Kenji Tanaka, VP and Senior General Manager of Sony's Business Unit 1, Digital Imaging Group.

At the CP+ show in Yokohama Japan last month, we sat down with executives from several major manufacturers, including Sony. In our conversation with Sony's Kenji Tanaka, we discussed various topics, including how the full-frame mirrorless market has evolved, and why he believes Sony will maintain its competitive edge.

Please note that this interview was conducted partly via an interpreter, and has been edited for clarity and flow.


How do you think the full frame market will evolve, now that lower-cost products like the Canon EOS RP are becoming available?

As more competitors jump into this market, I think that’s a very good thing, because customers have more choice. Our aim is to grow the industry. So when competitors jump in, that’s good.

A wide range of options is a very good thing

The EOS RP is a different kind of challenge from Canon, for entry-level customers. When they eventually enrich their entry-level lenses, that would be a very powerful story. But at this point, I cannot judge who the target customer is [for the EOS RP]. Thinking about the camera industry in the long term, a wide range of options is a very good thing. I’m very positive about it.

Canon would probably say that the RP is intended to appeal to entry-level customers and first-time ILC buyers. How do you intend to attract those kinds of photographers?

This is our one-mount strategy, which only Sony has. Initial entry is in APS-C, and the next step is full-frame. I want to make a kind of ‘step up ladder’.

Sony's a7 III is one of the most competitive cameras in its class, offering advanced stills and video features at an attractive price. But its MSRP is undercut by the new Canon EOS RP.

Sony is no longer alone in the full-frame mirrorless market - are there any particular companies that you regard as more serious competitors than others?

Every one of our competitors is strong, and we respect each of them. For the [sake of] growth in the industry, we’re thinking about computational photography, and how to incorporate these technologies.

I first encountered this kind of technology more than 20 years ago, and it’s created a new future for imaging. So [while] of course we’re very respectful of our current competitors, the next step is we have to learn more things from computational photography.

So perhaps your most important competitors right now don’t make cameras?

That could be.

How will Sony maintain its competitive lead?

Sony is a technology company that provides technology in which customers may find value. I want our technology to be the reason people are attracted to Sony, not the price. Of course the balance is very important. When you get to price points of $3000, $4000, that’s a different matter, but the most important thing for Sony is technology. That creates customer value.

Technology will lead customers into the future.

Technology will lead customers into the future. That’s the kind of scenario we want to create. Last year we said that speed and AI would be our new technology drivers, and since then other mirrorless companies have tried to develop these technologies. It’s already happening.

Previously, our main target was professional, but this year we announced the a6400, not only for professionals, targeted a little more widely. We need to create a message for a different kind of customers, but basically our products contain advanced technology, and advanced technology make [makes] customers happy to shoot. I want [Sony] to become a company that drives technology - that’s the kind of message I want to send.

Smartphones like the Google Pixel 3 have changed the way that millions of us create images, and have become primary cameras for an entire generation of photographers.

Do you think Sony has an advantage here?

Yes, of course. We have an R&D section within Sony, it’s a real asset. The world of imaging is growing, and the speed is getting faster. I want to invest in the kinds of technologies that drive the world of imaging, and [...] create a cycle. Computational photography is one aspect, lenses are another. I’m very positive for the future. At my core, I’m an engineer. I want to create a camera to enrich your life as a photographer.

How long have you been working on technologies like AI?

It’s very difficult to determine a starting point, but ten years ago I was an engineer, and at that time my interest was neural networks. So the seed for the technology goes back more than ten years. More recently, about five years ago we started developing deep learning. Of course at the same time our team was trying new technologies so it’s very difficult to say exactly when we started. We’re developing new technologies all the time, Sony is that kind of company.

Is it more important to Sony that you sell more cameras, or make more profit per camera sold?

Haha, do I only have two choices? the most important thing really is technology. That’s what creates new features. To develop new technologies of course we need money. Sometimes our strategy is [to create] high value products, and sometimes our approach is to increase the volume of customers.

Sony's new APS-C a6400 (left) offers incredibly advanced autofocus and high-speed shooting features in a very compact body.

Some people have the perception that Sony is more focused on full-frame than APS-C, is this accurate?

Full-frame is the best platform to deliver our technologies. But of course these technologies need to cascade down for APS-C customers. So we will focus on both groups of customers, but [the] timing is a little different. First full-frame, then APS-C. It has been said that Sony has ignored the APS-C market, and our answer is the a6400.

Do you think there’s an opportunity for Sony to create GM lenses for APS-C?

Yes, I do, but I don’t know how they would be branded. Maybe not as ‘GM’, but high quality lenses are definitely an option [for development].

Do you think APS-C is a format that could be used by professionals?

Honestly speaking, for still photography, full-frame is [more appropriate] for professionals. But for video, APS-C is good for both amateur and professional customers, because it’s size is close to Super 35mm, [which is a] video Image sensor format.

Are you interested in creating an a7S-type product, geared towards video, within the APS-C lineup?

