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The EVF future

At photokina 2010, Paul Genge from Sony pretty much told me that Sony’s future lay in the EVF (translucent mirror or otherwise, Electronic View Finder) models. He was not able to say anything firm. Since then, I’ve spoken to him on several occasions and he has repeated that Sony left all options open but the EVF design was likely to be the way ahead. What he has not said directly to me is that conventional SLR design – Optical View Finder – was off the roadmap.

EVF does away with the need for the finder to be positioned anywhere near the optical axis. Noses can safely hit thin air not a rear screen. Unless you are left eyed. NEX-7 with ocular surround fitted.

Although Sony did not attend Focus on Imaging 2012, the UK website TechRadar secured an interview statement during Focus week, in which Paul appears to have confirmed without ambiguity that the future was EVF-only, and that the forthcoming full frame successor to the Alpha 900 would be an SLT-EVF design. At the same time, we learn that the 70-200mm SSM G and 70–400mm SSM G lens are to be revised for 2013.

We know, from several sources, that Sony is not currently making all its lenses – even the high end ones – in one facility, or in its own workshops. I believe the 70-400mm SSM G is a contracted-out design and that the 70-300mm SSM G has always been made by a third party lensmaker. This is nothing new; the Minolta 100-400mm APO was patented by Tokina and sold to Minolta as an exclusive (no-one else got the lens) and the same company made some if not all the 100-300mm APO lenses. Using different sources means that various types of coating are appearing; traditional Minolta style – the multi achromatic coating, Carl Zeiss T*, Tamron’s BBAR-derived coatings, some Sony multicoatings of unknown pedigree on Chinese SAM lenses, and a new water and oil resistant coating due to be used for the revised 70-200mm and 70-400mm.

This coating is nearly always combined with weather or splash proof design, and companies which have the ability to apply it include Hoya (Tokina, Kenko, Marumi, Pentax), Olympus, Canon, Nikon, and Sigma. Sigma is very significant as they have installed new coating lines recently and they are going through a bit of a subcontracting boom. Their facilities are all in Japan, they are on high ground and were slightly affected by the earthquake but not by the tsunami. They have a long history of building lenses and cameras for Leica, Carl Zeiss, Panasonic, Olympus, Canon/Kodak and interchangeable lenses for nearly all the major names.

If the high end tele zooms are to be revised, weatherproofing and the new coating will certainly arrive along with a synchronisation of lens appearance and finish. But I’m willing to bet something else is involved. The SSM focus system is only partially suitable for contrast-detect operation. It works, on static subjects, but unless some major advance is made in CD-AF it’s lacking the refinement and speed of the AF found in SEL (native Sony NEX) lenses. I’ve tested the 70-400mm on the LA-EA1 with NEX-7, I can work with the lens comfortably on most subjects and the camera is very good at refusing to take the shot until focus is 100% locked.

All that just to get 2X the magnification – NEX-7 with LA-EA1 and 70-400mm SSM G (an operational kit, if not fast) compared to Tamron 18-200mm NEX lens with the correct type of contrast-detection friendly focus motor and protocols.

What Sony must surely want to do is dispose of the SLT (‘translucent’) pellicle mirror and the Phase Detection AF module. It makes most sense to focus, meter, view and expose from one single sensor. In order to do so, lens focus motors need a slightly different control protocol. SSM lenses are already CD-AF compatible, as are SAM onboard focus motor lenses, but they don’t match the NEX system SEL lenses. Sigma HSM and Tamron USD Alpha mount lenses are not CD-AF compatible and do not work correctly on the LA-EA1 adaptor. Upgrading matters most with tele lenses, and they are also most likely to be used in adverse weather for wildlife, news or sports. So my guess is that the upgrade to these lenses will be comprehensive and that it will look forward to possible Sony Alpha bodies with either no SLT mirror, or a movable SLT mirror and choice between PD-AF and CD-AF.

