In Retrospect, What Did Sony Get Right and Wrong?

Now that we've got cameras to handle, if not yet shoot with, it's starting to become more obvious where Sony's strengths and weaknesses are on the A7 series.

First, let me again point out that Sony is on their third generation of full frame mirrorless cameras and have had five years to work the kinks out of their cameras. Anything they got wrong is on them, as they've had time to correct it. 

Let's start with the "wrong" list.

What strikes me most is buttons and controls. Canon and Nikon seem to be bringing over bigger and easier find-by-touch, DSLR-like controls. Those controls are also in very natural places (particularly on the Nikon Z's). I've long argued that the Sony A7/A9 buttons just don't hack it, particularly when the camera gets a little slippery (misty, humid, snow conditions) or when you try to shoot in winter with gloves. The AF-On button is particularly problematic in this respect with the Sony. Why Sony didn't fix this over three generations of cameras, I don't know. It doesn't seem like rocket science, or all that difficult to do. Instead, they mostly moved around the red record video button and made it easier to find. Well, we can see the priorities, right?

Sony's menu system continues to be one in flux. I'm still baffled by things like why the Focus Assist menu page is separated away from the Focus 1, Focus 2, etc., pages. Icons that aren't obvious, abbreviations and acronyms that are unclear or strange. Organization that is sometimes clear, sometimes not. Help off by default. The list gets quite endless, which means that we're now waiting for Mark IV models to solve that menu mess.

Now that Canon and Nikon have introduced new, big mounts, Sony's choice for FE seems like it may be limiting. Nikon went from being in the limiting position (in film/DSLR) to now being the mount with the most design flexibility in it. Sony didn't seem to get the message, but that's not entirely surprising, as electronics, not optics, is their tour de force. Still, one wonders if Sony will be able to match what Canon and Nikon will do with the RF and Z mounts in terms of interesting and new lens designs. 

Note also that Sony also doesn't have any DO/PF lenses, either, or tilt/shift. While Sony rushed to get to a pretty full lens set in the 12-200mm range, they've yet to show any clear use of new optics technologies or things that appeal to certain niches. Did they not expect these optical changes that are occurring, or did they just not think them important? Are they not interesting in the niches?

Conversely, we should talk about what Sony did right.

First off, Sony decided to go full frame first. Someone at Sony was seeing early and correctly that Canon and Nikon would probably want to come in at full frame mirrorless at some point, so getting there first (other than Leica, whose prices pretty much put them out of the consumer game) was going to give them some time to get that right and establish a base. 

I think the three body choice (A7, A7R, A7S) was very smart. Same basic body/features, but with different sensor emphasis to pick up niche users (though lenses are trailing behind this). Indeed, you could say the A9 is just an extension of that (another type of niche user). Sony is covering a lot of bases with a lot of common design and technology in the cameras, while making changes that make the individual models unique and desirable. Moreover, Sony is reusing chassis design and lots of parts across all models, saving them (and eventually us) money. Bravo. 

Likewise, Sony is the only company that can truly say that their still and video platforms are relatively the same. Same underlying technologies, same lens mount, same feature sets (obviously slightly different in the pro video gear, though), same naming and menu conventions (but see above about menus). Canon might be able to make a similar claim, but it seems that they're much more reluctant to put the pro video features in their consumer still cameras. Sony doesn't seem to care if pros pick an A7Sm2 or an FS5m2. Canon seems to want to force video pros to the C line only. 

Sony pushed more than 25 lenses into FE realm in a few short years. They absolutely needed to do this, as with a new mount and a much smaller installed legacy base, they needed to show as much parity as possible before the big boys came over and directly competed with their big lens sets. Sony also opened up licenses to their mount to help speed up the lens population process. Unfortunately, that's given us more overlap than filling in holes, but still, choice is something you absolutely have between 12-200mm, zoom or prime. Outside that focal range, Sony needs to keep working, though.

I happen to think Sony has also done remarkably well with the optical capabilities of their own lenses—at least since the early 24-70mm f/4 problem child—and this reflects quite well on them. Sony's still a bit behind on truly fast optics and longer telephoto options, though, and they're going to need to keep the FE lens onslaught coming to survive, I think.

Note that all those FE lenses didn't come without a penalty: E lenses were pretty much abandoned, which puts pressure on Sony's APS-C mirrorless entries. 

But I think the thing that Sony did the best is not actually the products themselves, but something more important: Sony has engaged their customers. Fully. Constantly. Playfully. At all levels. 

At times I'm not even sure anyone at Nikon ever wants to talk to a customer, let alone engage with them. Meanwhile, Sony sees customer engagement as a strong leg of their marketing and sales program. I agree with Sony's approach, and Nikon's approach just sucks. (I note that Luminous Landscape (LL) just publicly wrote a complaint about Nikon's marketing no longer talking to them. Curiously, LL and I were both encouraged by Sony to come to Kando. We both did extensive pieces on that.)

Overall, Sony got a lot right, but they still have some obvious work to do. 

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