The Sony A900 is a camera of purpose and symbolism. Probably the most important and influential DSLR release in the past 5 years. For some, it’s the realization of a Minolta dream that a robust full-featured behemoth in the spirit of the Maxxum 9 film camera would be realized. A professional tool for those of true grit. For others it’s a symbol of the megapixel race, and is decried as a waste of sensor area. I see it as the near final orgasm of a tantric seduction which Sony initiated nearly 2 years ago with the showing of two concept models at Photokina 2006. Now, just a digital blink a – few years after release the A100, Sony boasts a robust line of DSLRs, for soccer mom’s, guys with cameras, (GWCs) hobby fanatics, and now studio, landscape, and fashion photographers.
The reason to buy into the Sony system is similar to why people pick Macs over PCs. There are differences in this analogy, the Alpha system isn’t inspired by LSD flash backs and Sony is as large as Microsoft. But the point is, if Sony (like Apple) wants any market share from Canon and Nikon (versus Dell, Microsoft, etc.), they have to produce excellent products. They have to innovate, they have to do it right the first time, and they have to listen to consumer needs. These are things which arguably, neither Nikon nor Canon have any need to, and don’t do. With its dominate market share in the DSLR world Canon has become complacent, releasing camera models which are impressive but lack any market pressure innovations. Nikon is starting to ramp up it’s game with the D3, D700, and D90, the first DSLR to offer video recording. There’s little doubt that the Canon 5D replacement will as well, because the wolves are now out of the woods and looking to satisfy their appetites for Canon blood and camera sales.
With the A900 Sony has released a real tool for studio and fine art photographers. Enough resolution to beat the freakishly expensive Canon flagship 1Ds Mark III, in-body lens stabilization, weather sealing, and micro tuning of lens focus are nice features to have, but considering the market price of $3000, the A900 offers the greatest price-performance combinations in any DSLR ever released so far. The A900 can accommodate fine tuning focus profiles for 30 lenses, so critical focus adjustments can be made on the spot by the user. Of course, Sony might prefer to get paid for tuning lenses like Canon does (instead of allowing users do it), but at the moment the infrastructure and pro service centers don’t exist like they do for Canon. Ahhh, and the lenses…the Carl Zeiss line of autofocus glass now includes a 16-35 and 24-70 f/2.8 lenses, the ideal objectives for a 35mm full-frame body. Then there’s the 85mm and 135mm lenses, fabulous for portraits and razor sharp. Then there’s the ability of using full-frame lenses or cropping to 11 megapixels for APS-sized lenses on the A900, which means one doesn’t have to debate about lens type, they’ll all work with the new Sony.
Of course, as an 800 pound Gorilla, everyone knew Sony was coming to the DSLR jungle, they could feel the ground shake as it approached and heard the monster when it began to roar with the A350 and A700 cameras. The recent news of the Nikon D90 is nice, but we all know that’s not the end of Nikon for this year. The Nikon D3, while a revolution for Nikon users, was only a stop-gap camera so they wouldn’t jump ship to Canon, it was meant to pacify Nikon pros for a little while before the real prophet was ready to be released. The Nikon D4, a capable 24 Megapixel DSLR will for sure be released at Photokina 2008, there’s just no reason for it not to be. The Nikon D300 has essentially the same chip as the Sony A700, and the D4 will probably have a chip very similar to the A900. The last question is what Sony will release in early 2009? The A900 is nice, but will all know the A700 is starting to age against the competition, and an A800/A850 with a full-frame sensor to fill the price gap between the A700 and A900 seems painfully logical.
It took some time to go from the A100 to the A900, and the Sony marketing tactic has been to tell everyone the end of the story first. “We want to take serious market share of the DSLR market, and this will be our flagship, the A900.” This was a bold and unheard of attempt in the digital camera world. Pentax tried this and then failed to deliver a digital version of their medium format camera system, and have since stayed in the shadows producing a niche DSLR for committed followers.
The tactic is designed to prevent users from purchasing from competitors and is very simple. You tell people about the awesome camera 18 months early because it’s a way to drum up enthusiasm for a new camera without immediately releasing a product. The point is to encourage people who are thinking of not buying a Sony A700 versus a Nikon D200 to go ahead and invest in Sony, because Sony is committed to being a contender and producing a full DSLR system. Such a system can’t be supported if people think that Sony is interested in only selling glorified point and shoot DSLRs. An 800 pound gorilla can do this.
The beast tells you what it will do and then laughs as the bush men try to kill it before the Kong destroys the village. But this is the DSLR world, far more dangerous than any jungle, and Sony is indeed a vulnerable beast. While Sony has been enticing consumers with dreams of the A900 for two years, Nikon and Canon have been gearing up for the death match. In particular Canon, the DSLR company which doesn’t need to innovate, has had more than enough heads-up on what would be coming, and are going to release a 5D-II for Photokina, which is rumored to have 24 megapixels, live-view, and movie capabilities. They have to, because at the moment the Canon line is aged and stiff compared to Nikon and Sony. 2009 will be the year of the full-frame DSLR death match between Nikon, Canon, and Sony, for all of them will have monster cameras to sell and all will have to be below the $3000 price point.
Competition is good for the consumer and forces innovation, so what other forces are at play? What comes next you wonder? Look to the planet Mars…children of the night, for the Red One uber innovative digital movie camera maker is rumored to be developing its own DSLR, which will be more of a hand-held high definition video production system than a camera.
No one knows when this DSLR war will end, or exactly when the difference between DSLRs and camcorders will be a matter of marketing strategy, but it’s certain that the jungle will get bloody this year. The air is filled with the scent of DSLR blood, and it’s a great time to be a consumer of digital camera technology.