Q&A with Sony’s Mark Weir: Big tech and development decisions yield a big year for Sony cameras

by

posted Friday, February 8, 2013 at 5:23 PM EDT

 
 

Sony had a big year in digital cameras last year, especially when you consider that the company launched four cameras -- the RX100, NEX-6, A99 and RX1 -- that could all be considered blockbusters. So what does Mark Weir, senior technology manager at Sony Digital Imaging, have to say about their success? That's what Imaging Resource's publisher Dave Etchells, managing editor Roger Slavens and director of development Arthur Etchells aimed to find out in a recent sit-down interview where we discussed Sony's product development and technology decisions, that sweet RX1 Carl Zeiss lens and sensor size, as well as overall camera industry trends.

Dave Etchells/Imaging Resource:  The Sony RX1 created a lot of buzz at the end of last year, how is it being received? Are you managing to keep up with the demand?

Mark Weir/Sony: It’s still early on in the delivery cycle. We did ship some quantity in November and a larger quantity in December. And a few lucky consumers got one over the holidays. Demand has been very strong.

DE: Based on our hands-on experience, we've found the RX1 to be a really fantastic camera. It has a really great Carl Zeiss lens but it's a fixed 35mm focal length. Has there been any thought given to providing add-on modifiers for the RX1 lens?

MW: Not really. I think the purity of use and the purity of the RX1 was really part of the design process. And even though we certainly realize the value of interchangeable lenses and certainly we offer very high performance interchangeable lens cameras, the design ideal and the photographic style that a fixed focal length 35mm lens provides is really what the intention of the camera was. It certainly makes you concentrate a little bit more on the creative process, pay attention to your photography and I think many have discovered that that is very much to their liking.

 
 

DE: There have been a few times in using it that I would have liked a longer focal length. But you’re right, the idea of putting an additional front element on a Carl Zeiss lens, is kind of like putting a brush rack on a Lamborghini or something.

MW: With 24 megapixels available to use, the cropping into the shot to realize a 70mm effective focal length (2X) is certainly easy to do with direct access keys. So we think that that flexibility is there.

DE: Currently, the app development environment for the RX series is closed to third-party developers. Sony alone controls it. Do you think there might come a future time where the interface will be opened up to outside developers?

MW: We can’t really speak of what’s going to happen in the future. But I think that our intention remains constant, and that we need to maintain the performance of the camera as a camera. It’s not a smartphone, which means we do have to maintain the performance and the consistency of performance of the camera. That’s really our primary goal. We very much would like to add flexibility, versatility and personalization to the camera but not by sacrificing its performance.

DE: On another front, several of our readers want to know why camera manufacturers can't agree upon and use a universal standard RAW file format. Right now, Adobe has DNG. Some manufacturers have adopted that either as a primary RAW format or an option. What are the advantages of having a proprietary RAW format versus one that's shared by all manufacturers?

MW: I think that the position of the majority of the manufacturers is very much the same. As sensor technology evolves, the RAW format often needs to evolve to embrace what new sensor technology can do. To create a universal RAW file that all sensor manufacturers would adhere to may limit the opportunities of what we can be achieved.

Are there advantages to universal standard? Sure, and those manufacturers that have accepted universal standards would suggest that those advantages are most important. But I believe that all we have to do is take a look at the evolution of sensor technology over the last 3 or 4 years and we can see things that we couldn’t have even imagined that far ago. So I would think that unless and until someone creates a universal standard that could anticipate everything that sensor technology could achieve as it evolves, it would be difficult to imagine that such a universal standard would be adopted by all sensor manufacturers and camera manufacturers. 

Roger Slavens/Imaging Resource: Speaking of sensor evolution, Sony’s made tremendous strides in pairing large sensors with compact camera bodies. But many consumers still seem to be focused on megapixels. What do you have to do as a manufacturer to get your potential customers up to speed about the importance of sensor size?

MW: I think you’ve captured exactly what the industry needs to do -- educate, provide not only examples but also provide experience, hands-on experience, with the advantages that sensor size brings. There is an increasing number of consumers today that are interested in quality photography. And I think that enough time has passed that the race for megapixels in the mind of the consumer is not the driver that it once was. I think as the photographic experience of consumers continues to grow, interest in other parameters of camera performance obviously also grows. Consumers are beginning to understand the advantages of a larger sensor, of how that translates to better quality photographs, but we still have to do more to educate them about it so they can grasp its importance.

RS: That said, I still think there are some mixed messages going on in the market because we see a lot of manufacturers releasing a whole new swath of cameras where sensor sizes are staying the same but megapixels continue to rise.

MW: Some camera manufacturers behave like many device manufacturers. They’re going to look at how different customers perceive cameras, how they react to them, what their drivers of purchase are. And there certainly still is a high percentage of consumers who react to higher resolutions; their handle on camera performance is megapixels. Pocket cameras -- many of which share a similar sensor size -- may be differentiated by resolution in a first-time camera buyer's mind. And manufacturers will continue to offer higher and higher resolution cameras to stand out in that market segment. But I would say that the percentage of consumers who judge a camera that way is going down.

 
 

DE: Another reader had a question about the development of the Sony A99 . Why not put dual processors in it, given its position in the marketplace and the fact that the camera it's replacing, the A900, had dual processors?

MW: I don’t think it’s an issue so much of dual processors as it is more processor power -- regardless whether it comes from one processor or two or four. Processor power and probably the corollary to processor power, which is RAM, has a profound impact on the performance of the camera. But at the same time, it also has a profound impact on the cost. I think it’s nothing more than a cost to benefit concern.

