Sony Mirrorless: 5 Years In, A Retrospective Look

I thought it might be interesting to Sony Shooters to read about the perspective of someone who came to the brand from the Sony DSLR entrance. Prior to 2009 I was using Pentax DSLRs for my hobby photography. I had a few specialized lenses but other than a good macro lens and a decent mid-range zoom I hadn’t committed much in the way of funds to the system. In 2009 I purchased the Sony A-850. It was the budget full-frame 24 megapixel from Sony and it was a very interesting camera. 24 megapixels was the top of the line at the time for the whole industry and I liked the colors it produced. Mechanically, the shutter and mirror were quite noisy. The auto-focus wasn’t up to Canikon standards. The usable ISO range really didn’t extend beyond 400 unless you were willing to do a significant amount of post processing. But the fact that Sony had not one, but two full frame models available made all Sony users happy and excited about the future.

Then it happened! Sony pulled the rug out from under the users. They announced that there would be no more DSLRs. They introduced the DSLT (digital single lens translucent), basically a beam splitter was added to the light path and the optical viewfinder was replaced with an electronic viewfinder (EVF). In a roundabout way they had gone to the mirrorless side without admitting it. The uproar was long and heated. Many users decided to go to other manufacturers (Nikon, Canon, Pentax, etc.), others stocked up on older Minolta and Sony DSLR models and hoped to wait out the changes. Some bought into the DSLT concept.

Personally I wasn’t sure what to do. I read about the ~½ stop light loss caused by the translucent mirror (beam splitter) and the possible image degradation that could entail and decided I didn’t want to go there. I looked at the full frame Canon and Nikon offerings available and felt that professional options were shockingly expensive ($5,000 – $7,000) while the semi-pro models were uninspiring. What was a hobbyist to do?

So I decided not to worry and instead enjoy my A-850 until I decided which way to go. But a funny thing happened. I was shooting some indoor occasion events for my family and was unhappy with the low light capability of the A-850. I wanted usable 3200 ISO. It wasn’t there. I rented the Nikon D3S and liked what it had. That camera produced usable 6,400 ISO. But it cost $5,000. At about this time Sony launched some true mirrorless cameras. These cameras were branded as the NEX series. They had a new mount (e-mount) that possessed a very short registration distance that would allow the NEX cameras to utilize lenses for almost any other lens mount by means of adapters. It also had a very small body size. I watched the several iterations of this camera line until I found one that caught my interest. This was the NEX 5N. It had an APSC-E sensor but it was claimed that it had usable 3200 ISO. So I bought it. Well, the ISO claims were exaggerated. I estimated that good noise performance didn’t extend above 800 ISO. On top of that the auto-focus was extremely unreliable. Using magnified view and manual focus it was possible to produce extreme sharpness but as is obvious to anyone trying to photograph moving objects or even people indoors it is impossible to get a static object as a target every (or even most of) the time. So this was a limited camera.

Fast forward to 2013. Sony introduced the A7 cameras. These were full frame mirrorless cameras. They were slightly larger than the NEX cameras (but still very small). Initially two models were introduced. A 24 mpx A7 and a 36mpx A7R (R = resolution). The cameras are very interesting. The sensors are excellent but the cameras have their quirks. Both cameras have mediocre auto-focus even though the A7 added on-sensor phase detect sensor pixels. Also the A7R suffers from a very powerful shutter mechanism that introduces vibration into a number of different shooting categories. These problems continued to irritate Sony users. Also the new full-frame mount had a very limited range of native full-frame e-mount lenses (designated FE by Sony).

In 2014 Sony launched the A7S. This was a full frame (like all the other A7 cameras) but it had a 12 mpx sensor that had ISO settings that went all the way up to 400,000! Also it was the first full frame camera to shoot 4K video (although requiring an external recorder to handle this high data storage rate setting). This camera was something of a sensation. It became the king of low light photography and video. Sony was onto something good here. The auto focus was still not great but it was improving slowly. In the case of the A7S the camera’s low light capability seemed to improve the ability of the AF to work in low light conditions.

In 2015 Sony started to roll out the Mark 2 versions of the A7, A7R and A7S. These cameras featured improvements over the original versions that showed that Sony was actually listening to complaints. The A7 II had much improved auto focus (still not great but almost good). The A7R II got rid of the crude shutter, added on-sensor phase detect auto focus and boosted the pixel count to 42 mpx. And all three cameras introduced 5 axis stabilization to the line. This was a very popular feature. And over the last year and a half, Sony (and Zeiss and several of the 3rd party lens manufacturers) have released a large number and a good range of focal length lense (many of them of a very high quality). This has been enthusiastically applauded by Sony’s customers. Finally, Sony has begun to refine auto focus to allow for motion tracking. Maybe it is starting to look like Sony might someday provide a truly capable sports camera. This better auto focus capability started out in the A6000 and A6300 crop frame (APSC-E) cameras but the phase detect on sensor auto focus is starting to approach DSLR phase detect capability. Finally! Admittedly, Canon and Nikon far exceed what Sony provides in this department. Some have speculated that Sony is holding off on releasing the true state of the art until they’re ready to unveil their A9 professional model. I hope that is true. Rumors say that may be in September at Photokina. Time will tell.

So let’s recap. Sony has been torturing their camera customers since abandoning the DSLR model in 2010. After many disappointments and false starts their A7 cameras have finally reached a point where professional photographers can use them for most (but not all) photographic styles. To me it seems that 2016/2017 should answer the question of whether Sony can solve the remaining short comings in the systems. My opinion of what those shortcomings are:
1) General auto focus capability.
2) Tracking auto focus.
3) Battery life.
4) Gear durability (for professional duty).
5) Support service for professional users.
If Sony handles just the first two items they will ensure that their market share will increase substantially. If they take care of all five Canikon will be in big trouble.

2 thoughts on “Sony Mirrorless: 5 Years In, A Retrospective Look

  • January 24, 2017 at 7:10 pm
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    Are you an alternate reality me? I’ve had Sony camera equipment starting with an A100, through an A850, currently an A6300 and trying to convince myself for the jump to an A7RII. The main thing holding me back is starting yet another lens collection. I’ve been “into” photography since learning on a Canon F1 years ago.

    I’m also a lifelong Sci-Fi fan, I’ve read thousands. My taste runs to Niven, Greg Bear, Benford, Peter F Hamilton, etc.

    Don’t have a website per se but below is my flickr page.

    Reply
    • January 24, 2017 at 8:21 pm
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      Hello Tom:
      Nice to meet you! Yes starting another lens line was annoying for me too. I’ve got a few A-mount lenses that I don’t want to lose. I’ll certainly check out your page very soon and welcome.

      Best regards

      Reply

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