As for the EVF itself, it’s one stage away from being better than a very good optical finder on balance of qualities. Unlike optical finders, the EVF is not susceptible to user eyesight error (incorrect dioptre correction, combined with eye focusing accommodation) and presents the user with a low resolution but otherwise very accurate view of the image focused on the sensor. It can do this at light levels where optical finders become difficult to use, while also presenting a review of the captured image if desired – ‘shot success’ confirmation.

Differences between the ‘identical’ EVF of the NEX-5n accessory finder FDA-EV1S and the NEX-7 fixed built-in version are mostly down to the difference between the 16 megapixel generation 2 sensor, and the 24 megapixel. Response speed, low light noise, quality of colour and contrast are all influenced more by the two very different sensors. User observations that one is better or worse than the other will nearly always be down to this, and variations in settings between the two cameras compared.

There are things you can do on an EVF, such as magnifying a focus point well away from the centre, which simply can’t be done at all with an optical finder and may not always be convenient to do on a rear screen. The fact that EVFs permit eye-level video shooting, and that video is now a permanent feature of the Alpha class of camera from entry to semiprofessional, makes the EVF design change more inevitable.

Paul Genge had a short exchange of information with me when I was considering selling my Alpha 900 and all my frame Alpha lenses (after starting to use the A77). He said I’d regret selling my good full frame lenses when I replaced my Alpha 900 with a full frame model I would just not believe. His message was ‘you wait – you’ll not regret it’. So, I sold my old Minolta-era full frame lenses and bought myself a brand new 28-75mm f/2.8 SAM, Sony 50mm f/1.4 (replacing Minolta vintage), a 24mm f/2 Carl Zeiss SSM, and a 70-400mm SSM G. I kept the Alpha 900  and a few lenses I like which are unique in their function, such as the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 manual, the Sigma 70mm f/2.8 Macro, the Sigma 12-24mm and an old 16mm f/2.8 full frame fisheye. Instead of getting out of full frame, I re-invested in it.

I’m expecting the Alpha 900 replacement to be either an SLT design like a scaled-up A77 with 36 megapixels, or a second generation hybrid SLT design with a mirror you can raise to use CD-AF or manual live focusing. I’m hoping that it will appear with a new 28-75mm, 24-70mm or better midrange f/2.8 with improved SSM, weatherproofing and new coatings like the 16-50mm f/2.8 DT.

- David Kilpatrick

3 comments to The EVF future

  • Having great results with the Zeiss-equipped SONY F828, I suffered always from delays and from the quality of the viewfinders’ image. These were caused by the number of tasks which had to be performed with the relatively small internal memory and by the relatively undevloped screens then (2006). The great improvement came with the Alpha A700. Instantly reacting, fast, direct, marvellous viewfinder and relatively good review-screen. And Zeiss lenses too…! I followed on enthousiastically with the A900 (which I lost in a burglary). I would still not go for the DSLT-line, because of my F828 expreriences. This opinion is strenghtened by my even greater experiences with the A700 & A900. I would not like to be without these…

  • karryp

    But should one buy a Sony A900 now ? They seem to be going down in price, and are still available new from Hong Kong. With some unique lenses such as the 16mm Fisheye, you need a full frame, so what is the answer – a) stay with A700, b) buy an A900 now, or c) wait and find that the replacement is very highly priced ?

  • vbpholaw

    David,

    Thanks for the analysis David. I always appreciate your insights. However, I don’t think I can agree with your assessment that the EVF is “one stage away from being better than a very good optical finder on balance of qualities.” No doubt there are certain benefits to the EVF, and you;ve mentioned many of them. But, having now shot with the A77 for several months (including a month-long trip to Antarctica) I think there are four significant downsides to the EVF, and I don’t know if correcting those problems, assuming they can technologically be corrected at a reasonable cost, are “one stage” away. The three problems:

    1) Very limited dynamic range which is not close to representative of the dynamic range of the sensor/final image. It results in blocked up shadows and/or blown highlight areas in the viewfinder (only) that makes viewing less enjoyable (admittedly subjective), and photography more difficult when key subjects or items are in those areas (e.g., facial expressions, eyes of wildlife when surrounded by dark fur or feathers).

