Build­ing the Al­pha 9

Andy West­lake takes you on a be­hind-the-scenes tour through Sony’s op­er­a­tions in Ja­pan and Thai­land, revealing the phi­los­o­phy and tech­nol­ogy that un­der­pins this year’s most rev­o­lu­tion­ary cam­era

Amateur Photographer - - 7 Days -

andy West­lake takes a be­hind-the-scenes tour through sony’s op­er­a­tions in Ja­pan and thai­land

Sony’s Al­pha 9 is with­out doubt one of the most ex­cit­ing cam­eras of the year. It’s a high-speed, full-frame, mir­ror­less model that chal­lenges, and in many ways sur­passes, pro-DSLRs in the last bas­tion of their su­pe­ri­or­ity, namely sports and ac­tion shoot­ing. On a re­cent trip to Ja­pan and Thai­land with Sony Europe, I was lucky enough to re­ceive a rare in­sight into the think­ing be­hind its de­sign, and the state-of-the-art man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties that make it pos­si­ble.

It’s easy to for­get, but Sony is a rel­a­tively re­cent player in the in­ter­change­able-lens cam­era mar­ket. It be­gan by ac­quir­ing Kon­ica Mi­nolta in 2006, with its first gen­uinely home­grown DSLR be­ing the Al­pha 700 in 2007. But the most sig­nif­i­cant mile­stones in its progress have been the in­tro­duc­tion of the mir­ror­less E-mount in 2010, fol­lowed by the full-frame Al­pha 7 sys­tem in 2013. Since then, the firm has gone from strength to strength and bro­ken Canon and Nikon’s du­op­oly on the high- end pro­fes­sional mar­ket. Sony now claims to be the mar­ket leader in terms of mir­ror­less cam­era sales in Europe, and sec­ond for sales of full-frame cam­eras be­hind Canon (at least be­fore the launch of the Nikon D850).

Along the way, Sony has shown a se­ri­ous ap­petite for in­no­va­tion, re­peat­edly gam­bling on mak­ing new types of cam­era that haven’t been seen be­fore, in the hope of stim­u­lat­ing an of­ten mori­bund-look­ing cam­era mar­ket. But its rel­a­tive in­ex­pe­ri­ence also shows, with its cam­eras of­ten be­ing less well-rounded pack­ages com­pared with its main com­peti­tors, par­tic­u­larly in terms of han­dling. It also doesn’t seem to have es­tab­lished the same kind of emo­tional con­nec­tion with its users that’s been achieved by the likes of Fu­ji­film, whose com­mit­ment to con­tin­u­ally im­prov­ing ex­ist­ing mod­els via ma­jor firmware up­dates has es­tab­lished a fiercely loyal fol­low­ing. In con­trast, Sony can give the im­pres­sion of be­ing a face­less elec­tron­ics giant, bril­liant at squeez­ing ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy into tiny cam­era bod­ies but less good at un­der­stand­ing what pho­tog­ra­phers re­ally want from them.

Per­haps in a bid to over­come this per­cep­tion, the firm re­cently in­vited a group of Euro­pean pho­to­graphic jour­nal­ists on a tour of its head of­fice in Tokyo, its giant sen­sor-pro­duc­tion fac­tory in Ku­mamoto, and its cam­era and lens plant near Bangkok. Along the way, we spoke to se­nior man­agers and en­gi­neers, and gained rare be­hind-the-scenes in­sight into the think­ing be­hind its op­er­a­tions.

Tokyo – the nerve cen­tre

If there’s one place that counts as the birth­place of Sony’s cam­eras, it’s the firm’s cor­po­rate head­quar­ters in the Shi­na­gawa district of Tokyo. This is where se­nior man­agers de­vise the core con­cepts be­hind new prod­ucts, and en­gi­neers work out how to over­come the tech­no­log­i­cal hur­dles in­volved in bring­ing these ideas to fruition. Along the way, they work closely with the sen­sor ex­perts in Ku­mamoto, aware well in ad­vance of all the new tech­nolo­gies that are in de­vel­op­ment, and push­ing the sen­sor en­gi­neers into get­ting the most pos­si­ble out of them.

