Sony announce some nice new cameras and lenses and finally rid themselves of the legacy Minolta hotshoe as last!

Written by Gary on September 12th, 2012

There is lots of news from Sony today.

1. Sony have introduced a new ISO-standard flash hotshoe finally doing away with the crazy Minolta design which was incompatible with non-Minolta flashes even in manual mode. Users of Minolta flashes can buy a Sony adapter for use on the new cameras. This is big news for me as I have been critical of the Minolta hotshoe ever since they invented it!

2. Sony RX-1 – a very interesting full frame compact fixed lens camera without built-in viewfinder but with a 35mm f/2 optically stabilised lens with leaf shutter. At $2800 it will have a restricted audience but still may be a very attractive option for wedding photographers as a 2nd camera for those group photos outdoors, assuming the flash sync goes to 1/2000th sec which is unique outside the medium format world.

3. Sony SLT Alpha A99 dSLRthe lightest, most compact full frame dSLR and weathersealed, sensor-shift IS, with perhaps the best subject tracking AF system available – as long as your subject is in the centre and it works!!!

4. Sony NEX 6 – essentially their NEX-5R with the EVF from the NEX7 and a few extra goodies such as a PASM dial.

5. a couple of high end video cameras, one with APS-C sized sensor, the VG-30, but suprisingly, a full frame VG900 using the small NEX E-mount!

6. Three new NEX lenses to give a collapsible compact zoom, a 50mm prime and a 15-27mm ultra wide angle (in 35mm terms).

The NEX5R, NEX6 and A99 all use on-sensor phase detect sensors, but in addition, the A99 uses full time normal phase detect sensors courtesy of its fixed translucent mirror (SLT design) which does have the downside of losing 1/3rd of your light and adding an extra bit of glass in your image train.

The unfortunate problem with these phase detect sensors are that they are all closely packed to the centre of the image – so bad luck if you compose by the Rule of Thirds intersections as these lie outside the sensor area. Other than this issue, and the fact none of the Sony flashes or lenses are compatible with my gear, the RX-1 and A99 at the right price would be interesting options to me to give me additional full frame capabilities such as shallower DOF.

Nevertheless, these cameras represent another step forward into the eveolution of the digital camera and the full frame options are very interesting indeed if the image quality is realised and the price is low enough to provide a reason to change from Canon or Nikon full frame dSLRs.

I wonder how Sony are dealing with the periphery image issues created by using a full frame sensor with such a short lens flange distance as it appears they are using with the RX-1 – time will tell I guess.

Will they compliment your Micro Four Thirds system?

Assuming these are cracked up to be what the specs suggest and image quality is fantastic, how would the RX-1 or Alpha A99 compliment a compact Micro Four Thirds system?

1st the RX-1:

For a 35mm lens field of view on a Micro Four Thirds camera one could use:

  • Olympus 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens for compact, pocketable kit but lose low light and shallow DOF capability
  • Cosina Voigtlander Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95 which would give similar DOF but no autofocus and no camera-controlled aperture
  • the rumoured Olympus 17mm f/1.8 (presumably available in 2013) or the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake would mean 1.5 stops less control over shallow DOF

Thus adding the RX-1 to your kit could be very handy if shallow DOF at 35mm is important to you, or the leaf shutter which will presumably allow full flash output at any shutter speed be a boon to those wishing to over-power the sun with their flash.

But it will not be so handy if you are wanting more DOF at wide aperture such as when shooting urban shots hand held at night – in this scenario, your Olympus OM-D E-M5 with a 12mm or 17mm lens will be a much better choice.

For most, they may prefer adding the versatility of a full frame dSLR rather than being constrained by such an expensive fixed lens camera.

2nd, the SLT Alpha A99:

Now this camera could compliment Micro Four Thirds reasonably well (better if it had a compatible TTL flash – but it seems unlikely that Panasonic or Olympus will be heading into full frame dSLR territory any time soon).

It would offer 2 main features which are currently lacking in Micro Four Thirds, and thus are the main reason why one would consider a dSLR:

  • AF tracking of fast moving subjects thanks to its dual and full time phase detect AF system – although as mentioned, this only applies to subjects in the centre of the frame
  • even shallower DOF

The problem for me though is that I own lots of Canon Pro full frame lenses so jumping onto a Sony dSLR is not going to happen for me, and if I need AF of faster moving subjects then the new Olympus E-7 when it comes out would be a better fit with the Micro Four Thirds flash system but of course, it will not give full frame level of shallow DOF.

It does have several advantages over the Canon or Nikon full frame dSLRs:

  • sensor based image stabilisation so even your wide aperture prime lenses are stabilised – try shooting your 135mm f/2.0 lens with fill-in flash at 1/250th second and you will see sharpness often suffers without IS on a Canon or Nikon.
  • fixed mirror so no mirror vibrations, no mirror noise and full-time phase detect AF calculations for better subject tracking and ability to programmatically choose a focus range for AF
  • better video capabilities – such as XLR mic adapter, improved autofocus during video, live video output via HDMI
  • EVF and full time live view for seemless video / magnified live view and other capabilities
  • smaller size, lighter weight, quieter, yet still weathersealed and shutter rating of 200,000 shots

BUT, specs may not prove to be the real world advantages as they seem on paper – see what happened with the Sony SLT Alpha A55 launched in 2010. It too had this SLT fixed mirror system and offered subject tracking at 10fps but it was inaccurate and had many compromises – we will have to await testing to see how this SLT camera fairs given it has the benefit of a further 2 years of technology development to hopefully address the previous issues.

 Where to now?

Now that we are seeing more full frame cameras hitting the market and their prices fall, photographers will increasingly be thinking:

  1. if I am going to carry around a larger lens, then why bother with cropped sensor cameras such as APS-based mirrorless or dSLR cameras, I may as well get a full frame camera
  2. for most of the time when one just wants a small, compact camera with small lenses, then Micro Four Thirds is the perfect compromise on size, image quality, fun, price, versatility and ability to gain sufficiently shallow DOF.
  3. niche cameras for special applications such as the Sony RX1’s leaf shutter and x-sync to 1/2000th sec
  4. sports / wildlife camera with AF for fast moving subjects at f/8 lenses and great telephoto reach such as Olympus Four Thirds, Canon 1D Mark IV, Nikon D300s or Nikon D4 (although the last being full frame has limited telephoto reach)
  5. tough, almost indestructible, waterproof, droppable cameras for the beach, surf and kids such as the Olympus TOUGH TG-1 camera
  6. for most other casual photography where image quality is less important than the photo, a smartphone may be adequate

I can see why both Canon and Nikon have been reluctant to make APS-sized mirrorless cameras – soon we will have full frame mirrorless to address those needs.


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