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  1. #1
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    Thumbs up Making the case -> A900

    Here's an article that is right where it needs to be ...

    Speculating on Sony

    Heralding a third pro contender for 2008?

    A Minolta interlude can often be spotted early on the CVs of professional photographers. Much like Olympus , Minolta was driven by idiosyncratic genius, filing patent after patent for groundbreaking technology. Minolta cameras were state-of-art smart, and ergonomically sound – no mean feat. And the lenses were smarter: unique designs like the 24mm VFC, Smooth Trans Focus (STF) 135mm and autofocus 500mm mirror lens remain unprecedented – and unsurpassed – high water marks of lens design.

    Key professional tools were delivered in 'G' guise: uncompromised 17-35mm, 28-70mm and 70-200mm f2.8 zooms; stellar primes: a 24mm good enough for Leica to buy; sweet compact f2 28mm and 35mm wides, a 50mm Macro scoring 0.87 at f8 in Photodo's MTF grading, a bokeh-optimised 85/1.4, a killer fast AF 200mm f2.8 and superb Apo teles: including the unique 400mm f4.5 and a predictable (but none the less admirable) 300mm f2.8.

    The mystery was that Minolta never made a camera to match the professional appeal of the lenses. So pros moved on to Canon and Nikon. And though their loyalty to Minolta glass was broadly supplanted by relationships with optical stars of a different stripe, many working shooters missed the Minolta drawing style: lush colour, smoother-than-smooth bokeh and an appealing rendition that eschews the dramatically contrasty nature of Canon and Nikon lenses in favour of a Leica-flavoured, high-res presentation that gently rolls off the tonal extremes for open shadows and well-tamed highlights.

    All of which leaves Minolta's optical legacy curiously in limbo – not that resale values have been affected adversely: well heeled amateurs have kept these lenses in demand. In fact, Minolta lenses have been a better investment in the last three years than a typical Burgundy wine. Or bank shares.

    But that's only the first chapter in the story, because when Sony effectively subsumed Minolta and Konica in July 2005, it signalled its intention to develop beyond a supplier of serviceable point-and-CyberShoot gadgets. Drawing on established collaboration with Cosina/Zeiss, a highly ambitious range of new lenses began stealthily to appear, apparently pitched at a level of user well above the advanced amateur Dynax crowd. In due course, a perfectly respectable range of Alpha APS-C sensor DSLRs appeared, pitched at precisely the same audience: same mount, same lenses, same body design and switchgear layout . . . only the name changed – and Minolta users were happy, except now, strictly speaking they were Sony users. Or Sonoltites, or Monians, or whatever, The point is that Alpha-shooters (who are not typically earning a living from their photography) were suddenly, and rather bewilderingly, showered with an embarrasment of over-specified and massively expensive Zeiss – full frame – lenses.

    Despite the fact that these lenses are patently not intended for the bodies presently available, rich amateurs bought them as status symbols anyway, and poor amateurs coveted them accordingly. All of which was grist to the mill for Sony. But cursory joining of the dots pointed to a more interesting 'bigger picture' developing during 2007.

    Sure enough, in January 2008, Sony announced that it intended to take the Sony/Minolta brand into previously uncharted realms with the production of an image stabilised 36x23mm 24.6MP sensor developed in-house by Sony.

    Sony's long-term planning is laudable: without fanfare, it hasbeen designing and making top grade professional lenses for a flagship camera that wasn't going to exist for another two years and testing them on an audience of advanced amateurs. Together with Zeiss, Sony has brought to market well under the radar unprecedented new designs clearly intended as top-flight work tools: lenses like the AF 135mm f1.8 that in every way appears to be (at least) the equal of the seriously pro Canon 135/2 L; also, the new 24-70mm f2.8 which may just be the finest mid-range AF zoom ever made. At least three more lenses of this calibre are certain to appear in the next few months.

    But not all is rosy in the garden. It remains to be seen whether the new lenses are able to satisfy the needs of the most demanding full frame chip available. One hopes, given Zeiss' record, that they have built these lenses for the new sensor. One hopes, also, that the 'Sony Flagship Camera', widely touted as the A900, will live up to the specification of its pixel count, but even aside from these practical concerns, there is a mountain to climb with regard to the perception of Sony and Minolta in its primary market.