    2) Dim view when used in bright outdoors conditions which requires the eye to adjust to the darker image (which takes some time).

    3) Lag time for the EVF to start up if in sleep mode, when turning on the camera, or switching from the rear LCD. I have lost some shots where fleeting situations disappeared before the EVF was ready to go.

    4) Near unusable for tracking fast moving subjects while shooting in hi-speed (8 fps) continuous drive mode due to the “slide show” effect (the first 1 or 2 shots may be OK, but after that the subject moves increasingly out of the preferred framing, and out of the frame).

    Unless Sony can overcome these flaws in the A99 (and #4 is an absolute deal breaker for my wildlife photography), I think it is going to lose more folks than it already has to Canon or Nikon, and will stand little to no chance of gaining new users among higher end photographers other than existing A-mount photographers for whom the EVF drawbacks are not deal-killers (and for many they are not, but how many of these photographers will ultimately become higher end product buyers?). In particular, I think Sony will have a hard time keeping or gaining any photographers who shoot much wildlife or sports, which means even fewer potential buyers of that ultra-expensive 500/4.

    I think Sony has undertaken a grand experiment with the move to an all SLT line-up for its “DSLR” cameras. If that experiment fails – by which I mean it does not really improve Sony’s market position for DSLT (type) cameras (separate from NEX), and it also loses more customers of higher end products (even if there is an increase at the consumer level), where will that leave Sony? Then what does it do?

    Your comments regarding the new A57, and the lack of certain photographer friendly improvements or features, compared to the addition of some new “gimmicky” features, continues to raise questions in many minds about Sony’s direction. A knowledgeable observer of the photographic equipment industry and market trends suggested to me recently that Sony tends to think of gadgets rather than a useful system (discontinuing cameras with no successors/replacements in place is certainly evidence of the failure to understand the “system” concept in all its parts). Gadgets may come from innovation, but innovation that does not serve the needs of the end user is of little benefit. I think your comments about some of the new “features” in the A57, and their limits in use or lack of usefulness for photographers (as opposed to the casual shooter) support this description.

    Of course, the A57 is not generally designed for a serious shooter, but why wasn’t it made more friendly to them? Sony doesn’t seem to recognize that serious photographers might like a less expensive tool that they can use effectively, and that doing so does not have to come at the expense of making it attractive to the novice or less experienced photographer. It made this mistake with the ergonomic/user interface of the NEX 3 and 5 (slightly less so with the 5N), and has repeatedly done it with the “entry level” DSLR/DSLT cameras.

    It has been slow to fill gaps in its lens system, perhaps for justifiable reasons such as limited production capacity in-house or with third party manufacturers, but perhaps because it does not understand the importance of lenses to the camera “system” (I’m talking here mostly about the corporate decision makers in Japan). Sony seems to view lenses as “optional accessories with high margins” rather than necessary building blocks for a camera system, as someone recently suggested to me. When it finally does come out with something it’s basically a “me too” product rather than something innovative (16-50/2.8 years after everyone else had one; 500/4 shown in mock-up form for over 4 years and with MTF curves suggesting inferior performance compared to the Canon/Nikon counterparts at a price thousands more than the others). Updates of the 70-200/2.8 and 70-400/4-5.6 may be good news (depending on whether or not they are improved), but will they further delay the release of long absent lenses? How about more moderately priced but good quality lenses (e.g., 24-105/120, 70-200/4, 16-35/4, wide zoom for APS-C, or a moderately priced fixed focal length telephoto).

    My apologies for going on, but I would be interested to hear what Mr. Genge has to say about such matters. I really am wondering just what the A99 may be that we won’t be able to believe. Has Sony figured out how to overcome the problems/limitations of the EVF so it can deliver a worthy FF successor to the A900 (which was behind the times in several respects when it came out, but not in the viewfinder department and it still is a fine camera even with its limits)? That would be great. Or will we have a hard time believing that Sony expects higher end photographers to take seriously a camera that continues a design that frustrates or gets in the way of accomplishing certain types of photography? I guess we’ll all have to wait a number of months, or longer, to see what the answer might be.