The tortoise and the hares?
SONY has shown itself to be lagging behind the competition as we reach the third bend on the second lap of the development of HD-video capable DSLRs. At PMA 2010, nothing ‘real’ was shown and the closest they came to further launches in the Alpha range was an advanced pre-production prototype of a 24mm f/2 Carl Zeiss T* ZA SSM.
But Sony may prove yet to be the tortoise – or perhaps to be Brer Rabbit. They could make the finishing line, the goal of a truly useful video DSLR, before Nikon/Canon/Pentax/OlySamPanny get there.
The dream of any camera maker is to sow a few dragons’ teeth and have fully armed warriors spring from the ground, something which Olympus has managed to achieve twice in succession, first with the E-1 and 4/3rds, then with the digital Pen and Micro 4/3rds.
Sony, ignoring Greek myths, has so far gone for the Celtic version and chucked the bones of its dead warriors (Minolta!) into the Cauldron of Bran to rise and fight again. As reanimated corpses go, the Alpha models so far have proved pretty lively. But in all good myths, whether Greek or Celtic, it’s the real live heroes who eventually win. Sony has a couple of real giants in the Alpha 900 and 850, but not much else until a true Alpha 700 successor arrives.
That is what PMA is said to have revealed – without a name, but with a mockup and some tentative specifications:
You may not think these studio packshots from Sony are very exciting. Think again. That, dear Alpha fan, is a magnesium alloy body shell. You can tell it’s built the same way as the Alpha 900 and 700 by the small screws visible outside the perimeter of the body lens mount, and the traditional strap lugs. If it’s not magnesium or mag alloy, it’s a new material to the range and it certainly is not the same stuff the A100-200-300-500 series is made of.
Inside this camera, as with the Canon EOS 550D, there are two activating motors not one. The mirror action and the shutter action are separate. That’s not the case with the recent sub-700 series Alphas which have used a single motor to drive a permanently hard-linked mirror-shutter cycle, a cost saving measure which simplifies assembly but rules out any chance of providing mirror lock up. There is every chance this camera will have MLU.
It also has a full AF mode switch, and a depth of field preview button (presumed, unless Sony has changed the function of the button in that position, which is unlikely); it has a Memory Recall position on the shutter dial. All this says, very clearly ‘A700-900 type internal design’ to match a solid metal, weathersealed exterior shell.
My press information from Sony implies that the new HD-AVCHD CMOS sensor used in the DSLR models is exactly the same sensor as they are using in the EVIL models (the mock-ups above).
Sony press release wording:
In 2010 Sony will introduce a new ultra-compact camera with interchangeable lenses that teams “any time, anywhere” convenience with DSLR picture quality. Exhibited in early concept mock-up form at PMA, the camera features a newly-developed Exmor APS-C HD CMOS sensor. It will also support HD video recording using the efficient and high quality AVCHD format. Shown in mock-up form alongside the compact, easy-to-use new camera is a selection of compatible interchangeable lenses.
Mainstream DSLR range to grow further
Sony also confirms that the current α range will continue to grow with the introduction of further new mainstream DSLR models using the newly-developed Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor and integrating HD video function with AVCHD format.
This seems to be a clear indication that it’s a new HD sensor and not the same as the A550. The term APS-C is hopeful, I have amended this post – my quick measurement in Photoshop of the sensor in the image above indicated (allowing extra for overlap of the mask) that it was 16:9 but I’ve since seen a head-on shot of the PMA mockup which shows it is 2:3 format as normal.
The new camera will have HD video and probably won’t attempt to focus during filming; doing so is a red herring with cameras of this format anyway, as autofocus doesn’t even work reliably with regular camcorders. But it will probably autofocus rapidly from Live View, replacing QV autofocus with a contrast-detect system that actually works, especially when combined with Face Recognition. If it does allow AF during filming, the CZ 16-80mm lens shown fitted here might not be the best choice.
Or might it be OK? Try an Alpha body and work out where the body-driven focus sounds really come from. Some lenses are noisy. But I have just stuck my ear next to several, even vintage Minolta AF designs 25 years old, and turned the manual focus ring. Guess what? They are as quiet as SSM. All that Sony needs is a silent drive motor for the focus in the body, and the ZIP sound will disappear. There is absolutely no reason why a new AF motor generation using silent technology should not transform the apparently ‘noisy’ performance of body-driven optics.
Sony’s use of the AVCHD format is much publicised. So what? It doesn’t say it is the Lite flavour, so that means the camera is probably 1080p and that the files as saved to the memory card will be easily read via the card slots of Sony devices such as Bravia televisions or PlayStation, or played from the camera’s USB connection. It also means that some computer systems and portable players, digital photo frames or PDAs may need the video converting before they can play it.
