7.26.2013

The Sony Rumors are starting to fly...Mirrorless comes to big cameras.

A quick snap of Victoria on set. Taken with the Samsung NX300 and the kit lens at ISO 1000 or higher. 

I've been reading stuff around the web and it seems like the rumor mill is firing up about the upcoming Sony replacements to their SLT product line. Cameras like the a77, a99, a58 and a57 all use stationary mirrors to split the light coming through the lens to both the image sensor and up into the finder to goad a phase detection AF module to leap into action and provide quick continuous AF. It's a system that works well, for the most part, but it's not technically elegant.  There is a 33% light loss which seems to limit sensor performance in the all important DXO sensor tests. And there is always the possibility of dirt on the mirror.

The basic technology to make these cameras truly mirror less, ala the Olympus Pens and the Panasonic line already exists in Sony's very good NEX line and in a number of their VG series camcorders. The bug in the sunscreen has always been that mirrorless cameras tend to slow down and get stupid when called on to focus continuously moving action. I won't go into the technical reasons that make phase detection AF faster (but less accurate) and contrast detection AF more accurate (but not nearly as fast) but regular practice with both kinds of cameras informs me that this is so.

If Sony (and Canon in their 70D, and Nikon in their V2) can produce good, solid phase detection AF points on their new lines of sensors then I'm pretty confident they'll match what we've come to expect from moving mirror cameras but with the additional speed benefit of not having mechanical moving parts to limit the imaging throughput. The rumors are that Sony will be converting their whole line to this new technology and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't take the chance if they hadn't proven the tech.

The one bugaboo that seems to stand in the way for the generation of unyieldingly recalcitrant photographers from the film era is the idea  of the optical viewfinder's necessity in the whole imaging chain. There is an emotional attachment to the glass periscope that, to me, defies logic. The idea is that you are seeing reality through the finder with an optical viewfinder and, the higher the quality and size of the viewfinder the higher and better the quality of reality. Of course most people don't make the thoughtful leap to the realization that their imaging reality isn't accurate unless they stop down to view the image at the taking aperture and that any mismatch between color temperatures isn't factored in, nor are the effects of in camera filters, settings or even movement.

The EVF (electronic viewfinder) view is a much more convincing simulacrum of the final photographic  artifact than the OVF could ever be and yet the argument goes on. If you've read the VSL blog for any amount of time you know what my passionately dispassionate opinion is: By the end of 2015 we'll ALL be buying cameras with EVFs, they will be better for most (if not all) applications and they will become so good that they'll be a fully transparent replacement for the older technology.

At any rate the rumor over on http://www.sonyalpharumors.com/sr3-specs-of-the-new-a79-prototype-camera/ point to an a79 with over 30 megapixels on the sensor, 480 focusing points on that sensor with full on PD AF, a 4 million pixel viewfinder, 8-14 fps, and no mirror anywhere in sight. I'm onboard with all of that. The two Sony a77's I owned were great production cameras and great studio cameras. If the newest chip tech is as amazing as the last generation of Sony sensors was the camera, sans mirror, should be remarkable. Whether the line does well against Nikon and Canon hinges on two things: Will they do the right marketing to get over the psychological hurdle of irrational finder love? and, secondly, will they put out enough and the right sort of lens choices for photographers? I think they will.

The NEX line continues unabated and the rumors there point to an introduction of a 50-150 or 180mm constant aperature, f2.8 zoom for those cameras coming in the fall. Now, if they'll give us a 16-50mm f2.8 for the NEX line as well I think we'll have a fully functional second system up and running.

What do I think of all this? As a guy transitioning from a still intensive content creation business to a mixed or hybrid still-and-motion business I welcome every tool that can cross over and do both jobs well. I played with a Panasonic GH3 yesterday. My friend showed me some beautiful video footage he'd just shot from the camera and I was amazed at the quality. Then I started looking through the video menus and that was cool. Amazing throughput. Good controls. Real time code. And a really great EVF. I was ready to switch systems again but I think I'll wait and see what Sony has up their sleeve before I go through all that mess again.

An interesting time to be in the creative content field. We are definitely going through another transition and we're leaving a lot of old and established paradigms in the wake. I'll miss the idea  of traditional camera designs but I'm certainly embracing the quantum leap forward in imaging potential of all kinds with the newest tech. Are you ready for 4K everything?  That's up next. I'm waiting for Apple to revolutionize the viewing space (once again....). 

25 comments:

Bold Photography said...

Only a matter of time.

there have been rumors of an electrically-darkened mirror for Canon for a long time.. we shall see.

d said...

Kirk,

SAR included one other interesting item in the (possible) specs for the new A79: namely, a 4 gb buffer. At around 30 mbs per frame and 10 frames per second, that's over 100 frames (10 seconds of shooting) before you fill the buffer. Should be enough for any sports/wildlife aficionado.

David

John Krumm said...

