Sony Alpha A77 and the Future of Photography

a77 Sep 03, 2011

With the announcement of the SLT-A77, Sony has taken a bold step in trying to radically change the technological landscape of photography. Something like this hasn’t really happened since Oskar Barnack created the Ur-Leica. I realize that this statement may sound outlandish to quite a few people, but let’s look at the situation critically.

  • When Oskar Barnack decided to build himself a light-tight little box with a lens that held about 1 meter of 35 mm motion picture film, he had no idea he was ushering in a revolution in photography.
  • When George Eastman invented a camera that anyone could use, he did not expect the creation of an entirely new form of news reporting (photojournalism).
  • When Steven Sasson invented the digital camera, he could not have predicted how pervasive it became.

All of these events in photography are paradigm shifts. Changes in the fundamental way we perceive and do things. Sony’s adoption of EVF technology is in this same category.

So what possesses me to claim that the Sony Alpha A77 and its EVF are a paradigm shift? Simply, that by removing the optical viewfinder from the equation and replacing it with a high-performance electronic viewfinder (EVF), Sony has overcome a bevy of engineering problems that have plagued single-lens reflex cameras since their inception. After the successful introduction of the SLT-A33 & A55, Sony made the bold decision to announce that all future cameras from them would be based on this technology.

Sony’s introduction of the A77 marks the first use of SLT (single lens translucent) technology in a pro/semi-pro camera body. The A77 comes in at a much higher price point that it’s extremely popular predecessor, the SLT-A55, but it is aimed at becoming the primary camera for a lot of pro/semi-pro shooters rather than the role of backup camera that the A55 tended to occupy.

Sony Alpha A77 Lightpath
SLT-A77 Lightpath diagram courtesy of Imaging Resource
So what does Sony have to do to make this work?
  1. Listen to the market segment that you are trying to address. If you want to have pro photographers buy into this system, you had better make sure you make them happy. To a pro photographer, the camera system is a tool for producing the kinds of images the need/like to shoot. If the system, does not meet their needs, they will jump ship and move to a camera system that does work for them.
  2. Make damned sure that your EVF is the best in the business. You are asking pro/semi-pro photographers to leave the comfort zone of the OVF. This is a tall order and your track history isn’t the absolute best in this area. However, I feel that this camera is a step in the right direction. Do what I said in point #1 especially in this area and you not be able to make enough of these cameras. Oh, and for those naysayers out there who state that there is no professional grade equipment using EVFs on the market, head over to RED.COM and take a peek at their gear. EVF based since Day One and I haven’t heard any complaints from their customers.
  3. Offer features that pros need and cut out the fluff. Sony got this mostly right, offering blazing fast frame rates, highly accurate AF system, high quality lenses, rugged construction, and weather sealing. Where I feel they flubbed it is in offering scene modes, art filters, and sweep panoramas which are more consumer oriented. Pros do all that stuff themselves, and most (except Ken Rockwell) shoot RAW to which none of those features apply. On the next version (A99 full-frame?), lose the soccer mom features and use the space to incorporate things like lens correction profiles embedded in the RAW file with the capability to add user lens profiles.
  4. Get your support act together. Pro photographers depend on the proper operation of their camera gear. A breakdown or failure can be devastating. Give pro photographers all the support they need. See point #1 again – keep them happy.
  5. Invest in R&D. Don’t rest on your laurels. Keep working to improve the system based on what you gather from point #1. Market leadership in a technology segment is always driven by innovation.

Oh, and there has been some discussion as to whether the use of the word “translucent” is correct in this application. From a strict dictionary definition, no it is not correct. That kind of mirror is called a pellicle mirror. But look at it at the component level and you might get an insight as to what Sony was thinking.

“Trans” = Allowing to pass

“Lucent” = Glowing or giving off light

Putting those two together you get “Allowing to pass light” mirror. Yes, it’s a stretch, but I also think that from a marketing standpoint “Single Lens Translucent (SLT)” sounds way better than “Single Lens Pellicle (SLP).”

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