Sony A1 Catches Grief from Sports ‘Togs (Of Course)

Mar 29, 2021 | Bodies, Discussion, Editorial, Editorial, Rumors, Sony, Sports

The just-this-side of amazing new spec list for the recently announced Sony A1 flagship camera spawned two predictable reactions in the photography forum-o-sphere. 

  1. The fanboy reactions have been as expected, with partisans from various other brands remarking about how the new A1 capabilities are really warmed over marketing positionings. 
  2. Sports photographers have something new to complain about. 

So something other than speed must be chafing at the snowflake souls of sports photographers. This is speculation, but in their hearts may lurk a fear that having 50mp is going to change the way their photos are judged, and what types of photos the editors are seeking.

The critical features of the A1 are the high frame rate combined with high resolution (50 megapixels) and fast sensor read-out. The Canon fanboys would point out that the new sony entrant only does 20 frames per second with the full bit depth RAW photos, just like the Canon R5 already does. That discussion gets boring quickly. 

The sports photographers are more interesting. They have a beef with the move to the higher resolution, which sounds nuts. 

Camnostic is cursed and blessed with two contributors who in the past wielded a camera for newspapers. It’s a consensus opinion here that what was once considered the “sports/photog” category is now pretty well split into two categories: a sports photographer category and a photojournalist (PJ) category. This is becoming more important because sports shooters are looking at the A1 with very different eyes. 

Normally, sports photogs shoot completely different lens sets than photojournalists. They operate on a different deadline regime, which has only been made worse by the move from newsprint to the internet. The sports photographer may need to get images out during an event. A PJ almost never does.

The PJ tends to shoot wider more often to get a greater sense of narrative, so they have a much thicker plane of focus and details around the subject can matter.

This is why the AP has told Sony it wants 50 megapixels, in addition to the ability to film in 8k. (No, they’re not going to use the 8k now, but the AP likely regrets having made poor format decisions in decades past that have rendered their video archives mostly useless for future applications.) The PJs can use 50mp, and the sports togs can tolerate it. But they’re sports togs, so they’re going to complain about it. 

An argument can be made for lower resolution for a sports photographer, but it’s not a great one. Higher resolution requires more memory and it takes longer to transfer files. The speed stuff rings hollow, though, because storage and transfer speeds have gone up an order of magnitude and then some during the decade where “flagship” cameras became stuck around 20 megapixels. 

A jpeg file shot in the first of these flagships, the Canon 1DX weighs in at about 15 megabytes. The jpeg from a Sony A1 will be about 22 megabytes. There is not a direct relationship between resolution and file size because of the compressed nature of the jpeg format used by most sports shooters. In the meantime, the number of shots that can be put through the camera at a time has moved from 10 frames per second (FPS) in 2012 to 30 FPS in 2021. The time it takes to transfer files from a memory card has moved from 4 minutes for 16 gigabytes of storage to 4 seconds. 

The author’s 2012 1DX, thought at the time to be resolution-limited by throughput

So something other than speed must be chafing at the snowflake souls of sports photographers. This is speculation, but in their hearts may lurk a fear that having 50mp is going to change the way their photos are judged, and what types of photos the editors are seeking. High resolution does make a sports tog’s job both slightly harder and potentially more effective.

In the past, a sports photographer wouldn’t want to say to an editor, “You can use it if you keep the size to less than 5 inches on the long side.” Resolution reveals these limitations, where a low-res jpeg just has an inherent fuzziness to it when blown up. To shoot 50mp is to both get more detail, but also to reveal imperfections, but none of the latter have to be featured any more than they were in the 18mp days.

One interesting observation: newspapers make reporters take pictures now. Most aren’t very good at “seeing” a great moment. They are typically using phones as cameras, or taking out cameras with relatively wide angle fields of view. And this is changing people’s expectations for what gets shown in a newspaper. The great newspapers still have photographers, and they’ve been following this trend as well, putting much more context into the photos, attempting to make narratives of the images. Photo editors are looking for this, and even exerting a thumb on the scale by printing pictures with Dutch tilt, etc., to exaggerate the feeling.

In some ways this has been progress. It used to be that you’d assign a story, and then perhaps later assign a photographer to “go get a picture of X.” That made for poor narrative. Now, the reporter has a camera, and can be there in the moment – so long as they’re visually aware enough to notice. 

One of our staff did a piece for a national newspaper as a stringer in New Hampshire. After the piece was submitted, the newspaper (4 hours away) sent a photographer up to take a picture. The author never met the photographer and saw the picture for the first time when it was in print. It was of people he didn’t interview and appeared mostly staged. That reporter also happened to be a photographer, but the newspaper never asked. This was pretty typical.

The PJ market is a shadow of its former size. The sports tog market is significantly lower, but not quite as decimated. The two combined aren’t enough to justify a great deal of market pull. The AP – a key partner for Sony in the development of its high end cameras – is a cooperative whose members are primarily US newspapers. Its decisions and influences make perfect sense for them. PJs are going to be mostly happier with the A1. Sports togs are going to grump because that’s what sports togs do.

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