Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Launch Review: Sony A3000 First Impressions

Lately, people have been anticipating the demise of the DLSR. Mirrorless has been with us for a number of years, and it is only a matter of time until the cheaper to produce form factor starts eating into the bottom of the DSLR market. Almost nobody is arguing that as history is threatening to repeat itself; recall the film SLR wane when compact 35mm cameras arose. While I agree with the the sentiment that the future will be more mirrorless than it is now, the empirical numbers so far say otherwise. No matter how hard Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Fujifilm fight, the lion's share of the revenue still lies Canon and Nikon, who are very much invested in making DSLR's. Enter now a shot heard around the world.... a very inexpensive shot.

The Sony A3000 is a continuation of the mirrorless trend. Many imaged that we would hit this price level; few thought that we would get here so soon. For the non-photographer, small sells, but everybody knows that serious photographers use DSLR's. That's why bridge cameras like the Panasonic DMC-FZ200 and the Fujifilm FinePix S8400W are shaped like DSLR's; they appeal to people who don't want to commit to a DSLR system, but want the "feel" of shooting an upscale camera. That's what you have with the A3000, inexpensive, but it wears the halo of its more expensive siblings. Despite it's looks, the A3000 isn't an SLT DSLR, it's an E-mount camera, meaning that it uses the same lenses that the NEX series uses. You can use A-mount lenses with an adapter, but basically, this is sort of like a re-skinned and updated NEX-3.

The headline specs include:

  • 20.1MP Exmor APS-C HD CMOS sensor
  • 1080i 60fps video
  • 25-point Contrast-detect AF
  • 3-inch, 230K LCD
  • ISO 100-16,000 for stills, 100-3200 for video
  • Sweep panorama
  • HDMI out
  • 18-55mm kit lens (SEL1855)
  • #400 USD price

As far as I can tell, the rear control cluster is the same as the NEX-3, which almost redefines the word "minimal". The body looks like it's an all-plastic construction, in the same vein as the lower tier Nikon and Canon DSLR's. In comparison, the top plate of the NEX-3 and 3N is metal attached to a plastic body, and the NEX-5 is a mix of plastic and magnesium. So if you are wondering how the A3000 makes the $400 USD price, here is where some of the cost savings show up. Plastic is a... well... "plastic" material to work with; it can be as many things that you can make it. In this case, you can take something less expensive and dress it up in the guise of a more expensive DSLR body.

Like the NEX-3, the A3000 uses a lens-based image stabilization system (hence the bundling of the SEL1855 lens for the kit). This is because the NEX-3/5 bodies are so shallow that they can't accommodate Sony's sensor-shift mechanism. The A3000 has a deeper body, but it's easy to see that Sony chose to go with the stabilization in the lens as a way of distributing costs across their lens manufacturing. The size of the body brings it just under the Canon SL1/EOS 100D

The rear LCD  is pretty budget, and it will be interesting to see how consumers react to that, especially considering the mini-revolution that we've just gone through in pixel density. The camera manufacturers are starting to respond at the mid-level price tiers, but it'll be interesting if the intended consumer for these cameras will be less tolerant of older 230k dot screen. The sensor is a 20.1mp unit. Enthusiasts are always watching new Sony parts to see what will show up in future Nikon cameras, but I think this is an iteration of the existing line rather than the lead of a new generation of sensors. 

How to gild the lily...
I'm going to play devil's advocate here and ask.... what's the difference between dressing up an updated NEX-3 as a more upscale SLT-DSLR and turning an NEX-7 into the Hasselblad lunar? I submit that it principle, the difference isn't as big as you might think.... both are using cosmetic enhancements to appropriate the look and feel of a more premium category. I think this is to the detriment of the consumer, as Sony could have tried to aim for a $400 NEX style camera that would have been as small and usable as their current mirrorless cameras. The fact that it's cheap for an APS-C sensor looses sight of the fact that it's also somewhat large for a mirrorless camera. The argument that it's small for a DSLR is a red herring... it's not a DSLR, it merely looks like one.

No matter how you look at it, though, $400 USD for a kit is pretty impressive. The recently announced Canon G16 lists for $149 more! The also recently announced RX100ii lists for $799 USD, which is nearly double the price. This is fairly typical of Sony... they take a Google-like attitude of "throw it against the wall and see what sticks"... and aren't shy about having products compete against each other. Or in this case, make each other look ridiculous.... sure, the RX100ii is very much an advanced enthusiast toy, but for half the price you get a much larger APS-C sensor.

The question then... how did Sony accomplish this? I hope that the the good folks at Ifixit.com do one of their tear-downs to see how much it costs to build this thing. However, I would like to say that achieving this price is not as hard as it seems. Compared to a DSLR, mirrorless cameras have far fewer components... no mirror assemblies, no PDAF arrays, no separate exposure arrays. Given two cameras using the same sensor, the mirrorless camera will always be cheaper to manufacture. However, the mirrorless companies started out by pricing close to the DLSR's in order to maintain the market perception that they were selling products that were of equivalent quality to traditional DSLR's.

What that means is that m4/3, NEX, and the Fuji X-system are all effective "overcharging" the consumer, because they have been positioning cameras close to Canon's and Nikon's midlevel DSLR's, all the while reaping the benefits of the lower manufacturing costs. This also explains why Sony , Olympus and Panasonic have been able to hang on despite the pessimistic financial outlook that all three are experiencing in 2013. Yes, they are having trouble achieving profitability selling cameras, but at least they are losing money on cheaper-to-manufacture cameras.

The A3000 is a bit of a warning shot, not to the DLSR manufacturers, but to the rest of the mirrorless competition. By going this inexpensive, Sony is signalling that it is willing to go to a price war to undercut m4/3 from the bottom. However, in the long term, I don't think this is the straw that breaks the camel's back for the DSLR's. First of all, by styling the A3000 like a DSLR, it is appropriating the prestige that the more expensive DSLR's have. That's the dual-edged sword of this kind of styling... it let's you play serious photographer, but the quality that you get at this price point reminds you that you probably aren't one. In other words, there is a danger of further cementing in people's minds that "DSLR" = "real photographer." That would work just fine for Nikon and Canon, who are profitable with DSLR sales, but at the bottom end of the mirrorless market, you can't rely on DSLR-like margins to sustain a business, so it will have to be about the unit volume. This will make the A3000 and any cameras that follow in its wake interesting to watch.

1 comment: