Photo Review was given the opportunity to interview a senior executive in the Product Planning Department of Sony’s Imaging Division on the first day of the CP+ show in Yokohama, Japan.
Sony executive, Yutaka Iwatsuki, Senior Manager of Section 1 in the Product Planning Department Division of Sony’s Digital Imaging Group, shown with an α7 camera fitted with the new FE 135mm f/1.8 GM lens at the CP+ show on 28 February.
Iwatsuki-san introduced himself as the senior manager in product planning for ILC (interchangeable-lens cameras), also known as Alpha. He has been in this position for six-to-seven years. Initially, the session focused upon product development.
“As you know, from the viewpoint of development,” he explained, “ILC cameras take a long time to develop, starting from image sensors, image processors and also the optical design. Those take a lot of time. So whenever we develop a product we have to foresee the future of imaging – and our business. It’s not like saying ‘Let’s make a product for next year.’
“It was a long time ago when we first started to focus on mirrorless, with the aim being the α7. The first products were announced in 2013, when we launched full-frame mirrorless into the market.”
The display of the Alpha cameras and lenses on the Sony stand at CP+.
Touch & try counters on Sony’s stand at the CP+ show.
To provide some perspective on Sony’s product developments, the α7 and α7R cameras were announced together on 16 October in that year, initiating two distinctive product lines. The 24-megapixel α7 and 36-megapixel α7R were the smallest and lightest full-frame cameras available at that time and featured a new Sony Bionz X processor, 3-inch, tilting LCD monitor, high-resolution OLED EVF, 1080p 50/60fps video recording and Wi-Fi with NFC. A third line was added roughly six months later with the launch of the 12-megapixel α7S, which offered 4K video support plus a large sensitivity range with a wide dynamic range and low noise.
“Back then, the total number of customers in ILC market was decreasing,” Iwatsuki-san explained. “That was a big thing for us. Our vision for the ILC business was to create more customers in order to expand the total market so that more people can enjoy imaging. We thought we could offer more products and experiences in the future.”
Photo Review was a guest of Sony at the launch of its first ILC camera, the α100, back in June, 2006. That was Sony’s first venture into the ILC market and its first DSLR camera and it was designed and built using the product development team acquired by Sony when it finalised the take-over of the assets of Konica Minolta at the end of March 2006.
At the α100 launch, a Sony executive said the company aimed to become ‘Number One’ in the ILC market within 10 years. Sony has certainly fulfilled those ambitions in the full-frame mirrorless market sector.
Clarifying the company’s market position, Iwatsuki-san continued, “As you know, we create not only just stand-alone cameras but each core device, starting from designing the optical elements and lens actuators. Lens actuators are something not many people evaluate as part of lenses but they are actually a very important part. [They determine the autofocusing speed; ed.]
“We make all those elements by ourselves so whenever we want to make a concept camera we have more choices and flexibility in how to make that happen because we have all the core devices. We thought the idea of full-frame mirrorless will drive the market in a very exciting way. So we started all the development 6-7 years ago, believing this concept will be supported by many, many customers in the future.
“Those years have passed and we are very happy to actually see many customers are using our equipment. But we would like to grow the total market for the future. Another innovation will be the key for the next growth. We will keep innovating the ILC market to provide better customer experiences by always providing new technologies so people can be more excited.”
Throughout those years, Sony has concentrated on developing products around one single lens mount that is used in all ILCs.
“We have an internal strategy which means the E-mount is a common platform for all creators,” Iwatsuki-san explained, “because it covers a wide range of equipment from full-frame to APS-C. From photography to videography, cinematography and from the pocket-sized APS-C cameras to a cinematography camera called ‘VENICE’ with a full-frame sensor. They are all E-mount cameras.”
This illustration shows the ‘one mount’ strategy in effect in two of Sony’s latest cameras, the α7III with a ‘full-frame’ sensor (top) and the α6400 (below) with an APS-C sensor. (Images sourced from Sony.)
This ‘one mount’ strategy remains a core feature for future product development, although other features are also brought in with the aim of increasing Sony’s market share and bringing new users into the market..
“We need to keep offering a wide selection to provide flexibility for our customers,” Iwatsuki-san pointed out. “So when we focus on videography in addition to photography we have to look at many, many things. We also consider we have to provide value for the customer.”
Asked whether Sony would continue to develop for the APS-C format, the response was an emphatic “Yes”.
“One thing that makes Sony unique,” he added, ” is that we offer APS-C bodies, even to full-frame users. It’s another choice for them. Also, the other way around, we offer full-frame lenses that can be used on APS-C cameras without requiring an adapter. Only Sony can provide this.
“AI is another area in which we have been investing for a long time. Basically AI is about face recognition technology. This technology is not new to the industry; it’s been around for many decades.
“However, the challenge we have is the need to increase the power of image recognition while keeping power consumption low for mobile devices like cameras. There’s a trade-off because image recognition consumes power and requires bigger spaces for processors, etc.
So, how to co-exist speed for AI and long battery life is a big challenge.”
