Yasuyuki Nagata - Senior General Manager Business Unit 2, Digital Imaging Group Imaging Products and Solutions Sector, Sony Corporation. Pictured at CP+ 2017 in Yokohama, Japan. 

Earlier this year, we traveled to the CP+ trade show in Yokohama, Japan. At the show, we met with senior executives from several major manufacturers, including Yasuyuki Nagata of Sony. During our interview we discussed the future of the a7-series, Sony's strategy for growing the 1-inch camera segment, and the new a99II.

Please note that this interview has been edited slightly for clarity and flow.


Nikon recently canceled the DL series, which would have competed with the RX100-series. Is this good or bad for Sony?

It’s both good and bad. If Nikon had achieved a high-quality wide lens camera with a 1 inch sensor, that would have been a very competitive product. So in that sense, it’s good for us. But actually, from the perspective of driving the 1 inch sensor market, we want to stimulate this market and that means multiple manufacturers.

What is your general strategy for FE lenses in the future?

We’re launching products based on customer feedback - especially professionals. When we started the Alpha a7 series we only had three full-frame mirrorless (FE) lenses, but after we launched the a7R II, a lot of professionals started to use it. So their voices [became more important]. For example they wanted a 24-70mm F2.8, which is why we prioritized that model. So basically our strategy is to listen to our customers.

The GM 24-70mm F2.8 was a lens that Sony's professional full-frame users wanted the company to make, according to Mr Nagata. 

In the past, we’ve heard that Sony wants to create some longer sports optics. is that something that is being planned in the future?

If a lot of professional photographers [want those lenses] we will have to create them. But for now, our main professional user base is portraits and landscape photographers.

Do you aspire to having a base of professional sports photographers in future?

Maybe. Of course it’s not just the lens, it’s the body as well.

'Most of our customers shoot both video and stills'

The Olympics in Tokyo is three years away - would you like to see Sony lenses in the arenas alongside Canon and Nikon?

Of course, that’s our dream. And we won’t give up on that. But it’s hard to make a specific comment on future products.

How long will it be before mirrorless products represent the majority of cameras at large sporting events?

I don’t know! Historically, I believe it took Canon 7-10 years to become the dominant brand at professional sports events. It’s not easy. But a lot of professional photographers have already switched from DSLR to mirrorless. Maybe in some cases, we are already satisfying the needs of some sports photographers.

The Sony a7R II is a capable stills camera, but fits equally as easily into a professional 4K video workflow. 

Speaking about the a7-series lineup, how does your customer base divide up in terms of stills photographers versus videographers?

We don’t divide our customers in this way. Most of our customers shoot both video and stills, currently. Until a few years ago, video and stills shooters were totally different, but recently, portrait and wedding photographers have started shooting video too.

We always consider both kinds of users at every stage of development.

Moving on to the RX series, there are a lot of products now, and you’re leaving older models in the lineup - what is your aim with this strategy?

It depends on the region. By adding RX100 models 1-5, we expanded the 1 inch sensor market, and in most regions we enjoy #1 market share. The 1 inch sensor market was developed by Sony, and then other competitors started joining us.

[As such] we started with 100% market share, but even now we enjoy 60-70% market share in most regions. And our high-technology models like the RX100V drives some of that, but for the cost of one Mark V, you can buy three of the original RX100. So the cost factor is also important. With both entry-level and high-end RX models, we hope to be able to drive the 1 inch sensor market and remain at number 1.

The Cyber-shot RX100 V packs a lot of features into its pocketable form-factor, but Mr Nagata insists that older RX models still have their place in the market. 

We understand some of the comments we get from dealers, that because of this strategy they have to carry all five models, which might not be efficient for them, but realistically, those dealers ‘cherry pick’ the models they want to carry. Maybe in an area like the US it doesn’t make sense to [sell] all five models, but in developing countries, the Mark I and Mark II are crucial.

The earthquake last May caused a good deal of disruption - what was the effect on the camera division?

From a supply point of view, we had a month or so’s worth of product in stock. So the effect on our supply chain didn’t really kick in until the June, July timeframe, depending on the model. One inch sensors are easier to make than full-frame sensors, which require at least 2 months to manufacture, so the effect was more profound on full-frame sensors than one-inch. But it was all back up and running by the end of 2016.

'We’ve started pro support, but we’re still learning'

What kind of feedback do you get from professionals that have switched from DSLRs to mirrorless?

Some professional photographers have said that G Master lenses were a trigger for switching, and also the [new] STF 100mm lens. Thanks to the short flange-back distance, a lot of E mount customers can use their own lenses with a7 cameras. That’s a benefit of the system. And after they’ve switched to an a7 body, people tend to switch over completely and buy Sony lenses.

Smaller body size is a big factor, and silent shooting is important too.

Is the lens attachment rate different from an a6500 to an a7-series camera?

It’s totally different. Even from the a7 to the a7R II, the attachment rate [with the a7R II] is almost double. From the a6000 to the a6500, again it’s completely different.

