Sony said years ago that it was targeting the #1 spot among camera manufacturers, and yesterday we learned that despite mixed success in the quest so far, the company is still deadly serious about that longtime goal. The new Sony A9 takes dead aim at the working professional photographer in many fields, from runway and theater to sports.
The flipping mirror is a horseless carriage. Sony's initial attempts to break away from it—the "SLTs" or beam-splitter cameras—were ultimately no more successful for them that they were for the first major innovator of that technology, Canon. (I loved my EOS RT—switched from Nikon to use it, back when the elder Bush was President—but you know I'm weird.) In mirrorless, Sony found a technology to migrate to that was more amenable to the company's many technological and engineering assets. The first real fruit of that tree was the A7 series, which was a great success with the market Sony wanted to target, spawning a proliferation of different models and a vigorous iteration of new generations.
I'll tell you what else—the A9 suddenly makes it obvious what Sony's recent lens program has been about. It has seemed a bit mystifying to me, what with my artist/snapshooter's outlook. Who wants giant fast cost-no-object premium lenses the same size as Canikon's when the average Joe-Bob would have to amputate a foot to afford one? (Er, sorry. They're dear, I mean.) Didn't interest me too much. But now it's obvious that guys like me aren't the target—the purpose of the recent parade of the new Sony lenses was always to put in front of cameras like the A9.
...Which, by the bye, Sony says is the most capable camera of any kind ever.
Lenses for pros for a camera for pros.
We've seen that the low end of the market is dropping away as smartphone cameras impinge, and the high end of the market contracting as many cameras have reached the point of sufficiency, removing our urgency to upgrade. We already recognize that the manufacturers are responding to this by making better products and then charging lots more for them. Pros have long been a small market, but in some sense are (still) the tail that wags the dog. In the brave new world of the 2020s, that might become more true rather than less.
The stakes are still high, in other words.
Oh, and one more observation in passing: although Fuji gets an emphatic honorable mention in this sense, Sony still gets the nod as the most exciting cameramaker to watch. Agree? Disagree?
Here's Imaging-Resource's first take.
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Featured Comments from:
Keith B.: "Whether or not the new Sony is accepted by the pro PJ/Sports community depends on three things: 1.Finder brightness. Gotta be able to see clearly when used in full 8000 footcandle sunlight. 2.Motion delay. Broadcast video cameras have about a one frame delay: about 1/30th of a second. This'll have to be that good, in both bright and dim light. 3. Absence of effective blackout/freezout. The action has to be live during high-FPS shooting. On a (D)SLR, you can manually follow focus while shooting at 10 FPS. No mirrorless has been able to do that...yet."
Dennis: "I agree that Sony is exciting to watch. They're frustrating because they're not grounded in photography the way other companies are, so you really have to scratch your head when you see some of their releases and some of their omissions. But that may be precisely why they feel so free to take risks. And while Canon and Nikon are, at heart, optics companies, and many of us appreciate a system built on optics, the heart of Sony's system is the sensor, and we're seeing how they can exploit their sensor technologies. (Their sensor technologies also influence the rest of the market, so that makes them interesting, too).
"And the whole market is changing...Nikon and Canon have always been the workhorses of pros, but more and more pros are diversifying and getting into video, aerial photography and whatever else it takes to keep earning a paycheck. For video, Canon, Sony and Panasonic are solid choices (without branching outside of the camera brands)...Nikon and Fuji aren't players in that market.
"I've had a love/hate relationship with Sony for years. I shot A mount for years (Minolta, then Sony) but found things to dislike about it. I tried a NEX, but ended up disliking it greatly. Now I have an A6000, but still just don't take to it. (I prefer using the bigger Nikon that I bought when I left A mount). There's nothing wrong with the A6000 (which is far more than I could say about the NEX-5) but it's kind of a soulless camera. Fuji has soul; Sony has brains (but the gear is amazingly capable, so bring your own soul and you can do wonders with it)."
Kenneth Tanaka: "Agree. Heartily. Sony has been my primary camera vendor/platform for nearly four years. In fact as I write this I've just returned from over four hours with an A7RII in my face on a project. Their cameras and high-end lenses have never failed to impress me, despite the most nay of naysayers against Sony's chances when they dived into the pool. Most innovative and bold camera maker today? Unquestionably, perhaps followed closely by Fujifilm. Canon and Nikon still win top honors for ruggedness and for ergonomics. (Nothing feels better to use than my 5D4.). But Sony's quickly and easily overtaking both of them in quality of electronics and quality of optics."
David Babsky: "The A7S—which I use—was, and is, an astonishing camera: it'll shoot in extremely low light, and with a completely silent electronic shutter. Wonderful for close shots of musicians, actors, at weddings etc, without putting anyone off with shutter clunks. Ditto the A7RII...but with a very high pixel count (42 MP) for finely detailed photos—and for cropping, if necessary, afterwards.
"The A9 just extends all that (but at 24 MP) to very fast shooting...20 shots a second with the electronic shutter. No flapping mirror, no clattering shutter, no noise (neither audible nor 'sensor noise') to speak of. Like Olympus' E-M1 and PEN F, but 'full frame.' I stopped shooting with a clattering mirror and shutter long ago. This really tolls the death knell of mirror-flapping SLRs."
Dan MacDonald: "Sony will have to do a lot better with service and support if they want to attract top tier pros. Working in repairs I can say that my experience with Sony is that they have mediocre customer service and getting repairs done is often notably more expensive than Canon or Nikon and more time-consuming. In fact I would be willing to bet this is the reason Canon continues to dominate for sports and press photography, as in my experience they have excellent customer service for such a large company, second only to Apple. Not something that effects the enthusiast or even semi-pro photographer too much typically. Of course then there's the laughable battery life, and why haven't they released a 16–35mm ƒ/2.8 zoom or a 14–24mm? Both are popular focal lengths used by many pro reporters and sport shooters. However if Canon and Nikon are not taking mirrorless seriously at this point they will likely find themselves slowly going out of business. They already have a lot of ground to make up, and Sony will eventually get there."
John McMillin: "When out hunting images, why not use this rapid-fire automatic weapon? Because you'll wind up with thousands of images to sort through and delete, if you have the attention span. Or because you're not working in the field of sports or high-speed motion analysis. Soon we'll just use high-res continuous capture. You'll have new software using algorithms to make the initial cut, or, what the heck, to automate the entire process. Progess? Not for most of us.
"I do hope that this Sony catches on with the White House press pool though. The current clatter of snapping shutters is a huge distraction to those who want to hear the audio of the event, and disrespectful to the office, even with a Prez who deserves little respect. And the noise is as anachronistic and unnecessary as if they were shooting off flash powder."
Mike replies: I agree. Maybe apocryphal, but an old story was that in certain jurisdictions Leica rangefinders were the only cameras approved for courtrooms because they were sufficiently quiet. With today's totally silent cameras it makes no sense to allow loud cameras in major press conferences. Or on golf courses at major events!
JOHN GILLOOLY: "For me as a commercial photographer, this could be the inflection point where I actually consider a switch from Nikon DSLR. The size and silent shooting being the main differentiation points. Critical image quality and continuous tracking focus have been my sticking points for not considering the Micro 4/3 OM-Ds as a viable replacement. (Complement yes, replacement no.) I don't think Sony currently offers the glass that would get full time sports photographers to move away from Canon and Nikon. Sony would really need to offer fast lenses in the 400mm and 600mm ranges to pull that group."