Golden Sony?

I read David Pogue's recent review of the state of photography with some interest, but I did have a few comments.

The biggest thing I liked about the article was how he kept coming back to sensor size as a proxy for image quality.  It isn't the only thing that matters (my five-year-old Nikon D90 isn't nearly as good as the new D7100, despite identical sensor size), but it does hold within a generation (the one exception I can think of is that medium format doesn't deliver the increased ISO flexibility that it should; I guess the camera companies think it's not worth the cost).

So I really liked that he showed scaled images of the sensor sizes of various cameras.  My one question with the series, though, was whether the sensor size shown for an iPhone is the new 5s size, or that of the prior models.

This part is very important:
the camera companies cranked out new models that basically stuck to the same formula: Big sensor = big camera = big price.

What he fails to note there, though, is that that is a simple fact driven by silicon yields, and that the sensor will, necessarily, go up quadratically with the increase in sensor size.  The sensor isn't the only thing driving unit pricing, of course, but it's by far the largest single factor, because of that yield issue.

I'm going to come back to a couple more general issues, but first let's look at a specific issue he brings up:
If I wanted to buy an inexpensive SLR, you’d better believe I’d get one of Sony’s NEX cameras. Why on earth would I want a camera that’s four times as big, 85 percent heavier, and $50 more expensive — if I could get the same photos from a smaller, lighter, less expensive camera?

The answer is you can't necessarily get the same photos.  If you're just taking pictures of unmoving things, or in very good light, you might be able to do so.  But there are several places where you're going to fall down.  The biggest is in lens selection:
  • Sony has nothing remotely approaching Sigma's 18-35 f/1.8 lens, in relatively normal lenses.
  • How about long telephoto?  I see nothing longer than 200mm, and that only at f/6.3.
  • How about macro?  All I see is one 30mm lens, and that at f/3.5.  That means you need pretty good light, and be ok with a very small working distance (under 1")
  • Fisheye?  Only with a conversion lens.
  • Perspective correction?  Good luck with that.
Then you also need to look at focusing.  The NEX only has contrast-detect autofocus, meaning that it's going to be very slow, comparatively speaking.

Then there's viewfinder vs rear screen.  There are real advantages to a viewfinder, the biggest being that it keeps the camera closer to your body, which has several advantages:  less distraction and greater stability being the biggest two.

Then there's controls.  That extra size on the Nikon gives room for more controls, meaning that you can adjust settings faster.

And how about flashes.  The closer the flash is to the camera, the harsher the light, and more likely to cause red-eye.  It looks like there is an external flash (with a custom plug), though a small one.  Like lenses, bigger does make for better pictures.

And then there's some oddball edge cases like ability to use tethered.  Want to use a tripod with Arca-Swiss quick-release?  Looks like you're SOL unless you want to go to the NEX5, or bigger (and it looks pretty awkward, even there).

Maybe all of those advantages aren't worth $50 (and size and weight) to you, but they are real advantages.

Yes, mirrorless will get to matching SLR, but it's not there yet.

The Sony's are pretty good, and worth considering.  But they (so far) are only for certain styles of photography.

As a more general comment on the review, you should note that Sony's not terribly good with supporting their products, long-term.  Look at the Alpha SLR; they've already basically discontinued that (the new A7* models have almost no connection to the older, pellicle mirror-based cameras, despite the naming).

You should also note that Sony's going in all these directions at once.  Basically, they've got the money (and lack of market share) to be able to throw a lot of stuff against the wall and see what sticks.

Still, several photographers I know and respect have switched (but I should also point out that they're landscape photographers, who are least likely to be affected by Sony's shortcomings).  I'm certainly not saying it isn't worth considering.  Just be aware of what you're giving up, as well as what you're getting.

I'll certainly be watching.  It isn't worth switching, for me, but it might be in several years.  I'd certainly like to reduce weight.  The D4 is a fantastic instrument, but it's definitely a heavy beast.  And I don't choose light lenses for it.

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