In the case of the Al­pha 9, the in­ten­tion was to pro­duce a mir­ror­less cam­era op­ti­mised for shoot­ing sports and ac­tion. In tech­ni­cal terms, this was dis­tilled down to a de­cep­tively sim­ple-look­ing de­sign brief – how to build a cam­era ca­pa­ble of shoot­ing at 20 frames per sec­ond with a zero-black­out viewfinder, while tak­ing focus and ex­po­sure read­ings, and

view­ing the live view feed at 60fps. But to achieve this, all of the cam­era’s core com­po­nents had to be de­signed from scratch – in­clud­ing the viewfinder, im­age pro­ces­sor and the stacked CMOS im­age sen­sor.

In­deed, it’s the sen­sor, and its lay­ered de­sign, that re­ally makes the Al­pha 9 pos­si­ble. Its back­side-il­lu­mi­nated ar­chi­tec­ture cap­tures as much light as pos­si­ble, but far more im­por­tantly, it per­mits the ad­di­tion of a large amount of on- chip mem­ory and a high-speed dig­i­tal im­age pro­cess­ing cir­cuit. This, ul­ti­mately, is what al­lows the cam­era’s high-speed, low- dis­tor­tion shut­ter and su­per-fast shoot­ing rates. It’s clear that Sony’s abil­ity to make its own sen­sors and seam­lessly in­te­grate them into new cam­era de­signs gives it a real edge over its com­peti­tors. Other man­u­fac­tur­ers can do sim­i­lar things, for sure, but none can man­age quite the same com­bi­na­tion of high im­age qual­ity and out­right speed.

It’s not just the sen­sor, though; the Al­pha 9’s viewfinder panel is also pur­pose de­signed and home­grown. In­deed, it’s made in the same fac­tory as the sen­sor, us­ing a lot of the same tech­nol­ogy and pro­duc­tion pro­cesses. It em­ploys a white elec­tro­lu­mi­nes­cent panel with a colour fil­ter over­lay that com­bines high bright­ness and con­trast, a wide colour gamut and rapid re­sponse times, all in a small form fac­tor (the panel it­self mea­sures just 7.5x10mm). It’s clear that Sony con­sid­ers this dis­play to be just as cru­cial to the cam­era’s abil­i­ties as the sen­sor.

The fi­nal piece of the jigsaw is the cam­era’s firmware and, in par­tic­u­lar, its aut­o­fo­cus al­go­rithms. Here, Sony worked closely with pro­fes­sional sports pho­tog­ra­phers, run­ning through mul­ti­ple cy­cles of as­sess­ing im­ages shot with pro­to­type cam­eras, analysing any focus er­rors and then rapidly ad­dress­ing them with new firmware in time for a new round of test­ing. Af­ter six months of in­ten­sive field test­ing and it­er­a­tive im­prove­ments – far more than for any pre­vi­ous Sony cam­era – the Al­pha 9 was ready to go to mar­ket.

Mir­ror­less for ac­tion

De­spite the rapid im­prove­ment of mir­ror­less cam­eras, many pho­tog­ra­phers have as­sumed that DSLRs would re­main the first choice for sports and ac­tion due to their so­phis­ti­cated phase- de­tec­tion aut­o­fo­cus sys­tems. But Sony thinks very dif­fer­ently. Its en­gi­neers de­scribed with im­pres­sive clar­ity why they be­lieve mir­ror­less cam­eras to be bet­ter suited to high-speed pho­tog­ra­phy, and ex­plained how their vi­sion is re­alised in the Al­pha 9.

