Saturday, 31 May 2014

Alpha Dog: How Sony Created the Most Innovative Camera Brand in Under a ...


Using the bones of a dying giant and a healthy dose of innovation, Sony built one of the most forward thinking lines of high-end cameras available in recent memory.

When they entered the serious photography market following their acquisition of the struggling Konica Minolta camera business, Sony brought the coffers and clout of an international conglomerate as well as the fresh eyes of a newcomer. Using those tools, they’ve pushed the technological envelope in a way that few others were willing or capable of doing and, now, are setting the benchmark for where others ought to be aiming. Oh, and they did it all in just eight years.

Konica Minolta

Kazuo Tashima founded Minolta in 1928 under the name Nichi-Doku Shashinki Shoten (Japan-Germany Photo Company) and released his first camera, the folding Nifcallete, the following year.

Over the next eighty years, the Minolta name was tied to a number of important photographic milestones. John Glenn brought a Minolta camera with him on the Friendship 7 during America’s first manned spaceflight in 1962. The Minolta CLE (1981) used the world’s first through-the-lens auto-exposure system in a 35mm SLR, and it was followed in 1985 by the world’s first autofocus SLR, the Minolta Maxxum-7000. Minolta also introduced their first Digital SLR-like camera, the RD-175, in 1995.

But by the turn of the millennium, the old giants of film photography were starting to realize just how bad the digital revolution was going to sting, and that anyone not boarding the digital train was going to get run over by it.

In 2003, Minolta merged with another monolithic Japanese photography company — Konica — hoping that a larger firm would have better chances of survival. Instead, the merger proved to both parties that the future of their company (renamed Konica Minolta) would lie in alternative industries, like office imaging products, and Konica Minolta would be out of the camera market entirely by 2006.

In the intervening time, Konica Minolta produced a number of popular cameras, including a variety of compacts and superzooms, as well as two DLSRs. The first of these was the Maxxum 7D (also known as the Dynax 7D) announced in 2004, which targeted a professional market and was the first DSLR to feature in-camera image stabilization. The following year, they announced the Maxxum 5D, a beginner’s DSLR designed to compete with Canon’s Rebel line and the Nikon D50.

Selling to Sony

By 2006, Konica Minolta had been unable to gain a significant foothold in the digital camera market. And so, in a last-ditch effort to stay in the game, they announced a partnership with another Japanese tech giant Sony, with whom they planned to develop a new line of DSLRs.

However, six months later, Konica Minolta decided to bow out entirely, selling off their entire camera business to Sony, who wasn’t exactly a stranger to the digital camera market — they had introduced their Cybershot line of compact cameras back in 1996 — but had virtually no presence in the professional or prosumer market.

Acknowledging that preexisting partnership, as well as the Konica Minolta pedigree that underlay the cameras they would produce, Sony named their new line Alpha, a designation which had been given to a number of Konica Minolta products before the sale.

Sony was sailing into uncharted waters, and faced the kind of high expectations that come with taking over a much-loved brand. All eyes were on them.

The First Alphas

In the summer of 2006, Sony was ready to roll out their first ever DSLR, appropriately named the Alpha A100.

The first offering was more than a little reminiscent of earlier Konica Minolta products: it shared in-body image stabilization, honeycomb pattern metering, eye-start autofocus (the camera started autofocusing when small sensors below the viewfinder detected the user’s face in close proximity) with the Maxxum DSLRs. Even the lens mount was the same, although re-branded to the Sony Alpha Mount, meaning that A100 users could plunder old Konica Minolta lens stocks.

While Phil Askey at DPReview rated the camera well upon its release, he also noted:

Sony’s entrance to the digital SLR market comes thanks to their finial association with and later purchase of Konica Minolta’s photo division. When you first use the A100 it clearly has more Konica Minolta DNA than Sony. However their influence comes in the added features and image processing (the camera’s user interface and control systems are very similar to previous Konica Minolta digital SLR’s, and that’s no bad thing).

In the beginning, Sony proceeded with baby steps rather than leaps. Their next DSLR, the higher-end A700, featured a new autofocus system and special integration with Sony-designed televisions. In late 2007, they introduced three new DSLRs simultaneously — the A200, A300 and A350 — foreshadowing Sony’s later passion for diversifying their digital camera offerings.

Then, in 2008, Sony fired a major salvo in the war for consumer attention with the release of their A900, at the time the highest resolution full-frame DSLR available with a 24.6 megapixel sensor.

By the end of 2008, the Konica Minolta heritage still shone strong in Sony’s Alpha DSLRs (not that this was a bad thing); however, it was benefiting in a major way from Sony’s superior marketing capabilities and brand recognition. It was the fastest growing brand in the DSLR market from 2006 to 2008, and seized the third largest share of the market, behind only Canon and Nikon, within two years of the introduction of the A100.

The following year, Sony doubled down on diversification, updating their existing models by introducing the Alpha A230, A330, A380, as well as two new ASP-C DSLRs, the Alphas A500 and A550. Just to be clear, that’s six active lines of cameras, counting the full frame A900. More choice, Sony thought, was the way to rope in more casual users.


Stepping out of their Comfort Zone

With solid sales figures and a few years of experience in the serious photography market under their belt, Sony began to sail farther and farther from the Konica Minolta designs they had inherited.

In 2010, they introduced the first ever Pellicle Mirror DSLR, the SLT A55, using a variant of a long-abandoned semitransparent mirror system which allowing the user to use live view uninterrupted while shooting. The same year, they waded into the mirrorless interchangeable lens market with the Alpha NEX-3 and NEX-5, for which they developed a new line of E-mount lenses.


Sony’s Semi-Translucent Mirror System

The next four years would see a number of other interesting projects in the Alpha family. Sony tried a DSLR-styled mirrorless camera with the A3000 and brought full-frame capabilities to their SLT system (another world’s first) with the Alpha SLT-A99. They also partnered with Hasselblad to make a collection of strange, astronomical-themed and astronomically-priced luxury cameras, the Stellar, Lunar, and HV — perhaps not a “good” idea, but a unique one at least.

More recently, they built the first non-rangefinder full-frame mirrorless system with the Alpha A7, followed up by the tres-sensitive A7s; and all that is not even mentioning the landmark contributions of their compact Cybershot line, which has undoubtedly been influenced by the Alpha line, but technically predates it and isn’t a direct descendant of the Konica Minolta acquisition.


Looking Forward

While many other companies have been satisfied with slapping incremental improvements onto faux-retro bodies and calling it innovation, Sony embodies the “try anything once” mentality. In a matter of just eight years, Alpha cameras sped through their awkward Dad-driving-you-and-your-date-to-prom teenage period, and developed a spirit and character all their own, based largely on embracing the technological cutting edge.

With compact camera sales sliding further into oblivion, and conventional DSLRs likely next on the chopping block, the rest of the industry is playing catch up with Sony, whose large-sensor mirrorless cameras may be the best existing glimpse into the future of the high-end camera.

That level of accomplishment in such a short period of time deserves both a round of applause and a close examination by every photography company hoping to survive the next decade.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons Users Jean Jacques and RyuKojiro, and

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