Obviously, there are many things in an A99 that are very expensive. There are things in an A99, or any Translucent Mirror camera, that a moving mirror camera doesn’t have to face in terms of cost. And one of the things that we prioritized was the ability to realize a full-frame Translucent Mirror camera, and the balance of the rest of the bill of materials that’s in the camera pretty much determines what we were able to do.

DE: You no doubt had a cost point in mind for it to be viable. Do you have any sense of how much more capable the single processor in the A99 is than the dual-processor A900?

MW:  It's a pretty significant jump in processing power. Let me give you just a few examples of things the A99 processor has to contend with that the A900 dual processor didn't. The A99 gathers information from the on-sensor phase-detect AF points, which requires a considerable amount of processing power to handle that data. The 14-bit data in the RAW format is also a considerable increase in processor load, as is the adaptive noise reduction for JPEGs.

Keep in mind there is also another LSI on board, so it’s not just the single processor. This front end helps with the data flow.

DE:  Ah - you're saying the LSI is more hardwired and that’s handling a lot of very high-speed work. You count that as part of the processing power. So, in reality, the A99 does have two processors, one just happens to be an LSI chip.

MW: Yes.

DE: You answered this already from the standpoint of build cost, but buffer RAM is not terribly expensive these days. It seems like a small investment there would do a lot for buffer depth and appease your customers who want more.

MW:  We certainly have received plenty of feedback on how much buffer depth is enough. We recognize those concerns.

DE:  Just like you can never be too handsome, you can never have too much buffer, I guess. [laughing]

MW:  Exactly.

DE: We’ve discovered in testing the A99 that having a very high-speed card makes a big difference in performance. Some who might complain about a lack of buffer depth would be well served to go out and get themselves a 95-megabyte-per-second card.

MW: Sure.

DE:  This is another big request from our readers, that I believe applies to pretty much all the Sony interchangeable lens cameras: When you’re in RAW plus JPEG mode, you can only shoot… is it just JPEG normal? You can’t shoot RAW plus JPEG fine or super fine?

MW: Yeah, we have received requests to be able to set JPEG compression while shooting RAW plus JPEG and we are aware of that request.

 
 

Arthur Etchells/Imaging Resource: Looking at both APS-C and full-frame, you guys use sensor-shift stabilization. What, if any, increase in image circle do you need from the lens to be able to accommodate the movement of the sensor?

MW: You mean what percentage increase is needed relative to the image circle required to just cover the sensor? Unfortunately, I don’t have a spec for that. I do know that in the development of the A900, there was some concern as to whether it was possible. There were some who thought that Sony would not be able to create a full-frame camera with sensor-shift image stabilization. But obviously, the A900 was introduced, and proved that it was possible.

AE: Was it just a matter of moving that large an element with precision, or was it a matter of having enough image circle available to work with?

MW: Well, part of it of course is moving the mass as precisely as necessary, and as rapidly as necessary, but part of the concern that was expressed at the time was. Part of it was whether the A-mount had the necessary size of imaging circle to support it, but it was quickly realized that it did.

DE: The NEX doesn’t use sensor-shift. I guess the issue there was just the depth: you had such a shallow envelope to work with there that it wasn’t really practical to fit in a sensor-shift mechanism?

MW: Well, I think that the decision to use optical-shift instead of sensor-shift in NEX was based on the intention to miniaturize the camera body. And if you look at the size of NEX, particularly from in the depth dimension, you can see that with 18 mm from flange to sensor and then there’s very little room from the sensor to the back of the camera, yes, there just wasn’t room.

DE: Last question, a broader one: How do you see the industry-wide market for pocket cameras -- point-and-shoots -- compared to interchangeable-lens cameras? Where are you seeing strengths? Waterproof/rugged models? Long-zoom cameras?

MW: From an industry perspective (which is what I can comment on), in spite of the threat to the average compact point-and-shoot camera from smartphone use, the majority of the market is still in what we commonly refer to as a compact point & shoot camera. Specialized compact cameras --  such as premium or rugged models, as well as high-zoom or bridge cameras -- are growing niches, but are still not to the level of the compact point & shoot segment. But they're not growing as fast as, say, the mirrorless market. And their growth is not large enough to offset the double-digit percentage drops of unit sales every year for the past two or three years now.

For straight-forward, entry-level compact cameras, it’s going to become more and more difficult to survive as smartphone image capture continues to proliferate. I think most anyone would say that the growth opportunity is going to be in those cameras that cater to customers’ interests in better image capture. A higher quality image capture, more flexible image capture, faster image capture. Even at lower and lower prices, it will be difficult for customers to see the value in something that behaves increasingly like their smartphones.

DE: How is the other end of the market with interchangeable-lens cameras? Mirrorless cameras were an immediate hit in Japan, but initially faced much slower growth in the U.S. and Europe. These cameras seem to finally be catching on in the U.S. What’s that trend look like, and what’s the balance between mirrorless and DSLRs?

MW: We are very aware of the balance between mirrorless and digital SLRs; we track it quite frequently. Obviously, mirrorless growth is greater than that of DSLR growth on a unit basis. And as a result, mirrorless continues its upward climb as a percentage of the total interchangeable-lens camera business. Obviously, the growth rate is not as quick as it was in other areas, such as Asia. But at the same time, the growth is steady. The next challenge for the mirrorless camera industry is to attract another kind of buyer because the initial adoption of mirrorless cameras, at least in the U.S., appears to be from consumers who were already familiar with interchangeable-lens photography. The real opportunity for mirrorless cameras is to capture the interest of first time interchangeable-lens camera buyers, and to present mirrorless as an attractive alternative to DSLRs.

DE: I think that about covers our questions for this time. Thanks, as always, for your time and insight, Mark!

MW: You're welcome.