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Interview: Sony’s Masaaki Oshima – “The Alpha 1 is the first step towards the next decade”

Masaaki Oshima, Deputy Senior General Manager, Camera System Business Division, at Sony Imaging Products & Solutions. Pictured holding the new Sony Alpha 1.

Following the launch of Sony’s new Alpha 1 (a1) full-frame mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, we sat down (virtually) with Masaaki Oshima, Deputy Senior Manager of Sony’s Camera division. As well as discussing how the Alpha 1 came into being, we also discussed the changing camera market, and how Sony intends to meet the needs of a new generation of photographers.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and flow.

How long has the Alpha 1 been in development?

It’s very hard to answer that – I can’t give you the exact duration of time, but it did take longer than previous models. It was very hard to develop.

The main reason is that it has a totally new imaging sensor. This new sensor has incredible specifications, and integrating it into a camera body in a way that maximizes the power of the sensor was very difficult to achieve. That took a long time.

From the very beginning we’ve been developing this camera for professionals. We aimed to exceed the expectations of both stills and movie shooters. The Alpha 1 is developed with no compromise for top professionals, I think.

What is your wider strategy for growing your professional user-base?

We’re always listening to feedback from professional customers, and reflecting it in our development. The relationships we have with professionals now are very good, and we will continue [to develop] these relationships and create products and services based on their feedback. Professionals provide us with new insights into what they want and how we can improve, they also give us hints on things we have never thought about. I think that once professionals use the Alpha 1 they will love it.

Sony’s new Alpha 1 is a powerful, versatile mirrorless interchangeable lens camera with a cutting-edge BSI-CMOS sensor. We’ve exposed the sensor here, but normally, with the lens removed, it is protected by the blades of the newly developed mechanical shutter.

Was 8K video part of the plan from the beginning?

Yes, we think that [the division between] stills and movies is less and less, nowadays. So we aimed to achieve both high quality video and high resolution photos in the same body.

Right now 8K isn’t widely popular, but we’re sure that demand will evolve, and 8K implementation is important in order for us to be successful in the future. And even now, some professionals will be interested in capturing 8K and cropping to 4K, for example. I think that the Alpha 1 is the first step towards the next decade. That’s one of the reasons why we named it ‘Alpha 1’, meaning ‘first step’.

We’ve been talking for a long time about the eventual development of global shutter technology in consumer digital imaging. Is that a technology that Sony is still interested in pursuing?

Sony already launched a global shutter sensor. It’s a small sensor, which is used in security cameras, machine vision and professional camcorders etc. We understand the advantages of global shutter, such as simultaneous data readout, but for commercial use in a full-frame format, there are some challenges around design and engineering, and also production issues. So right now, the new sensor in the Alpha 1 is the most practical.

The sensor in the Alpha 1 is so fast, why did you decide to include a mechanical shutter at all?

Well, thank you for saying so! But it’s not fast enough. Top photographers require a faster flash sync speed, of more than 1/300 sec. So we implemented a mechanical shutter with a totally new structure – a dual drive shutter system utilizing spring and electromagnetic drive actuators.

Are there any other technologies in the Alpha 1 which are completely new, and developed just for this camera?

The sensor and the shutter are both totally new [and unique to the Alpha 1]. The imaging processor and EVF are the same as the Alpha 7S III, but [we] built these into the Alpha 1 with the best tuning to maximize its performance.

The Alpha 1 and a7S III are the first in a new generation of Sony cameras which feature improved ergonomics, a redesigned body construction, and a new, highly detailed electronic viewfinder.

Can you tell us more about the construction of the Alpha 1? How is it different?

We’re still using a magnesium alloy body, but the way the parts are combined makes it more rigid. I’m sure you’d like to know about the sealing, and that’s totally different to the previous models. Compared to previous cameras, the a7S III and A1 have a totally new body structure. I can’t give you details, but we’re using very advanced [sealing] technology with the Alpha 7S III and the Alpha 1.

Is the Alpha 1 your best constructed, and best-sealed camera?

Yes. And of course the mechanical shutter now closes when you change lenses, which will provide more durability for professional use. Another reason for a mechanical shutter!

Traditionally, it’s been understood that you can either have high speed, or you can have high resolution. It’s difficult to provide both. How did you achieve this combination in the Alpha 1?

We had to develop a new sensor, and we implemented our latest imaging processor as well as a totally new analog to digital conversion method. That’s how we achieved high resolution and high speed. I cannot give you any additional details, I’m sorry!

The Sony Alpha 1 (left) shown next to an A7R IV, showing the slightly redesigned top-plate, which now includes a drive mode dial.

The Alpha 1’s imaging pipeline would appear fast enough to support some of the computational photography features that are becoming more common in smartphones and certain other imaging devices. Are you planning on introducing such features into the Alpha 1 and future cameras?

I watched your DPRTV episode recently about computational photography, and I know you’re interested in it. We haven’t implemented any so-called ‘computational’ photography features in the Alpha 1, but we do have features like Pixel Shift Multi Shooting, and long-exposure noise reduction, and they’re based on the same kind of idea.

