Sony interview: Ten years from now, will mirror-based cameras be a distant memory?
posted Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 6:01 PM EST
Nearing the end of our CES interview lineup, Sony's Mark Weir (Senior Manager of Technology and Marketing) shares his take on the state of technology and the camera market. In the future, will any cameras have mirrors? Where's Sony going with the NEX lens roadmap? What are Sony's plans for full-frame SLRs? Read the transcript carefully; you'll find some intriguing hints in Mark's answers!
Dave Etchells, Publisher, Imaging Resource:
We were all saddened by the Thailand disaster, and I know that that had a significant impact on Sony, but I've also heard a lot of favorable reports on what you're doing to recover from it. Can you give us any kind of an update on the flood recovery and how it's proceeding, and when you think you'll be back to full strength?
Mark Weir, Senior Manager of Technology and Marketing, Sony Electronics Inc.:
Sure. As you know, the floods affected much of the industrial section of Thailand where cameras and other products are built, and since that time, since the floods and the damage that was caused at the end of October, we've been striving to restore production facilities and production capacity, so that we can increase our production to meet the demand for the models that we manufacture in Thailand. I think everyone who has followed this has read some amazing stories of what the workers have done to try to restore the facilities that were damaged, and the often heroic measures that were taken to recover the key components of manufacture, and to try to recover the facilities themselves. We at Sony of course, some of our facilities were damaged, significantly. We have moved production from some facilities to others, which is one of the flexibilities that we have, in that we have a variety of different facilities in a variety of different areas, and we have actually restored production to the point where we were able to ship limited quantities of the NEX-7 in December, and we shipped A65 and A77 in some quantities before the end of the year, and we're looking forward to ramping up to meet the demand of our consumers in February and March.
MW: Yes, not as much as we would have wanted, and not as much as consumers had wanted, but we were able to ship all models within calendar 2011, and we shipped a good quantity of A65 and A77 in November, and then some quantity of NEX-7 in December.
DE: The NEX line seems to have been a huge success for Sony. How's that shaking out now in the breakdown between NEX versus SLT versus SLR sales? Is the balance shifting towards the NEX type products, as opposed to SLR form factors?
MW: Industry-wide, it's clear that 2011 was a year in which mirrorless came into its own. It's no secret that the adoption rate of the mirrorless category in the US relative to, say, areas like Asia is not as great. I think most know that the mirrorless portion of the interchangeable-lens camera business has been hovering just a bit below 10% for the two years that mirrorless has been available.
DE: Is that in the US or worldwide?
MW: In the US. Starting a couple of years ago, it was a small fraction of the interchangeable-lens camera business, and it rose steadily to 5, 6, 7 percent, whereas in Asian countries mirrorless as a percentage of total interchangeable-lens cameras rose to 20% fairly quickly. So it's no secret that the adoption rate in the US is a bit slower than it has been in other areas, but now in 2011 as more manufacturers have entered the category and the products have become more exciting and more advanced--and more attractive--we see that that rate has grown quite a bit. I think most would say that the industry was probably going to end up more like about 12, 13, 14 percent for the year of 2011, and is actually pushing towards 20% in November and December.
DE: So it's been an accelerating trend in the US, it's slower to take off, but it seems like it's ramping up now?
MW: Yes, and that matches the adoption rate of other new categories that have been introduced over time. It takes a little time to build up momentum, and then when it does, picks up pretty well.
DE: Well certainly one thing that's been going on is that the CSC... the compact system camera space is becoming a lot more crowded with a number of manufacturers making them. Is that helpful in that it's raising awareness on the consumer's part, or is it making it harder, is it attacking margins and making it harder for anyone to make a profit? Where do you think we're at on that spectrum?
MW: The more manufacturers offering a product, and the greater variety of products in a particular category, the more interest it's generally thought that customers will have in the category. So I think everyone would agree that more choice, more variety, more manufacturer engagement has been very good for the compact system camera category. I don't know that the fierceness of the competition has caused it to be challenging in the category yet. I think that the category is still very much in its infancy, and it's still got a long way to go if it's going to become a major portion of the interchangeable-lens camera business, so I think that customer awareness is growing, and manufacturers are learning how to operate in the space.
