Is the Sony A-mount dead? Long live the A-mount.

Someone told me the Sony A-mount is dead in the water. Really?

Recently I have found myself wanting a new camera and i am looking into the Sony A-mount. But isn’t Sony A-mount dead? Not yet it isn’t which is why I feel I am safe for quite a few years yet.

In 2007 I moved to Zambia, Africa. Knowing that I would be leaving the city of London for the bush of the Luangwa Valley, one of my ideas was to invest in a good camera and take advantage of my surroundings. I was going to work with a friend of mine who setup and runs a wildlife conservation society in The Luangwa Valley. One of our ideas was to create postcards and calendars for tourists, the profits of which would go back into the Society.

Before I left London I did some homework on the current crop of DSLR’s that were on offer back then. Not being any kind of professional photographer and not wanting to spend too much of my savings on equipment, I was primarily looking at the entry level cameras on offer. I looked at the Canon 400D and the Nikon D40 . After all, these were the only brands in town worth looking at right? I didn’t even know about the A-mount back then, let alone asked the question is the Sony A-mount dead? Once I started reading up on these Canikon cameras I found myself very quickly falling down a rabbit hole.

sony-a-mount-dead-400d-sigma-1770

Canon 400d, Sigma 17-70mm

It is not easy choosing a new camera these days

Wildlife photography was what was drove my lens research. I knew I needed a long reach lens for things like those far away leopard encounters, and a good wide angle for those landscape shots of the Luangwa River and wide open plains. On a crop APC-S sensor, I would need anything from 17mm to at least 500mm whilst avoiding those professional line of lenses that cost in the thousands. Now, as far as I am aware, there is no single lens with that much zoom available. And even if there were, the quality would be severely hampered by such a huge zoom range. So I needed at least two lenses to cover the range. They are not called interchangeable lens cameras for nothing I guess.

The Luangwa Valley in the dry season is very dusty. Not just slightly dusty, but everything-is-dry-and scorched-by-the-sun dusty. Exposing the sensor whilst changing lenses frequently in such an environment may be problematic and result in dirt on the sensor. This environment would render any mount, let alone the Sony A-mount dead. Well, my mount anyway. This posed a problem with my two-lens scenario.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I ended up buying the Canon 400D, a Sigma 17-70mm and a Sigma 50-500mm . I was pretty happy with my purchases. All I needed now was a second camera body so that I could keep each lens attatched to a camera so i wouldn’t have to keep changing lenses. I was just about to pull the trigger on a second hand Canon 350D on Ebay when my uncle offered me a collection of old Minolta AF lenses.

Surely all that Minolta glass keeps the A-mount alive?

Minolta? Why would I want a bunch of Minolta lenses when I have just bought into Canon? Good question. At this juncture I should have just kept to my plan and bought that 350d. But I couldn’t help myself. It turns out that the Minolta lenses he gave me were pretty good lenses provided I had a camera body that could mount them. Neither the 350d or 400d could. Sony’s new DSLR the a100 would accommodate these lenses perfectly it turns out because Minolta was bought out by Sony a few years back and retained the A-mount. These were the lenses my uncle gave me:

28-135mm f/4-4.5
35-70mm f/4
70-210mm f/4 aka The Beercan
75-300 f/4.5-5.6 (from the same era as the Beercan)
50mm f/1.7

So my thinking now was to buy a Sony a100 as a second camera body. The A-mount was the now the new kid on the block and questions like is the Sony A-mount dead? did not enter my mind. Without further ado, and without very much thought into the problems this posed, I pulled the trigger on that fine camera (with 18-70mm kit lens). The camera arrived and I tried it out with the Minolta lenses and, lo and behold, the quality of the lenses was exactly what I was led to believe – awesome.

The problem, which soon became apparent as I laid all my lenses out on the bed, was it dawned on me that I couldn’t take all of these lenses with me. The big Minoltas are pretty heavy and, along with the Sigma 50-500mm, I would simply not have the space or the weight allowance to fly half way across the world with them all. And having two camera systems made my choice of which lenses to take and not take quite problematic.

sony-a-mount-dead-a100-Minolta-75300

Sony a100, Minolta 75-300

It wasn’t that long ago that the A-mount was the new kid on the block

The Sony kit lens covered 18-70mm. So I figured I could use that for the wide stuff. The Sigma 50-500mm on the 400d would handle the far away stuff. There we go, problem solved. Or was it? By all accounts the Sony kit lens was deemed a less than average lens to the many folk who talked lenses in various photography forums. At the same time, the Sigma 17-70mm was seen as a pretty good performer by most accounts. Nevertheless, as none of the Minoltas were wide enough for panoramic safari shots, this was the only way to make these two cameras work together.

