Kenji Tanaka, Senior General Manager of Sony's Digital Imaging Business Group, pictured in Yokohama for the 2018 CP+ show.

At the recent CP+ show in Yokohama, we sat down with executives from several major camera and lens manufacturers. Among them was Kenji Tanaka, of Sony. In our interview we discussed the new a7 III, as well as Sony's plans to attract more professional users, without ignoring entry-level and APS-C customers.

The following interview has been edited slightly for clarity and flow.


What is your target customer for the new Alpha a7 III?

We describe it as a basic model but maybe our definition is different [to other manufacturers]. What we mean is that any customer can use this model. Many professionals could use the a7 III, I think. I hope that many kinds of customer will be happy with this model, so we’re not strictly defining a target customer for the a7R III.

The new Sony Alpha a7 III is ostensibly an entry-level model in Sony's a7-series lineup but despite its relative affordability, it's packed with features.

Sony had a very busy year last year – what are your priorities going into 2018 and beyond?

We’re displaying the 400mm F2.8 [at CP+] – of course many articles are written about the a7 III, but as well as the camera bodies, the lenses are very important. Especially lenses like the 400mmm F2.8 – sports photographers are a new category for us.

One of the most important lenses for sports photographers is the 400mm F2.8

Last year we launched the a9 and some sports photographers are already using the a9, for example at the Olympics, but one of the most important lenses for sports photographers is the 400mm F2.8. The weight is very light. Usually sports photographers use monopods because the lenses are very heavy, but the weight of our 400mm F2.8 is very light, and you can use it handheld, which makes it easy to create different kinds of photographs. We already announced the development of this lens, and the launch is scheduled for this summer.

How important is feedback from sports photographers?

It’s very important. Not only when it comes to quality, but also durability. The winter Olympics for example, with the low temperatures, whether a product works in those tough conditions is very important. Whether or not we will launch a new product, the proof of concept is very important.

For a product aimed at a hobbyist, maybe it's less important but for the 400mm F2.8 we’re really dedicated to create a ‘monster’ lens.

Sony was showing a prototype of its forthcoming 400mm F2.8 at CP+, which Mr. Tanaka sees as an essential weapon in Sony's arsenal of lenses if the company is going to attract professional sports photographers to the brand.

There have been questions about the weather sealing of a7-series and a9 cameras. Is this something you want to address?

In really bad conditions, in really heavy rain, will photographers keep on taking pictures [for long periods of time?] I don’t think so. In those conditions, most photographers will use some kind of rain cover. But of course durability is very important. Photographers should be able to shoot [in poor weather]. We have an internal ‘weather test’ and for each kind of customer we will aim to produce products with adequate durability.

For a professional camera, the requirement for durability is higher

Is that something that your professional users are asking for?

Yes. But we need a balance between durability, and size and weight. For a professional camera, the requirement for durability is higher, but for hobbyist kinds of camera, the priority is smaller size and lower weight.

Tamron and Sigma are now creating lenses for Sony FE - is this a good thing for Sony?

Yes, it’s a good thing. The E-mount is an open standard – anyone can create a lens for the E-mount system. Of course there are criteria for compatibility, but because we think that the E-mount is a good technology, we think that the open format is good for the market and good for customers.

Tamron's first lens for full-frame Sony mirrorless cameras will be the upcoming 28-75mm F2.8 zoom. Sigma is planning its own range of native E-Mount primes and zooms, too.

How long will it be before Canon and Nikon join Sony and mirrorless full-frame becomes the norm?

This is just my personal opinion, but I think that maybe by next year’s CP+ you’ll see full-frame mirrorless cameras from Canon and Nikon. I think [by then] they will be participating in this market.

If cameras are going to develop, manufacturers have to develop mirrorless technologies

Just look at our technologies, like eye focus. All of those are made possible because of data from image sensors. In DSLRs, the data comes from separate sensors. The main imaging sensor is blacked out, 90% of the time by the mirror. The sensor is turned off. But the imaging sensor is very important. So if cameras are going to develop, and be able to capture the moment [more effectively], manufacturers have to develop mirrorless technologies. So within one year, I think.

Do you think we’ll see mostly mirrorless cameras at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo?

Yes.

How many of those cameras do you want to be made by Sony?

Many! But the professional market is very conservative, so we’re taking it step by step. We saw some photographers using the Alpha 9 at this year’s winter Olympics but of course the majority was Canon and Nikon. But the number of Sony photographers is increasing.

The Sony Alpha a9's innovative wide-coverage autofocus system makes it a powerful tool in the hands of an experienced sports photographer.

A lot of our readers want more Sony APS-C lenses…

We know that some people think we’ve neglected the APS-C market, but it’s just an issue of prioritization. A couple of years ago we introduced the a6500. Then the next year we introduced the a9, and the a7R III. But we think that the APS-C market, and APS-C customers are both very important, because the majority of the market is APS-C, and we’re developing many kinds of APS-C products, so please be patient – we will never ignore APS-C.

Some of your competitors keep flagship products up to date over time with firmware updates. This seems like the opposite strategy to Sony. Is this something that might change?

We’re still in the early stages of challenging the market with our products, and the new model cycle is relatively rapid, compared to our competitors. But the next step is to increase our market share. And if we want to reach new customers, we need [to make] new types of cameras.

We’re still in the early stages of challenging the market with our products, and the new model cycle is relatively rapid

Sony makes a lot of key devices, for example image sensors and processors. I’m originally an engineer. Engineers always want to provide the latest sensor, the latest processor, and so on. Maybe this is one of the reasons our product release cycle is faster than some of our competitors. [But] user-upgradable software is very important. Our new model cycle is speedy, however I think that firmware updates are something we should offer.


Editor's note:

Our conversation with Mr. Tanaka was candid and interesting, coming in the middle of a very busy period for Sony. The company has released a lot of high-end products over the past 18 months, and shows no signs of slowing down. We don't know how far out the new 400mm F2.8 sports lens is, but given recent sightings of at least one working prototype 'in the wild' at the winter Olympics, it could be pretty imminent.

Mr. Tanaka knows that Sony won't have the full-frame mirrorless field to itself for much longer, and welcomes the competition

Mostly I came away from this interview with the strong sense that Sony isn't planning on resting on its laurels. Mr. Tanaka knows that his company won't have the full-frame mirrorless field to itself for much longer, and welcomes the inevitable competition from established DSLR manufacturers like Canon and Nikon, as well as third-party lens manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron. As he correctly points out, some of the most useful features to emerge in the photography market in recent years could only have been possible thanks to mirrorless technologies, and Sony deserves enormous credit for developing and perfecting many of these technologies faster than any other manufacturer.

Sony will not ignore either APS-C users, or entry-level full-frame customers

It was very reassuring to hear Mr. Tanaka stress the importance of durability, as well as technology in Sony's high-end cameras. Concerns have been raised about the ability of some of its products to withstand use in wet conditions, but clearly this is something that the company is mindful of – especially in cameras and lenses designed for professional use.

That's not to say that Sony is focused entirely on breaking into the professional market. Mr. Tanaka was at pains to reassure us that Sony will not ignore either APS-C users, or entry-level full-frame customers. The new a7 III is proof of the latter point – a 'basic' model in Sony's terminology, but one that I suspect will satisfy the needs of many enthusiasts and even professionals.


Previous Sony interviews:

CP+ 2017 - Sony interview: 'We need to offer new imaging experiences'

'We want to make lenses that can be used forever': Sony engineer discusses G Master lenses

Interview: Kimio Maki of Sony - 'the customer’s voice is the most important data for me'