J. David Ake, Director of Photography at The Associated Press.

One of the world's largest and oldest news agencies, The Associated Press, has just announced that it is switching to Sony for all of its photography and videography equipment. We spoke to AP's Director of Photography, J. David Ake, about why the agency decided to make the switch, why it chose Sony, and what it means for AP staff photographers and videographers.

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

Thanks for joining us, David - what do you do at AP?

I’m the Director of Photography at The Associated Press, I’m responsible for stills photo reporting worldwide. That’s a team of a few hundred staff photographers, fifty or so photo editors, and we produce about 3,000 images a day from around the globe. I’ve been at the AP for 20 years, and previously I was a photographer for UPI, Agence France-Presse, and Reuters.

Is it a coincidence that this announcement coincides with what would have been the opening week of the planned 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo?

Actually, yes, this just happened to be when we could get the dotted line signed! COVID-19 slowed things down a little bit, we were actually hoping to do this a little bit earlier.

How long have you been working with Sony on this project?

The AP has been thinking about switching to mirrorless on the stills side for a couple of years. We like the advantages [like silent shooting] which means we can be whisper-quiet in places where a DSLR shutter sound is disturbing. We like the super-fast autofocus and we like the light weight of the cameras.

We tested cameras from several manufacturers in really harsh zones from the Arctic to the rainforest, to hostile environments, to hurricanes. The overwhelming response from the photographers was that they really liked the Sony equipment: the way it worked, the way it felt, and the image quality.

The Sony Alpha a9 Mark II is a camera that Sony says was made specifically to meet the needs of professional photographers in demanding environments, and at major sporting events. The relatively few major hardware updates from the a9 were almost all intended to cater to this demographic.

Then we started talking to our video colleagues who were about ready to do a change-up of their gear too, and we started thinking "well if we went to Sony for video and stills, what would that do for our visual storytelling?" We liked the idea of having the color quality and the image quality being close to the same between stills and video equipment. So if a stills photographer helped out a video colleague with a little filming, or B-roll, it would fit in the edit. And if we were to pull a frame grab from a 4K video camera it would have the same basic feel as a photograph from a stills camera.

And the lens mounts are the same, so if a videographer was working with a stills photographer, he or she could borrow a 600mm f4, or a stills photographer could try a cine lens to get a certain look. It just gives us some unique opportunities.

Up to now, has AP been using a mixture of different platforms, from different manufacturers?

Yes, we have. We used one manufacturer for stills, and a different manufacturer for video. And we’ve been happy with those brands, we’ve used them for years, and they’ve supported us with their equipment. It was really the thought that we wanted to go mirrorless that took us down this path, and then we found that the synergy between video and stills could be really good, and Sony could support both of those at the level that we needed. And maybe that could open up some opportunities for visual storytelling in future that we hadn’t previously recognized.

It’s probably going to take us a little over a year to complete this switch

I’m excited, because both [video and stills] teams now can really work together well.

How many photographers and videographers will start using Sony equipment?

We have a few hundred staff photographers around the world, and about that many video cameras [in our equipment pool]. And probably into the thousands of freelancers, regular and occasional. This switch to Sony applies only to the staff photographers and videographers.

The freelancers are independent contractors, what they use is up to them.

Can you give us an idea of the scale of this investment, in terms of camera bodies and lenses?

Well if we're kitting each photographer and videographer out with four or five lenses and a couple of camera bodies, that’s a large investment. It’s probably going to take us a little over a year, maybe a year and a half, to complete this switch worldwide. We’ve got photographers in some places that are very difficult to get gear to!

Sony is currently the only manufacturer to offer native mirrorless long-telephoto prime lenses. Lenses of this kind are a prerequisite for professional sports, although Canon and Nikon's latest mirrorless cameras can accept EF and F-mount lenses via adapters.

Do you have a sense of the ratio of a9-series to a7-series cameras that you’re going to be onboarding?

The vast majority of the stills photographers will get a9 Mark IIs. We will get some a7R IVs for the videographers, and a couple for some of our entertainment shooters who do a lot of portraits. But the standard kit will be an a9 Mark II.

On the video side there are six different cameras that might become part of the kit, from broadcast cine cameras all the way down to small palm-sized cameras, depending on the assignment. But we have six cameras spec’d-out on the video side.

What convinced you that Sony could provide that level of support your photographers and videographers might need at major events?

Well Sony has committed to us that it will. And we have done some tests, we’ve done events where they did provide the level of support that we needed. This is not new for Sony. On the video side, Sony has been supporting its cameras in the field for a really long time. They’ve shown us that they’re committed to doing it, and so far we’ve been happy with the level of commitment.

The proof is in the pudding of course, once we’ve got this all rolled-out, but we’re confident that they can deliver.

Tokyo 2020 never happened, but by this time next year, AP photographers and videographers in Japan will be shooting the proceedings on Sony equipment.

You mentioned the logistical challenge of replacing all of your stills and video equipment, are you planning to introduce a training program for your staff?

Yes. Our goal is to get photographers together, collect their old gear, issue them with new gear, and give them a day or so with Sony technicians to run through the menus, how to clean the sensors, how the cameras work and so on, before we put them out in the field.

What are the first big events that you expect AP photographers will be covering with Sony equipment?

The US elections in November, followed by the Olympic Games.

What’s the biggest shift you’ve seen during your career in photography?

For me personally it was film to digital. I got one of the very first digital cameras in 1995. It was a huge shift, and very enlightening - there was a sense of freedom. It changed the world for photojournalism. And I think mirrorless is going to turn out to be a really big change, too. The fact that these cameras are very fast, very quiet and very light will allow us to go places and do things that we haven’t done before.

Editors' note: Barnaby Britton

The news that The Associated Press – one of the world's oldest and best well-known news agencies – is switching to Sony is highly significant.

For decades, whether or not a brand could be considered 'professional' has been defined in part by whether organizations like AP purchased its cameras and lenses for their staff photographers. While the number of salaried photojournalists working in agencies around the world today is relatively small, it's hard to overstate the PR value for any brand of having its cameras and lenses appear in the hands of pros on the sidelines at events like The Olympic Games, watched by millions of people all over the world.

For at least forty years, Canon and Nikon have owned the sidelines, and along the way, both companies have developed a sophisticated systems to support professional photographers at major sporting events. Can Sony compete with these well-established companies when it comes to service and pro support (not to mention reliability)? Apparently AP is pretty confident in Sony's (and its gear's) performance so far, but as Mr Ake says, 'the proof is in the pudding'.

Sony is still the only company to offer both a truly photojournalism-oriented mirrorless camera and a range of native mirrorless fast telephoto prime lenses

There is no doubt, however, that Sony is very serious about competing in the professional market. The a9 Mark II is arguably the best sports camera in the world right now, and two years after Canon and Nikon joined the full-frame mirrorless party, Sony is still the only company to offer both a truly photojournalism-oriented mirrorless camera and a range of native mirrorless fast telephoto prime lenses. Apparently, for AP, the cross-compatibility of E-mount lenses between a large number of Sony's stills and video cameras was another point in the company's favor.

From a sales and revenue standpoint, the fact that Sony just sold a few hundred cameras and lenses is probably not all that significant. But the AP contract is a huge vote of confidence in the brand from an agency synonymous with professional photojournalism, and one that Sony has been working for years to earn. Canon and Nikon just got put on notice.