How about a HDTV with that DSLR?

by Robin Rowland, CBCNews.ca

Sony had a little surprise Thursday, Sept. 6, when it introduced its Alpha 700 digital single lens reflex camera — a line of High Definition television sets to go along with the new camera.

What's the connection?

Sony says the A700 will be the first still camera to export to high definition television rather than standard definition images for viewing on a home, office or studio television. So the company also launched a line of Bravia PhotoTVHD television sets, which will be compatible with some future Sony Handycam video cameras and mid-level Cybershot point-and-shoot digital cameras.

The A700, to be released in Canada at the end of September, is Sony’s next step into what is often called the "prosumer" market for digital single lens reflex cameras. Sony introduced its first DSLR, the A100, in July 2006, just a few months after Sony had purchased the basic technology from Konica-Minolta when that company got out of the consumer camera business in January 2006.

The A700 has a 12.2 megapixel CMOS sensor and a long list of improvements over the A100, which, in reality, was a Minolta camera with some Sony tweaks added. The A700 camera is based on what might be called the DNA from the Minolta 7D, but a lot of Sony genes have been added.

Photo: Sony's A700 camera.

The A700 body alone has Canadian suggested price of $1,599. The model with a new 16-105mm f3.5-5.6 lens will be available in mid-October at $2,049.99

In a presentation in an art gallery in Toronto’s trendy Distillery district, Sony executives said the new PhotoTVHD was a product of the corporate synergy (something that is often talked about but seldom really seen.) One presenter said that Sony’s camera and HDTV development teams "actually got in to the same room, talked to each other and threw around ideas."

Isabelle Cristante, a Sony retail support specialist, explained in her presentation that both standard and ordinary high definition television sets are configured by the design engineers to emphasize movement and saturated colours. As well as its HD television functions, the PhotoTVHD has a still option configuration optimized for a 1,920-by-1,820 full-resolution still image. At least in the demonstration, when a still photo was compared with a Bravia HDTV without the photo feature, the still image on the PhotoTVHD was clear and crisper and the colours more muted (and thus close to reality).

The A700 is not Sony’s long-anticipated entry into the professional market. Last winter, Sony presented a rather mysterious "mockup" of its new camera at a trade show in Tokyo, leading to speculation that Sony was ready to take on Canon and Nikon in the high-end professional DSLR market.

Ichiro Takagi, deputy president of Sony’s Digital Imaging Group, explained the A700 was not the "flagship" model, but what he called "the middle class" model. The flagship or professional model was still in the planning stage and Takagi said he could not give any further information.

Even though the presentation was for a group of journalists and professional photographers, the Sony marketing staff stuck to their message track that the A700 was aimed at the "high amateur consumer."

One of the Sony presenters told me after the session that the company was also looking at the semi-professional market, including wedding photographers and part-time pros, but he emphasized that the A700 was an "amateur" camera.

Sony’s marketers have visions of the "high amateur consumer" taking photographs with the cameras and then displaying them for friends and family on the PhotoTVHD. It appears, therefore, that Sony is carefully planning its entry into the high-end camera market and keeping its plans for a professional camera very close to its corporate chest.

At the moment Canon, with the release just a couple of weeks ago of the EOS-IDs Mark III, has a lot of the professional market sewn up — an area where, for the moment, Sony cannot compete.

With the release of the A700, Sony appears to be aiming at a marketing level just below the Canon EOS-ID series. Despite Sony’s marketing spin, it is likely that the A700 will find a place in the professional market, especially with users who were loyal for decades to the Minolta brand. (The Sony cameras and lens have the Minolta Maxxum auto-focus mount).

In the past year, it appears that Nikon has started to fall behind Canon in the pro camera market, especially since Canon models now appear to be the camera of choice in many news organizations.

Both Sony and Canon have an advantage over Nikon, since both Canon and Sony are consumer/professional electronics companies and ideas from other areas can sometimes cross-pollinate into new products. Nikon does have an industrial electronics division, but it doesn’t appear that the company has been able to take advantage of that in producing innovative products.

One example of the exchange of ideas within electronics companies are the consumer level "dual use" HD camcorders, such as the Canon HV20 and the Sony HDRCX7, which can record both video and still images. Many newspapers across North America are equipping their staff with those cameras to shoot video for the web and stills for the web or newspaper.

So for now, the pro model of the Sony Alpha remains nothing more than a mockup.

Among other features in the A700 are horizontal and vertical handgrips, which come with a "Function Key" that allows the photographer to scroll through the menus on the LCD rather than having to stop and push the menu button. Sony says the new three-inch LCD is one of the largest available and uses high-resolution screen technology originally developed for cellphones to improve the image. The camera also comes with two battery slots and can switch to the second battery when the first gets low.

The A700 can do live exports of photgraphs to a computer through a USB cable, but it does not have the WiFi ability of the high end Canons and Nikons that allow a photographer to send an image out without being tied to a cable. In a related feature, a remote control feature allows a photographer to control the camera settings and shoot from their computer with the camera connected with the USB cable.