DE: Sony has a range of NEX models at different price points now. We're curious how the balance is working out between the low end, the NEX-C3, versus NEX-5N or NEX-7. Where do you think the weight of the consumer interest is, low to high-end, in the US?
MW: I think it really depends on the customer evolution, more than anything else. If you think about it, the mirrorless camera segment, or the compact system camera segment was originally conceived--I think most would agree--to appeal to those users stepping up from a compact point and shoot camera, who consider an SLR and choose not to buy one, typically because of size, weight, complexity, things like that. That was the conventional wisdom, and I do believe in the long term, that will be the primary appeal for these cameras. However, during the early adoption stages, I think it's been pretty clear that a more enthusiast-focused customer has been a larger percentage of the purchasing than most-anyone would have expected, so typically we see middle-level models performing very, very well and being very high-demand, even more so than the entry-level models. And I think that that's changing as time passes, because more and more of the original core customer, the entry-level customer who's stepping up from a point and shoot to an interchangeable-lens camera, I think more and more of those customers will come in, and then naturally the entry-level models will become more and more popular. But at least at first, at least through the first couple of years of CSC evolution, that hasn't always been the case. For instance, right now there's tremendous demand for our NEX-5N. It's a very much sought-after camera, and I think everyone knows that the NEX-7 is very much sought-after as well, and that cuts across the grain from what you would expect if the mirrorless segment was originally designed to attract that step-up point and shoot user who wasn't ready for an SLR. But certainly, as time passes, it's almost inevitable that the portion of entry-level users will grow significantly, and that's where we'll see the entry-level models becoming more and more popular.
DE: That's certainly been our experience in the US, is that the enthusiasts are really what's driven it. Do you think that the more rapid adoption in Japan, has that been more the true consumer-level users coming in, the entry-levels?
MW: Yeah, again, I'm not nearly as familiar with the demographics as I should be to make an informed comment, but if you look at the models that have been introduced and developed, it would certainly suggest that that's the case.
Arthur Etchells, Features Editor, Imaging Resource:
You see more of a skewing towards lower-end models, towards the lower price-points, and...
MW: Yes, and I wouldn't say lower-end as much as I'd say simpler to use.
MW: Yes, more geared for those who are beginning to explore photography, as opposed to those who're well-versed in it, shall we say. Because, it's interesting, you would expect that the enthusiast would require more direct control, lots of control wheels, knobs, buttons, dials, things like that, and the novice would prefer the simpler user interface, and the more automatic exposure control, and that seems to be more of the theme of the models that are popular in Asia than it is here in the US.
DE: The SLT models--the Translucent Mirror cameras--have been another huge success for Sony, they've really brought new capabilities that didn't exist previously for SLRs. Do you see any future for SLRs within the Sony product line? Another way to say it is: is there any reason to make a non-SLT?
MW: From an industry standpoint, those with a lot of investment in moving-mirror, optical viewfinder technology, SLRs, would certainly say that there are plenty of reasons. (laughs) I think that it's really more a matter of time. I think that what our SLT cameras have done, is they have shown what can be done with the technology, and have suggested what can be done with each iterative improvement in the core device technology. I think that the first generation of SLT cameras was well-received, but enthusiasts would say that it was a great idea, but it wasn't good enough. The viewfinder wouldn't be good enough, the picture quality may not have met their expectations. But I think that with the second generation of SLT, we demonstrated that with improvement of the core device technology, that we could realize a camera that was very much within the consideration-set of even enthusiasts, and we're committed to further developing the core devices on which Translucent Mirror technology is dependent, and as we improve the devices, I think that the advantages--the fundamental advantages--can become just that more appealing, and whatever advantages that conventional moving-mirror SLRs have could become less appealing. But I think it really is dependent upon further developing the devices to the point where it's at least as good as... and then the other advantages really come to the fore. I'd say we're getting pretty close. Obviously there are some purists who would disgree, and we respect their opinion, and it's because we respect their opinion that we continue to develop the core devices. It's hard to imagine that 10 years from now, cameras will operate the way they did 60 years ago. Some would disagree with that, and we respect their opinion, but... 10 years is a long time, five years is a long time.
