A7(r) Musings

A7R_img1bb-1200“Fullframe”, “Mirrorless”, Interchangeable Lenses, AF. Put these ingredients together and you get the just announced FE mount Sony A7 and A7r cameras. The NEX-VG900 camcorder technically also fulfilled these 4 criteria but it is not very practical as a stills camera. So the A7 and A7r represent a new category of camera, one that many have been hoping would be populated sooner rather than later. Rumours rose over the last few weeks to a crescendo until this morning (16/10/2013) at 7am GMT when the new cameras and accompanying lenses were officially unveiled. The rumours were pretty much spot on, a RX1 styled E mount camera with inbuilt EVF. The reaction from the photographic community has been substantial. Here are just a few thoughts about what these new cameras and lenses mean.

The name of the new cameras have caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The A mount crowd despair that A mount is dead now that an E mount camera is called A-something. The APS-C NEX crowd despair that with the demise of the NEX brand, there will be no more APS-C NEX cameras. At the moment, I think there is little evidence to suggest either possibilities. From various statements coming from Sony spokespeople, the Alpha brand will consolidate the A mount and NEX E mount cameras all under a single A designation. Note: The NEX cameras were launched in 2010 under the Alpha umbrella, so it’s not a case of E mount hijacking the Alpha brand. The A mount will continue to be supported (the 70-200mm/2.8 G MkII such an indication) and I won’t be surprised if the next A mount camera will not be an SLT or SLR but will have on-sensor phase-detect AF. The current lull in A mount camera releases may be due to Sony developing this next phase of the A mount.

The APS-C mirrorless segment is still going to be the bread and butter of Sony’s interchangeable lens camera business so it won’t be disappearing soon. The A3000 has led some to worry that NEX-6/7 styles cameras are a thing of the past but I think again that we have too little evidence to be confident that will be the case. The recent release of the 16-70mm/4 Zeiss and 18-105mm/4 G lenses would indicate that higher end APS-C E mount cameras are still a priority. Sony’s E mount strategy incorporates their professional video business as well, e.g. FS-100 and FS-700, so there should be continuing development on that front.

A7_LifeStyle 4Meanwhile, the Sony has done the expected in taking the design cues of the RX1(r) and developed a compact “full frame” interchangeable mirrorless AF camera system. With the aggressive pricing at launch, Sony has been able to leverage the advantages of being fully vertically integrated. From producing the sensors, lenses (with some help from Zeiss), EVF and supporting electronics, Sony has come up with a compelling package at an extremely attractive price. The dimensions of the camera are very compact considering the size of the sensor, shutter assembly and A99-derived EVF incorporated into the body. The control set seems to be robust and the grip reportedly very comfortable.

The choice of “7” in the name is a nice reference to the Minolta heritage. The 7-level cameras were often the ground breaking model. The Dynax 7D was the first DSLR from Konica Minolta. The Dynax 7 was one of the best film SLRs in terms of features, it introduced a large rear LCD for information and settings and the some aspects of the interface of current A mount cameras can be traced back to this. Going further back, the Minolta AF 7000 arguably heralded the first practical AF SLR system and introduced the A mount. But the use of “7” also implies that we may see cameras at the “3”, “5” and “9” levels. Whether or not under the new naming system these will be full frame as well is yet to be seen but it seems likely that a flagship A9(r) will follow to cement the FE mount as a high-end, professional choice.

A7R_Lifestyle 2

We’re going through a process of the digital imaging revolution maturing. The SLR was a technical solution to the fact that you had to develop film to see what the image was going to be like. Since one has near instantaneously readout the scene composition from a electronic sensor, we no longer require the mirror to divert light to the viewfinder. SLRs, especially their focussing system, have been developed for many decades and have reached quite a sophisticated level. The system of semi-transparent reflex mirror, relay optics and specialised phase-detect AF modules have some performance advantages (mainly due to this intensive development) but many inherent disadvantages such as being much more prone to misalignment and miscalibration.

It is only a matter of time before sensor-based AF will effectively match or surpass DSLR AF performance. With improvements in sensor sensitivity, readout and dynamic range, it will also only be a matter of time for an EVF to be able to let the photographer see better than they could with an OVF, e.g. with intrinsically high dynamic range sensors you could display a contrast range that would be painful to look at directly. Already, the better EVF implementations allow you to frame in dark conditions where you wouldn’t be able to see much in an optical viewfinder.

A7R_wSEL55f18Z_right-1200One should keep the current A7(r) introductions in perspective. These are not the last word in photography but herald the beginnings of a new chapter in digital imaging. I look forward to the inevitable improvements in models to come. From what is happening in research labs around the world (including those in Sony), we can hope for global electronic shutters, wide/high dynamic range sensors, more post-Bayer colour filter array architectures (improvements over Sigma Foveon), lower read noise and higher sensitivities, higher pixel densities (whilst retaining image quality), and faster readout. The future of imaging looks bright.

Images courtesy of Sony