Monday, September 10, 2012

The Sony RX1 Is The Harbinger Of Change

Ok. Excited gibbering time.

Sony has been the source of almost every major advancement in digital camera for the past three years. Olympus' IBIS system is very impressive, Fuji's X sensor is a full generation ahead of everything else out there, and the GH2 has been unbeatable for video (no thanks to Panasonic, though), but everything else is all Sony. As such, Sony is really the only company that, when something about them leaks, I stand up and listen.

We have a multitude of photos of the new A99, the 24Mp full-frame, SLT camera that (maybe/hopefully/please god) will allow the user to move the semi-translucent mirror out of the way when a shot is taken, maximizing the abilities of the sensor. One thing that the images confirm beyond any doubt is the disappointing lack of CompactFlash support. SD cards are much faster than they were in the past, but they still can't compete with the fastest CF.
Also, and while this has been known for some time, I'm a bit disappointed that they didn't opt for the 36Mp sensor for the A99. 36Mp is beyond my applications, and handling RAW files of that size would literally require a new computer, but it's the newest and best sensor that they make. And as tests have shown, operating in 20Mp mode results in tack-sharp images beyond would ordinary 20Mp sensors can achieve. Perhaps this is indicative of the mirror in fact not being mobile, forcing Sony to use a lower-res sensor to avoid nasty ISO/sharpness comparisons with the competition.

All things considered, the A99 is about what we thought it would be. It is Sony's extant design and engineering philosophy applied to a full-frame sensor. This isn't terribly exciting, but nor is it boring. It is the first major advancement to the FF world since the advent of digital, and that is certainly worthy of note.

Ohhh, but don't think that's the only trick Sony has. There have been rumors bubbling around for awhile of a "pro" level NEX camera for some time. I doubted them because Sony's doing very well in the pro and enthusiast market with the NEX-7, and as far as I've heard, it continues to sell strongly. Moreover, Sony still has a metric crap-load of catching up to do as regards lenses. Why release a pro-level NEX camera, possibly with a FF sensor, when they haven't even exploited the current NEX market?

Apparently, Sony felt the same way that I did. What they are releasing though, is much, much more interesting.
The RX1, the bigger brother to the already-beloved RX100, is going to be dropping in the next couple of months. It is a FULL FRAME COMPACT. This is amazing. Even Leica didn't have the balls to produce something like this.

There are scant few details about the camera, but we do know that it will have an f/2.0 Zeiss 35mm lens on front and cost somewhere slightly south of $3,000. That price is a bit high, I think, even if the lens is excellent. It makes me worry that Sony may be getting a bit arrogant. But that's speculation, I'll wait for further information.

What I take from this announcement is that the rumors of the pro-level NEX camera were real. As I mentioned, I don't think that Sony should invest in a pro-NEX system until they have some good lenses in the current NEX system... where they only have one good lens. But what is a compact camera but a camera with a very short flange distance? And what is a mirrorless camera but a camera with a very short flange distance? I think that the RX1 is the first experiment in a line that will inevitably result in a full-frame NEX camera sometime in the future. When that future will arrive is, of course, the question.

Obviously, Sony has some big plans for intercompatibility between the Alpha and NEX systems. The problem is that once you get up to pro-level work, they are not going to be as tolerant of "band-aid" fixes like the EA-1 adapter. They want native lenses. Granted, the jump to a full-frame NEX isn't as problematic as the crop APS-C, since putting the EA-1 adapter on a FF mirrorless simply creates a fully-functional FF camera, with the lens being completely utilized. But then, why bother making a mirrorless camera if you're simply going to put a mirror on it?

I suspect that what is going to happen is that Sony will dedicate their entire entry-level camera market to APS-C mirrorless and market a large selection of cheap and enthusiast level native lenses for that format. They will compete with high-end APS-C by pushing their FF cameras down below $2,000. The Alpha a850 was already there, and I think Sony has more room to maneuver (They should really shoot for $1,500). This opens up the Alpha line of FF lenses to a larger market without design concessions. Sony will supplement this market with a small mirrorless full-frame series of bodies and prime lenses intended to compete with Leica. Needing at attachment for high-quality zooms isn't as much of a band-aid since they are already long and heavy.

At least for awhile, Sony will continue to make and sell the APS-C SLR cameras, since the SLT technology is unique, and they've already designed the lenses, so they may as well use them. Moreover, if the only people using SLT cameras will be pros and enthusiasts, the cachet associated with them will actually grow, meaning that Sony may want to maintain their cheap SLT line for those who want to fake it. I guess that it's all a matter of market size. Since the NEX-5, 5n, and 7 quickly became Sony's most popular cameras, that leads me to believe that the market size for cheap SLT's just won't be large enough to justify the continued support and development.

As we get closer, I'm inclined to agree with Steve Huff: this will be the best Photokina ever. The market is heating up so much, and the release of the RX1 means that not even Leica is safe from competition. The times they are a-changin'.

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