AE: What about the technology now is allowing people to reevaluate what an SLR should look like? You look at Nikon with their on-sensor AF systems, you guys with the SLT technology, why the experimentation now?
MW: I think a lot of the core elements are coming into play. The planets are aligning, if you will. I think a lot of it has to do with processing power. One of the great parts of processing power is that it does obey Moore's law. (laughs) You can get leaps and bounds in processing power easily with just a little bit of time passing, and I think that camera manufacturers are understanding that with endless or near-endless processing power, they can do things that a couple of years ago could never have been done, and I think that's being applied to some fundamentals in exposure control. I think it's very easy to see that effect in focus control.
AE: Contrast-detect versus not having to rely on phase ...
MW: Yes, who would have ever known that contrast-detect could get as quick as it is now? It may not be quite as quick as phase detect, but it's moving up pretty quickly. I think the refresh rate of LCD screens... Just the cameras that were introduced in 2011, not only from Sony but competitors as well, have easily demonstrated that if you clock the sensor that much more quickly, you can refresh the LCD or the viewfinder that much more quickly, and have a much, much more lifelike and great shooting experience. I think there's also device technology, certainly the idea of phase-detect on silicon, with that performing phase detect right off the image sensor instead of an independent optical sensor. I think that it's pretty clear that's going to be an important trend going forward. Again, the combination of greater processor power together with ever-increasing performance of core devices is... that is what is going to create the camera of tomorrow, if you will.
One of the great parts about CES is that it shows products from many different disciplines, other than just photography, and all you have to do is take a look at the way television is developing, and display technology is developing, and smartphone technology, computer technology, and you can see some pretty fascinating things happening, and it's only a matter of time before they're harnessed for camera development.
Shawn Barnett, Senior Editor, Imaging Resource:
We noticed a big difference between the NEX-7's image quality and the A77's, in that the latter was softer, and the NEX-7 achieved noticeably greater sharpness. We assumed it was a difference in the low-pass filter.
MW: I'm pretty sure the sensor in the A77 and the sensor in the NEX-7 both have a low-pass filter...
DE: We're just wondering if it might be a weaker low-pass filter in the NEX-7. There's a very noticeable difference in the images. If you put a set of A77 images next to the NEX-7's the difference is significant.
MW: Well, let's face it, I would imagine part of that is camera system design. The E-mount team and the A-mount team do have a certain degree of independence from each other. I can easily imagine the cameras being different. There are so many parts that are different in the camera, I think there are other things going on.
SB: Might they have even tuned it to be sharper in this camera and in maybe the A77, and left it less sharpened, so that a pro photographer could sharpen it?
MW: Honestly I don't know.
SB: We also wondered whether it might be the pellicle mirror.
MW: I think that enough testing has been done... It's easy enough to test the effect of the pellicle mirror. It's easy to do...
SB: I know, we haven't done it yet. We just don't have the LA-EA2 adapter any more.
MW: Others have done it, and I don't know that I've read anything conclusive that indicated that the pellicle mirror represented an impediment to picture quality. I have read that... there were some reports of ghosting with first-generation, and I have read comments that said that in second-generation, that ghosting was completely eliminated, so there must have been some change to the device itself.
DE: That ghosting was at very, very high contrast levels. A very strong light source in a dark environment, so I'm fairly convinced that it wouldn't be the pellicle mirror producing the change in softness. I think for whatever reason, say there's two different teams that developed it, my guess is that they just chose a different trade-off on the low-pass filter.
MW: Yes, and I would say that there are numerous examples of what are thought to be same sensors delivering different results in different cameras, so... (laughs)
SB: (laughs) I do know this, yes.
DE: I stated the question a bit too broadly earlier, about SLT versus SLRs. I guess really one thing that I was trying to get at was... not so much is there any reason for anyone to make an SLR any more, but is there a reason for Sony to make an SLR as opposed to an SLT.
