Interview with Kenji Tanaka, Sony’s global head of interchangeable lens cameras

The gang at Dpreview recently had a chance to fly out to Sony’s Chonburi factory in Thailand where all Sony ILC cameras and lenses are assembled and chat with the company’s global head of interchangeable lens cameras, Kenji Tanaka. Of all the questions, perhaps the first one by Rishi Sanyal was the most telling: where Sony’s camera ambitions are headed.

 Our biggest focus is to increase the [existing] market, not to segment it. The overall market is decreasing, and it’s been a challenge to increase the market, overall. We believe we can do so by targeting professionals and enthusiasts. 

For all intents and purposes, point-and-shoot cameras are dead, replaced by the phones in our pockets. Why bother carrying a compact camera when the Xperia XZ Premium, coming soon to our pockets, can shoot 4K video and detailed stills? Even entry level DSLR’s have been affected by the ever increasing quality of smartphones with iPhone being the most popular camera on Flickr.

This leaves one obvious direction for Sony to head toward: the premium market. The danger, of course, is that this is an ever-so-small market that will also likely decrease in size as cheaper devices and mobile products keep increasing their feature set like Portrait Mode on iPhone 7 Plus and the 960fps slo-mo video on Xperia XZs and XZ Premium. The near short term good news is that professionals, like wedding photographers, will spare no expense when it comes to capturing the perfect photo or video, something Sony knows a thing or two about. And, unlike consumers, they aren’t price sensitive.

 KT: Yes, these professionals have been adopting our products as well, and they’ve particularly appreciated Eye AF and the resolution of our products. However, they require more durability. We are actively working to address their needs.

Matt Parnell: In particular, one piece of feedback we frequently get from all of our wedding photographers is that the low light performance of our products has changed the way they can shoot events.

KT: And wedding videographers particularly in Asian countries have invested in our products. 

Want your camera to perform better in low-light? Improve the sensor!

 I can’t comment on other companies, but I can explain our position. The most important thing is the image sensor. As you know well, every camera function is related to the image sensor. For example, the AF sensor and exposure sensor are all based off the image sensor. So the image sensor is key, and we develop it in-house. This means we can customize our future products with more intention [by having our camera and sensor development teams working together]. This is a differentiator compared to our competitors. 

Compared to its peers like Nikon and Canon, Sony does have one major strategic advantage: their recent pivot to push their image sensors beyond their camera division and mobile lineup. Now we’re seeing the company create sensors for autonomous cars and automated factories, increasing their potential sales factor to billions of devices as we move towards an ever more connected and smarter world. For a long time, Sony lacked the resources of say Apple who can leverage the success of one product in order to improve in other areas. But now, a future world where drones, cars, robots, and street grids need to see in order to perform their task is one Sony is well positioned for.

And the further their reach, the more they’ll be able to invest back into their core competencies like better image sensors for high-end cameras for photographers. As an example, the a9 shoots videos in 6K and downsamples them to 4K for the best results. Let’s just hope Sony doesn’t get carried away here.

 Think about 8K video. To get that sort of resolution on a sensor, you need larger sensors, otherwise pixel sizes are too small. To get 8K from a micro four thirds sensor, for example, the sizes of the pixels have to be very small, around 2.3 microns. I think larger sensors are important to maintain image quality as we go to higher resolution video and

We can’t comment on future product plans; however, we can confirm that we are paying close attention to all trends in the video marketplace, including 8K. 

As with technology, what was once a premium feature will eventually become the norm, making Sony’s advances in the professional field not in vain and one that will improve all their other ambitions as they’re able to shrink the sensors in size. In the end, everything comes back to mobile – from drones, to robotics, and home automation. In order for Sony to stay connected with consumers and not become an IBM that’s ever so present yet invisible to most consumers, they need to improve on mobile. That doesn’t mean Xperia phones, but software and services. Even Microsoft, with its endless cash supply, has given up on phone hardware and Windows as a mobile OS. Instead, they’re making sure that Office and other services they provide are accessible and at their best on iOS, Android, and Windows.

 We have apps like PlayMemories to make things easier for smartphone users. In the future, we cannot avoid making this process even easier via better integration with internet/cloud services. This is a big topic of discussion and something we are investing in. One issue with direct communication from camera to internet services is that regulation, not technical, issues make this difficult. Everyone already has a smartphone, so we want to use the smartphone. 

I don’t know a single person who uses PlayMemories over other services and for Sony who sells tens of millions of devices a year, that’s a problem, if again they want to keep a connection with consumers. Otherwise, it’s hard not to see what Sony is doing with their image sensors and not be optimistic about the company’s future. By the way, when was the last time Sony even bothered to update their point-and-shoot cameras?