    The problem is illustrated by the following word association game, here played with an average professional photographer:
    You say 'Hasselblad'; the pro says ‘Moon landing’, ‘Swedish engineering', ‘legendary pro kit’.
    You say ‘Nikon’; the pro says ‘D3’, ‘sports shooter’, ‘photojournalism’, ‘legendary lenses’.
    You say ‘Canon’; the pro says ‘Touchlines bristling with white barrels’, ‘legendary 1Ds series'
    You say 'Minolta'; the pro says ‘Huh?’ or maybe ‘Amateur cameras’
    You say 'Konica'; the pro says “Didn't they used to make film?’
    You say ‘Sony'; the pro says “You mean, like the PlayStation?”

    But you say 'Zeiss' and most pros instinctively reach for the MasterCard – so there is hope.

    All this assumes that Sony intends to pitch the Flagship Camera at professionals rather than a few wealthy amateurs . . . much depends on the yet-to-be-advised price of the yet-to-be-announced camera. At the time of writing, all we have is a disembodied chip and a prototype behind glass . . . .

    If Sony intends to position itself as a credible alternative to Canon or Nikon, the notoriously brand-loyal, intensely conservative professional market will be a tough nut to crack. Canon and Nikon's dominance in this market has been entrenched by the previous failure of respected marques such as Kodak and Contax. In addition to the product itself, Sony must appeal to professionals with a robust support network and system accessories with quality in breadth and depth. The calibre of the new lenses is a promising start, but most pros will need more convincing evidence than that to switch.

    Clearly, Sony is in a position to price the flagship aggresively to incentivise system entry: in typical Sony fashion, the optional (read: essential) 'extras' (here, lenses) appear to be overvalued by at least 25%, so perhaps the strategy will be to entice punters with an irresistible price-to-pixels ratio and bleed them for revenue once they're hooked.

    In April 2008, all we can do is speculate about the all-important high-spec 'studio' machine. However, we can look hard at the current APS-C bodies which do play a role as back-up or location work tools in many pro systems. Is the A700 really competitive with the 1D III or Nikon D300? Already, I think the answer is: yes. Its sensor, of course, is the same as the D300 (despite differences in image processing), and its in-body image stabilisation (SSS) actually gives it a real advantage for many applications. Sony has worked hard to ensure that the build quality and AF speed of the A700 are absolutely on par with the Nikon and Canon equivalents, and the vertical grip is a thing of beauty.

    We might critique the Sony's relatively poor high ISO performance and lack of LiveView (damningly implemented in its cheaper stablemates) but its weakness in this regard seems merely to be a symptom of Sony's inexperience in this market – expert users are universally concerned about its pre-RAW noise reduction meddling. Given the shared sensor, it's galling for A700 shooters to see how much more attractive the D300's ISO1600 files are.

    We must hope that Sony learns from this near-fumble, because many of the flagship's potential customers feel misunderstood: they're already sniffy about the plethora of overstuffed, unmanageably noisy sensors on that market being mis-sold on pixel count to undiscerning amateurs. What they want is balanced, grown-up files with medium-format-grade dynamic range and scope for post production. They may have decided that 12-bit is no longer 'pro-spec'. They understand that fewer pixels sometimes means better pixels, and they're OK with that. Though everyone wants more resolution, the cognoscenti understand the limits of extant technology. In early 2008, this is perhaps best represented by the Nikon D3: yes, you can have beautifully useable images at ISO3200, but don't expect more than 12 Megapixels. Whether Sony has really broken boundaries with their new sensor – or whether they've just packed a surfeit of photosites into 36mm to prove a point – remains to be seen.

    But let's leave behind the imponderable pixel question and talk about image stabilisation. Ironically, Sony was in the vanguard of pioneering this technology for the low-end video market and only belatedly did it make its way to the SLR world in 1995 with Canon's 75-300mm. Canon and Nikon have very gradually been adding VR and IS to their lenses for 13 years now: maddeningly slowly. Let's be very clear about this: IS is a Very Good Thing – no drawbacks, penalties, downsides or trade-offs; it's all good. If you're not convinced, you're not using it. Once you do, there's no going back.

    For many years Canon rationalised the paucity of lenses with IS on cost grounds. Unofficially, it was circulated that each Canon lens with IS cost the company $400, which is why the IS versions typically cost $600 more. Maybe that's even true. Certainly it did nothing to hamper demand: “if that's what it's costs”, the market said, “we're happy to pay: it's worth it”. In fact many of us thought: “What I really need is stabilisation on my 135/2” or “Imagine the possibilities of IS on a fast 50mm!”. So we felt doubly slapped in the face by the launch of an exceptional 4-stop effective IS kit lens with a total retail price of $200 with all the glass and plastic bits and everything . . . what happened? And yet, new pro-grade lenses continue to dribble aimlessly onto the market without IS. If Canon and Nikon really believes that image stabilisation is for amateurs and zooms only, they're living in the past. With their hand in the sand. In a cave.

