Photography, Sony and Minolta's legacy

Photography, Sony and Minolta's legacy

For the last… for as long as I can remember, there have been these comments about Sony - that they are not a photography company, but an appliance one and that their cameras are not designed by photographers, but by Playstation engineers. With some variations, of course… and not always limited to Sony.

As someone who has used (or tried) cameras from pretty much every brand, I can say that I absolutely do not understand what these people are talking about. I doubt that they themselves do. Almost always, when pushed to explain what they actually mean, it tends to end up with something about dedicated shutter dials, overcrowded menus, feature overload and brand legacy, i.e. complete nonsense that has almost nothing to see with photography. It also shows how many have no idea that Sony has a history of making cameras way before they acquired a part of Minolta in 2006.

Part I - a rant

Camera interfaces have changed significantly over time and will continue to change. Some people, however, seem to be stuck in a specific period of camera development and are unable to get over it. In itself, this is not much of an issue (I also have my own specific preferences), but to claim that their chosen period is more photography-oriented than another, seems a bit self-serving and is certainly a very limited view. 

• One controversial topic is the viewfinder, where the optical one is shown as some ultimate achievement that allows photographers to have a “better connection with the scene”. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but what does that mean for photography? Let’s look at how DSLRs superseded rangefinders (for a good reason; unless one thinks that it wasn’t for a good reason, in which case I would be very interested to hear their argument).

SLR OVFs are more versatile; they can be used for macro, longer lenses or whatever; they show you what you will achieve; are less complicated and prone to misalignments etc. All of these advantages were accepted even though the SLR (and now DSLR) OVFs had the disadvantage of being smaller and dimmer, and not providing that expansive view of the surroundings that rangefinders can (not to mention all the other benefits of RFs).

Well, EVFs are superseding DSLR OVFs in pretty much the exact same way and they require much less compromise, if at all. They are more versatile, allowing whatever information you need to be displayed; zoom around for precise focus; shoot video etc. They also show what you will capture in an even better way than DSLR OVFs and completely avoid any misalignment issues. On top of that, being independent of any light-related mechanics, not only are they cheaper, but they can be made as big as one wants. In discussions about OVFs vs EVFs I would often hear “my D700 this, my a900 that”, i.e. people forgetting that there are many more APS-C than FF digital cameras out there. How does that VF in a 7D compare to the one in theX-T1? (I won’t even address entry-level DSLRs) Sure, there are still some problems (I am sure somebody will cry foul and explain how panning is horrible), but, overall, OVFs have been surpassed. And, note, I am not arguing for the disappearance of OVFs (I certainly would like to have that option in the future). So, I find it really strange when some Canon representative says something like this: “DSLRs can capture the moment better than mirrorless, because you’re viewing directly, not through an LCD.” An utterly ridiculous comment that actually means nothing; such empty statements wouldn’t make sense even in the context of a personal opinion.

• Another topic would be that shutter speed dial that some are so enamored of. This is often encountered when talking about Fuji (or Leica). Fuji is apparently making cameras for photographers, unlike all the other clueless manufacturers. That is actually a very interesting point of view, as there is really nothing that different about Fuji cameras, with the exception of the retro analog interface. So, back to that shutter dial - it is a very inefficient implementation, especially for those it is supposed to address the most - manual mode shooters. It is simply an inconveniently placed stepped dial for an often used feature. A regular thumb/index step-less dial makes much more sense here (hence why it is on every camera except Fuji’s and Leica’s), especially when considering the wealth of information available on the LCD/EVF; it is quicker and more comfortable. We are not limited by mechanics anymore. Again, note that I completely understand the appeal for some people and that it is great that we have it. But to pretend that it is somehow more photography-oriented?

• Yet another issue raised by purists is the sheer amount of features in modern cameras (be it gimmicks or useful things). We take too many photos, we take them too fast, don’t compose as carefully etc. And, yet again, I understand that feeling. I do consider myself to be one of these purists and I also have issues with my shooting discipline, which are difficult to address on digital. However, that doesn’t make some camera more photography-oriented, just because it lacks video or AF. It is simply a personal issue requiring a personal solution and not some tool to fix it. 

• Lastly, the LCDs and, more specifically, the tilting/swivel ones. I understand that these aren’t useful to everyone, but it boggles my mind that some can’t realize the convenience these can be for others. The usual nonsense here is how they introduce complexity, can potentially break and add to the cost of the camera. After all those years (fifteen, is it?), I have yet to see or hear about a single hinge failing, but it seems theoretical worries override empirical evidence. As to the cost, this really seems like a strange thing to worry about when one pays hundreds (and often thousands) of dollars for a camera. Most importantly, I simply cannot understand how it can be called a gimmick, when on my diminutive digital camera I have the modern (and improved) version of a waist-level viewfinder (in addition to an eye-level one, mind you).