MW: Our guiding principle has always been to study the demands of customers, and to react to that, and interpret that, and deliver those products that we believe the customers will be most satisfied with, or to exceed their expectations wherever we can, and certainly the last several models that we've introduced have been Translucent Mirror models, but we've more than demonstrated that we have competence with moving mirror. Actually, in some ways we have unique competence, because we've been able to create moving mirror with full-frame, and there are very few companies who can do that. And we've also created moving mirror with moving sensor with full-frame, and there are no other companies that have done that. So we certainly have the capabilities, and we'll implement the design direction based on the way we see the technology evolving, and the market forces evolving.
DE: So if you see a large, angry mob of customers coming demanding a conventional SLR... Sony would respond.
MW: I think Sony always keeps their customers in the front of their minds.
DE: You mentioned full-frame, actually, that was another question, a dual question. Is the SLT technology really extensible to full-frame bodies, and part of that, will we see Sony return to the full-frame market. Is all of the demand on the sub-frame and system camera side?
MW: I think it's clear that from the market size point of view, the vast majority of the market is sub-frame. There's no doubt about that. The industry seems to have shown no great concern for making smaller and smaller sub-frame sensors. Used to be that APS-C was sub-frame, but there's certainly smaller ones than that now. Nonetheless, all one would have to do is to consider our lens lineup to easily see that we have a commitment to full-frame cameras. It would be very difficult to continue to offer several of the lenses that we offer without the context of a full-frame camera. So I think that provides ample suggestion of where we are with full-frame. A900 is still very much in the market, they're still available, and a lot of pros are very committed to the A900, so I think that our engagement with full-frame cameras is apparent, speaks for itself. In terms of creating Translucent Mirror for full-frame, I think everyone knows the challenges of creating a Translucent Mirror, particularly creating one of size, so it's not for the faint of heart, but we'll see.
AE: One of the questions our readers have is why is it that it's been several years since there was a Cyber-shot with a fast f/2.0 lens to compete with the Canon S100, or Panasonic LX5? Do you see the best option for consumers being something in the NEX line?
MW: Wide-aperture lenses have been available for compact cameras for some time, and we have in the past offered some very good wide-aperture lenses in our compact cameras, and the conventional wisdom would suggest that all compact cameras can benefit from wide-aperture lenses, but realistically I think that the benefit of wide-aperture lenses for compact cameras is more anecdotal than real. Certainly, f/2.0 apertures on a small image sensor have less of an effect than they would on a larger image sensor, and I think that there's a lot to be said for what can be done with small-scale image sensors by using reverse structure, back illumination. So I would say that, although on the surface, the appeal of a wide-aperture lens in a compact camera would be high because low f/ numbers means "good," I think if you look at the practicality of it, it isn't necessarily the case. I also think it's easy to forget that even though a compact may feature an f/2.0 lens at 28mm effective, it gives up that maximum aperture very rapidly as you move through the zoom range. Maybe just a few millimeters off wide angle... (laughs)
Certainly, I think there's an appeal there, but the functionality of that appeal I question, and let's face it--lens development for compact cameras requires a lot of resources, so I think that we are putting the wide-aperture lenses where they will have the greater impact, which will be on cameras with larger sensors.
DE: We're seeing a lot more activity around fixed-lens cameras with large sensors, and it's interesting looking back, there was Sony with the Cyber-shot DSC-R1 how many years ago now?
MW: Yes, I was writing an analysis of the G1 X and I thought to myself "Wow! It sounds like nothing more than an R1!" (laughs)
DE: Given that, what are your thoughts on that category? There's a good argument for them, given how low the attach rates are for lenses on a lot of interchangeable-lens camera systems, and I'm wondering... is this an area that we might see Sony return to at some point in the future?
