Sony A7s and Why CaNikon Are Under Pressure

For some time I have been saying to photographer friends that Canon and Nikon are in danger of having their lunch eaten by Sony, two years ago when I started to make the suggestion the idea for most photographers seemed ludicrous, but the innovation and direction that Sony have taken over those two years have only further cemented my belief that Canon and NIkon are now living on borrowed time.

In my gut I know that successful companies are companies that build and maintain excitement amongst their customers, Apple is probably the most obvious example but generally if you want to attract new customers you need to get people excited and keep them excited.

I also know, and this seems to elude a good many people that it's not the number of products you sell that matters but the actual profit you make on those products.  Every day I hear claims on the web of how many more smart phones android touting companies sell compared to iPhones. Yeah sure Samsung sells more phones than Apple.....but Apple makes more profit on their Phones, they did not get to be the worlds second most profitable company by cutting margins to the bone!

But lets turn our attention to the camera market, none of the major players or even minor players are in a healthy condition, sales of cameras are in free fall, DSLRs down, compacts down, mirrorless down, except in Asian markets where it is up.

None of this should be surprising, two things have intermingled to place downward pressure on sales, and don't give that baloney about the remnants of the GFC and all, the reasons for the falls are easy to see.

One for a great many people the camera is just a simple tool to take pictures, their needs and expectations are fairly low, ideally they just want something that is easy to use, has good enough image quality and is above all convenient.  Smart phones are gouging all non-professional or serious amateur sales, it's a fact!

And smartphones offer lots of convenience features that traditional cameras don't, or if they do, not at the same level of sophistication.  Let's be realistic, consumers love to send pics to friends and post to facebook instantly, they love to peak and tweak their pics, they love to play with apps, they just love the simplicity and are perfectly happy with the results.  And whilst we're being honest, the smart phone makers are not exactly sitting still either !

Other than the measurable quality of the photos there is not much the average camera offers as a benefit to most casual users and I can say with heart on hand the number of people I have in classes who tell me they are just leaving the DSLR or other compact camera at home, (even for overseas holidays) is growing by the month.

Sure you can sight smartphones  lack of zoom lenses, poor low light shooting options, not being suited to sports or portraits or whatever, its all moot!  Consumers have and will continue to in practice replace their cameras with smartphones!

The second reason sales have jumped out of the plane without having attached the parachute is that there is just no real compelling reason to update.  The market has reached maturity, any decent camera from the last 4 years is more than good enough for 95% of needs or better,  the boom years are over because the differences between this years model and last years model is for most folk who do not suffer from GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) irrelevant.

So what have Canon and NIkon done about this state of affairs, what strategy have they put in place to compete in the now rapidly changing market.  Pretty much bloody nothing, thats what.

Both NIkon and Canon seem to be hoping that it will all go away, they seem to believe they are too big to fail.  They also, I think probably don't want to cannibalise there lens sales (which is probably where they actually make their money).  Subsequently they don't want to do anything that will make their lens mounts redundant.  In other words they are going to keep on making the same DSLRs they have been since the start of the Digital DSLR explosion over 12 years ago.

But where is the excitement, where is the fun, where is the compelling reason to buy something new.  All MIA, I'm afraid.  Look frankly I don't care if they both suffer from the KODAK syndrome and eventually die, nothings forever, but likewise it could be all so different.

Which brings me to Sony and eventually the new A7s.  

Now I know Sony as a company is not exactly in rude health, it's no Apple at present, but the problem is not the camera division, which apparently is starting to see some profits, the issue is all the other loss making divisions, but let's just concentrate on cameras.

Somewhere along the way Sony realised it was pointless trying to compete with Nikon and Canon by producing the same cameras they were building, it was a dead end.  instead they needed to produce cameras that were clearly different, cameras that appealed to niche markets, cameras that had unique and identifiable differences, cameras that might just get consumers excited again.

Let's not underestimate the enormous challenge of that approach, it is much much easier to simply reheat and established design format than it is to create something totally new, and of course it is far riskier to go down the path less trodden.  But Sony have and for me as a photographer and someone who is excited by technological progress I have great admiration for their audacity.

The Sony approach is a little odd for many traditional DSLR camera buyers, the catch-cry is often, yeah but where are all the new Sony Lenses, well actually they have released quite a few, but the fact is often it's not a new lens we need but a different camera.