First, though, we need to think about how DSLRs work. In essence, they de­vel­oped di­rectly from film cam­eras, with a dig­i­tal sen­sor re­plac­ing the film, which means that it’s kept in a light-sealed box un­til the mo­ment of ex­po­sure. Fo­cus­ing and me­ter­ing, there­fore, re­quire a com­plex sys­tem of op­tics and sec­ondary sen­sors. A semi-sil­vered mir­ror di­rects most of the light from the lens to the viewfinder, with the rest be­ing de­flected down­wards by a sec­ondary mir­ror to an aut­o­fo­cus sen­sor in the base of the cam­era. Light me­ter­ing re­quires yet an­other sen­sor that’s lo­cated in the viewfinder assem­bly. To make an ex­po­sure, the mir­ror flips up and the shut­ter opens, in the process black­ing out both the viewfinder and the aut­o­fo­cus sen­sor.

This de­sign has cer­tain in­evitable con­se­quences. Aut­o­fo­cus mea­sure­ments can only be taken when the mir­ror is down and sta­ble, mean­ing that the cam­era has to pre­dict where the sub­ject will be when the ex­po­sure is ac­tu­ally made, based on read­ings taken a frac­tion of sec­ond ear­lier. But when the sub­ject is mov­ing er­rat­i­cally, this can lead to fo­cus­ing er­rors. The pro­por­tion of the im­age that can be cov­ered by the aut­o­fo­cus sen­sor

‘The A9 gives Canon and Nikon’s top-end mod­els a se­ri­ous run for their money’

is also lim­ited by the size of the sub- mir­ror, par­tic­u­larly on full-frame DSLRs where it’s less than half of the frame height. If the sub­ject moves out­side this area, the cam­era can’t focus on it.

In a mir­ror­less cam­era, how­ever, com­po­si­tion, aut­o­fo­cus and me­ter­ing all utilise the main im­age sen­sor di­rectly. This brings a range of ad­van­tages: the cam­era is able to aut­o­fo­cus ac­cu­rately any­where in the frame, while keep­ing track of sub­jects as they move around it. By us­ing an elec­tronic shut­ter, the sen­sor can also be kept ex­posed to in­com­ing light all the time, giv­ing a zero-black­out viewfinder that makes pan­ning with mov­ing sub­jects much eas­ier. What’s more, it’s pos­si­ble for the cam­era to take focus mea­sure­ments con­tin­u­ally up to the mo­ment of ex­po­sure (at a rate of 60 per sec­ond, in the case of the Al­pha 9), al­low­ing it to pin­point the sub­ject’s ex­act lo­ca­tion when the shut­ter is re­leased.

This might sound like Sony’s en­gi­neers ra­tio­nal­is­ing their pet prod­uct, but hav­ing used the Al­pha 9, I’m con­vinced they are cor­rect. Its abil­ity to pick up a sub­ject any­where in the frame and hold focus on it while shoot­ing at high speed is un­canny, and all made pos­si­ble by the zero-black­out de­sign. The fact that the cam­era makes lots of small focus ad­just­ments dur­ing con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing, rather than one larger move­ment per frame, also seems to help in giv­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary aut­o­fo­cus ac­cu­racy. The Al­pha 9 isn’t per­fect, but it gives Canon and Nikon’s top- end mod­els a se­ri­ous run for their money, which is re­mark­able given that it’s Sony’s first at­tempt at a pro-sports mir­ror­less cam­era. It’s any­one’s guess how far ahead Sony will be af­ter an­other gen­er­a­tion or two of de­vel­op­ment.

While the vi­sion and skill of Sony’s hard­ware en­gi­neers is beyond ques­tion, I do have some doubts about the co­herency of the firm’s over­all ap­proach. For ex­am­ple, the cam­er­ade­sign team re­peat­edly stressed how im­por­tant they felt it was to make the Al­pha 7-se­ries and Al­pha 9 bod­ies as small as pos­si­ble, to max­imise their size ad­van­tage rel­a­tive to the com­pe­ti­tion. But the lens de­sign­ers clearly have no such ob­jec­tive, so rou­tinely pro­duce huge op­tics such as the FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM that negate this ad­van­tage. The cam­era de­sign­ers also seemed some­what taken aback by sug­ges­tions that the Al­pha 9 would be a bet­ter fit for its role if it were made larger, to make it eas­ier to use with gloves and bet­ter-bal­anced with larger lenses.