    Nikon, too, having manifest such foresight in the development of their FX range, with properly designed lenses to match, apparently succumbed to the same mindset: why on earth did the 24-70mm f2.8 G lens not get VR? There are two possibilities here: either Canon and Nikon have genuinely failed to recognise the appeal of image stabilisation to professionals or – more likely – it's all part of a masterplan to protract the inevitable upgrade process to maximise income. The current situation in which we're forced to choose between fast or stabilised lenses is transparently not market-driven: we'd like both, please; either in the lenses or in the body. If they don't, users will migrate.

    Whatever, their failure to deliver in this regard opens a window of opportunity for Sony. It may be that in-body SSS is a stop less effective than VR or IS, but when you can combine f1.4, autofocus, ISO3200 and stabilisation in a 24.6MP capture, who cares? Instant stabilisation with every lens isn't just appealing economically, in low light it lets us go places we've never been before – and legacy glass is given a whole new lease of life: Minolta's superb and relatively inexpensive 50mm and 58mm f1.2 lenses will be extremely satisfying in this new environment.

    Then, too, there is a sense that Canon in particular has recently grown complacent. The 5D, for instance, was such a fantastically capable machine back in 2004 that even now the Nikon D3 only outperforms it by a small margin, at a huge premium in cost. The 1Ds series also has been content to rest on its laurels, ticking along with evolutionary upgrades. And for a while, the policy was justified: why change a winning formula? In hindsight it's clear to see that Canon's CMOS technology was so far out in front during 2004-2006 that we could legitimately say they had no peers, which can be a bad thing.

    At the bottom end of the market, the 450D is clearly shaped by the competition: it's a well honed machine with a properly thought-out system to support it: LiveView, a carefully considered balance between quantity and quality of pixels and a well judged price point. Lens-wise, the wide end is covered with a fine 10-22mm, IS where you need it most – on a superb f2.8 mid-range zoom, and beyond. But Canon's dominance of the mid-ground has already weakened: the Nikon D300 is considerably more attractive than the Canon 40D and the D3 (at a price) knocks spots of the aged (and still competitive) 5D. Great things are expected of the 5D's replacement(s) but Canon finds itself on a sticky wicket in 2008: facing concerted opposition from Nikon, the like of which hasn't been seen since the days of the F5 . . . and now Sony muscling in.

    You get the impression that Sony users are in for an exciting ride for the next two years; whereas Canon users are guaranteed only products less interesting than the 1Ds III which effectively caps the upper limits of the company's ambitions. Nikon's position is rather more interesting (which is why we're already seeing a modest reversal of the Nikon->Canon migration of 2002-3) because they have delivered some truly groundbreaking FX lenses in the last six months, and the D300 Sony tie-in leaves open the intriguing possibility of a Sony-sensor FX Nikon . . . .

    Why aren't we also considering the exciting new Pentax and Olympus models in this article? Because they're not 'pro' cameras. What's a 'pro' camera, then? I propose the most reliable answer to be: better than yours, mum. We can't truly draw lines in the sand: you can make money with very modest equipment, and that makes you a professional. It's obviously not benchmarked by 'X' megapixels or even (a tempting definition, this) the size of the sensor: APS-C and smaller = amateur; 36mm and bigger = professional. But there will always be a necessary distinction between the gear a wedding photographer brings to an event and that of the guests. The equipment also needs a certain baseline level of reliability and durability to cope with the rigours of professional life. And finally, you've got to have system support: the full gamut of specialised tools and accessories that make the difference between 'pro' and 'am'.

    Here the Minolta legacy once more comes to the fore: the G range has few obvious omissions, and reassuringly, Zeiss is delivering on its promises to develop state-of-the-art Sony-mount optics. Furthermore, Sony's stake in Tamron also gives it fast-track access to its generally excellent range. Endearingly, Sony seems committed to making geeky improvements to existing designs for project Alpha: Tamron's 18-250mm was given a shorter-throw AF mechanism for improved speed before it was rebranded Sony; Minolta's classic 50mm f1.4 (and other designs) have improved multicoating . . . someone somewhere at Sony really cares about this stuff.

