Sony’s Survival Strategy for the Camera-pacolypse

Every month, the Camera and Imaging Products Association (CIPA) releases shipment figures for the global digital camera market. And every month in 2019, those numbers have been lower than those same months in 2018, which were lower than those same months in 2017. It is a picture of relentless, remorseless decline.

Not surprisingly, many of the industry’s cornerstone brands are feeling the pain. Canon, for instance, saw profits plunge 64 percent and net sales drop nearly 20 percent in its imaging division. The story was much the same at Olympus, whose imaging division saw nearly a 20-percent drop in revenue. Nikon? Ditto: a 17.9 percent drop in revenue.

Only one company has notably bucked the trend: Sony. Its imaging division posted positive numbers for its financial year despite a dire macro market. Sony’s success begs an important question: What did they do right?

While there are many operational factors that can help or harm a bottom line, Sony’s approach to the camera market has indeed been unique. First, it innovated. Where companies like Olympus and Panasonic were early adopters of mirrorless technology, Sony was the first to bring mirrorless cameras to the professional market with the first mirrorless camera to incorporate a 35mm-sized (or “full frame”) image sensor.

Appealing to pros was perhaps the crucial move for Sony. The deterioration of the camera market was primarily caused by the migration of snapshooting consumers to smartphones. Professional photographers—for whom a “real” camera is a fundamental necessity—were never going to abandon the market. With Sony’s a7 series, they had a camera that was smaller and lighter than the bulky DSLRs favored by pros at the time, but that could nonetheless compete with those models in terms of image quality and sensor size.

To see how ahead of the curve Sony was with the a7, consider this: The a7 was launched in 2013. It was not until 2018, five years later, that Canon and Nikon introduced full-frame mirrorless cameras of their own, and only Nikon explicitly aimed its models at pro users. Panasonic waited until 2019 to ship its own full-frame mirrorless camera.

Sony was also more aggressive in adding video features to its still cameras, particularly features that would be appreciated by users working in commercial filmmaking. Sony was offering 4K video recording ahead of Canon, despite the fact that Canon had ushered in a revolution in filmmaking when it added HD video recording to its DSLR (Nikon was technically first to market, but Canon had the seminal proof-of-concept). Indeed, while both Sony and Canon produce video cameras for cinematographers, Canon was much more reluctant to give its still cameras advanced video features out of concerns about cannibalizing its cinema division sales. Sony has been much more liberal when it comes to cross-pollinating its still and cinema camera technologies.

Sony has also kept to a very aggressive product release schedule. Since 2013, it has refreshed the a7 lineup multiple times, pushing out benchmarks along the way. (The most recent a7-series camera, the a7R IV, has the highest resolution of any camera in its class.) Canon and Nikon have stuck to a more measured product release cycle, keeping their DSLRs on the market longer.

The biggest wild card for Sony now is whether they can continue to defy the gravity of a declining market. If the camera market does eventually reach some kind of equilibrium, then Sony’s deepening reach among pro photographers will be a source of strength for years to come.