be true prime replacement lenses. They could also make some f/1.2 primes in popular, but different from G-Master, focal lengths like 21, 35, 55, 100, and 150mm focal lengths. Obviously there’s room already to refresh some of the older optical formulas with more modern linear focusing motors as well.
I have zero insider information on Sony’s plan but I do believe that they receive so much market growth through innovation and exciting products. With more competition in the market I don’t feel that now is the time for them to play it safe and get more complacent given the hype driven by Canon’s RF lens designs and R5/R6 bodies, the potential of the L-mount Alliance, or the Nikon faithful that provide mirrorless solutions for those already invested in their brand.