    Another plus is the Minolta mount itself. Like Canon's EF mount (with a register of 44mm), it has a relatively short (44.6mm) flange distance, The significance of this will not be lost on many readers of this site, but for those not au fait with adapted lenses, the longer registration of Contax, Leica, Olympus, Nikon, Pentax, and Rollei lenses creates that crucial few mm in which to sandwich a mount adaptor. Planet Sony is about three years behind Canon when it comes to adapting lenses, but already there are serviceable AF-confirming M42 adaptors available enabling some great (and cheap) screw mount glass to be used – with SSS, lest we forget – on the Alphas.

    Even more importantly, the M42 mount is your gateway to tilt and shift lenses, thanks to Mirex. Put an M42 adaptor on a Mirex Hasselblad or Mamiya 645 tilt/shift device and you can use any Mamiya 645 or Zeiss 'Blad optic for 15mm shift and/or 10° tilt movements. Personally, I use this in EF and have converted my Olympus 35mm PC lens into a Mamiya 645 mount to gain tilts; the same procedure could easily be undertaken to convert the Olympus 24mm PC.

    Equally crucial for some, the M42 mount is your gateway to the latest Zeiss primes in ZS form. If you had an A900 (or whatever it's going to be called) in your hand today, you could immediately mount on it Zeiss 35/2, and 50mm and 100mm f2 Makro lenses, all of which are proven to resolve hi-def 36mm sensors satisfactorily. It seems inevitable that a top drawer ultrawide Zeiss prime will be forthcoming in the near future: perhaps even the 21mm Distagon in ZS mount, which would pair beautifully with a 24.6MP Sony.

    However, setting aside for a moment the difficulties of brand perception, right now the Sony system clearly isn't capable of supporting a full-blown switch from Canon or Nikon, but it's not lacking much that won't be available in a matter of weeks: we are promised a fast wide angle from Zeiss (a 24mm f1.4 is suggested, somewhat wishfully!) and a fast ultrawide zoom, which may or may not a reincarnation of the N 17-35mm . . . .

    Assuming these, then, a very satisfactory system could be built comprising the Minolta 16mm fisheye, 'fast ultrawide zoom', 'fast wide angle', Minolta 28mm f2, 24-70/2.8, 50 Macro, 70-200mm f2.8, 85mm f1.4, 135mm f1.8, 200mm f2.8 and whatever superteles you need. Bear in mind that the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 was widely coveted in autofocus N form and has previously only been available to Canon users in manual focus or expensively converted form. From the Canon side of the fence, we've never seen what a Zeiss 135mm f1.8 with autofocus and stabilisation can do . . . mount this lens on the speedy A700 and you have a pocket money, pocket-size combination that bears close comparison with a Canon 5D and 200mm f1.8 – except the Canon wouldn't have IS!

    Prospects like that make us very excited about Sony in 2008, which is why we'll be running a detailed series of tests in advance of the Sony Flagship's arrival to assess the breadth and depth of Sony/Minolta's lens range. We'll be scrutinising the latest Sony/Zeiss designs, comparing them with Canon and third party offerings, as well as legendary Minolta optics. We'll be trying obscure M42 designs, adapting Minolta MC, Nikon and Contax lenses for the Alpha mount, and generally taking a long hard look at the professional viability of the system. Unless they fumble the ball badly, I think we might be switching out of Canon and Nikon altogether.

    It might seem strange to consider Sony as a player on this field, but it wasn't long ago that people laughed at the idea of Sony TVs and games consoles. And let's not forget that Sony already has a very well established and respected presence at the uppermost end of the video camera market. You might also try prising the covers from some of your rear view LCDs and checking out the Sony labels on the components . . . when a company this big wants in on the action, and when they already have so much invested in similar fields, it's a safe bet that they will impact heavily on the technological landscape. The Pro DSLR market may be the toughest nut of all to crack, but Sony is a weighty hammer: perhaps 2008 will be Sony's year.
    Don Schap - BFA, Digital Photography
    A Photographer Is Forever
    Look, I did not create the optical laws of the Universe ... I simply learned to deal with them.
    Remember: It is usually the GLASS, not the camera (except for moving to Full Frame), that gives you the most improvement in your photography.

    flickr® & Sdi

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Dec 2006
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    surprisingly, an interesting read given its obviously written by a die hard KM fan. plenty of BS in there about the usefulness of IS, but alot of good points being made aswell.

    i for one hope the a900 blows the lid off the top end. i think we'd all like to see a sub $3k FF dslr in the near future.
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