Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sony Announces A7 and A7R With Absolutely No Surprises

Sony has officially announced their new, full-frame, mirrorless system. Everything that we expected to be right with the system is right, and everything we expected to be wrong is wrong. The cameras themselves are very competitive in their price and feature set and I wouldn't be surprised if we see immediate discounts on the EOS 6D and Nikon D610. Of course, it would make the most sense for Sony to discount the A99, but this is Sony we're talking about. They don't have the budget to do two smart things in one go.

So what's right? Basically, the cameras. They are decently impressive. I'll have to wait to see what the speed of operation is to make a full assessment, but on paper, they are very good. Also, I am in love with the sizes of these things. Sony has crammed an immense amount of stuff into some featherweight bodies that make a Leica look portly.

Sony has given us clean, uncompressed HDMI out, which is nice. It's only 1080p, but with such a small body, that sensor is going to get hot. But as with the A99 and the VG900, it's the actual video quality that's important. I hope to see some serious upgrades to the video quality, although honestly, at this point, if I was interested in video and photo, I would just go with a Magic Lantern 5D Mark III. It's as close as we get to the magic, all-in-one camera.

It's a small thing, but I'm glad that Sony is using extant battery designs. That means that if you're already invested in Sony's NEX system, you already have the batteries you need. And with only 300-400 shots per battery, you're going to need a few.

What's wrong? Sigh. The lenses. They're slow, large, and overpriced. At least, I'm making the assumption that they are overpriced. I hope they aren't. They're slow, that's undeniable, but here's hoping that they sacrificed some speed for sharpness. The $1,000 price for the 55mm lens and the $800 price for the 35mm, basic lenses, are absurd unless they are as sharp as an X-Acto knife.

Both Canon and Nikon have 50mm and 35mm lenses for half those prices that are faster to boot! The only problem with them is that they are very soft wide open, so if Sony is selling one that's sharp at f/1.8, then that would indeed be a desirable lens. I hope that's true, because neither Nikon nor Canon have done much updating to their basic primes in many years and the lenses are showing their ages, very badly in some cases.

There was one surprise, but not a big one: the vertical grip. Obviously, they are targeting higher-end customers, so the much-desired vertical grip isn't a total shock, it hadn't been mentioned at all in earlier leaks. This will also likely hold two more batteries, giving you an all-day tool. So, yeah. There you have it.

Again, for me, the most interesting thing in this whole mess is the RX10. Assuming the lens is sharp, that is something we've never seen before — not even close. Superzooms have traditionally been marketed at people with money and no brains. I'm not kidding. The companies usually euphemize this and call them "active amateurs" or some such nonsense meant to imply soccer moms.

And while there are some superzoom cameras out there with very long effective ranges, and some rather good glass on them, they use supersmall sensors to achieve those numbers. It's very easy to make a long, quality lens for a sensor that's the size of a pinky fingernail. And when the sensor is that small, no matter the glass, the photos look like they were taken on a P&S... because they were. The RX10's output will be in a different league.

The companies are usually loathe to put anything good in this price bracket because, again, they don't want people to have good products. They want people to upgrade and buy into a system. And even then, they are loathe to give customers much good at the entry-point to the system, because they want to protect their higher-end products.

See. This is the reason why neither Nikon nor Canon have innovated anything at any price point for nearly a decade. Instead, they produce alarmingly stupid garbage like the Nikon 1 and the EOS M.

Enough about the other companies, though. The RX10 is so special that it may become a common piece of kit for professional photogs. The RX100's sensor is more than capable of producing fantastic, natural-looking images — nothing like P&S cameras. That f/2.8 lens with an equivalent focal length of nearly 600mm means that a photog could shoot damn-near an entire wedding with just that little wunderkind! Bird photography suddenly becomes possible for the average person! Nature shots! Distant landscapes! I cannot wait to try this thing out. It is a wonderfully positioned product in the market.

It's also a dangerous product, and one that I think Sony has balls for releasing. The RX1 and RX100 were not dangerous. The RX1 was aimed at a very specific, high-end customer. The RX100 was perfectly priced for people who wanted a P&S but were willing to pay a bit more, but not too much more. At $1,300, the RX10 is in precarious territory. I think that with good marketing, well-heeled families will eat up what this camera is serving, but marketing really needs to hit hard about its benefits, because hoooo-lordy, does it have benefits.

As I had said before, there is a part of this that pisses me off. Sony has abandoned its cheaper systems. Even though they won't admit it explicitly, there is nothing else of worth coming for those in the APS-C E-mount or the APS-C A-mount. Sony has done what Canon and Nikon did and shifted focus to larger, full-frame lenses that are "compatible" with the lesser cameras. This eliminates the advantages of designing lenses for those smaller sensors: size, cost, and complexity of the optics. Lenses should always be designed for the sensor. That's why the RX1, RX10, and RX100 are all amazing. That's why the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 is a freaking world-beater.

Taking optics and bolting them onto a smaller sensor is a disservice to everyone involved. Unless, of course, you're buying cheap, old lenses on Ebay and putting them on your Olympus E-M5 to see how they look. That's awesome.

Of course, there is one advantage in that there is nowhere else for Sony to run. They have chosen the last horse. It's safe to buy into this system because there are no other systems. Sony is sure as hell not going medium format, so they can't abandon this one. Hopefully, Sigma will continue with their Art line of lenses and keep APS-C alive, because there are some great, small cameras in that market that make excellent companions to these high-end pieces.

The final point I want to make in this rambling mess is that the innovation game has finally come knocking on the front door of Canon and Nikon's moneymakers: full-frame gear. There has been a whirlwind of innovation and work happening at the ~$1,000 price point, while Canon and Nikon blithely ignore it, looking down from on high with their $3,000 SLRs. Well, Canon, Nikon, you arrogant shits, the hungry, underdogs that you have hitherto been ignoring are finally coming to call. They're putting the money necessary into taking you down.

Olympus and Panasonic, for all of their faults, have a compact system that is leagues better than yours. Sigma's autofocus is finally getting as good as yours. Cell phones have destroyed your P&S business. And now Sony has undercut your previous full-frame gear by hundreds of dollars, all the while providing something that may be a superior product. This may not be a surprise, but it is still a fantastic announcement, the ramifications of which I excitedly await.

Competition, fuck yeah.

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