Sony released the a7 to great fanfare and that one camera has received a plethora of well-deserved awards. Did I say one camera? How about three cameras.
The a7 was a brilliant camera and converted many to the full-frame mirrorless future. However it wasn't actually one camera, but rather a platform of three cameras including the a7R and a7S. The same body was paired with normal (24 megapixels), low (12 megapixels), and high (36 megapixels) resolution variants designed for distinctly different purposes. The resolution trade-off is a changing balance between detail, sensitivity, and write speed.
This tripartite family of cameras is a tacit demonstration of the flexibility of firmware. Step back for a moment and think about the 35mm interchangeable lens film camera. The camera body was simply a shell for integrating a lens and film, the two main controls on your photography. Sure the mechanical components were complex, but the creative options were wide when changing these elements. The same is of course true for digital photography, except you can't change the sensor. Sony's solution is to produce the same camera with sensor variants in each type. It's an obvious solution and therefore even more surprising that leading camera manufacturers haven't approached the problem in the same way. It's also worth bearing in mind that varying the sensor also affects other elements of a camera's performance, notably autofocus, burst rate, and video.
I'm a Nikon shooter, so if I am interested in the pro features of the D850 I need to have the 46-megapixel sensor that ships with it. What happens if I want a low-light D850 for reportage? That might mean something like a Df, although that's getting a bit long in the tooth now. Or how about a "normal" resolution version for sports photography? Nikon would prefer I used a D750 or D500.
The traditional model for camera manufacturers is to have a broad "platform" with similar ergonomic designs and firmware, but differently specified cameras. What you find is that these cameras are developed incrementally and borrow technology from existing models, adding a dash of their own spice in to the mix. The D750 inherits elements of the excellent autofocus system from the D4S (but with a newer chip) and a sensor similar to the D610 while also introducing a tilting LCD screen. In short, manufacturers produce unique variations on a theme. Yes they identify a market segment and produce a camera for it, but they are incremental improvements and offer opportunities for both trickle down and feature testing.
Sony has changed that approach with one "general purpose" camera design utilizing different sensors that can be tailored to targeted niche users. The winners are both the users and the manufacturer. For the user, you can pick a camera that genuinely matches the style of photography you do. For the manufacturer, it means having a single camera, a single design, a single production line, and multiple uses.
Nikon appears to have finally cottoned on with the introduction of Z 6 and Z 7. We now see high and standard resolutions of essentially the same camera. With the introduction of the EOS R, Canon appears to be a little slower to dip their toe in the water. Will they follow and, indeed, will we see other manufacturers go down this route?
Of course Sony also produces what we might call the "standard resolution" high-sensitivity camera in the shape of the a7S. Initially targeted at video makers, it's found significant favor with anyone that shoots in low light. In our haste to jump on the megapixel bandwagon, manufacturers have been less concerned with this sector, something I bemoaned when suggesting we should be buying cameras with the best quantum efficiency (rather than resolution) as so much photography is light limited. That said, if I was going to buy only one camera from Sony's lineup then it would be the general purpose a7 III. Has Sony unwittingly given birth to the best second camera you can own with the a7S II?
However, even with a five year lead in mirrorless camera sales, significant sensor development and fabrication capacity, and cutting edge feature development (we'll conveniently ignore their woefully designed firmware), Sony still has one marketing trick up its sleeve. It sells its older models.
Do you want the a7 at $798 or the a7S at $1,998 ? How about the a7 II ($1,598), a7R II ($1,998) or a7S II ($2,398)? Or the a7 III ($1,998) or a7R III ($3,198)? For some time Sony have continued production of superseded models, something which other camera manufacturers seem reticent to do. With the up front costs of design and tooling all fully implemented, the marginal cost for maintaining camera production is low, assuming you can keep the components coming in and selling the outputs. Which means that over the lifetime of the product, once the up-front expense of development is recouped, prices are able to move closer to the actual manufacturing cost. An a7 for $798 seems remarkable when the original camera cost $1,699 back in 2013. Which means that, as of 2019, Sony has seven new a7 models for sale, spanning a price range from $798 to $3,198.
The traditional manufacturer mindset is that you "go to the market" to understand your users and then produce a camera that they want to buy. It's classic capitalism; develop a better widget than is already being produced, patent it, sell the heck out of it until someone else produces an improved widget, then repeat the process. Sony is doing that of course, but continues to sell its older widgets. The worry has been that keeping the units on sale might well cannibalize sales of their higher (and indeed lower) priced products. However, it seems that that isn't true and, given the feature creep of each new model, it simply offers greater granularity on model options for users across a range of budgets. If anything, it likely cannibalizes sales from other manufacturers.
Sony and Fujifilm have been the betters and benefactors of the step change that is the mirrorless camera. However, it is Sony that has changed the marketing strategy of product models and this seems to have helped rather than hindered sales. With Canon and Nikon now entering the fray, users have an exciting choice of systems and have, hopefully, generated some competition. Nikon in particular seems to have embraced the multi-model route. Will we see Canon adopt a similar approach as it releases new EOS R system models? And will Canon and Nikon, in a similar vein, continue the production of older models? By moving to a base platform and faster iteration cycles, are we entering a new era of accelerated innovation and development akin to what we are seeing in smartphone photography? If nothing else, it's exciting to be a part of.
Lead image by Reinhart Julian via Unsplash, used under Creative Commons.