Progress happens by making things cheaper and easier, i.e. more convenient and accessible, not by sticking to some random subjective standard, just because it happens to be yours and you are comfortable with it.

Even Art Filters, which I consider a gimmick simply because in 99% of the cases one will pass the files through a computer, are still light years ahead in convenience over what was available in the film era. For people who pretend to be all about photography, I find it bewildering to not be amazed by the amazing tools we have nowadays.

Part II - Some Sony history

Getting back to Sony’s history. Some say that Sony has clearly followed in the footsteps of Minolta (some say otherwise), but, as I see it, they are simply following in their own footsteps, while taking strong cues from the Minolta legacy.

Here is a list of notable (in my opinion) Sony cameras. It is extremely shortened though and doesn’t discuss all they have brought to the camera industry - links to more information can be found at the end of this post or by googling.

Before Minolta :

Sony Mavica (1981) - this is where the story begins with a prototype for an electronic SLR still video camera - it was the first of its kind and the direct predecessor of digital cameras; the first cameras were released in the late 80s, although, apparently, the prototype has been used during the Olympics in 1984;

Sony Mavica MVC-C1 (1988) - Sony’s first consumer electronic camera;

Sony DSC-F1 (1996) - the first Cybershot;

Sony DSC-D700 (1998) - Sony’s first foray into all-in-one SLRs;

Sony F828 (2003) - the first consumer CCD digital camera;

Sony DSC-T1 (2003) - a real compact at 17mm thickness;

With Minolta : 

Sony a100 (2006) - albeit a fine camera, this one was really a regular DSLR, but it shows how Sony followed firmly in Minolta’s footsteps just after the acquisition; 

Sony a900 (2008) - best viewfinder, highest resolution sensor and first FF camera with in-body image stabilization;

Sony a300 (2008) - dual-sensor design for improved Live View and camera performance (Olympus had this approach first, but with a lesser implementation);

Sony a850 (2009) - cheapest FF camera on the market;

Sony a55 (2010) - first SLT camera and the switch to EVFs for Sony; SLT was the natural evolution of the dual sensor setup;

Sony NEX-3/NEX-5 (2010) - Sony’s first mirrorless cameras;

Sony NEX-7 (2011) - Sony’s first advanced mirrorless cameras and, as far as I am aware, the first mirrorless with an integrated EVF;

Sony RX1 (2012) - first digital FF compact;

Sony RX100 (2012) - yet another proof of Sony’s miniaturization prowess;

Sony a7 (2013) - first FF mirrorless, if we are not taking into account Leica rangefinders;

Sony a7 markII (2014) - introducing in-body image stabilization to the a7x line, still unique to Sony for FF cameras;

As one can see, Sony have been at it for a long time and this without even taking into consideration the video side, which I find to be very relevant. In terms of innovation (relevant to photographers), the only other company that has done as much during the last ten, or so, years, would be Olympus, in my opinion. In the consumer and prosumer markets, Sony have constantly delivered some of the most amazing packages and have a long history of sophisticated all-in-one designs and miniaturization. Actually, it looks like the period just after Minolta’s acquisition was the most problematic one, maybe because they tried to follow too closely in Minolta’s footsteps. I am confused as to the main reason of their purchase, but my uneducated guess would be that they simply saw a cheap way to gain market share and take on the big two; the know-how that also came with the package was just a bonus. I would dare to say that they didn’t do a great job in the beginning, simply relying on existing Minolta technologies, and that cost them. However, currently, they seem to be back on track and concentrating on their strengths.

From Sony:

http://www.sony.net/SonyInfo/CorporateInfo/History/sonyhistory-g.html

http://www.sonyinsider.com/2009/03/11/akio-morita-and-1981s-mavica-electronic-camera/

Camera history:

http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/88352-the-history-of-digital-photography

http://www.bobbrooke.com/DigitalStudio/digitalhistory.htm

Articles from long ago:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB917218991667296500

Reviews of some Sony cameras - more links after the links:

http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/sonydscf828

http://www.computinghistory.org.uk/det/29722/Sony-Mavica-MVC-FD85/

http://www.rfwilmut.clara.net/about/mavica.html

Photo of the Sony Pro Mavica MVC-7000

http://www.nikonweb.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=368