What are your plans for developing your pro support network?

We’ve started pro support, but we’re still learning. Professional photographers travel all over the world, so how to provide consistent support not just in their home country, but globally is very important for us.

Sony has ambitions to expand and improve its PRO Support network for professional alpha users. 

Was the choice of a smaller, lower-endurance battery in the a7 series made deliberately to keep the camera size small?

We are fully aware of this feedback. Right now, we’re not getting any negative commentary about the size of our a6000-series and a7-series cameras, so there’s probably no need to make them any smaller. There’s a balance between the size of the body and lens, too. So just making the body smaller doesn’t make much sense. And I’m afraid I can’t comment on how we will tackle this issue without commenting on future products, so I can’t say anything more.

Is Sony interested in joining the 360 imaging market?

We already have an action camera lineup, and it’s a similar category. The market itself is kind of shrinking, so instead of having one camera for 360, we’d probably prefer to support professional users, making 360 imaging using our a7-series and a rig. Rather than chasing after the consumer segment.

Do you see more growth in the high-end of the market in general?

I believe so. Which is why pro support is getting more important for us. But of course it cascades down to lower-end models too, and we don’t deny the important of the entry-level segment.

What’s the most important thing that Sony has to do to maintain its position in the next few years?

We need to offer new imaging experiences. We made the NEX series - APS-C mirrorless. That was a new experience. The RX100, the full-frame a7-series, G Master lenses - STF, too. It’s a new imaging experience. Sony is by far the number 1 sensor manufacturer, and the advantage of this is that is allows us to work together with sensor engineers to create the best image sensor for a specific model we are developing. so we’re aware of the sensor development schedule for the next two or three years. So we know what kind of future is coming, in terms of sensors, so we can plan ahead - what kind of bodies will be required, and what kind of lenses will required. We can take advantage of that.

'we know what kind of future is coming'

When it comes to core technologies, we’re making lenses sensors, we’re making imaging sensors, we’re making LSIs and we have a software division. Some of our customers couldn’t believe we made an autofocus STF lens. It’s not easy. But we know light travels through lenses, and we know how light is detected on the sensor. So the total combination [of these technologies] means we can make that product.

 

The recently-announced a99 II is proof that the A-mount is still a going concern. According to Mr Nagata, Sony needs to maintain the A mount alongside the E mount. 

In the SLT lineup, development is slower than the a7-series. Where will that line go in the future?

Having options is really important, especially for high-end amateurs and professionals. If we just had the same cameras and lenses [as our competitors] the results would be the same. Some people want A-mount, some want E-mount, and depending on the situation, some customers might want both. Having that variety of bodies and lenses is key.

We need both A mount and E mount. Some people thought that Sony was only developing the E mount, until we introduced the a99 II. You’ve seen it, it’s a serious camera. There is a huge number of lenses for A mount, from Sony and Minolta, and we want to maintain a good relationship with those customers by providing great A mount bodies with no compromises compared to the E mount system. But we can start capturing new customers with the E mount. We we need both.

In the long term, do you want those A mount customers to come over to E mount?

That depends on them.

Will we see more A mount lenses, specifically designed to get the most out of the A99 II’s autofocus technology?

We have to prioritize. It’s not easy developing new lenses. Our customers’ expectations are very high, especially after we launched the G Master series. So we can probably only launch a few lenses a year!


Editors' note:

It was interesting to speak to Mr Nagata in February. This month he is celebrating his 31st year with Sony, and during the course of three decades he has worked in various divisions, from robotics to Handycams. Clearly, he is not afraid of something that Sony has often been criticized for - having 'too many' products in the market. Every product has its place, from the high-end a99 II to the old, but still current, CyberShot RX100 Mark I, and Sony appears intent on introducing even more 'new imaging experiences' in the future.

Although understandably cautious about giving anything away, it is possible to glean some insights from Mr Nagata's responses to certain questions. Firstly, it doesn't look like the Alpha mount is going anywhere for now, although we would expect the relatively slow pace of development to be a continuing feature of that range, compared to the company's mirrorless ILCs.

Secondly, reading between the lines, we're optimistic that bigger batteries are coming to the next generation of Sony's alpha range of mirrorless cameras. As Mr Nagata pointed out (although not in so many words), there's not much point making a camera really small if you intend it to be used with large, high-quality lenses. And for videographers especially, the limited endurance of the a7R II and a7S II in some conditions is a real frustration - one that Sony is clearly very aware of. 

Sony is also aware that it needs to get better at catering to the needs of professionals in a more general sense - not only when it comes to the spec sheet of their cameras. Post-sales support for professionals is something that Canon and Nikon have perfected over decades, and is one of the main reasons why major news outlets and picture agencies still generally stick with one or the other. It's early days for Sony's PRO Support network, but we'd expect the company to put a lot of energy into improving and expanding it on the run-up to the 2020 Olympics - when all eyes will be on Tokyo, and Sony will be hoping for some professional representation on the world's biggest stage.