In our Cyber-shot range we’ve introduced features for enhanced dynamic range and things like that. I can’t talk about plans for specific features in specific models but fast sensor readout is advantageous [for such features].

Do you have requests from customers for computational photography features? Things like Pro Capture in Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras.

At the moment, no. We’ve not had those kinds of requests from top photographers. But we may consider it, if we get that feedback. I’m not sure.

What’s next for Sony in autofocus development?

We’ve evolved our autofocus functions, but we still think there’s room to improve. We will continue to strengthen our current technologies, but also will also [continue to develop] object and scene recognition – that will be key.

What do you see as the biggest unaddressed customer need in the consumer DI marketplace right now?

The demand for video, and [the needs of] young creators has not yet been addressed. The COVID-19 situation changed all of our circumstances, and also customers requirements changed, to everything being online. The creativity of young creators, and their desire to improve the quality of their pictures never stopped. So their demands are accelerating! And we have not yet addressed this yet. That’s why for example we’ve introduced concepts like the ZV-1.

Sony’s upcoming Airpeak Drone, which will be powerful enough to carry an Alpha-series full-frame mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.

What is your strategy for bringing these young creators into the Sony ecosystem?

They want to shoot high quality pictures and video, but they might not know how to use conventional cameras. The key is to integrate our high technology in a simple, easy-to-use way. So the high-end technology that we developed for the Alpha 1 will be developed further and modified, simplified [and implemented in] ZV-1-type products.

How do you think content creation will be different in the future compared to now?

I think you want me to talk about computational photography again! But before that, as I said earlier, the boundary between stills and video will continue to be less and less [distinct]. So ‘hybrid’ shooters who create stills and movies will need to be satisfied. So we will [make devices] for them. And not only cameras, but the total workflow, from preparation onwards. This workflow is very important. So connecting, transmitting, and editing. That’s key for us.

We recently launched the new professional 5G device, Xperia PRO, and we’ve also announced our Airpeak drone. We will broaden our imaging world not only with cameras but also with smartphones and drones [all working together].

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Sony’s camera division in 2021?

Since we entered this industry and developed our first mirrorless cameras ten years ago, we have been in a leading position. So we’ll continue to focus on developing our mirrorless cameras and make the market bigger. That’s our biggest challenge, to maintain this position. We will launch other cameras this year, not just the Alpha 1. We’ll never stop innovating and developing, not only cameras but also lenses. We aim to be the leader of this industry, by continuing to offer the best customer experiences.

Editor’s note: Barnaby Britton

This interview was the first time I’ve spoken to Mr Oshima, and his pride and excitement following the launch of the new Alpha 1 was clear in our conversation. Sony has made significant inroads in recent years with professional photographers, getting its cameras and lenses into the hands of an increasing number of photojournalists and sports photographers, a process aided by the signing of deals with major organizations and agencies. These days, Sony’s mirrorless cameras can be found everywhere from sports stadiums to the White House, which is something that would have seemed like a pipe dream back when the original A7 and A7R were released almost a decade ago into a market dominated by Canon and Nikon DSLRs.

Sony hasn’t always had the best reputation for ruggedness, but according to Mr Oshima, durability was a major priority in the design of the Alpha 1

According to Mr Oshima, the Alpha 1 is the most ‘pro’ of Sony’s professional ILCs to date, and accordingly, it took longer to develop and more difficult to bring to market than previous models. It’s certainly a highly complex camera, which – along with the recently announced a7S III – represents something of a new direction for Sony in terms of ergonomics and build. Sony hasn’t always had the best reputation for ruggedness, but according to Mr Oshima, durability was a major priority in the design of the Alpha 1 (which helps to explain why despite its super-fast sensor it still has a mechanical shutter: to protect the sensor).

Sony sees the Xperia PRO smartphone as being a companion device to its high-end cameras for video professionals.

Only time will tell whether the Alpha 1 ends up being regarded in the long run by photographers as ‘the first step towards the next decade’ but the depth of its feature-set (including 8K video) is certainly among the most future-proof of any full-frame camera that we’ve seen, including high-tech competitors like Canon’s EOS R5.

Curiously though, despite its high-speed sensor and formidable processing power, the Alpha 1 doesn’t offer much in the way of computational photography tricks. This is a shame, because assuming professionals could get used to a slightly new way of working, a feature like Olympus’s ‘Pro Capture’ in the a9 II and / or Alpha 1 would be quite something. We’re still waiting for Sony to get more confident about redefining traditional ideas of exposure, too, to help photographers make the most out of the company’s current-generation dual-gain BSI-CMOS sensors. Hopefully one day.

More new cameras and lenses are promised in 2021, and a continued commitment to innovation across Sony’s product lineup

So what comes next? Mr Oshima hints at an increasingly blurry boundary between stills and video imaging, and continued development of object and scene recognition. If that’s starting to sound like computational photography, well, we’ll see. Either way, he also promises more new cameras and lenses coming in 2021, and a continued commitment to innovation across Sony’s product lineup. As Sony builds out its high-end smartphones (and kudos to the company for finding a niche for that technology with the creator community) and drones, we’d also expect to see more of a focus on end-to-end workflow, and hardware integration across the company’s wider product portfolio.