I know for me so far I don't always want a wysiwyg viewfinder. I'd like an EVF that can mimic a good OVF so well that I can't tell the difference. This might require a few more generations of improvement in clarity and dynamic range... You can always then press a button to get the wysiwyg view as well.

Anonymous said...

I have both an EVF and OVF camera. I like both. The EVF works well for all the reasons you have posited in this and previous posts But it does not work (for me) in nighttime or astrophotography sessions. Looking into the EVF ruins my night vision and I can't see the stars, anyway. For astrophotography, OVF is better. For (almost) everything else, I concede the EVF could be or is better.

-db-

Robert said...

Its all about posture for me. Give me an EVF that emulates an OVF, and I'm sold. I particularly like the facial recognition auto focus(and I hate auto fucus) that I don't think is possible with a mirror in the way, but I cant bring myself to do the live view dirty diaper hold.

Jason Hindle said...

I do like the idea of a full frame NEX type system, bearing in mind Leica is still the only game in town if you want small/digital/full frame. There's a lot to like about where Sony are going at the moment.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

I've been thinking about an a99, but that one is a bit out of (price) range for that humble amateur here. And yes, I think cameras like the Canon 70D will lead to what has to become the future. Will be interesting to see how well Sony does this - all I'm missing from their Nex line is the IBIS of Olympus. And lenses of course.

Craig Yuill said...

The first time I looked through the viewfinder of the Panasonic GH1 a few years ago I swore I was looking through the viefinder of a 1980's-era SLR viewfinder - until I panned the camera and saw smearing and pixelation. It wasn't perfect, but I could see the potential in EVFs. I think more-enthusiastic adoption of EVFs is likely when certain wrinkles get ironed out. Increased resolution should be a good thing. Reducing or even eliminating motion smear and lag time will be a must. Displaying greater tonal range so objects in both deep shadows and bright areas are visible will help placate critics like LL's Michael Reichmann. And more-consistent color matching between the EVF and other monitors would be a nice touch too. Camera product lines are going to look very very interesting in the next few years.

Brad Calkins said...

I own an OM-D so I count myself among the converted when it comes to EVF's. Recently I was waiting for friends and wandered into a box store's camera area and compared the Sony, Canon and Nikon's on display. I can't believe that the benefits of the larger, brighter EVF wouldn't appeal to many!

arg said...

Why do you think they will suddenly produce the necessary lenses? Don't you think they would have done so by now for their current range, if it was any sort of priority for them?

Kirk Tuck said...

I'm not sure it will be a "sudden" thing but I think the first generations of SLT cameras were made to test the market. I think they are ready to "plunge in" and I'm sure they know that a wide lens selection will be critical to the success of the line. Why would you think they wouldn't?

Anonymous said...

The biggest and most significant issue with changing an SLR camera system to use some form of PDAF on sensor is that, to date, making it work with an existing range of lenses has not been possible. The PDAF on sensor that is featured in Sony's existing A99 only works with some lenses. This might be ok for new users coming to the system, but in my opinion may not be acceptable to those who already have a system, with some Minolta lenses. Sony have on the one hand played up the heritage of using the Minolta alpha mount, whilst simultaneously making their newer cameras incompatible with previous parts of the system (and annoying some users in the process). Sony are clearly on a technical path, apparently driven by cost saving and protecting company profitability, but seem to fail to understand or recognise the importance of taking existing users with them. I sincerely hope that can implement a technical solution to PDAF on sensor that will work with all lenses, but I fear it is not going to be possible. That is going to leave some of us with a big issue - AF lenses that can only be used in MF - and a big question over whether a change of system is a better move.

Anonymous said...

"There is an emotional attachment to the glass periscope that, to me, defies logic".
Actually is very logical. The EVFs are just not up to standards for shooting sports and action. For pros it is "put up or shut up".
As long as you have lag, "slideshow effects", out-of-sync-with reality effects, limited DR in sun and shadows, motion blur in the viewfinder, etc - EVFs are still in the "shut up" phase.
PerL

Anonymous said...

In other words - there is a long way to go.

Kirk Tuck said...

And now we're back to the same narrow defiinition of what "professionals want." The (mistaken) idea being that all professional photographers shoot all things and so the way they choose cameras must be uniform. The reality is that very, very few of the photographers I know shoot sports. Damn few. Damn, damn few. Most professionals I know shoot portraits, corporate portraits, studio work, studio still life, landscapes, architecture, more products and lots and lots of lifestyle. Most find the focus of their cameras and (of the ones shooting with EVFs) their electronic viewfinders to be very satisfactory and in most cases interchangeable with their older OVFs. The arguments about limited DR, sun and shadows, etc. has been largely put to rest and most of the people who make money with cameras and opt for EVFs are definitely not "shutting up." The above viewpoint makes me think of car fanatics who still think no one will want automatic transmissions, or people who think battery powered watches will never catch on.

I've posted countless images shot in the sun and shadows with EVFs and they are no different than the images I made with other cameras. I'll ask around at the next UT football game and see how many of the videographers are shooting with OVFs. I'm sure you understand that videographers have been using EVFs for a long, long time and are capable of turning out highly competent work on a routine basis. It would be good not to let your emotional attachment to old tech cloud your judgement. And you certainly don't want to lead others astray with blatantly false information....