Extending face recognition into eye recognition and offering photographer the ability to choose which eye to focus upon have been recent developments in AI technology. The latest systems can recognise not only human eyes but also the eyes of animals and birds.
“Technologically, we can extend the range of subjects but we need to apply some priority to maximise the speed of the camera,” Iwatsuki-san explained. “So we need to work with the best photographers and videographers for our product development. We have to listen to their advice and consult photographers involved in sports, portrait, landscape and star-shooting. We also need to focus on many kinds of sports.”
Asked whether Sony might emulate the Olympus E-M1X’s dual battery system, he responded: “That could be interesting, but I’m not sure we’ll be going in that direction. We believe small size and light weight for the system will be very important in the future. Whatever innovation we will create we will always need to consider how to balance between innovation and light weight.
We want to make the market bigger and increase the number of customers so light weight and small size are important.”
Asked about when the α7S Mark III was likely to appear, his response was, “It takes time. We need to go beyond customers’ expectations and their expectations level is very high for that particular product.”
Queried about competition from Canon, Nikon and Panasonic, which recently released full-frame mirrorless camera systems, he stated, “Actually we don’t focus on our competitors so much. I would say we’d rather focus on customers. That others are entering the full-frame mirrorless market is welcome because that will bring more choices for customers.
“We hope the market will be excited but we don’t want to change our business to heavy competition. We’d rather go for how we can create the beautiful future of imaging.
“We will keep creating the APS-C system, which connects to the full-frame system without adapters. That’s what we can promise for the future. We believe the cropped sensor has different appeal. Both systems are important so the two system shouldn’t be isolated. the concept of one single mount is very important.”
Asked whether DSLR cameras are likely to vanish from the market, he said, “Personally I don’t think so. DSLR has its own value and attractiveness, and also there’s a long history with lots of lens assets in the market. However, the volume of the business will change. I think it’s because of innovation. If there’s a possibility that DSLR can bring another innovation, I would say that market will exist forever.”
Customers investigate Sony’s fixed-lens RX cameras at CP+.
Regarding fixed-lens cameras, the situation was slightly different. ‘One big thing we need to consider is the existence of smartphones among customers,” he affirmed. “Whenever we develop another fixed-lens digital still camera, we have to consider that people use both smartphones and cameras. What a camera manufacturer should do should be different from the way of smartphones. So we are focusing upon what only we can do.
“What should DCS s do to differentiate themselves from smartphones? Clearly it’s image quality and lens performance. Bigger sensors and lenses make fixed-lens differentiation easy so the RX series is definitely our focus area, in addition to the Alpha cameras. There are obviously some common areas where we can use the same technology as smartphones but I think that for ILC we have to focus upon what a bigger sensor can do.
“Also, cameras are dedicated imaging devices for capturing. That can differentiate our image processing engines from the ones used in the smartphones. Interestingly, among the younger generations, more people are enjoying photography and videography.”
As far as camcorders are concerned, the size of the market has been decreasing sharply for some time. “Fortunately, we are Number One in that area,” Iwatsuki-san added. “That the category is shrinking is a sad thing but, given its long history, what we’ve learned is now being applied to new cameras in the Alpha series.”
Eager customers try out the autofocusing capabilities of the latest Sony lenses at a special section of the Sony stand. Note: the toy cats are animated and move their heads unpredictably, enabling users to verify the advantages of the latest face and eye-recognition technologies.
On the subject of lenses, which are becoming a more important sector of the market if the number of displays of lenses at CP+ is any guide, Iwatsuki-san was emphatic. “We have to provide all kinds of lens designs so people can pick what they need, depending on the occasion. So we’ll keep developing lenses for the customers. Today you see some great lenses from Sony.
“For the future you may see different lenses in different categories. I can say two things: one is we will keep expanding the line-up of lenses. At Photokina we announced the total count will reach 60 lenses in the very near future and APS-C lenses will be counted.”
Discussion turned to the new FE 135mm f/1.8 GM lens, which had its own ‘touch & try’ booth on the Sony stand at CP+. Yutaka-san said there was ‘plenty of space for improvement’ when it comes to lenses.
“Lenses are not just the glass,” he stressed. “Designers must consider optical design and also the chassis. As you know, the resolution of image sensors keeps increasing. It’s already exceeded the resolution of 35mm film. Whenever we create another lens we have to think about future developments in resolution and how much we need for the next decade’s cameras.
“Because we make image sensors, we can foresee the future of imaging maybe better than our competitors. For the future that we know, we will need to create great lenses that will be attractive, even for the next decades.”
Asked how Sony plans to attract smartphone users, the response was: “Basically we have to do lots of things but the main focus will be the image quality and lens line-up. Of course we use bigger image sensors in our cameras and they offer better image quality and creative expression. “How we bring that message to customers is very important. The key will be, as I said, image quality.
“I think we’ve been strengthened by our lens actuators for a long time and the current generation of lens actuators moves very fast and stops very accurately. They also move very silently. Those factors are essential for stills users and also video users.”