The internet is a buzz with the upcoming Sony full-frame NEX camera and I am laid out with the flu today which makes it very difficult to do my real job. Like many of you I am
mildly caught up in this craze so let me share a few thoughts. One thing that remains so interesting out this new camera is Zeiss’s rumored involvement. Originally they were to release the only natively compatible lenses at launch but recent rumors are saying that Sony will announce a zoom as well.
I suspect that Zeiss will announce a somewhat standard three prime set. We know one will be 35mm so they will either go wider (something like 18mm, 35mm, 75mm) or narrower (35mm, 55mm, 85mm). I think the latter set makes the most sense because while it does overlap with some SZ lenses there are holes in the E-mount lineup at 55mm and 85mm. Caveat: yes, the Sony 50mm is a great lens but many prefer the 85mm equivalent field-of-view over the 75mm field-of-view. Likewise I imagine the zoom will be a 24-105mm f4 (or f3.5-4.5) and perhaps even collapsible.
Now Zeiss also have a full range of ZM, or Zeiss for M-mount, lenses. They don’t have quiet the breadth or speed of Leica’s range of lenses (or the cost) but they are solid performers and several of which are considered superior to Leica’s own offerings. Up until last year Zeiss/Cosina also offered a film rangefinder body, the Ikon, which had a small but loyal niche of users. For years there was speculation about a digital Ikon camera but it became clear that Zeiss had no intentions of going that route.
History lesson over. Is Sony developing a digital Ikon or Zeiss? I think the possibility is very real.
- Existing user base: Zeiss’s loyal ZM following may be small but they are underserved. IF Sony can pull of a camera the feels worthy of the association I believe many of this crowd will buy in assuming the challenges discussed later and overcome.
- Appeals to the upscale market: Making money in the camera world, especially if you’re not Canon & Nikon, is about finding a niche that will support a higher margin. With cell phones eating into lucrative, mass-market point & shoot sales, almost all camera makers are going high-end these days. Zeiss is an upscale name. Whether Zeiss will license the “Ikon” name to Sony is unknown but perhaps the moniker isn’t even necessary to gain a critical presence if Sony is first to market with a solid product.
- Leica’s pricing leaves a lot of room to compete & keep margins high: Even at Sony & Zeiss’s rumored price points you should be able to buy a full-frame NEX/Ikon with the three lens kit (& possibly the zoom!) for the price of the Typ 240 M body alone! Zeiss has legendary ZM lenses at all the focal lengths mentioned above if similar, or better, optics are used in these new e-mount varieties, the system will rival Leica (note that I didn’t say “beat” or “destroy” the RX1 performance shows what Sony/Zeiss are capable of doing). Without a doubt, even with high R&D costs, Sony will make a healthy profit on each body sold.
- Angle of Incidence: It is well known and documented that symmetrical lens designs used in many wide-angle rangefinder lenses don’t play nice with digital sensors. The only existing full-frame e-mount camera, the VG900, only confirms this. However the VG900 sensor is the same, or very similar to, the sensor used in the A99 where angle of incidence is not nearly as much of a problem. The VG900′s sensor package was only not optimized for still photos let alone wide-angle rangefinder lenses. The same would not hold true for the full-frame NEX.Sony is a leader in the field of imaging design and holds patent for innovations like BSI and slanted photosites that should overcome these issues. Will we finally see this tech in the wild? I don’t know. The RX100mkII is the first larger sensor to use BSI perhaps Sony now has the means to manufacture full frame sensors with it as well. On this point we won’t know completely until the camera is available to test.
- Ease of Use: M-mount lenses are a staple for many photographers using NEX cameras and have been for years. There is, however, a lack of EXIF data and any digital compensation like the Leica M cameras provide. When Fuji announced their enthusiast oriented X-Pro1 they made a concerted attempt to win over M-mount users (for all those who nay say that Sony would never take into account 3rd party lens users) even releasing an electronic M-mount adapter. Sony/Zeiss could take the idea a step further. The adapter could read 6-bit encodings and/or have a database of Zeiss ZM lenses detecting when a lens is removed and prompting the user to select the correct focal length if it is not properly coded. If the wide rumors are true about in-body image stabilization, this type of adapter would be more of a necessity. Of course remove the adapter and the photographer can use native e-mount lenses or any number of other adapted systems creating a nice halo effect for Sony.
- Focusing: Here again, I want to turn to Fuji. I’ve got mixed feelings about Fuji’s retro-charm but I must say their engineers are less afraid to rock the boat! When the new X100s came out with the X-Trans version of Sony’s new 16mpx APS-C sensor they threw in a new type of focus assist:
The new full-frame NEX will definitely improve the quality and area-covered by the phase-detection autofocus sensors. By digitally combining the image and distance data a virtual rangefinder focusing is possible. Purists will still prefer the optical solution of the Leica M, and there are advantages to that system, but I think most will be willing to trade off the optical framing for the speed, depth-of-field preview, and metering possible on the Sony camera.
So what do you think? Will the new NEX be the digital Ikon? Personally with Fuji nipping at their heels and Canon and Nikon continuing to pull ahead (not to mention Canon’s actually innovative 70D sensor) Sony will have to take some risks and really push the boundaries to make this camera the success it really could be.