This exploded-view display of the Sony a7R was on display in the Sony booth during the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show.
In January of this year, veteran New York Times photographer Doug Mills, who has shot for the newspaper’s Washington, D.C., bureau since 2002, appeared on C-SPAN to discuss various aspects of his photography. During the interview, Brian Lamb, journalist, founder and former CEO of the cable and satellite television network, talked with Mills about his method of covering the news, politicians, press conferences and others events that take place in the nation’s capital.
During the interview, Lamb asked Mills about a closeup photo he shot during an immigration meeting Mills and other Washington, D.C., photojournalists had taken part in with President Donald Trump. During the near-hour-long meeting, Mills and a number of other photojournalists from other media outlets were going about their routine tasks of photographing the commander in chief. But during the meeting, Mills noticed something unusual. “It was the first time I’d ever seen the number ‘45’ embroidered on his sleeve,” said Mills about the president.
“I’m always fascinated by his cufflinks,” he continued, “The president has a unique array of cufflinks that I always try and photograph or get a detailed shot…” But what made this moment unique for Mills, he said, was that he was able to shoot this photo without his fellow photographers noticing because he was shooting with a mirrorless camera.
“It’s a very competitive thing…[but] I’m using a newer camera now. I’m using a Sony camera, which is completely silent. So I can be…next to my colleagues…Formerly, they could hear me taking pictures. But now, they can’t hear [my camera].” That’s because the camera he was using, the Sony a9, one of Sony’s more recent full-frame mirrorless cameras, can shoot using an electronic shutter, which is completely silent.
It was a striking comment from a very prominent pro shooter. What’s more is that Mills had, for many years, been a faithful Canon DSLR shooter.
But why change now? Part of it was the silent-shooting capability. But there are other reasons, too. “I’ve been a Canon photographer for 30 to 35 years,” he said in the C-SPAN video. “I remember saying to one of the technicians, this is a game changer.” For example, shooting silently is imperative for Mills in the Oval Office. “It can fire up to 20 frames a second, which is twice what I was using before,” Mills said. That can help him capture so much more action, like when he’s “chasing somebody around the Hill, like Robert Mueller in the hallway, and you’re running up and down the steps and trying to find him.” At such moments, Mills said, he may have only a few seconds, and capturing more frames is important. He also said the a9 had fantastic quality.
The positive experience Mills had shooting with the a9 doesn’t seem to be unique. It’s why some pros have also begun to consider making the switch to Sony’s full-frame mirrorless system.
It may also be how Sony was able to lead the mirrorless-camera market earlier this year. According to the market research firm the NPD Group, Sony had beaten Canon in full-frame camera sales during the first six months of 2018. And that’s not just full-frame mirrorless cameras, but all full-frame cameras. It’s a rather impressive accomplishment that in just five years since introducing its first two full-frame mirrorless cameras, Sony has edged out Canon and Nikon, particularly since both have been producing full-frame cameras (albeit DSLRs) for more years than Sony.
How did this happen? What factors led to this moment?
Changing The Game: Three Years Of Disruption In The Camera Market
As you might already know, for most of the second half of the 20th century, most serious and pro photographers reached for the single-lens reflex, or SLR, film camera as the tool of choice, for everything from its through-the-lens viewfinder and sturdy build to its quality and performance, since SLRs could be paired with high-quality interchangeable lenses.
In the new millennium, SLRs continued to be considered the choice for pros, with the difference of moving from film to digital SLRs, or DSLRs. At the time, there were more cameras with smaller, APS-C-sized sensors, but those models that had a larger sensor size, namely the same as 35mm film or full-frame, were the cameras most prized by professionals and serious photographers for high resolution, better low-light performance and no crop factor.
Most in the industry considered the move to be almost preordained. Take Michael Freeman’s book, Pro Digital Photographer’s Handbook, for example, published in 2005. In it, the author writes that “the high end of digital capture is now the province of the SLR. This was inevitable.” Freeman goes on to mention many of the benefits of film SLRs, most notably that 35mm film SLRs were a success because of “their ability to accept a large range of different, interchangeable lenses, from fish-eye to super-telephoto. An SLR system is a tool kit for photography that leans heavily on its lenses…” Freeman writes that this advantage “carries over to digital.” And most of us went along with this notion.
