In Imaging, At Least, Sony’s on a Roll

Posted in Equipment, Photography, Video by Nathan Lee Bush on June 13, 2012

The RX100, the latest in the flood-tide of innovation from Sony

Sony: Corporation In Crisis?

Reading the financial press alone, one would be forgiven for thinking Sony is teetering on the brink of the corporate equivalent of a nervous breakdown. The Japanese electronics giant is often painted as a hopelessly overwrought, sprawling corporation that’s lost its innovative edge to a byzantine bureaucratic culture. It’s accused of creating a dizzying array of products, while managing to miss out on the biggest tech shifts of the decade, like the media player, smartphone, ebook and tablet revolutions, that rival Apple has effortlessly finessed with its laser sharp focus.

The Imaging Exception

If Sony were a person – which, according to the Supreme Court, it is 🙂 – the diagnosis would be multiple personality disorder, because this depiction couldn’t seem further removed from the first hand experience of the company from the perspective of the digital imaging arena. Over the past few years, its thrilling and inspired string of product releases reveal a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders, bringing its expertise from its far flung operations to create truly original, high tech products with dazzling spec sheets at competitive pricing.

Eye to the Future

The RX100 large sensor compact is only the latest evidence of the zeal with which the digital imaging division is willing to sacrifice sacred cows of the industry, from pricing structures to design choices, in responding to market demands, and fortifying their position with far-sighted technological bets. All Sony’s strengths are on display in this revolutionary new compact. Barely bigger than an S100, but with a 1″ sensor 2.8x the size of Canon’s offering, the RX100 delivers the first truly pocketable large sensor compact, and I’m talking jeans pockets, not jacket pockets. Sharing the sensor size of the Nikon J1, with identical pricing, but at exactly half the thickness and with a collapsible zoom lens, Sony’s betting that size will matter more than interchangeable lenses in this new market. Sony waited and watched, and than pounced with an offering that may have hit the sweet spot of pricing, sensor size, image quality and portability. This is becoming an increasingly common occurrence.

Far from the scattered depiction of the parent company, the Imaging Division deftly integrates groundbreaking technologies from the broader company into its tightly focused and unique offerings. In the stills camera space, while the Big Two mildly tweak their longstanding product lines every few years, careful not to amp up features on entry models too quickly, lest they interfere with the health of the rest of the lineup, Sony seems to relish packing bleeding edge technology into even the least among its members.

The lowly NEX-3, its entry level MILC, for example, was announced over two years ago with an APS-C sensor, incredibly high resolution LCD and insanely small form-factor, at a price point barely above the reigning enthusiast compacts of the time. The next generation of these entry and mid-priced NEX cameras included indispensable flourishes for filmmakers like peaking and 1080/60p video, features still missing from so-called multimedia DSLRs still many multiples their cost. And rival mirrorless manufacturers are still a million dots shy of the super high-res, 2.4 million dot OLED Electronic Viewfinder introduced in the NEX-7 almost a year ago. Adding to the bleeding edge display technology advantage are Sony sensors, also found inside many Nikon and Pentax cameras, which consistently outrank all comers, comprising 13 of the top performing 20 sensors on DXOMark, including the top spot (the D800 beating out Phase’s IQ180 80MP sensor!).

Video Vigor

The video division is attacking with equally full force. The FS100 is considered by many unchallenged as the most compelling sub-$10k package for filmmakers, with the sensor of the F3 and incredible low-light capabilities stemming in part from its awesome sensor/codec combo.

The C300, while a revelation in ergonomics, ease of use and image quality (especially in low-light), nevertheless raised some eyebrows when it was announced last Fall with a $20,000 price tag. While the street price eventually settled at $16,000, it still felt a little outlandish for an 8-bit 1080p camera, which could only shoot 60fps at 720p. If it seemed a tad on the overpriced side before NAB, Sony cemented this perception with the FS700. For half the price of the C300, and shoot-ready Scarlet, you can nab the 4K-ready high speed camera (up to 240fps at 1080p) with a comparable featureset. The camera builds on the strengths of the FS100, while addressing its critics with improved construction and built-in ND filters.

At the high end, 8K F65 cinema camera is enjoying enthusiastic adoption in Hollywood, with the newest M. Night Shyamalan film, After Earth, pushing it to its limits on location in the Costa Rican jungle.

Not All Roses

This optimistic outlook is not to say Sony is without problems.