MW: I think all manufacturers would like to make as many of the ideal cameras as they can, and certainly I think everyone at one point or another considered how to make the compact fixed-lens camera with the very large image sensor and the really, really nice lens. I think by now, everyone understands that there is a relationship between sensor size and lens size, and that--E-mount NEX-5s notwithstanding--it's very, very difficult to make a very small camera with a very big sensor. Well, let's say it's very difficult to make a small camera and lens that uses a very big sensor. So I think the current introductions, or the current announcements of cameras with fixed lenses that use large sensors are challenged by that. I mean, they're...
DE: They're not tiny cameras.
MW: They're big cameras. And they're expensive cameras as well. So what really happens is as much as it sounds like a great idea to make a fixed-lens camera with a zoom lens, with a very large image sensor, with an eye-level viewfinder, all the requisite things that you would expect that camera would have, it really doesn't become so much an idea of should you make a compact with a large sensor, as much as what is the value of interchangeable lenses? And as a manufacturer who, certainly, made a lot of very successful fixed-lens cameras at a time when we did not offer interchangeable-lens cameras, we were acutely aware of the appeal of interchangeable lenses, and honestly speaking, I would say that by the time you've made a commitment to photography--or an interest in photography, let's say it that way--that would lead you to a large sensor camera, it would be challenging to turn your back on interchangeable lenses and the flexibility that they give. Even though there are some excellent lenses that have been developed for the large sensor, fixed-lens cameras, they just simply can't offer the kind of flexibility that an interchangeable lens-mount and a system of interchangeable lenses can provide. So I honestly think that in spite of the fact that it's becoming more and more possible to make large-sensor compacts, the appeal of interchangeable lenses remains.
SB: However, the one thing I can't do with this NEX-7 is stick it in my jacket pocket very easily, because the lens is so long, so there's a little bit of an advantage to the compressibility that you also see in the G... I've gotta say it right, the GX1 actually, and the G1 X (laughs)--because the GX1 has a retractable lens--so the question then becomes, is there any plan for Sony to introduce a retractable lens?
MW: We are aware that E-mount cameras have the smallest bodies, or... it depends upon how you measure it, but arguably the smallest bodies...
SB: They certainly have been the target of everyone else to get that small, yes.
MW: Right, right. But because of the size of their image sensors, are challenged with the size of the lenses. So we are aware of that, and... we are aware of that. (laughs)
SB: Okay (laughs).
MW: But again, back to the question of fixed-lens, large sensor compacts, it becomes a compromise, because even those models that have been introduced: on the one hand you've got one with a zoom lens of, you know... a 4x zoom lens, which is actually a rather large camera. Yes, it's true that it's a collapsible lens, but it's a rather large camera. And then you also have one with a fixed lens, and no zoom, and I think that there's a certain level of tolerance of lack of zoom on the part of customers. That puts you into a niche, but... and more to the point, control of depth of field is not always determined solely by image sensor size. I would say that certainly, large image sensor-size compacts with fixed lenses face challenges of their own in terms of controlling depth of field that... only after they become available will people come to grips with that, shall we say. Because realistically you may be able to create a collapsible zoom lens, but your ability to create that lens with a wide aperture is a very serious challenge, and if the lens that you create gives up its maximum aperture very, very quickly, your ability to compress depth of field will be given up very quickly as well.
And again, that's one of the things that you have the flexibility to choose, when you have an interchangeable lens mount. So you get back to the same challenge. You know, the fact that it's a larger image sensor just makes the challenge more interesting to watch, but the challenge of fixed-lens or interchangeable-lens, the decision-making there remains the same, and I think the manufacturers who're making the decision about what to do have to weigh what they believe the market acceptance will be. And I think that at least so far, there's been evidence that the importance of the interchangeable-lens has been the deciding factor.
DE: The way that I see it, it's not so much an issue that... it's maybe not so much an either/or as both, and I think a lot of people buying those cameras are people who do have interchangeable-lens cameras, and this is just another camera for them, as opposed to...
SB: A lot of people really like mechanical zooms for convenience, you know--it's like they won't live without a zoom, so they don't want the X100. They want that shape and size. There's a significant amount of nostalgia that's being built into a lot of the cameras that are coming out right now, including this one...
MW: Oh, yes. Oh yes.