This technology is here, ready and has tremendous advantages. If you don't like it that fine. If the tiny subset of pro users who shoot sports don't like it it's important to understand that their work doesn't represent the kind of job most photographers do or want to do. That's like saying that since Richard Avedon shot "In the American West" with an 8x10 view camera all professionals should be shooting with an 8x10 view camera.

The current gen of EVFs are really competent.

Kirk Tuck said...

You mis state what the PDAF was designed to do on the a99 camera. In this form it's an adjunct to the phase detection AF sensor which is separate from the main sensor. It's an added value, not part of a new solution. The Minolta lenses will work with the new Sony's just as they work with the current Sonys. Your fears are misplaced.

Anonymous said...

I think the Anonymous poster is just trying to get your goat. I hope you are still moderating comments. You might want to moderate a little harder.

Drew said...

I have frequently encounter two situations where EVFs are simply not up to the task at hand.

One situation is nightscape photography. Even under relatively bright conditions (moonlight), I have yet to see an EVF that works well enough for even coarse composition. All that gets displayed is purple noise. Whereas, the optical viewfinders of my Canon DSLRs work reasonably well once night vision is established. And that is another issue with using EVFs for nightscape photography: they are too bright (even when all theu display is noise), and severely compromise night vision.

The other problem situation is bright light & high contrast, such as is encountered on the ocean coast or high-altitude mountaineering. The EVF just can't display the full tonal range. Most often the shadows areas block up, and I can't see important compositional elements well enough for precise composition. Again, the optical finder in my Canon DSLR does not have this issue.

When EVFs improve enough to work effectively in these situations, I will consider a DSLR without an optical finder.

John said...

I've said this before on here. The biggest thing I would like to see with these bodies is to be able to shoot silently like the V1/V2. The NEX cameras still do not allow this. Any thoughts on whether these new camera would have this feature - an option for a fully electronic shutter?

Anonymous said...

You are correct that the on-sensor PDAF in the A99 is a focus aid feature, that is not directly related to the translucent mirror based "regular" PDAF. My concern comes from whether if Sony decide to get rid of the translucent mirror, the on sensor PDAF needs to work with every lens. The implementation in the A99 uses pairs of sensels on the main sensor that detect "cones" of light hitting the sensor. Thosse "cones" are different for every lens, and need to hit the sensor in a particular way in order for the PDAF on sensor to work. The camera firmware also requires "knowledge" of how each lens renders those "cones", to understand how out of focus an image is and whether focus is in front or behind the current focusing position.

If the technical solution for mirrorless PDAF is the same their current on sensor focus aid PDAF solution, then in it's current implementation it appears not to be compatible with the entire lens range. If the rumours are true then I certainly hope whatever they are working on will either be a different solution, or better than the focus aid feature in the A99, that will work with all lenses. If not, it will give some users some very big questions to answer for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Well, for the segment I mentioned, sports and action, I might add news and journalism, since most press photographers are expected to shot sports in addition to news and reportage. For this kind of shooting the EVFs are not there yet - you cant shoot at full speed with live view, it is a practical matter, not emotional. Using an EVF - today - for shooting an important game is a professional disadvantage vs the guys shooting with their OVF-based DSLRs.
I know these photographers are an endangered species, but the segment is large enough for the big two - Canon and Nikon to still invest big in R&D for the pro bodies and exotic lenses.
BTW I dont write this "get your goat" as the poster who wanted you to censure my post, wrote. I often read your blog because I think you are one of the best writers - that does not mean I agree with everything. Regards PerL

Mario Mirabile said...

I'm curious as to what part is played in all this by the stake that Sony recently took in the Olympus imaging business. Clearly they weren't looking for a share of the non-existent profits.

As an Olympus shooter with a substantial "investment" in what I consider good quality four-thirds (not micro) glass, I'm more than a little nervous about the future. My hope is that Sony's sensor tech will will drive the next generation of Olympus pro-grade cameras and provide a future for all of us with lenses which just don't play well with CDAF. Quite possibly Sony will leverage Olympus's excellence in optics to produce those lenses Kirk feels are missing from their current lineup.

Noons said...

Hmmm... I'm a film dinossaur as well. But I love my EM5 and it's by far my preferred digital camera. If Sony comes out with a totally mirrorless body with a mount that can accept Sony lenses AND any other lens via adaptors, they'll have me knocking on their door step like a rocket: at last digital will start to make sense to me!
The current "clunky mirror" left over from the film days is an absolute throwback in this age of high rez electronic viewfinders. Let's hope they get enough courage to stop imitating old gear and give their new models a truly ergonomic body shape - like the (still) superb DSC-R1!

kaaterskill said...

i plead for good remote control that equals or surpasses Canon/Nikon for wireless tethered shooting. then i can shoot ALL Sony.

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