Its E-Mount for NEX cameras is famously short on decent native lenses, which is only partially compensated for by the broad availability of adapters for other lens systems.

In the SLR arena, its impressive EVFs, despite their copious benefits, are still no match for the clarity of through the lens shooting. It’s translucent mirror technology, while certainly innovative and often advantageous, makes the cameras suffer in low-light.

And Sony seems to face the same uphill battle it’s always encountered when it comes to unseating such firmly entrenched adversaries as Canon and Nikon, synonymous with the history of photography, each with daunting built-in user bases. This legacy lens advantage is the main reason Sony must pull out all the stops in each new model it releases, compensating for its shortcomings in the glass department with innovative technology and spec one-upsmanship.

Imaging: A Foundation for Sony’s Future Success

The beleaguered Corporation recently announced an aggressive turnaround plan, which aims to streamline its far-flung divisions to focus on imaging, gaming and mobile. Elevating Imaging as a foundational pillar for the company is an encouraging omen of things to come for the corporation.

For all its unflattering comparisons to wunderkind Apple of late, I imagine that if the Cupertino company was in the serious camera space, it would look a lot like Sony. The focus on simplifying obtuse technical legacy concepts is one manifestation of this. Thus, even its enthusiast and pro offerings include mom-friendly, sometimes gimmicky features that make enthusiasts and pros roll their eyes, such as sweep panorama and smile detection. They make photographer’s groan, that is, until they use them and find out how handy such features can be.

But more importantly in the Apple comparison, is that Sony makes svelte, elegant and intuitive cameras packed with features and with that intangible feeling of the future. Far from the bloated octopus of a company with its tentacles reaching in every direction, and its attention equally frenetic, Sony Imaging strikes the perfect balance between price, portability and innovation.

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3 Responses

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  1. […] this blog, Through the Looking Glass, I talk about Sony’s current prowess at producing high tech, feature packed cameras at aggressive price points, which is at odds with […]

  2. […] You certainly read many times that Sony is facing a tuff time. And certainly they are not the only company having troubles. What’s also important to know is that the Imaging Division is actually doing well. The NEX and SLT cameras are selling well an Sony sensor tech is being used by many current camera manufacturers. Nathan Lee Bush wrote a nice roundup of the current Sony Imaging Situation at Adoramas Blog (Click here). […]

  3. Sky_walker said, on June 21, 2012 at 8:28 am

    Problem is that currently Sony imaging division suffers badly from two things:
    1. Inability to deliver
    2. Inability to advertise.

    First one is obvious – people ask for years for certain lenses or accessories, Sony doesn’t do much to comply even though people essentially say “go, take my money now!”. No good UWA lens for A-mount, no UWA primes for A-mount, no T&S for A-mount, no lens above 500mm for A-mount, no mirror-lock-up mode in SLTs, no quality standard zoom (f/2.8? 16mm?) for E-mount. Sony also also can’t delivery anything unique, like say: company’s own fully-radio flash system (even if it’d mean mounting external adaptors for each flash unit), or super-macro lenses, or remote trigger and preview system compatible with tablets or 50mm STF lens. Another topic is inability to deliver their products to shops around the world for showcasing, and giving resellers the best possible conditions so that they would put Sony on shelves along with Canon and Nikon, as well as inability to produce stuff which success was obvious in a day of release (eg. Zeiss 24 f/1.8) in an good-enough amount.

    Second one is bit more complicated. Sony is unable to advertise it’s greatest advantages, like for example the EVF in entry-level cameras – they look at it as if it’d be a disadvantage instead of trying to change it into camera’s greatest strength – huge viewfinder that lets you see the exposition and white balance as it’ll be in shot is something you hardly can beat with anything in entry-level market. Or the awesomeness of having everything stable in camera – no mirror slap, no shutter curtain slap == perfect macro uses or astrophotography / digiscoping. Or the goodies of Bokeh Monster and sharpness of brightest 135mm portrait lens on a market. They also – depending on a region – hardly take part in photography-related events (Nikon plays in sponsoring, Canon plays in sponsoring, Sony hardly ever and even if – they do towards compacts and TVs instead of taking big cameras into picture), or provide their equipment for workshops, photography schools, events. There are some exceptions from these (World Photography Awards) but they are too scares, sadly.

    There’s also a topic of giving advantage to competition (delaying it’s own 36 MPx FF camera for Nikon or FF NEX for Pentax), but we don’t want to move into that topic of discussion…..

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