Kenji Tanaka, VP and Senior General Manager of Sony's Business Unit 1, Digital Imaging Group. Pictured at the 2019 CP+ show in Yokohama, Japan.

With the photo industry still mostly hunkered down, and offices temporarily closed all over the world, 'business as usual' is still a distant dream. But we're not in stasis - cameras and lenses are still being released, and plans are still being put in place for future product development. Recently we spoke to Kenji Tanaka of Sony, on video chat (with a little help from his ZV1) about the impact of COVID-19 on his business, the growing market for video and – yes – the successor to the a7S II.

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


What impact has COVID-19 had on your operations worldwide?

It has definitely had an impact on production, and on procurement of supplies. But we’re working with all of our suppliers to minimize this. We have two manufacturing bases though – China and Thailand, which helps, and most of the supply and logistics issues have now been resolved. Operations at our factories have resumed.

What do you think the effect of the pandemic will be on the photo industry as a whole?

I think there will be very little long-term impact on production and logistics, but demand [for cameras] has been decreasing. The entire world is affected by COVID-19. However there are a lot of positive signs. For example in China, sales at June 18 shopping gala were higher than last year. We experienced strong demand for our premium lines, like the Alpha 7 Mark III and Alpha 7R Mark IV. So China is getting better, but in other areas the situation is different, obviously. Demand in the market is starting to recover in most regions though, and I’m not worried about demand [for our products] in the long-term.

Where do you see Sony’s biggest opportunities in today’s market?

Video is a big opportunity, and full-frame. In China especially, the full-frame mirrorless market is growing. We’re also going to continue to expand our lens lineup to meet the needs of professionals around the world. Those are our biggest opportunities, I think. Full-frame mirrorless and video. Demand for video is now growing in every region of the world.

The Sony ZV-1 (left) is one of a new generation of cameras intended to appeal to vloggers and video content creators, alongside the likes of the Canon PowerShot G7 X (right) and the new Panasonic Lumix G100.

You released the ZV-1 in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis - how important is the vlogging and live-streaming market to Sony?

The content creator market is expanding rapidly, and the ZV1 was purpose-built to meet the needs of video creators at all skill levels. With the impact of COVID-19, a lot of people want to record their experiences with video. Demand for this kind of product is increasing, and with the ZV-1 we had an opportunity to meet this need. A lot of people will also enjoy the ZV-1 as a webcam when connecting it to a PC via USB. We will deliver a new Desktop application in July to enable this.

I can confirm that a successor to the Alpha 7S II will be coming, later this summer

Will the Alpha 7S Mark II be replaced, or has the ‘S’ line been superseded by the a7 III and a7R IV?

We’ve received many requests, especially from professional video content creators, and I can confirm that a successor to the Alpha 7S II will be coming, later this summer. Right now we’re focused on the launch of the new camera, and it will be a complete redesign of the whole system, including the image sensor. Everything is new. We hope it will meet and exceed the expectations and requests of our customers. I’m very confident that our new model will meet their demands.

The ‘S’ originally stood for ‘sensitivity’ but now I think it should stand for ‘supreme’ in terms of image quality, and expression. It comes from having really big pixels. I think that many professionals and high-end users will enjoy the new camera.

What were the major requests from a7S II users?

Mainly things like 4K/60p, 10-bit 4:2:2… really what you’d expect.

We’re seeing Raw video being added to more and more consumer cameras - do you think there’s a need for it?

We’re aware that there is a certain amount of demand for Raw video. As you know, our customers include a lot of professionals, so we’re working hard to be able to deliver Raw data capture to these people.

Mr. Tanaka confirms that the long wait for an a7S II successor is almost over - just don't call it a Mark III (yet).

What can Sony offer professionals right now that your competitors can’t?

Technology and innovation. These are our strengths, and that’s what we want to deliver. We have strong in-house technologies. We have very advanced technology for both stills and movies. I am proud of the speed, the performance and the richness of the images [from our products] in various conditions. And also portability of the system.