SB: Last time we talked, the NEX-7 and the A77 were concepts that you were merely alluding to in our interview, and so it brings to mind: we don't know the exact questions to ask, although we have hinted around them ourselves, but what might we expect at least conceptually from Sony in the coming year? You have wowed us with these two cameras in particular: the A77 and NEX-7. What's next for Sony?
MW: Well thank you. I think there are things that are specific to Sony, and then there are objectives that are more broadly-based for the industry as a whole. Let me start with the more broadly-based ones. I think the industry has to do a better job of making compact system cameras that appeal to novice users who are still hesitant to move away from a point and shoot camera. I think that the promise, and the opportunity of compact system cameras still has a way to go toward realizing the level of attractiveness it needs to, and also the opportunity that it has. So I think that that's one area that I think that everyone's working on. I think we can assume that every camera manufacturer would like to see their compact system camera broaden its base, and the way to do that is to appeal more, and deliver more value than it currently does.
I think that to leverage the point that we made earlier about the value of interchangeable lenses, the value of interchangeable lenses is borne out by whether or not there's a full system of interchangeable lenses. So I think that all of the manufacturers are hard at work identifying which lenses they should be developing, and not just in the context of the conventional lenses that have been available in the past for SLR systems, but what lenses are most appropriate for development for mirrorless systems. So I think that's a concern for all manufacturers, and Sony is obviously very concerned about that as well. All you have to do is look at the announcement that we made at Photokina a year and a half ago, and that was a very big concern. We've introduced seven lenses now, and obviously growing that to be more of a system is a concern for us.
I would say that more needs to be done to make cameras do more than just be cameras. I think that the ever-increasing behavior of image capture with smart phones and now tablets suggests that consumers are becoming more familiar and expect that their image capture behavior should be more intelligent, shall we say. I mean all you have to do is use the best smartphones as a camera for a while, to see that the imaging opportunities are very, very significant, and that it wouldn't be difficult for people to expect that consumers would expect that in their camera, but I think that camera manufacturers in general recognize this, but how to marry that user experience with the camera--with the traditional camera in particular--is still very uncertain. But I think that as we move forward, it's inevitable simply because consumers, once they become familiar with it, they quickly begin to expect it. And, as well they should! Because they're gonna use the device that provides the best user experience for them, there's no doubt about that.
SB: So that brings us to one of the questions that we've been asking, which is about integration with the Internet, or how best to get their pictures onto Facebook from their camera.
MW: Well, yeah, and an extension of that whole user experience is connectivity, sharing, etc., and at CES here I think that we've made that clear first through a Bloggie model, the MHS-TS22 that we showed here, that we're very serious about developing that user experience, and also the introduction of our PlayMemories applications, we're very serious about that. And I think most manufacturers recognize that it's not just about photography as it was 10 or 20 years ago. Photography is evolving, as a behavior it's evolving, and I think all manufacturers are working on that. So I'd say that those are general themes that we're surely going to see, not only from Sony, but from other manufacturers as well. It's inevitable.
I think that we have a real opportunity with our Translucent Mirror technology to further develop what SLRs can do. I think we've done a lot so far, and it wouldn't take too much imagination to think of other things that we could do with the technology, and we're certainly working on that. I think video capture is becoming a more and more regular behavior, I think we're gonna reach the point fairly soon where all interchangeable-lens cameras will capture video. Or actually, all interchangeable-lens cameras will capture HD video. So I think that that will put pressure on camera design because obviously traditional SLRs are a bit challenged with video capture. Not just the cameras, but also their lenses. Obviously companies with a fully-realized mirrorless system are a little ahead of the game in that respect, but I think that video capture as a medium is going to advance, and the capture devices will advance with it. All you have to do is look around this show, and you can see that video will continue to evolve, I mean... 4K is everywhere! (laughs) And it's not hard to imagine 4K personal content creation. I think I've already seen one company demonstrating a 4K camcorder that wasn't too far up into the industrial area, so...
DE: Mark, as always, it was great talking with you.
MW: My pleasure.