Like­wise, when asked about firmware up­dates to fix the Al­pha 9’s most ob­vi­ous op­er­a­tional flaws, Sony’s en­gi­neers were un­pre­pared to make any spe­cific prom­ises. But to be fair, the firm has a de­cent track record in this re­gard; for ex­am­ple, it’s steadily im­proved the Al­pha 7 II over its life­span, most re­cently with firmware ver­sion 4 in Au­gust when the cam­era was al­most three years old. Hope­fully, it will do the same for the Al­pha 9, lis­ten­ing care­fully to user feed­back along the way.

On sys­tems and lenses

One of the more in­ter­est­ing dis­cus­sions we had with Sony’s prod­uct man­age­ment team re­lated to its pri­or­i­ties re­gard­ing lens de­vel­op­ment. The firm has two lens mounts on the go – the le­gacy Al­pha mount in­her­ited from Mi­nolta used in its SLR-like mod­els, and the mir­ror­less E-mount – and makes both full-frame and APS- C sen­sor cam­eras with each mount. But since the launch of the full-frame mir­ror­less Al­pha 7, it’s con­cen­trated on mak­ing FE lenses to match, with no new APS- C lenses and just a cou­ple of up­dated A-mount op­tics. The firm’s ex­pla­na­tion for this is that it sim­ply re­flects the state of the mar­ket: full-frame users are typ­i­cally se­ri­ous am­a­teurs or pro­fes­sion­als who buy more lenses and de­mand a wider range of op­tions than APS- C shoot­ers. There­fore, Sony is sen­si­bly fo­cus­ing its ef­forts where the de­mand for new lenses is strong­est and it will make the most sales. So while no­body in the com­pany is ever go­ing

to talk about up­com­ing, but as yet unan­nounced prod­ucts, it’s the surest bet imag­in­able that over the next year or two it will con­cen­trate on re­leas­ing high- end long tele­pho­tos matched to the Al­pha 9.

De­spite this, Sony is adamant it doesn’t con­sider its APS- C E-mount lens range to be com­plete, and ex­pects to re­visit it in fu­ture to add some more in­ter­est­ing op­tics. How­ever, the prospect of new lenses for Al­pha-mount users seems more re­mote; in­stead, the firm plans to pro­vide up­dated SLT bod­ies from time to time. Don’t ex­pect to see a Sony medi­um­for­mat sys­tem ap­pear any time soon, ei­ther.

Ku­mamoto – world of sen­sors

From Tokyo we trav­elled to the city of Ku­mamoto, some 550 miles west and to the south, on the south­ern­most of Ja­pan’s main is­lands called Kyushu. It’s a hub of Ja­pan’s semi­con­duc­tor in­dus­try, thanks to a plen­ti­ful sup­ply of very clean wa­ter and rel­a­tively low labour costs. Sur­rounded by beau­ti­ful coun­try­side, it feels like an un­likely lo­ca­tion for Sony’s vast sen­sor man­u­fac­tur­ing plant that’s one of the most ad­vanced in the world.

The sheer scale of what goes on here is mind-bog­gling. Its two huge build­ings in­clude six floors of clean-rooms, in which en­vi­ron­men­tal con­tam­i­nants are kept to a strictly con­trolled min­i­mum. Sony told us the plant out­puts four mil­lion im­age sen­sors ev­ery sin­gle day, and while most are surely des­tined for use in mo­bile de­vices, this is also where the sen­sors in most dig­i­tal cam­eras come from. If you own a com­pact cam­era with a 1in sen­sor, any Sony cam­era, or in­deed al­most any re­cent model from an­other man­u­fac­turer, this is most likely where its sen­sor was born. The main ex­cep­tion is Canon, which makes all its own sen­sors for its EOS cam­eras.

