Sony executive interview: The strategy and technology behind the Sony A99 II

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posted Tuesday, September 27, 2016 at 2:50 PM EST


 
 

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Kimio Maki, Senior General Manager, Division 1, Digital imaging Business Group, Sony Corporation and Takashi Kondo, Chief Marketing Manager, Marketing Division, Digital Imaging Business Group, Sony Corporation at the recent Photokina 2016 show in Cologne, Germany. Our meeting was the day after they had announced the Sony A99 II, their new flagship A-mount model. We of course had a lot of questions, but in the limited time I had with Maki-san, I focused mostly on higher level questions such as the strategy behind the A99 II and what the key factors were in its development. We'll be posting another article with deeper information on the technology behind the A99 II, hopefully in the not too-distant future.

Meanwhile, read on for my interview with Maki-san and Kondo-san; Mr. Maki has been the driving force behind Sony's relentless innovation in the camera business, and is always an interesting interview subject. Mr. Kondo has been involved with Sony's digital camera business about as long as they've had one; I'm not sure when I first met him, but he was Senior Vice President of Sony Electronics here in the US, back when the Sony Mavica floppy disk-based cameras ruled the market, as noted on this press release I found for the cute little DSC-P20 from June 2001.

 
Kimio Maki (left) and Takashi Kondo (right) of Sony Corp.

A new SLT camera? And a flagship model no less. What's up with that?

DE: We admit to being a little surprised at seeing a dramatic new product in the SLT line. We kind of had the feeling that Sony was moving away from the A-mount, and that you were really going to focus on E-mount. In your presentation yesterday, you mentioned different mindsets with the users, kind of different philosophies. How would you describe the strategy, and what are those two groups of users like?

Sony: In replying, Mr. Maki made the point that both lens mounts have their own distinct customer bases, as well as their own advantages, and that both remain important to Sony's business. On the one hand, the E-mount allows a smaller and lighter camera while still retaining high image quality. But since it's a younger mount, there isn't yet as wide a selection of lenses and accessories as are available for the A-mount.

On the other hand, the A-mount has access to a huge selection of lenses and accessories from over the years, be they Sony, Minolta, or Konica Minolta-branded. And the Translucent Mirror design used in Sony's A-mount cameras also allows for technologies that aren't possible in a mirrorless camera. For example, the hybrid phase-detection autofocus system of the Sony A99 II pairs on-chip phase detection autofocus pixels with a dedicated phase-detection AF sensor, a combination intended to provide both faster autofocus performance and greater accuracy.

And the A-mount is used by many loyal customers around the world, not all of whom will want to switch to a mirrorless E-mount camera, even with the availability of lens adapters to allow use of their A-mount glass. Sony feels an obligation to continue to support those customers, and at the same time, sees an opportunity to continue to offer newer and more capable camera bodies which retain native support for A-mount lenses.

For the A-mount, though, the usual paradigm has been turned on its head. Typically, camera manufacturers sell camera bodies as affordably as possible, then aim to sell you lenses which can be paired with those bodies; lens profit margins are generally higher than those for the bodies themselves. For the A-mount, though, there's already an enormous array of lenses available, and many customers will already own all or much the glass they need. What A-mount users do need is newer and better bodies that can best from those lenses, so the camera body itself has become the opportunity for recurring sales.

[Ed. Note: This certainly makes sense; A-mount lenses have been on the market more or less forever. So it's a smart business move for Sony to develop a flagship camera catering to that audience. I found it particularly interesting that Sony doesn't appear to view the A99 II so much a tool for convincing people to switch to Sony from Canon or Nikon (or Fuji or Olympus) as it is about delivering new technology to long-time A-mount loyalists, some of whom have been using the platform for decades.]
 

Autofocus performance

IR: As you've just said, the Sony A99 II has on-chip phase detection pixels much like, say, the A7 Mark II, but it also has a dedicated autofocus sensor. Can you give us a sense of how performance would compare between these cameras, and an insight into how you've been able to achieve the level of autofocus performance in the A99 II?

 
Kimio Maki
Senior General Manager
Division 1
Digital Imaging Business Group
Imaging Products and Solutions Sector
Sony Corporation

Sony: Maki's first point was that the A99 II is its first full-frame camera to feature a 4D Focus-branded AF system. (Previously, they've only honored sub-frame models with that appellation, such as Sony A77 II and A68 Translucent Mirror cameras, as well as in the A5100, A6000 and A6300 mirrorless cameras.) The company sees 4D Focus as an important distinguishing characteristic of its cameras, and he said they had to work hard to deliver an appropriate level of performance before it could justify using this branding on the A99 II.