We’re continuing to evolve, to bring the performance of our products to a new level. We’re really not developing products in an attempt to compete with other manufacturers. We want to satisfy consumers, and surprise them - and create a ‘wow!’ reaction.

Can we expect to see Stacked CMOS sensor technology make its way into more Sony cameras in future?

Of course, it’s a unique, cutting-edge technology, and we want to make maximum use of these kinds of technologies.

How will your autofocus technologies evolve in future?

Increased detection speed and accuracy are what’s being demanded by our users, including professionals. And with demand for video booming, autofocus in movie shooting is very important. Right now we’re dedicated to developing autofocus technology further and further.

How will AI influence future products?

Right now we’re further developing Eye-AF, and we’ve added other detection technologies, like Animal Eye-detection. Object recognition using AI is very, very important for the future.

What do you think will be the next major technological leap, in the camera industry?

We’re very invested in AI technology, as I mentioned, but photography and videography need lenses, and the autofocus actuator in lenses is very important. For video, for example, if the actuator doesn’t work, doesn’t move quickly enough, that’s a problem, and if it makes noise, that affects the quality of the footage. So this is something we’re also investing in a lot, as we’re planning for the future.

In ten, twenty, fifty years I expect that computational photography will be doing a lot of things that traditional lenses do now

With computational photography technologies becoming more advanced, do you think that lenses of the future will look like the lenses of today?

I’m very positive about computational photography technologies, but glass has a lot of advantages. In ten, twenty, fifty years I expect that computational photography will be doing a lot of things that traditional lenses do now. But in the near future - five years, say - glass will still be superior.

In some devices, like smartphones or cameras designed to be easy to use, computational photography could be very useful. But if you want to create a masterpiece, or commercial work, real glass is better. And glass can evolve, a lot. For example with our lenses, some of them are very small but the quality is high. There’s a lot of technology inside our lenses. We’ll continue to innovate with our lens technologies.

Do you think in the future that smartphones will start to work more like cameras, or cameras will start to work more like smartphones?

Nobody knows that! But I think it’s good to have options, and choices.


Editors' Note: Barnaby Britton

It's always nice to speak to an optimist, especially these days. With predictions of doom and gloom from almost all corners, Mr. Tanaka strikes a rare note of positivity. The situation is improving, sales are recovering and demand looks solid in the medium term. For Sony, at least.

The wider long-term impact of the global pandemic remains to be seen, but despite the challenging environment, Mr. Tanaka is confident that Sony has what it takes to thrive as a camera and lens manufacturer. The reasons for his confidence are simple: Sony has a lot of very advanced technology, and has shown a proven willingness to innovate with it.

The biggest news to come out of this interview is confirmation (following some heavy hints) that after a long wait, an Alpha 7S Mark II successor is coming – and coming quite soon. Mr. Tanaka didn't give away many details (it remains to be seen even if it will be called a 'Mark III') but reading between the lines, we're excited.

Everything from Mr. Tanaka's description of features like 4K/60p, and 10-bit 4:2:2 recording as merely "what you'd expect" to his mention of wanting to create a "wow!" reaction suggests that Sony intends to pull out all of the stops. Whether or not the camera will offer Raw video capture is uncertain, but given Mr. Tanaka's remark that Sony is "working hard to be able to deliver Raw data capture to [professionals]" I wouldn't bet against it.

Assuming that the a7S Mark II's successor will represent the company's best efforts, I'm sure that a lot of video pros will consider that it was worth the wait.

According to Mr. Tanaka, Sony sees video as a crucial opportunity for growth in the future, alongside the development of artificial intelligence and computational imaging technologies. Assuming (as seems reasonable) that the a7S Mark II's successor will represent the company's best efforts in all three areas, I'm sure that a lot of video pros will consider that it was worth the wait. Meanwhile, with demand for video products increasing globally, products like the new ZV1 are aimed at entry-level videographers and content creators who just want a small, simple and effective tool for personal expression. Or for Zoom calls.

Other exciting hints included the possibility of further optical development – both in terms of traditional lenses and computational approaches. Interesting times ahead, then – certainly worthy of some cautious optimism, I think!