Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Sony full frame lens strategy - Part 1

A long time ago, about 2006, when I was getting into photography in a bigger way and thinking of buying a DSLR I was aware that I wasnt just buying a camera but rather I was buying into a system of bodies, lenses, flashes etc. A quick and dirty scrub revealed that really there were three real long term options, Canon, Nikon and Sony. I figured 4/3s was to limiting for the long term (something I still believe), that Pentax wasnt likely to survive (sort of true, its still breathing but on life support) and that was really about it.

I ended up plumping for the Sony A100 as it offered the best value for money at the time and held promise of a healthy system to buy into. Anyway, as part of my decision I actually did some detailed analysis (painful for me) and mapped the lens line-ups for my three contenders to make sure I wasnt wandering into a dead end. I found that Sony had a pretty complete lens line-up (inherited from Minolta), had announced some new glass (including some really cool CZ primes) and was widely considered likely to flesh this out into something that by and large mirrored what we got in Nikon and Canon.

Fast forward to today and I've been in a similar position. My A700 died, I figured that I'd got sufficient return on investment from my A mount equipment over the past 8 years and decided to reconsider my photographic way forward. I wont go into the whole process now but as part of that I revisited my original work from way back when and discovered something really odd. Everything I had assumed would happen with the Sony lens lineup had not occurred. Furthermore, this was such a non issue I had barely noticed it until I went back and made myself revisit the question.

I cant find my very orginal spreadsheets but from hazy memory at the time Sony had around 20 full frame, A mount lenses either on the market or announced, these were scattered between super cheap entry level glass, some mid range stuff and some premium G and CZ lenses. Nikon and Canon each had about 40 full frame lenses essential comprising a 'set' of lenses (of varying size) at each level. It should be noted however that the all these ranges werent really thought through, each was clearly the result of decades of varying fashions and technologies producing designs that overlapped but stayed alive in current inventories for a variety of reasons. However, this consideration aside I remember thinking that a 'proper' lens line-up would comprise having lenses at each level (entry, mid, premium) with a small number of primes at entry, more in the mid zone, most at the premium end. Low end zooms would be slow and soft(ish), mid zooms moderate and sharp(ish), premium zooms fast and sharp. Ultimately I thought Sony would end up with about 30+ FF A mount lenses.

I was so, so wrong. 8 years and many generations of camera on and in pure numbers the Sony lens line-up has gone precisely no where, there is still just 21 lenses out there to buy (a few more if you count older 'Mark 1' versions of updated lenses still available in some places). Looking at it another way, the Sony lens line-up has actually progressed considerably, and while a fair bit of legacy glass and (I suspect) the results of failed experiements are still with us, an overall pattern is emerging and I feel a fraction more confident that I understand whats going on.

The Sony A mount lens strategy is clearest in the area of zooms and its basically this. Provide 1 (and only 1) entry level kit lens and then a small number of premium, high end glass to cover the basic requirements. As a result there are now just 6 full frame, A mount zoom lenses. To put this in perspective, to my count, right now Canon offers about 17 and Nikon about 15 full frame zoom lenses. The situation is a little less clear in primes but the basic principle holds true. Sony offers 14 primes, just one of which is an 'entry' level, the 85 2.8 SAM lens, the remainder are (by my grading) 2 mid level (minolta 'legacy' glass, the 50 1.4 and 20 2.8) and 8 premium level lenses (24 CZ, 35 G, 50 CZ, 85 CZ, 135 CZ, 135 STF, 300 G, 500 G). There are also another three primes that I havent 'graded' these are the 50 and 100 macro's and the 16 fisheye - these lenses dont really fit in a 'quality' grading, rather they exist outside that notion.

I should note, I think the 85mm prime is an outlier, not a representative of a current Sony strategy. When the it and the (aps-c only) 50 and 35's were announced they were to form the basis of an "easy choice" range of primes. This range has not grown in years. I guess the easy choice experiment failed - sony didnt sell a lot more cameras or lenses - and so is lingering until it can be quietly shuffled off.

So I think its clear, Sony's long term strategy with full frame lenses is simple: a small range of premium glass covering the 'essential' ranges for 90% of photographers and a minimum amount of other lenses to fill out a kit or meet minimum expectations (ie must have some macros and perhaps a fisheye). If that is the aim then Sony's line-up is actually almost complete. Whats missing?

For zooms all I can imagine would be a premium superzoom like the Canon 28-300 L. For the primes maybe a superfast tele like a 200 2.0? Perhaps a tilt/shift lens for landscape? Maybe a 21 CZ and 28 2.0? So, imagine I've got this right about Sony's FF A mount strategy, and lets assume my small additions were made to the line-up and those lenses that dont fit the strategy were quietly let go. What would the final Sony FF A mount lens line-up look like?

Zooms

16-35 CZ (in place)
24-70 CZ (in place)
70-200 G (in place)
70-300 G (in place)
70-400 G (in place)
28-300 G (NEW)

Primes

21 CZ (NEW)
24 CZ (in place)
28 CZ (NEW)
50 CZ (in place)
85 CZ (in place)
135 CZ (in place)
135 STF (in place)
200 G (NEW)
300 G (in place)
500 G (in place)

Specials

16 Fisheye (in place)
50 Macro (in place)
100 Macro (in place)
24 T/S (NEW)

Thats is - just 20 lenses, 15 of which we already have and of the five new ones all of them are probably 'nice to haves' rather than essentials.

Thats a pretty radical departure from what I and just about everybody thought Sony was going to do. Why is that? What is Sony thinking and should we care?

I think this blog post has gone on long enough - I'll cover that next time.