We were a little confused by the "4D" naming, given that it's been associated with a range of models, both mirrored and mirrorless in the past. Mr. Kondo explained that it was a branding that they applied to their highest-performing AF systems. So it isn't a specific technology, but is used to indicate the pinnacle of AF performance.

[Ed. Note: Obviously, we've yet to test the camera for ourselves, although we've had some hands-on time at the company's press event. Subjectively, at least, we found focus speed and tracking performance both to be very good, suggesting the Sony has delivered on its goals. We'll withhold judgement, though, until we can test it in-depth.]

Mr. Maki wasn't able to put a number on just how much more performance could be expected from the A99 II when compared to the mirrorless A7 II, perhaps understandably since the performance will likely vary by subject and lighting conditions. He did note, though, that there are three main areas of improvement that were key to the A99 II's speed. Sensor readout speed has improved significantly, and the company has developed a new front-end LSI that contributes a lot to performance. Additionally, it has reworked its autofocus algorithms, a process which by itself required around 18 months' work.
 

Why didn't Sony develop a custon front-end LSI chip before now?

IR: You can always get more speed by building a custom LSI, but that's also very expensive. What led you to be able to justify the expense of developing the front-end LSI now, and is there a reason that you could not do it earlier? Is it that the economics for the custom LSI are better now than they were, say, three years ago? Or is it that the cameras of three years ago couldn't read out the data so fast anyway, that you didn't really need an LSI?

Sony: Maki noted that the process of creating and manufacturing a custom LSI is now much faster, and that advancements in the process technology have allowed capabilities which wouldn't have been possible a few years back. In discussing this, he made an analogy to computer CPUs, noting that these are much faster and more affordable now than they were five years ago. Essentially, the same process is also at play in development of their LSI.

We asked if we might see this front-end LSI dual processor setup in future cameras, even in mirrorless perhaps, and Maki responded that, like any manufacturer, Sony is quite understandably unable to discuss future products, even in relatively loose terms. However, he did indicate that we'd likely see the LSI in future cameras, including mirrorless models.

[Ed. note: Maki-san remarked that we were the only press to ask about the new front-end LSI. I was a little surprised by this; it's a bit of a technical point, but the new front-end chip is the single most important element of the A99 II's architecture. It's what enables the huge number of AF points, integration of the two separate AF sensors, and is key to moving the enormous amount of data off the sensor at full resolution and maximum frame rate. While we didn't talk about video in this interview, the new LSI chip is also the reason the A99 II can use full-pixel readout for both 4K and conventional HD, which should not only result in higher video image quality and less aliasing, but also reduces the crop factor in 4K mode compared to some competitors. Bottom line, the new front-end LSI processor is the story with the A99 II's performnce.]
 

Is Sony going after the professional market?

IR: The specifications and construction of the A99 II seem designed to appeal to pros. It's very rugged; the front, back, top, and side panels are all constructed from magnesium-alloy. And so this seems like a product that's aimed at the pros, but on the other hand the pro market is very entrenched in Canon and Nikon. Is the pro market one that you're really going after with this camera, or is it really just aimed at existing A-mount shooters? And if you're targeting the pros, what do you see the challenges in marketing that to get people to switch?

Sony: Maki responded that they'd obviously be very happy if professional photographers gravitated towards the A99 II. However, he made it clear that the primary goal of the A99 Mark II isn't to attract new photographers from other mounts and systems, but instead to service those customers who've already made a commitment to the A-mount platform.

However, Maki also made the point that the word "professional" is pretty all-encompassing. There are a whole lot of different kinds of pros out there, shooting a wide variety of different subject matter, be it sports, landscape, nature, portrait, video or something else.

Maki noted that in the film era, servicing all those needs was simply a matter of providing one flagship, a really rugged camera, and then the photographer would choose whatever film was best-suited to their subject, completing the equation. But in the digital era, the sensor your camera ships with is the one you'll be using for every subject, and so rather than switching film types, you're more likely to be switching between multiple camera bodies.

He noted that if they did manage to attract pro shooters to the A99 II, it would probably be as a secondary body to supplement whatever they're already shooting with. (Or at least, that's how we read his comments...)
 

Are there more A-mount lenses coming?

IR: You have a very extensive line of A-mount lenses, but there haven't been any new A-mount designs for a while, featuring more modern lens design. Are there any plans to release new A-mount lenses that can best take advantage of the A99 II's higher resolution, much as you introduced the G Master line to pair with your higher-resolution E-mount cameras?