The fac­tory is an ex­cep­tion­ally high-tech en­vi­ron­ment in which sen­sor pro­duc­tion is al­most en­tirely au­to­mated. It em­ploys 2,700 work­ers but they mostly seem to in­habit the of­fice space. Only a few prowl the clean-rooms in their all- over body suits, and their role seems to be re­stricted to iden­ti­fy­ing and trou­bleshoot­ing any prob­lems that may oc­ca­sion­ally arise. But mostly, the ma­chines are left to get on with their tasks, fed by au­to­mated com­po­nent car­ri­ers that move along tracks sus­pended from the ceil­ings.

Pro­duc­ing the sen­sors is a com­plex process, with steps that in­clude pho­tolithog­ra­phy, ion im­plan­ta­tion, dry etch­ing, phys­i­cal and chem­i­cal vapour de­po­si­tion, elec­tro­chem­i­cal de­po­si­tion, clean­ing and pol­ish­ing, and ox­i­da­tion and an­neal­ing. The whole process takes a sur­pris­ingly long time: up to six months from a sil­i­con wafer ar­riv­ing in the fac­tory to fin­ished sen­sors leav­ing, in the case of the com­plex stacked CMOS chips used in Sony’s lat­est mod­els in­clud­ing the Al­pha 9. These sen­sors are there­fore also the most ex­pen­sive to pro­duce, and it says a lot about Sony’s tech­nol­ogy- driven ap­proach that it’s been pre­pared to go to such lengths to gain a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage. It also goes some way to ex­plain­ing why its lat­est- gen­er­a­tion cam­eras are so much more ex­pen­sive than the pre­vi­ous mod­els.

Re­cov­er­ing from an earth­quake

In the early hours of 16 April 2016, Ku­mamoto was hit by an earth­quake of mag­ni­tude 7.3. It caused con­sid­er­able struc­tural dam­age to the Sony fac­tory, de­stroy­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing equipment and halt­ing all pro­duc­tion. Pic­tures from the af­ter­math show shat­tered wafers of part-made sen­sors, equipment scat­tered across clean­rooms, and even roofs ripped open to re­veal the sky above. As a re­sult, cam­era pro­duc­tion was set back con­sid­er­ably, not just Sony’s but other man­u­fac­tur­ers’, too.

De­spite the scale of the dam­age, Sony put in place a Her­culean ef­fort get the fac­tory work­ing again. En­gi­neers donned hard hats and cleaned up the mess them­selves, care­fully setting aside un­dam­aged

man­u­fac­tur­ing equipment and materials. Fewer than five weeks af­ter the earth­quake, pro­duc­tion restarted and the fac­tory had fully re­cov­ered within three-anda-half months. The phys­i­cal scars of the ex­pe­ri­ence are still vis­i­ble to­day; nu­mer­ous sec­tions of the walls along the cor­ri­dors are painted a slightly dif­fer­ent colour where cracks have been patched up. Sony claims that if a sim­i­lar quake were to hap­pen in the fu­ture, it has put in place ex­tra mea­sures that mean it should be able to re­cover in just two months.

Chon­buri – build­ing the Al­pha 9

While Sony’s prod­uct de­sign and sen­sor man­u­fac­tur­ing are both done in Ja­pan, its cam­eras and lenses are now mostly made in Thai­land. Here, Sony says it can em­ploy skilled labour at a much lower cost than in Ja­pan, while still main­tain­ing the high level of qual­ity that’s es­sen­tial for pro­fes­sional-level kit.

Sony Tech­nol­ogy (Thai­land) Co Ltd has two main fac­to­ries, with cam­eras be­ing made in its Chon­buri plant that’s lo­cated an hour’s drive to the east of Bangkok. This lo­ca­tion boasts ex­cel­lent air and sea trans­port links, ideal for bring­ing in parts and materials, and ex­port­ing fin­ished prod­ucts. Not only does the fac­tory as­sem­ble both cam­eras and lenses, it also man­u­fac­tures the com­plex, minia­turised cir­cuit boards in­side.

