Shigeki Ishizuka, SVP Corporate Executive, Deputy President of Sony's Imaging Products and Solutions Sector and President of Sony's Digital Imaging Business Group. Pictured at Photokina 2014.

At Photokina last week we sat down with Shigeki Ishizuka, the global head of Sony’s Imaging Business. As well as talking us through Sony's current Alpha strategy, Ishizuka-san also explained why the name 'NEX' was dropped and told us a little about how Sony's sensor business works. 

Could you summarize Sony’s camera strategy in one sentence?

We want to make serious cameras. In terms of our compact cameras, for example, the RX-series is the core. They’re differentiated from our competitors by offering big sensors, great picture quality and sophisticated cosmetic design. 

How important are new photographers to Sony compared to experts or enthusiasts?

In business terms, entry-level users, or amateurs are very important because there are so many opportunities. Traditional photo enthusiasts might be fond of using more traditional systems such as those from Canon or Nikon. They stick to those ecosystems, since they have a lot of lenses. But beginners might not have those kind of loyalties. We want to stimulate the interest of those customers in photography.

But we also need to earn a good reputation among professionals and higher-level amateurs. It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation. So firstly, our strategy is to get that reputation with enthusiasts. That’s why we started to make these serious, high-end cameras. And for the moment, we think, it is proving successful.

Do you think there is a gap in your lineup for a truly entry-level RX-series camera?

Yes and no. We are attracting a lot of new customers with the original RX100. It might look like a serious camera, but from an entry-level users’ point of view they can still take a good photography with a single press of a button. Any amateur photographer can use an RX100. The RX100 III is the top end, but we’re continuing to run all three RX100-series cameras together - the RX100 has now been on the market for more than two years.

The RX100 has been on the market for more than two years but continues in Sony's RX-series lineup as the current entry-level option.

Will this strategy continue? Last year’s flagship becoming this year’s entry-level option?

Yes, we will keep the products on the market for as long as we can. This is a different strategy to the one we’ve used in the past. It’s good for us and also for the customers and retailers. 

How do you go about persuading someone who might be invested in another system to switch to Sony?

It’s not easy for people to switch, and we understand that. But right now some of those customers are buying our cameras and lenses in addition to their existing equipment. They appreciate the advantage of mirrorless equipment, which is twofold: light and small. The smaller the better and the lighter the better. In the past, small, light cameras often weren’t capable enough but after the introduction of the A7, there are no excuses.

With the Alpha a6000 and the SLT-77 II the focus was improved so much that older mirrorless models look slow. This is the kind of innovation that removes the ‘pain points’ from buying mirrorless cameras. And gradually we’re gaining customers, from new entry-level buyers to high-level amateurs and enthusiasts who are traditionally Canon and Nikon customers.

There are three Alpha 7 cameras on the market now. Can you give us an idea of how they’re selling, relative to one another?

The Alpha 7 is the standard model, and it attracts a wider range of customers. The A7R is a resolution-oriented camera, aimed especially at customers that do things like landscapes. Before we introduced the A7S we didn’t know who would buy it. At the moment, a lot of videographers are interested in it. Last week we attended the IBC conference in Amsterdam and already a lot of journalists were using the A7S for video.

How important is video to the the Alpha range as a whole?

Well historically the photo industry and video industry were completely separate. From Sony’s point of view we had been doing, but independently. But thanks to certain technological developments, the two have come together and now there is no great distinction. So we can make use of a common platform and create very specific, customized products according to customer feedback. 

The A7S is clearly a capable video camera, but ergonomically it is obviously designed in the same way as the A7 and A7R, for still shooting. Was it an experiment?

No. From what I’ve heard, in recent years a lot of professional photographers have needed to start creating video as well as stills - doing two jobs. One camera which can do both - like the A7S - is potentially better.

We had an issue with the A7R with shutter vibration reducing resolution in certain situations. How do you incorporate feedback like this from your users?

We take the feedback and make note of it, and we use it to improve the next generation of products.

Under the ‘Alpha’ brand you currently have two lens mounts - A and FE. How long do you see those two mounts running side-by-side?

We have one system - the Alpha system. Of course the origin of A and E mounts might seem different from a customer’s point of view, but they are fully compatible with one another using adapters. I don’t want to separate those mounts into two ‘systems’. That’s why we stopped using ‘NEX’ in favor of using a single family name - ‘Alpha’.

Before you made that change did you find that customers saw NEX and Alpha differently?

Yes. When we introduced the first NEX models we were going after new users, and families. So the image might have seemed ‘cheap’. 

Historically, Sony is seen by many people as an electronics company, not necessarily as a photography company. Do you think that this is still a problem?

There is still some problem with that, but my strong message to the market is that Sony is a serious photo manufacturer. We are strengthening our lens lineup as well.

How much Minolta is left in Sony?

Some of the old Minolta lenses are still very good - especially some of the long zoom lenses. In my team there are several former Minolta engineers, but our team is bigger now than Minolta’s was. So we can design new lenses completely from scratch [for the requirements of digital].

Sony is clearly putting a lot of effort into creating new lenses - where do you think you need to do more? 

The number. There are 13 lenses for the E mount currently but we still need to create more lenses to compete with other manufacturers. We’re catching up. One consistent request from our customers is macro lenses and wide-aperture lenses.

Do you think you need a big lens lineup to be taken seriously by professional photographers?

We certainly have a lot of work to do to gain a good reputation with professionals - like long zooms for sports and so on. But we also need to make more affordable, light and small lenses.

Is the AF system in your mirrorless cameras capable of predictive focus tracking in the same way as a conventional phase-detection AF system?

That depends on the lens. If we made a new lens, something like a 300mm or 400mm, yes - it would be possible with the new ‘4D’ focusing system in the a6000. But in terms of speed the AF system in the Alpha 7 cameras is a little slower.

The a6000 features Sony's most sophisticated AF system of any one of its mirrorless products. Good enough, the company claims, to shoot sports and fast action.

So you’re not aiming the A7-series at sports photographers right now?

No, the A7 [series] isn’t capable of professional AF performance, but the a6000 is good enough for sports events.

So are you focusing on improving AF performance in the next generation of FE mount cameras?

I want to, yes.

Sony sensors can be found in cameras from several different manufacturers. How does your sensor business work?

When we make sensors we put them in several categories. [At any given time] one category of sensors is reserved purely for Sony cameras - we don’t sell them to other companies. Like the sensor in the A7S. But once we’ve enjoyed this advantage we might sell them on later, after some time has passed. This is the second category. The third category of sensors is completely generic - the sensors are created for use internally and to sell externally, to anybody. China or Taiwan or wherever.

Do you think that full-frame is the biggest size sensor that an enthusiast could ever need, or is there an opportunity for bigger sensors?

Bigger than full-frame? Of course there is opportunity there for medium format but it’s a niche. For now, thanks to developments in full-frame we can satisfy this need but there may be room to explore this opportunity [in the future].

How has the QX-series been received? What kind of feedback have you heard?

In the beginning, we had a lot of demand from gadget lovers, who really liked it. But after that initial boom was over we’ve had a very stable level of business. It’s maybe still a niche, but this is our challenge. This year we introduced the QX-1, an interchangeable lens-type QX camera. While it might still be a niche a lot of customers are interested in it for astrophotography, for instance, to attach to telescopes.

The new QX-1 is effectively a standalone sensor and lens mount, minus lens, to which any E-mount lens can be attached. 

Although we marketed them as modules that you can attached to your phone, most QX users don’t attach the lenses in this way, they use them remotely. This has been very interesting.