Sony: Mr. Maki again commented that it can be tricky to discuss future products in interviews like this, as the focus for manufacturers is understandly on the products they have available for sale currently, and was as deliberately vague as you'd expect him to be. However, the sense we got was that Sony isn't currently planning on launching an equivalent to its G Master lenses for the A-mount. Instead, he noted that A-mount shooters should be able to get the maximum image quality from their existing A-mount glass by simply stopping down slightly when paired with the A99 II body. (Read below for more about this in our take-aways.)
 

How many RX models are there going to be? Will you be retiring any of the curremt ones?

IR: I'm afraid we're running out of time, but perhaps one last question for you both. We find it interesting that all of the cameras Sony has launched in its RX100 and RX10-series from the very beginning are still on the market. Ordinarily, we're used to seeing earlier products discontinued as new ones arrive, but that hasn't been the case with your 1"-sensor cameras. Can you tell us why that is, and how you're able to continue to offer older models alongside their newer equivalents?

Sony: Maki agreed that their strategy differs from rivals in this area. Essentially they see enough differentiation between their existing 1"-sensor cameras that it's worthwhile to continue selling them in parallel. He noted that a customer looking for 4K video or high frame-rate video, for example, will gravitate towards the RX100 IV naturally, whereas another customer needing a hot shoe for external strobes would instead prefer the RX100 II.

(And of course, Sony has already recovered its engineering costs for the earlier models, so even if the price falls as newer models arrive, it can still turn a profit from the older models which it continues to sell. It's an interesting strategy, and one that seems to be working for the company.)

IR: Well, that's all the time we have, and I don't want to make you late for your next appointment. Thanks as always, we really appreciate your time!

Maki-san: Thank you very much!

 

Takeaways

As always, it was an interesting conversation with Maki-san. More than any other individual, he's responsible for Sony's renaissance in the camera market, going back to the beginning of the E-mount and the RX series. Needless to say, he has a unique viewpoint.

It's clear that the front-end custom LSI chip is a huge part of the A99 II's performance, and it was interesting to learn that the idea itself is nothing new – it's just that the front-end LSI in the A99 II is way more capable than anything that's gone before it.

There's been a fair bit of debate in our discussion threads over whether or not the A99 II is intended as a shot across the bow of Nikon and Canon. It's undoubtedly that on many levels, but Maki-san made it clear that the A99 II is first and foremost all about giving A-mount loyalists a genuinely top-shelf flagship body, after a long wait.

When it comes to lenses, it's not hard to predict the reactions we'll see from at least some members of the A-mount community to our impression that there won't be new A-mount lens designs coming from Sony anytime soon. The idea that people should be content with their current lenses and just stop down to match the resolution of the camera will be seen by some as dismissive and missing the point.

But let's look at the A-mount lens situation and the impact of the A99 II from a bit broader perspective for a moment. Point by point:

  • First off, other aspects of the A99 II are (much) more important than its resolution. Our question about new A-mount lenses to match the resolution of the camera is an obvious one, but it does focus on a very limited aspect of the camera's capabilities. Resolution is a minor part of the A99's story; more important to our minds are the dramatically advanced AF system, improved low-light/high-ISO performance, significantly improved IS, high frame rates, and 4K video recording. All of those apply regardless of your lens, and as noted below, there are a lot of great A-mount lenses out there already.
     
  • 42.4 megapixels sounds like a big jump from 24.3 MP, but it's only a 33% increase in linear resolution. We tend to look at overall pixel counts and mentally equate that with "resolution". The ability to resolve fine detail actually only increases as the square root of the megapixel number, though, because resolution is measured linearly. The original A99's images were 6,000 x 4,000, while the A99 II's are 7,952 x 5,304. The ratio of 7,952/6,000 is 1.325, or roughly a 33% increase
     
  • There's a huge range of A-mount lenses already on the market, many of them very good. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms Sony has faced with their E-mount system is that the lens lineup for it doesn't come close to that for A-mount. So that's where it would make the most sense for Sony to apply their lens-design budget, vs making incremental improvements to many already-good existing models.
     
  • Others are releasing very high performance, modern-design lenses for A-mount. Thanks to the efforts of Sigma, Tamron and others, there are really exceptional new lenses available in A-mount. From Sigma, you have the extraordinary 35mm and 50mm f/1.4 Art primes, and the 24-105mm f/4 Art zoom. Tamron offers their excellent 35/45/85 f/1.8 primes, and just announced an update to their highly-regarded 150-600mm f/5-6.3 super-tele zoom.

Overall, the Sony A99 II looks to us like an incredible advancement (as always, though, withholding judgment until we can get our hands on a test sample). And Maki-san was as always straightforward, direct, and highly informative, in answer to our questions.