Sony fires new volley in pro camera war

By Robin Rowland, CBCNews.ca

Sony launched its new “flagship” Digital Single Lens Reflex camera today, the Alpha 900, the company’s first real entry into the professional still camera market. (Sony, of course, has dominated the professional video camera market for the past 20 years and has had a strong presence in the consumer point and shoot market.)

Canon, Sony’s chief rival, has been the camera of choice for many professionals since their cameras went digital, with Nikon a close second.

On Friday, Canon tried to steal a march on Sony with teasers on its U.S. website, a simple flash animation of a moon and a camera body with the slogan “Destined Evolution.” The UK site has a floating Canon camera body plugging the “future of photography.” There is plenty of online speculation that Canon will soon launch a new version of its EOS 5D, the company’s second-level professional camera.

Somehow, the advertising and promotion people at both Sony and Canon seem to be inspired by a 40-year-old movie, 2001 A Space Odyssey. You can imagine a Canon lens as a giant (grey not black) pylon on the surface of the moon. The slick Sony video presented at this morning’s launch in Toronto has a sun rising over a desert landscape and while the theme wasn’t “Also sprach Zarthusa,” the electronic music with its fanfares continued as the video camera (for a still camera launch?) zoomed across landscape after landscape. All that was missing was a shot of the new 70-400mm Sony G Series lens again standing in the desert like the Space Odyssey pylon to encourage the intelligent evolution of photography.

The camera wars are beginning once again.

The ammunition is the mighty megapixel.

The Sony Alpha 900 will offer a 24.6 megapixel full frame CMOS sensor, clearly aimed at the top of the line Canon professional EOS 1Ds Mark III, which has a 21.1 megapixel full-frame sensor.

Do that many megapixels matter? Certainly not for the consumer. But as one of the photographers demonstrating the product for Sony pointed out, the ad and fashion industries that publish in slick magazines are the ones driving the demand for megapixels that will equal images from film shot in a medium format camera such as a Hasselblad

Sony is also pushing its in-camera image stabilization anti-shake system, which it says is the first for a full frame sensor. Other companies are building image stabilization technology into their zoom and telephoto lenses.

This is something Sony has to do. The company is building on a legacy market. It bought the DSLR technology from Konica Minolta in 2006, and those lenses do not have the stabilization found in Canon lenses.

As a Sony spokesman noted at the Tuesday launch, there are 15 million Minolta and Konica Minolta lenses out there. It was those 50 million lenses that gave Sony the market base to build its Alpha camera line. (The Sony camera uses the Minolta lens mount). The Sony spokespeople also pointed out that their in-camera anti-shake technology will improve the performance of wide-angle and standard prime lenses.

One other feature that Sony was featuring at the launch is the viewfinder, which the company says is built on an earlier generation of Minolta viewfinders. Sony claims it is the best viewfinder in the high-end DSLR market, with a 100 per cent field of view and .74 magnification.

Sony has decided not to follow the trend toward a “live view” feature (where you can see the electronic image similar to the LCD feature in lower-end cameras), but instead is offering what it calls “intelligent preview.” The photographer can get a preview of the electronic image , complete with histogram by pressing the depth of field preview button.

That allows the photographer to adjust the image for exposure and white balance, as well as depth of field.

It appears the bloggers and message boards were wrong about one thing, though. The Sony Alpha will be available (body only) in Canada in November at a suggested price of $3,300, a much lower price than the $4,500 to $4,900 that was reported on the web. That compares with the Canon Mark III, retailing in Canada around $8,200 for the 21.1 megapixel model. The current Canon 5D, with a full frame 12.1 megapixel sensor retails at about $3,500, so the online speculation may be right that Canon is scrambling to introduce an improved 5D to compete with the Alpha 900.

As well as the new 70-400mm f4.-5.6 telephoto zoom (priced at $1,650) Sony is also launching a Carl Zeiss 16-35mm f.2.8 (price $2,000). Both are expected to be available in retail stores in the winter of 2009.

Sony is also introducing a high-end HVL-F58AM professional flash with enhanced wireless capability. And the company is encouraging photographers to look at new version of an old Minolta prime portrait lens, a 135 mm F2.8 STF.

Sony closed the news conference with yet another tease, inviting everyone back next fall for another camera launch.

Of Note:

A Canadian connection: Sony will be using pictures shot in and around Banff National Park using an Alpha 900 for its brochure and also shop-front videos.

Sony Spin: One Sony spokesman said the company has been offering “high definition” (their quote) electronic products for 50 years. It wasn’t clear how Sony’s spin team came up with that date (what was happening in hi-def in 1958?). They went on to tie this to the CCD, the charge coupled device. Sony did not invent the CCD, as the spokesman implied. The CCD was first proposed in the United States at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1961 as part of the space race. U.S. firms such as Fairchild, Texas Instruments and RCA carried out early development of the CCD. It was Bell Labs that first captured an image on a CCD in 1969 as part of their attempt to build a picture phone. After that, however, the Americans dropped the chip. Sony did find a way to mass-produce the CCD in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and that led to their dominance in consumer and professional imaging technology.