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19th Oct 2009

DSLR State Of Play Part 3 – Sony

Sony bought an ailing Konica Minolta in early 2006. Sony has enjoyed a long relationship with Carl Zeiss, using the excellent Zeiss glass in their camcorders since 1996, so extending that partnership with Zeiss to include lenses for their new line of DSLR’s was an obvious step. Combine that with a massive marketing effort, and an attempt to consumerise DSLR like only an electronics manufacturer like Sony could, in less than 3 short years Sony’s market share has come from nowhere to the high teens. This is staggering, especially given the global economy, and means that they currently sell one DSLR for every two Nikons and two Canons sold – a fact that must have those two companies worried.

Canon and Nikon have traditionally taken a top-down approach – they’ve been engaged in a contest for pro photographers and bragging rights as the best DSLR for decades. Traditionally the consumer DSLR buyer has bought on reputation – if they see pro’s using a particular brand, it must be good so they buy the consumer models, even though they are often a far cry from the pro models in terms of both specifications and quality. Nikon in particular introduces technology at the high end, and filters it down to lower/cheaper models over a period of years. The best example of this is probably the sensor in the D200. Several months later it emerged in the D80, then D40x, followed by the D60, and it is still kept alive thanks to the recent D3000 almost 4 years later.

Sony’s coming from the polar opposite direction, and it’s working. Just about everyone has owned something Sony at some point in their life, whether it’s a Walkman, Point & Shoot Camera, PlayStation, a Stereo or a TV – Sony already has a very strong brand, and if you invest in Sony gear you can be pretty confident they are in it for the long haul. So when Sony comes into the market with a very strong brand and competitively priced and spec’ed gear, people buy.

Sony put a 24 megapixel Full Frame sensor in the A900 camera for $3,000. Nikon (who partners with Sony for sensor development and manufacture is some areas) developed the sensor further, and introduced a derivative of the same sensor in their $8,000 D3x. Sony has recently put the 24 megapixel A900 sensor in the sub $2,000 A850, so if all you care about is megapixels, Sony delivers at a quarter of the cost of Nikon.

So far in 2009, Sony has released 6 new bodies, all under $2,000 – the A850, A550, A500, A380, A330 and A230. In the same period Nikon has released only three sub $2k cameras (D300s, D5000, D3000), and Canon only two (7D, T1i/500D).

In addition, Sony has released five new lenses so far this year (28-75mm f2.8, 18-55mm, 55-200mm, 50mm f1.8 and 30mm f2.8 Macro).

Rather than going for bragging rights and relying on the reputation of the cameras at the high-end, Sony is aggressively going after the consumer, and successfully getting them to part with their hard-earned dollars, at the expense of market share for both Nikon and Canon.

So what is next for Sony? Rumors abound about a potential pro-DSLR being worked on, and they have only just introduced live-view into their cameras. Despite their extensive experience with camcorders, Sony have yet to introduce video onto their DSLR’s, and you know when they do introduce it they will do it right, unlike Nikon’s current attempts to put 720p video on a $5,200 pro body.

Over the next few years, we expect Sony to continue their aggressive push for market share by targeting the consumer, while adding new features in frequent releases. We also believe Sony will starting to go after the pro market, and chances are they will succeed – they’re already a dominant player in the pro-video market. Will they catch Nikon and Canon? It’s too early to tell, but both Nikon and Canon need to look long and hard at their consumer line-up, and prepare themselves for war on a battlefield that right now Sony is defining. Maybe we should send both Nikon and Canon a copy of “The Art Of War”.

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