IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
ELEVEN YEARS AGO – almost to the day as I write this – a group of camera journalists were gathered in the sunny forecourt of a Tokyo office block, enjoying coffee and pastries. The offices belonged to Sony Corporation and we’d all just attended a technical briefing on the brand new Alpha D-SLR system, launched the day before.
As I chatted to a senior Sony executive, I happened to glance across the small valley beside the office block to where the skyline was dominated by another high-rise emblazoned with the red Canon logo. The exec followed my gaze and smiled.
“That,” he said quietly, “is where we’re going to be eventually”. He didn’t mean the location, of course, but Canon’s number one position in interchangeable lens cameras, then dominated by D-SLRs. If anybody else from any other company had made a similar assertion, I would have just nodded politely, but Sony is Sony and so I tucked that snippet away marked for future reference. I suspected that, sooner or later, its recall would be significant… and the arrival of the A9 seems like that time has come.
There have been other important cameras in the Sony Alpha timeline – A900, A55, NEX-7, A77, A99, A7 and A7R – but the A9 is arguably the most important yet, not just because of its giant-killing specifications, but because Sony is no longer being coy about its intentions… Canon and Nikon, we’re coming to get ya! The A9 is unashamedly being pitted against the EOS-1D X Mark II and the Nikon D5 and it’s the first mirrorless camera that’s actually potentially capable of the challenge. For starters, it has a full-35mm sensor which – with all due respect to the likes of Fujifilm’s X-T2, Olympus’s OM-D E-M1 Mark II and the Panasonic Lumix GH5 – is an essential requirement in the eyes of the photographers buying at this level. Then it has 20 fps shooting at full-res – which is 24.2 megapixels – with continuous AF and AE adjustment plus, most importantly, no EVF blackout (as it’s refreshing at 120 fps) and, if necessary, absolutely no noise. Other kick-ass specs include a top shutter speed of 1/32,000 second (with the sensor-based shutter), 693-points phase-detection autofocusing giving 93 percent frame coverage, 500,000 cycles durability for the focal-plane shutter, burst lengths of up to 240 compressed RAWs or 360 max-quality JPEGs, 14 stops of dynamic range, five-axis image stabilisation and the option of a four-battery power supply to massively extend capacity. Marginally beefier than an A7 series model, the A9 is still positively svelte compared to its heavyweight D-SLR rivals and you’d have to think this will be the clincher for sports photographers facing long hours lugging gear around.
Sony inherited its D-SLR system from Konica Minolta, but stamped its own mark on latter products with firstly the fixed-mirror SLT series, then the compact NEX mirrorless models and, in late 2013, the ‘big bang’ A7 and A7R full-35mm format mirrorless system. This was a brave move for many reasons, not least that it involved a new lens mount when Sony already had two different fittings. To its credit, what initially looked like a bit of a train wreck – with the company openly promoting third-party mount adapters – has quickly turned into something of a triumph, with new FE lenses currently arriving at roughly one a month. There are currently 24 models spanning 12mm to 400mm, plus others from Zeiss, Voigtländer (a.k.a. Cosina), Samyang, Tokina and a coterie of Chinese manufacturers. Importantly, the exemplary G Master (GM) line-up now includes the pro staples of a 24-70mm f2.8 and an 70-200mm f2.8, although in all honesty, there will probably have to be a 300mm f2.8 and 400mm f2.8 for sports shooters to start defecting D-SLRs en masse (then again, the new 100-400mm f4.0 telezoom may just be enough incentive).
Equally importantly, Sony has taken a leaf out of the Canon book and is building an ethos around its brand via competitions, including the local Alpha Awards, and other activities which involve consumers beyond simply selling them hardware. These are building loyalties which will stand Sony in good stead when Canon and Nikon finally see the light and launch rival full-35mm mirrorless systems (it has to be soon, doesn’t it?). For pros, there’s the newly-launched Sony Imaging PRO Support which provides various back-ups, discounts and service arrangements for members.
Based on my conversation back in Tokyo 11 years ago, Sony at least had a ten-year plan for its interchangeable lens camera (ILC) program, but it’s probably a lot longer… or perhaps another tenyear plan is now being rolled out with Canon even more firmly sighted in the crosshairs. Whatever, Sony says we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and if you follow the evolution from A100 to A9, that’s a scary prospect for its rivals. Right now, Sony is number three globally in ILCs, but number one in mirrorless cameras. It’s currently number two in ILCs in the USA, having moved ahead of Nikon, and while there have been various other factors at play here, this is still a significant achievement… especially as A9 sales have only just begun. At the A100 launch back in June 2006, Sony talked of respecting traditions, but having a “challenging spirit”… it’s a philosophy that’s clearly working.
A100 to A9: Sony’s interchangeable lens camera program has come a long way in 11 years.