But there were three events in the mid-2000s that would upend this “inevitability” and shake the DSLR market to its core.
The Fall Of Konica Minolta: The first took place at the start of 2006, when Konica Minolta, beset with financial issues, decided to leave the camera business. In doing so, the company sold part of its assets to Sony, most notably the Konica Minolta lens mount. Sony began producing DSLRs. Its first was the Sony Alpha A100, which had similar characteristics to the Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D. But it wasn’t so much about the first DSLR model Sony introduced but what was to come. After several iterations of other DSLRs with APS-C-sized sensors, Sony came out with the 24.6-megapixel A900 in 2009, its first full-frame DSLR, which included a number of powerful features, including the sensor-shift or mechanical image stabilization for a full-frame sensor.
Yet unlike Canon and Nikon, which had a powerful legacy of pro interchangeable lenses, Sony was still operating behind the curve, at least using the DSLR form factor. It introduced the 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM and Vario-Sonnar T 16-35mm f/2.8 ZA SSM lenses at the same time as the A900, perhaps as a way to begin catching up with Canon’s and Nikon’s arsenal of lenses. But it lagged in the number of lenses it could offer. Sony was also a bit late to the game in producing a DSLR with a full-frame sensor (Canon and others had been producing the high-end models since 2002).
Still, producing a camera like the A900 showed Sony’s commitment to both a system camera and a camera that could have great resolution and robust performance. Not long after the A900’s introduction, Sony would soon transition from creating DSLRs to creating hybrid DSLR-mirrorless models, called “SLTs,” which stood for “single-lens translucent” cameras. This type of camera, like the Sony a77 II SLT, used a semi-transparent fixed mirror to divert a small portion of incoming light to a phase-detection autofocus sensor, while the remaining light passed on to the image sensor.
In other words, SLT cameras used a mirror that didn’t actually move inside the camera.
The Apple iPhone Is Introduced: Then, in 2007, the Apple iPhone was introduced, another factor that helped bring Sony’s full-frame mirrorless cameras to fruition. And while not a professional camera by any means, at least in its first years, the iPhone would change how people perceived photography, which would affect how they produced images.
Though this introduction didn’t directly affect camera companies and, at first, professional photographers or those shooting with high-end cameras, it was soon obvious that mobile cameras would dramatically impact the economics of camera companies. A mobile phone with a portable camera was better than any standalone camera since it was, as the cliché goes, the camera you always had with you.
That would force camera companies to rethink their development and marketing strategies. It’s part of the reason why Sony made the decision to focus on high-end cameras.
Panasonic Debuts The First Mirrorless Camera: Then, in 2008, another product introduction would play an important role in the development of full-frame mirrorless cameras. Panasonic announced the first mirrorless camera: the Lumix DMC-G1. With this interchangeable-lens system, based on the Micro Four Thirds sensor, a photographer could carry a very portable camera that was also versatile, since it accepted various lenses. There were a number of other important features included on the Lumix G1 as well as other Micro-Four-Thirds cameras that came later from Panasonic, Olympus and other manufacturers, including a very compact size, lightweight form factor and, on select models, the introduction of a higher-quality electronic viewfinder.
Role Models: Highlights From Sony’s Full-Frame Mirrorless Cameras
From 2013 through this year, Sony has introduced more than a half-dozen full-frame mirrorless cameras, beginning with the a7 and a7R, which shipped at the end of 2013. As my predecessor at Digital Photo Pro, David Schloss, wrote, “the company had a market share in the full-frame space that one company exec said was around 1 percent…[and] they weren’t a smash success. The slow autofocus, limited performance and lack of pro lenses made the cameras a good choice for a secondary body or a travel camera, but few used them as their primary camera.”
Sony a7/a7R: When these first two models were introduced, they may not have been perfect, but they did allow photographers to get something that, up until that point, hadn’t seemed physically or conceptually possible—to be able to shoot with a full-featured mirrorless camera that also included a full-frame sensor. You either got a large and heavy DSLR, which was also audibly noisy due to the clicking mirror that Doug Mills mentioned at the start of this article. Or you conceded and bought a full-featured mirrorless camera that came with a smaller, lower-resolution APS-C-sized sensor. But these first two full-frame Sony cameras gave you both. Still, they struggled a bit with autofocus (on the a7R) and battery life. But Sony had definitely developed something new.