See, Canon and Nikon want to sell you a body, often at "not for profit price" and then sell you expensive lenses to turn it into something that suits your perceived needs.

But let's do a reality check, the great majority of buyers just buy the "KIt" with perhaps a Tele Zoom and maybe some time later they buy another lens like a nifty 50.  Sure there are those who buy everything, but the truth is most photos with any camera are taken with focal lengths that range from about 28-75mm and often somewhere around 35mm equivalent.  Purchasing a whole heap of new lenses doesn't give many buyers a great lift in utility value.

And another thing, a DSLR is not always the best tool for the job, and sometimes it is a downright compromise, too big, too heavy, too obvious, you get the picture.

So what have Sony done, well they have rationalised that we have different camera needs for different purposes and times and that buying multiple special purpose cameras can often make more sense (and potentially profit). Hence Sony have produced cameras that are really quite individualistic and excellent for their intended market and purpose, each model does not attempt to be all things to all men, which is kinda the DSLR approach.

Consider the RX 100, sure it's a super expensive compact, but it has amazing image quality and is beautifully formed. Not everyone needs an RX100 but for those who do, there is nothing else like it.  And between the two of us I have had many RX100 owners in classes who cannot gush enough about their little baby.

You want quirky, that QX series is quirky in spades, heck even I couldn't get my head around them....until a student bought one to an iPhone class and I ran a little demo for the class.  Whoa, baby, the look of amazement on their faces, the speed with which they were writing down the model number, price and likely dealers who had one.  These were not photographers, they were iPhone users, they were not about to go out an buy an new compact camera, but that little QX, that was something they just had to have!

Then there is the RX1, hell how did they do that!  Yes it is expensive, but I come across quite a few people who just think it is the "ducks guts", they aren't worried about the price, and these are the same people with disposable income who will probably buy an RX2 when it surfaces sometime this year!

Do Canon or NIkon have anything to compete with the above cameras.....no of course not.

Ah but then in the Sony search for other niches we get the RX10, what an amazing piece of kit, again it is very expensive, but again for those who need its unique combination of assets there is no competition and trust me on this, regardless of what you might think about smaller sensors and the tradeoffs, the RAW files are actually downright bloody amazing.  Honestly for a lot of travellers this is the only camera they would need, forget about carting lenses and an extra video camera, this is the answer to a question I have heard asked in classes countless time, "What camera can I get that is perfect for my next overseas holiday"?

And of course we have had the NEX series for years, and again NEX users (and I am one) are very happy with their small form but powerful shooters and many have bought several as the new models have appeared because each one has offered something new.  

But someone at Sony must of got the message, "we want something that out-focuses everything else, something super fast", the response the A6000!  Again I just know that camera is going to appeal to a significant niche market who want something small and lighting fast for action photography, something thats not a heavy DSLR!

So we arrive at the A7s.  If the A7 and A7r are the revolutionary cameras of 2014 , and they surely are then the A7s has to be the most revolutionary camera of them all.  Canon and NIkon simply have no answer, not at the the A7s projected price point anyway!

The absolute audacity of producing a purpose built 12 meg sensor for ultra low light and video (4K) use and then leveraging off the A7 platform is a stroke of genius.  

There will be people out there (I will be one of them) who will buy this camera because it is the least compromised option for a very specific set of needs!

I can see now that some folk may just buy the A7r plus A7s for different purposes, they might also buy the LAEA4 adapter to use the older Minolta glass, and maybe and A6000 for travel or high speed stuff.

This is thing folks, maybe Sony doesn't have the array of glass that Canon and NIkon have but there is no lack of third party options and there is enough glass for most folks needs.  But right now, as of today, Sony have a specialised camera for pretty much all your needs without breaking the bank big time and as I said, sometimes it's better to buy multiple cameras rather than multiple lenses.

More than any other camera maker Sony have taken the steps to future-proof their camera business and ultimately turn a profit in a declining market that is under heavy attack, I hope it works, but in the mean time it is sure giving us some interesting and compelling technology to play with.

The A7s I feel is the camera that will cement the thought in the minds of serious Nikon and Canon photographers that Sony is a real alternative. It could just be the tipping point!

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