The fac­tory started out life fairly un­am­bi­tiously, mak­ing con­sumer-level prod­ucts such as the 18-55mm zooms sold with DSLRs and some of the early NEX mir­ror­less cam­eras. But as its ex­pe­ri­ence in­creased, Sony pushed it harder, get­ting it to build in­creas­ingly higher- end, more com­plex items. As a re­sult, it’s be­come a highly ac­com­plished out­fit, able to pro­duce the most tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing items in Sony’s range, in­clud­ing all of the top- end Al­pha mod­els and most of the G Mas­ter lenses. The lat­ter are as­sem­bled in clean-rooms, with work­ers rig­or­ously suited up in over­alls, face masks and hair nets.

The en­vi­ron­ment for fi­nal assem­bly of the cam­eras is a lit­tle less strin­gent, and we were granted rare ac­cess to the Al­pha 9 pro­duc­tion line, and even al­lowed to take pic­tures. It’s a sur­pris­ingly labour-in­ten­sive process, with long lines of young Thai men and women, each car­ry­ing out a sin­gle step that they’ve been trained and cer­ti­fied for. As parts move along the line, the cam­era grad­u­ally builds up to a fin­ished whole, be­fore un­der­go­ing a whole raft of checks and tests. Fi­nally, it’s boxed up with all of its ac­ces­sories for ship­ping.

Fi­nal thoughts

So at the end of all that, what have we learned? As we made the gru­elling 121⁄ 2- hour flight back to Heathrow from Bangkok, I cer­tainly found my­self im­pressed by Sony’s tech­ni­cal in­ge­nu­ity, the vi­sion of its en­gi­neers and the com­mit­ment of its fac­to­ries to at­tain­ing the high­est pos­si­ble stan­dards. But on the other hand, it did lit­tle to al­lay the im­pres­sion that the firm is driven al­most en­tirely by the lure of stretch­ing the lim­its of what is tech­ni­cally pos­si­ble. Dur­ing our week in Ja­pan, rel­a­tively lit­tle was said about the art of pho­tog­ra­phy, or of lis­ten­ing to feed­back from real pho­tog­ra­phers and work­ing to ad­dress their needs or de­sires.

Of course, when this ap­proach pays off, Sony is ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing truly ground­break­ing prod­ucts such as the Al­pha 9, which al­low pho­tog­ra­phers to cap­ture im­ages in ways that sim­ply weren’t pos­si­ble be­fore. But it also ex­plains the firm’s habit of cramming more and more fea­tures into its cam­eras, while not ad­dress­ing any of their more ev­i­dent de­sign flaws. Sony is clearly go­ing to be a con­sid­er­able player in the cam­era mar­ket due to its sheer tech­ni­cal clev­er­ness but if it could only come to trust pho­tog­ra­phers and gen­uinely learn from their feed­back, it could surely be­come the sin­gle most dom­i­nant player for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

To-ji pagoda, Ky­oto, Ja­pan Sony Al­pha 9, 24-70mm f/4 ZA, 1/125sec at f/8, ISO 100

Sony’s vast sen­sor fac­tory in Ku­mamoto, on the is­land of Kyushu, Ja­pan

Here, sen­sors are be­ing bonded to their logic boards

Sen­sors be­ing cleaned and pol­ished, be­fore be­ing diced from the pro­cessed wafer

Above: Sony Al­pha 9 sen­sor assem­bly

Above: Sony’s head­quar­ters in Tokyo, Ja­pan Be­low and right: Sony Al­pha 9 top plates, un­painted and fin­ished

Golden Pavil­ion, Ky­oto, Ja­pan Sony Al­pha 9, Tok­ina Firin 20mm f/2 FE MF, 1/320sec at f/8, ISO 100

Right: Af­ter assem­bly, each cam­era goes through a se­ries of tests. This ap­pears to be a lens-drive test The Sony Al­pha 9 assem­bly line in Chon­buri, Thai­land

A sil­i­con wafer etched with 42 full-frame sen­sors

A part-as­sem­bled Sony Al­pha 9

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