The Sony a9: When we reviewed this full-frame mirrorless camera in the pages of DPP, we wrote, “The Sony a9 is a groundbreaking camera, as it’s the first full-frame mirrorless to surpass the performance (at least in terms of frame rate and AF speed) of the top-end DSLRs. With a top frame rate of 20 fps and nearly 700 focus points, the Sony a9 is a dream camera for sports shooters and a tremendous performer for just about any other market as well. While many mirrorless cameras have a ‘silent’ shooting mode where an electronic shutter is used instead of the mechanical shutter, that feature is often an afterthought. In the Sony a9, the standard shooting mode is ‘silent’ electronic shutter.” And the reason we emphasized the electronic shutter was that Sony’s a9 had a newly designed stacked CMOS sensor that helped prevent distortion due to rolling shutter. We also noted that it had dramatically improved the battery life as well. And like the a7S II and a7R II, the a9 can also capture 4K-resolution video and 5-axis image stabilization.
The Sony a7 III: With a 24-megapixel sensor, 15 stops of dynamic range and a native ISO from 100-51,200, this camera has many, but not all, of the features found on the a9. For example, it lacked the brilliant viewfinder on the a9.
System Of Lenses: All during this time, Sony had been dramatically ramping up its selection of FE lenses (full-frame) to a little over two dozen or so lenses. And while Nikon and Canon still have a broader DSLR stable of lenses, Sony announced at Photokina this year that it will add 12 new E-mount lenses (although it’s unclear just how many of these will be full frame or FE). However, Nikon and Canon have adapters that will allow its DSLR lenses to work with their new mirrorless cameras, the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7, and the Canon EOS R.
Sony’s Smart Strategy For Giving Photographers What They Want: Listening
Like most camera and technology companies, Sony has a strategy for targeting all levels of photographers and customers. I’m sure somewhere a Sony executive is studying that comprehensive document, which outlines the steps the company needs to take to reach different segments, particularly professional and enthusiast photographers. (I know this because for more than a dozen years, I’ve had countless meetings with camera and technology companies learning about soon-to-be-released products.)
But what may be more important than any of those plans is the company’s strategy of actually having its Sony executives and Sony engineers talking and listening to pro photographers.
In my experience, it’s not something a lot of tech companies are comfortable with, since engaging with photographers may mean adjusting, rewriting or even scrapping a business or marketing plan. But, in my eyes, it appears Sony was able to achieve its goals of luring pro photographers by reaching out to photographers and asking them both questions and actually acting on that knowledge.
Sensors And Sensibility: Will Sony Remain The Brand To Beat In Full Frames?
Of course, it’s important to note how Sony’s success is a relative success and that it could change drastically within the span of a few years or an even shorter time frame.
In 2006, for instance, no one could have predicted Kodak’s demise several years later. In fact, the company had been developing some pretty inventive digital cameras, including one of the first wireless stand-alone models. But that was a year before the introduction of the iPhone which, when it hit the scene, seemed to instantly turn inexpensive stand-alone point-and-shoots into relics. And it’s also how, in just five short years after the iPhone’s debut, Kodak, a brand synonymous with photography for more than a century, called it quits and declared bankruptcy in 2012.
It’s the kind of disruption that’s always possible in the tech world, and in the past few months, it’s possible that such a counter-shift could occur…this time away from Sony.
In fact, there have been important announcements from nearly all major camera makers. This past summer, Nikon and Canon both introduced new, powerful full-frame mirrorless camera bodies, compatible lenses and, perhaps the most exciting development of all, versatile lens adapters that allow photographers to attach DSLR lenses to the new mirrorless camera bodies. Nikon debuted two new full-frame mirrorless camera bodies—the 45.7-megapixel Nikon Z 7 and the 24.5-megapixel Nikon Z 6—while Canon offered one, the 30.3-megapixel Canon EOS.
And if that wasn’t enough competition, Panasonic and Leica have also thrown their hats into the full-frame mirrorless system ring.
With all this fierce competition happening all at once, it will be very intriguing to see which cameras and systems resonate with pros and enthusiasts. And if Sony can continue to keep its momentum.