That is possible, I think. For example, looking at the US market, at the BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera, I think that’s a wonderful product for professionals. Not only for high-end amateurs. The sensor size of that camera is Micro Four Thirds, and [Sony’s] APS-C is bigger.

Mr Tanaka has expressed a keen interest in the BlackMagic Pocket Cinema 4K Camera, could hint at some of Sony's future plans.

Are you interested in developing cine lenses for APS-C?

It’s possible, but looking at the market size, full frame is maybe a bigger opportunity. If we focused only on cine, the market would probably be too small, but the so-called ‘creators’ market is a little bigger.

What kind of products do you think would suit this market?

I have many things in my mind but I can’t tell you the details today! As you know well, stills and movies are completely different. Some people think that 30 or 60fps stills shooting is the same as shooting a movie, but the mentality of stills photographers and videographers is completely different. That kind of fusion, I don’t think [it's realistic]. We want to create new cameras for both kinds of creators.

So you don’t think it’s possible to create a perfect ‘fusion’ camera for stills and video customers?

No.

Have you always believed that? Sony has really been a key developer of hybrid video-enabled cameras, like the a7S line.

Many people have enjoyed the a7S II as a video camera, but originally we designed it for stills photography users. So if we’re going to create products [specifically] for video shooters, we’ll have to modify them in the future.

It’s easy to add 4K/60, but beyond these specs, a lot of customers have other demands

How do video shooters want the camera to be changed?

We’ve had a lot of feedback from the market, including from DPReview! The basic expectation is for things like 4K/60, 10-bit 4:2:2, and a lot of manufacturers are doing that right now, but I want to think in a different way and create something that goes beyond the expectations of our customers. It’s easy to add 4K/60, but beyond these specs, a lot of customers have other kinds of demands, and that’s what we’re researching.

Judging by Mr Tanaka's comments, the aging a7S II might be replaced by a much more revolutionary product that 'goes beyond the expectations' of his customers.

Your new cameras can shoot HLG video for the new generation of displays, how will this technology influence stills cameras?

JPEG is an old format, limited to 8-bit. Movies are going to 10-bit, and stills should become 10-bit as well. So of course we’re researching how to compress stills to 10-bit. The new standard will be 10-bit. There are many such formats already in the market, but we need to study which one is best for the customer.

Smartphones have high dynamic range displays, so the [impetus] will probably come from smartphones. Television development is a bit slower, but everything will be 10-bit [eventually]

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics is just a year away - do you think that by then we’ll see a lot of sports photographers using Sony?

We’re just beginners in that field, compared to Canon and Nikon. We’re currently going step by step, taking feedback from journalists and sports photographers, and we’re running a positive cycle, right now. What I can say today is that you can expect activity [from Sony] for big sports events.


Editors' note: Barnaby Britton

Technology, technology, technology! That's the message from Mr Tanaka this year, above all others. Although Sony is (finally) facing some serious competition in the full-frame mirrorless market, it appears that Mr Tanaka welcomes the company. He certainly doesn't appear to fear the competition. As he says, while Sony respects all of its competitors, its most important rivals might not be the ones currently making cameras.

As a technology company first and foremost, former engineer Mr Tanaka confirms that Sony has been researching AI and deep learning for at least a decade. Lest we forget, Sony also makes smartphones, and in fact the camera and smartphone divisions were recently merged. When Mr Tanaka talks about wanting to invest in 'the kinds of technologies that drive the world of imaging' I'd be surprised if he's thinking exclusively of the traditional consumer digital imaging market.

Inside that marketplace though, it's clear that Mr Tanaka views full-frame as the preeminent format for delivery of Sony's technologies to photographers, as well as being a superior platform for professional users. Given the company's focus on attracting enthusiast and professional users - and that whole 'technology, technology, technology!' thing, it shouldn't be a surprise therefore that Sony's APS-C lineup has been pretty much put on ice the past couple of years. Mr Tanaka did hint at greater emphasis on APS-C in the near future though, including - crucially - the possibility of some high-end lenses to come.

It seems possible that Sony is interested in developing a dedicated, compact, affordable large-sensor dedicated video camera

There's no such thing as a 'perfect' stills / video camera according to Mr Tanaka, and perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of this interview, for me, was his obvious interest in the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K. It's unusual for a senior executive to so openly - and so specifically - praise a competitor product in an interview with press, and I doubt it was a throwaway comment. From this, coupled with Mr Tanaka's reminder that APS-C is a bigger format than Four Thirds, and his earlier comment that APS-C is close to Super 35, 'a video image sensor format' we can draw some tentative conclusions.

It seems at least possible that Sony is interested in developing a dedicated, compact, affordable large-sensor dedicated video camera. That's the kind of product that could prove disruptive. Even if such a camera doesn't come to fruition, Mr Tanaka's slightly dismissive remark that tinkering around the edges of the a7S II's feature set, adding things like 4K/60 is 'easy' should give filmmakers hope. Sony, historically, doesn't do 'easy'. Whatever they end up looking like, it seems likely that the next generation of video-centric cameras from Sony will be anything but iterative.