Why Sony put the A7 and A6000 in plastic - and why I’m glad they did!

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Mel Snyder
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Why Sony put the A7 and A6000 in plastic - and why I’m glad they did!
5 months ago

I'm constantly amazed by the discussions and importance that some forum members place on the "build quality" of Sony cameras. Most recently, the discussion/debate has focused on the build of the A6000. I think the criticism is badly misplaced. Rather than being annoyed at the plastic, I applaud it.

It's not that I don't know and appreciate build quality. I've shot a Leica since 1959 (prewar Leica IIIa gift from my father). I own a Leica M4P with a bit of wear from having been carried all over the world since 1982. I inherited 3 of my dad's Hasselblads, with his Carl Zeiss lenses. And I still have my original Canon F1 and my dad's Nikon F3HP - for god's sake, the F3HP has BALL BEARINGS in the wind mechanism. And his Linhof Press Technika. Those cameras were build to last several lifetimes.

And they have. Camera technology crawled back then. It made sense. I love to take my metal beauties down and dry-fire them.

Today's cameras are not built like Leica M4Ps or Hasselblad 500Cs or Linhofs, and they never will be again. Certainly, not Sony's.

Why? - Because technology no longer crawls. The cameras you want are no longer precision metal boxes of perfectly machined brass and stainless steel. They are simply boxes of tiny PC boards and flexible flat cables on which ICs are mounted. And all those guts are expected to be obsolescent within 2 years. If you're going to pass your NEX-7 to one of your children, better do it now - because 10 years from now, they'd be as pleased as if you handed them a 1990s 386SX laptop.

Metal bodies serve no function any more beyond marketing. In fact, making camera bodies out of polycarbonate makes vastly more sense than metal, for the same reason football helmets and combat helmets are made of polycarbonate, not magnesium. When you want to protect brains - whether they are electronic or human tissue - you use plastic, not metal.

It's hilarious that Leica has just built the Leica T out of a solid metal block and brags how it mounted the electronics to it. Why did they do it? Because Leica is an electronics/sensor train wreck. They have no capabilities there, which the early purchasers of the M8 learned to their horror. The Leica T is a hail-Mary pass to the those who still value touch over imaging (Leica always had the corner on that market – people who bought Leicas and never took them out of the box). Watching the YouTube video of Andreas Kaufmann stroking a Leica T was actually embarrassing. Good luck dropping a Leica T, and seeing the perfect transfer of energy from metal to the circuitry.

With sensor technology accelerating, and smartphones becoming ubiquitous, camera manufacturers are desperate to prove relevance in the modern world where the iPhone shoots more photos daily than all the SLRs and DSLRs and rangefinders ever made.

And that's where Sony figures it can shine. Make electronic cameras.

CAMERAS - not lenses, CAMERAS. Sony is an electronics company, not a lens company. It must hire outside engineers to design lenses, optics houses to manufacture the glass - and in some cases, pay a royalty fee to Zeiss for use of their logo. The electronics expertise Sony developed over decades of making their famed tiny electronic devices can't be amortized on lenses. They probably have a team of psychoanalysts generating a their lens roadmap, crafted to keep us distracted just long enough for the next new body to be announced.

Today, Sony controls sensor technology and sensor interface electronics - so if you buy into any Sony system, their interest will be in pushing that competitive advantage and making newer and newer cameras that sport and support better and better sensors. It won't be in making lenses.

Sony was brilliant in making sensor/electronics cameras that aficionados might wish to use with legacy lenses. Few consumers go beyond kit lenses, because most, soon after investing in a "good camera," get tired of hauling it around and just go back to shooting with their iPhone. Those of us who don't mind carrying a great camera typically have a shelf full of lenses we loved over the years, and just couldn’t bear to give away when the guy who bought our old camera body and kit lens off Craig’s List didn’t want to pay us what they’re worth.

Only a small percentage of those shooting with iPhones feel any need to move up to a DSLR - and so, the manufacturers have to make a market among those of us who anachronistically still want to pay $1000-2000 for cameras. If they keep flooding us with great new cameras, our desire to own the latest/greatest will trump the sparse collection of overpriced lenses available.

And they have succeeded. Which is why you're here on the forum. You moan about the lack of lenses, and then pre-order the next promising camera that previewers claim will have better AF, better dynamic range, better menus than the camera you bought less than a year ago. Rinse and repeat.

Of all the brilliant moves Sony has made, NOTHING matches the under-$2000 A7. Sony slammed all their competitors with that. Nikon and Canon are optomechanical companies. Like Sony must contract out lens development, Canon and Nikon have to contract out electronic design. No wonder the widely acclaimed Nikon D7000 has a Sony sensor and a Sony Bionz processor. They knew they couldn't beat Sony, so they bought what's in the NEX-6.

Those of you old enough to remember President Reagan and the "Star Wars" missile defense system will appreciate that the A7 did to Olympus and Nikon and Canon what Reagan’s trillion-dollar defense system did to the USSR and China - it raised the stakes in a global game of nuclear poker, and the Kremlin had to fold. Which is why the MFT trolls come here to vent their frustration.

What does all this have to do with metal camera bodies?

Sony’s strongest competitive advantage is to keep accelerating technology faster than Nikon and Canon. Because Sony is intent on turning over their camera offerings AT LEAST annually, they have a vested interest in keeping them affordable to the masses of us nuts who have to own the latest and greatest. They know an A7 will be as obsolescent as an NEX-3 within 2 years. No need to raise the resistance to that next-generation sale by making us pay any more than necessary for the current generation.

And so, they build the bodies just well enough to protect the electronics until we MUST have their next creation.

That's why they build only the A7r with all metal. They figure the guys who can plunk down that extra money today will be prepared to pay whatever they charge for the next generation.

But the rest of us - ah, WE are the ones they must make sure we can afford their next "plastic phantastic" we MUST have.

And it works.

After all, look how many forum members bought the A6000 - hell, PREORDERED it - before ever even touching one! How their shipment from B&H and Amazon and Adorama has been tracked like kids tracking Santa from the North Pole. And how many threads here are focused on what the A7000 might be.

If we bought cameras like we buy iPhones - with a wireless carrier basically loaning us the money for 2 years - Sony would build its cameras like iPhones.

But since there's no one loaning us money to buy cameras on time, they don't. Plastic.

And that, fellow forum members, is why the era of metal cameras is over - and why the A7 and A6000 are plastic. Sony wants us to be ready to move on to the A8 and the A7000 - which will also be plastic.

I for one am glad. I hope you are, too. For less than $100, you can buy a nice metal Canon or Nikon SLR from the 1980s on eBay, and you can store one of your FD or AiS lenses on it. Every time you have a yen to touch a metal camera, take it down and stroke it like Kaufmann strokes a Leica T.

Then, pick up your plastic Sony and enjoy the best technology the industry offers - at least, until the A7000 and A8 launch.

 Mel Snyder's gear list:Mel Snyder's gear list
Sony Alpha NEX-6 Sony Alpha 7 Sony E 16mm F2.8 Pancake Tokina AT-X Pro 11-16mm f/2.8 DX Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 +13 more
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