Sony might be taking a bigger risk than it realizes with the new A77. Not with the product, but rather from a marketing perspective.
In fact, there might be some wise old heads at Canon slowly shaking and showing wry smiles. Maybe not quite tsk-tsking but almost.
The A77 might well be a brilliant camera. But as every marketer knows, that's not actually enough. Classical economics, with its "rational consumer" model (lately under siege—"irrational consumer" research seems to be a very popular topic right now), predicts that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Actually, products that look like they'll be better before they're purchased are the ones that sell.
Post-point-of-purchase matters too, in that past purchasers influence prospective ones. If you market a product that looks great, but performs poorly, word will get around. Just ask movie producers. Marketing can help a bad film have a great first weekend, but if the movie actually sucks, that word will get around, and attendance will fall off fast.
Where that kind of word-of-mouth from actual consumers doesn't help so much is when you have a good product that doesn't appeal from a sales standpoint, such that nobody buys it. Ask all the moviemakers who create superior films but don't have the marketing muscle to get them noticed. That's more likely to be what might happen to the A77.
Two suspect technologies
Why? The reason is simple: the A77 uses two technologies that might have a negative appeal to the buying public. The first is the EVF. So far, EVFs have been mostly confined to low-end, lower-prestige products, where its limitations (limited resolution, variable brightness, poor refresh at slow shutter speeds) are easier to forgive. The A77 will be the highest-level SLR-style camera (that I know about, anyway) to use an EVF. Will camera buyers take to that, or will they be put off by it and continue to prefer optical VFs? Remains to be seen.
But the one that Sony might really discover to be a booby-trap is the pellicle mirror.
First of all, as a writer and editor, I have to say that "translucent" is just entirely—egregiously, blatantly—the wrong word. Translucent materials pass some of the light that falls on them and diffuse the rest. Muslin curtains, tracing paper, or frosted glass windowpanes in a bathroom are all translucent. An indistinct, fuzzy, or veiled image that's hard to see is actually part of the definition* of "translucent." A pellicle mirror is a beam-splitter. That is, it passes some of the light transparently and reflects the remaining amount. There's no translucency involved anywhere. Wrong word—and a bad connotation. Marketing fail? Heck, English language fail.
The mirror in the A77 better not be "translucent"!
Illustration from imaging-resource.
But the real problem is that consumers have been proven to shy away from pellicle mirrors in cameras...even though they work brilliantly. The story of the Canon EOS RT has been told many times, but I'll tell it again. Briefly, Canon made the pellicle-mirror RT in 1989 as a high-end, limited-edition variant of the 630 family, targeted at what Kodak called AdAms, advanced amateurs. The run was 10,000. Canon priced the camera high—around $800, which was quite expensive at the time—and expected the run to sell out within a calendar year.
It didn't. Photographers were put off by two things. First, the idea that the pellicle mirror cut down the amount of light that could reach the film. Second, even more off-putting, was the idea that because the image-forming light passed through a barrier it just had to be less sharp than if it hadn't.
That idea was wrong (I did the tests—if anything, RT images were sharper than those from its otherwise near-identical sibling with a reflex mirror, probably due to reduced system vibration), but it just "seemed reasonable" to people—so much so that they stayed away. In droves. It took Canon forever to sell out that "one year" run of the RT, despite progressively steeper discounts that had the camera selling from NOS at the end of its model life at prices close to half of the price at which it was originally offered.
Canon never had to learn that lesson again. The pellicle mirror was thereafter relegated to high-speed cameras where it could contribute to cutting-edge frame-rates.
Will the pellicle (a.k.a. "translucent") mirror in the A77 have any actual disadvantages? Doubtful, in my view. First, I'll bet it diverts extremely little light, because the VF is electronic, and the reflected light is just for the AF. Second, I'll bet it won't have any effect at all on sharpness—unless it's to allow for slightly better sharpness because of reduced vibration.
But I'll bet the Common Wisdom will hold otherwise. And the presence or absence of actual disadvantages is not as important as the presence or absence of perceived disadvantages.
You watch—there are probably already people out there expressing misgivings about the "translucent" mirror in such a high-end camera. If they aren't now, my guess is that they will be once the camera comes out. People who buy it will be saying, no, really, take our word for it, this thing works great. And the people who are just thinking about it will be saying, I don't know, I just can't see how the light from the lens could be passing through an additional angled sheet of material and not be less sharp.
Not complacent, but...
Sony is certainly doing some interesting things in the camera market. They're not stick-in-the-mud, like Canon and Nikon certainly look to be by dragging their feet over mirrorless for so long. But maybe the downside of that admirable adventuresomeness is that Sony also has some things yet to learn that Canon and Nikon already know.
Anyway, I wish the A77 well. It looks like a splendid camera and will probably work a treat. (The EOS RT was one of my half-dozen all-time favorite cameras, despite its unpopularity.) But it is definitely treading on quicksand just from a consumer marketing standpoint, with not just a bad but a wrong name for its signature technology and two integrated technologies central to its identity that camera buyers are known to be wary of. We'll see.
*Dictionary.com says, "1. permitting light to pass through but diffusing it so that persons, objects, etc., on the opposite side are not clearly visible...."
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Shawn Barnett of Imaging-Resource: "DPReview showed the ghosting that I was sure would occur at some point when we first discussed these products. It happens with specular highlights, and shows more dramatically against a dark background. Sony made the film as thin as they could to minimize this kind of light splitting, but it still happens to some extent. I couldn't find the example we saw originally, that of a bridge at night, but their crop shows it well enough. What it also shows is that the effect is minimal.
"And you are absolutely right: 'Translucent: Adjective: (of a substance) Allowing light, but not detailed images, to pass through; semitransparent.' (Dictionary.com)
"That definition is why I always have to change my reviews after I correctly write, 'Transparent Mirror Technology.'"
Featured Comment by Wayne Fox: "All I can say is the A55's have been flying off my shelf; wedding shooters seem to really like them as well as many other pretty serious photographers. Most people buying them have no clue about pellicle mirrors from previous SLRs and of course those are an entirely different beast, sucking way too much light out of the light path compared to these. Personally I don't care for EVF's much, but I can make do with them. My personal preference is the NEX5 and can't wait to get my hands on the new NEX7. You might be right, the A77 is too high a price point and target market for a camera like this, but if the A55 is any indication (and I"m sure that's why they built the A77) it will do just fine."