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Sony Struggles to Define Itself in the DSLR World


There has been a lot of discussion in forums and amongst people in the “know”, or those who wish they were in the know on the topic of the A700 successor.  In the Konica/Minolta world, the dslr world took them by storm.  The 5D and 7D allowed them to lovingly bring their maxxum (Dynax in England and Alpha in Japan) lenses into the computer age.  Financial difficulties arose to find that their long standing brand could not survive, but offered an opportunity to electronics giant, Sony, to venture into the world of photography on the K/M laurels.

They launched  with plenty of product, and design consideration, that appealed to that legacy, and soon launched a camera body that the loyalists were itching for, but K/M could not produce – the A700.  It was familiar, but Sony had begun to take strides in the interface that moved the camera from the enigmatic tool that only photographers could speak the language of, to something more intuitive and friendly.  The quick nav system was brilliant, and the camera blended the experienced photographers functionality in a cutting edge design, with the familiar landscape of the k/M body layout.

One of the interesting things when you look at the history of slr cameras is how little they’ve actually changed at their core.  Sure with the digital era, the standard shutter speed and f-stop combinations have now been joined by the convenient ability to change iso from shot to shot.  But at its core function, a slr has a mirror, film (sensor) and a body that controls the time and shape of the light that hits that film.  Pick up a Nikon or a Pentax slr and you’ll see that the technology in the body is still harnessed by the same basic structure that all of their cameras follow.  The A700 and the newer A850 and A900 cameras all share the same layout making them complementary bodies that can function in a professional system.  They share the same kind of memory, lens mount, button layout and navigation system.  A photographer can seamlessly hang a couple of these cameras around their neck, and use all of them for their unique strengths without breaking step.

Not 2 years into the camera’s life however, the A700 was inexplicably discontinued.  People bought up the last of the stock in a fervor, to make sure they would have a backup in case something broke.  Now, 2 years later, there is still no replacement on the shelf, but Sony has launched their A77 skeleton body at camera shows in Asia to reassure people that there is one coming.  But is it really a successor?

Here’s a shot and a link to the Sony Japan site: http://www.sony.jp/dslr/info2/20110209.html

You’ll notice it is a stylish presentation, but as far as the body layout very different from the older cameras.  Looking at some of Sony’s competition, mid-range cameras tend to offer the latest technology, often features that are being tested on the public and often supplement the abilities of the flagship cameras.  This looks like it will do the same.  Other companies however package the new technology and features in a familiar package, a direction Sony is definitely not going.  Perhaps their goal is to change the A850 and A900 in the near future as well, to match this new body, however the question I have to ask, is what does this new camera do that the A55 or A33 doesn’t already do?

Granted there is a lot that is unknown about this camera, however there are a few things you can see by looking at different angles of this new body.  For instance, it does not use the same memory format as the A850 or A900.  The button layout is radically different, leading me to believe that the interface is changing just as much.  *(incorrect ft 1.)*There is no PC sync port on the body either making sony’s proprietary hotshoe more of a hassle.  Sure you can buy adapters, but who wants their $12 00+ camera to be dependant on a flimsy adapter on the hotshoe?

So granted there can be all the technological advantages of liveview, panoramic stitching, video modes and … well basically all this camera can do better than the A55 or A33 is exactly what those cameras already do.  Can technology make the professional?  I have said to people that having anything is better than nothing, but it has to be the right thing.  For instance you cannot do some jobs without at least the basic tool.  So you can up the megapixels, include all sorts of fancy software in the camera, but if it doesn’t allow you to see through the viewfinder when using manual lighting (like the A55) you just can’t use it for studio work.  They may correct that problem in the A77, but without a sync port, the camera is physically just as incompatible with the rest of the system as any beginner camera.  I’ve pulled up a DXO comparison to illustrate this point (www.dxomark.com).

You can click on it to see it in detail, and what you’ll see is that Sony has 2 cameras with sensors that perform better than the much more expensive Nikon D300s.  They all have similar features, they all take great pictures, this is not to dis one system or another.  Most people could easily say that the D300s is a superior camera, but what makes it so?  Is it the technology inside?  No.  It is the build quality, layout and function of the camera that makes it worth what it is.  Also very importantly, it’s layout of buttons, features and the language it uses is consistent with the rest of the Nikon System.  This is where Sony has repeatedly demonstrated itself ignorant in the world of still photography – They do not treat their cameras like a single system that should complement one another and strengthen the photographer that uses them.  If I want a back up body to my A900, I want something that expands my scope of work by being lighter, and with new features and technology, but it has to be unacquitably compatible with the rest of my camera system.  Here’s hoping Sony figures this out in this new camera body before it launches, because right now, it just looks like a beefed up A55 that will cost more money without offering anything more.

ft 1. UPDATE Mar 11, 2011,

It is with great relish that I admit an error in the original article and hereby correct it.  At the time of writing, Sony had released no information of a PC sync connector on the camera.  Fortunately, somebody shared an image recently from a trade show seen here, where a sync port connector is concealed under a rubber flap. Yay! Sony!

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