Sony has almost certainly made sure the format shoots 1080/24p, the industry standard. But I think they have done much more than this. I think the A7xx will be the first video DSLR which allows you to capture a still frame while recording unbroken video, and to do so without a shutter actuation. It may be nothing more than a 1080p JPEG still, extracted and saved in real time (Nikon allow saving of 720p JPEGs by reviewing the footage and selecting frames, in-camera, on the D3S).
But I think Sony’s recent experiments with auto image alignment (in the two-shot HDR function of the Alpha 550, etc) are a clue to what they may do to create higher resolution JPEGs than 1080p, without interrupting video recording. A software utility which can re-mosaic and conflate two or more video frames is already available:
I’m already using this software to create double resolution images from my A550 raw files – incredible 55 megapixel landscape and still-subject shots made using a set of exposures, with SSS switched on even on a tripod to ensure that each raw records the data slightly offset on the Bayer grid. The report on this will be in the Spring Photoworld magazine.
At the moment, pressing the shutter during filming on a Canon DSLR captures a full res image but interrupts the video and sound for about 1 second. Pressing the shutter on a Nikon DSLR terminates the video and captures a still frame. Sony will, I think, be the first maker to allow instant capture of a still frame during filming without interruption.
For many, the critical factor will be whether or not Sony provides a stereo mic/line input jack, and firmware to control the impedance, fixed gain or auto gain for this (and any built-in mic). Sound has been the Achilles Heel (sorry, Greek legends again!) of video DSLRs. Only the Nikon D3S so far allows external input with mic/line compatibility, and manual fixed gain. All Canon DSLRs to date have forced auto gain even for the external input – and not one of them is compatible with line sources (officially) making the use of external preamps or mixers a matching lottery.
Now if you think all this does not matter, all you want is a good DSLR, I know a nice patch of warm sand with plenty of ostriches to keep you company. I only shoot video on DSLR once every couple of months. When I want it, it’s great to have it. They cost me no more than non-video capable DSLRs and the inclusion of video has zero impact on the way they work as still cameras. I will welcome video on Alpha. I have the lenses for it and I’ll use it!
And the rest
The A7xx will allow studio shooting with Live View and AF, with auto gain to enable modelling lights. It will have its own LED video lighting system, with a new flashgun capable of either flash or a modelling-light/video strength continuous LED output. You will be able to see depth of field through the glass prism optical finder (no QV, no mirror prisms) or to perfect accuracy on the high resolution rear screen, and magnify the Live View image for critical focusing and d-o-f checking.
I’m almost prepared to bet that it will not support motordrive speeds faster than 5fps (or a minor variation on 5, such as 5.5fps) because the 7fps of the A550 was partly enabled by the hard-linked shutter mirror mechanism with its single motor, plus the fixed stop-down of the lens (which does not open and close repeatedly during 7fps shooting). But through the video function of the new HD sensor, Sony will enable some interesting high speed sequence options for stills, with capture speeds dependent on subsampled resolution taken directly from the CMOS. There has been a firm rumour for some time about a Sony prototype DSLR, seen in SE Asia and Australia, which could shoot something like 15fps at a usable resolution (6MP or thereabouts). So a feature like that would not surprise me.
There are new 24mm f/2 (prototype) and 500mm f/4 G (previsualisation) lenses on the way, which leaves another eight for Sony still to work on including a rumoured 35mm f/2 and 85mm f/2.8 Chinese plastic SAM duo. The nasty little 30mm f/2.8 SAM macro, by the way, turns out to be one of the best lenses I’ve ever used despite its horrible cheap skin and clunky focus motor. So if Sony does make 35mm f/2 and 85mm f/2.8 lenses for £199 apiece, do not dismiss them.
This camera will have a superb quality LCD overlay focusing screen like the Canon EOS 7D, maybe even losing the visible ‘wires’ of the Alpha 550 precursor. It will have one of the brightest viewfinders seen in an APS-C DSLR to date. Will the AF module be updated – along with a new in-body focusing motor that works in fully variable torque mode, silently?
Well, if I was a designer at Sony, all this would be happening.
The alternative would be to chuck some more bones in the cauldron and see what kind of zombie jumped out.
– David Kilpatrick
Sitting behind a desk in Scotland while Gary Friedman attends PMA on our behalf. Gary will trash all this errant speculation and provide the real story, extracted from Sony staff under duress (he carries a Xaphoon, it works every time!).