So I was set. I would use the Sony and the 18-70mm kit lens for wide angle stuff and the Canon with the Sigma 50-500mm for the long reach stuff. I would also bring the Minolta 50mm f/1.7 for when I needed more light. I left behind the rest of the Minoltas and the Sigma 17-70mm. Yeah I know, hindsight is a 20/20 thing.

And there we have it. My first dalliance with DSLR’s and the headaches they invoke when looking for new gear. Needless to say, as the first year past I eventually reunited with the Sigma 17-70 and the big Minoltas. The Sigma 50-500mm turned out to be a big soft lump which never impressed me. It also turned out that the wildlife in the Luangwa Valley was not as skittish as I presumed it would be so getting quite close was relatively easy. This made the Minolta 75-300mm a perfect fit for the longer stuff allowing me to keep the Sigma 17-70mm on the 400d.

I have the Sony a100. Do I really need more?

After a couple of years I left the Luangwa Valley and ended up working in the capital city of Lusaka. I eventually sold the 400d and Sigma lenses and just kept the Sony and Minoltas to play around with. Lusaka is nothing much to look at so eventually my remaining camera and lenses ended up in a cupboard gathering dust. This particular Sony A-mount was dead. For now anyway.

Now, almost 10 years to the day since I left the UK I find myself living in Livingstone, Zambia. The home of the mighty Victoria Falls. And once again I am looking to get back into photography. A month or so ago I pulled out the Sony a100 and fired off a few shots of my kids with the 35-70mm Minolta. Fantastic photos, tack sharp. And if I didn’t know any better I would be more than happy to carry on with what I have. The only problem is that I started researching online and revisited one of my old haunts at Dpreview.com where reviews and forum topics threw a whole other world of information at me. SLT’s, mirror-less, E-mount, A-mount, adaptors, 24 megapixels, ISO 12,800… Uh ho, suddenly my meagre 10 megapixel camera seems somewhat inadequate.

So here I am looking for a new camera. Because of the Minolta lenses I have, I feel that I have to stick with Sony. These lenses do not have enough resale value to try and find the equivalent in another system without substantially topping up with more cash. This leaves me tied to Sony’s A-mount cameras if I am to do this and keep my wallet (and wife) happy.

I want to start with a new camera body. I may get one or two new, modern lenses to enhance my Minolta collection, but first things first – the camera. Looking at what is available I see that there are only 3 current models that Sony offer. The a99 II, the a77 II and the a68. However, there is a plethora of very affordable second hand models going all the way back to when Sony actually made traditional DSLRs.

Is the Sony A-mount really dead or is it just evolving?

Today Sony only make what is called an SLT in A-mount. These cameras do not flip up the mirror to capture the shot, instead the mirror is semi translucent allowing light through to the sensor whilst, at the same time, reflecting some of the light up to a second sensor for focusing. I have nothing against that technology. It sounds fantastic. What it does mean though, is that you lose the use of an optical viewfinder which is replaced by an electronic viewfinder – an LCD or OLED screen in the eye piece which shows you exactly what the sensor sees. Again, I have no problem with that and from what I can gather most converts to the SLT system from traditional DLSRs say they would never go back. After all, you can see exactly what your photo will look like before you press the button.

sony-a-mount-dead-400d-minolta-75300

Sony a100, Minolta 75-300mm

Anyway, I have narrowed down my choice based on what I think I need and what my wallet (and wife) will allow me to spend. What I will be purchasing is the a68. The price is good and, construction aside, is capable of pretty much all that the a77 II is capable of barring a few things that are not relevant to me such as high speed shooting. It uses the same auto-focusing system and, as far as I can tell, the same sensor. It lacks the magnesium alloy chassis and weather sealing but for the price difference I am happy to forgo those issues. The back screen LCD is pretty poor, even compared to Canon and Nikon DSLRs in the same price bracket but considering I have never even used live view before on a camera, I am not sure I will be too bothered. Especially when I am used to the a100 screen. The view finder is not in the same league as the a77 II either but I have never even used an electronic view finder before so I will have zero basis on which to compare in the first place.

By all accounts the image quality of the 24mp sensor is said to be excellent and the a68’s low light capability will be a revelation in terms of what I am used to. It may not stack up to its competitors in that regard, but coming from a maximum usable ISO 400 on the a100, it will be perfectly adequate for my needs. Do i even need 24mp? Probably not, but that seems to be the standard these days so I will not go looking for less simply because I probably wont need it. I am perfectly happy with 10mp so having more than double on a sensor with better dynamic range and low light functionality, I will probably be blown away by it all.

Sony A-mount dead? Not likely and here is why

For those that are weary of buying into Sony’s A-mount system because it appears Sony are abandoning it, I do not think it is a concern that has too much merit. Is the Sony A-mount dead? Well, not currently. Sony have fine tuned what they offer in A-mount down to three cameras. And that is a good thing. Sony used to throw everything at the wall to see what stuck and ended up with a very confusing range of cameras with very minor differences between them. Now they have an entry level (which is actually more of mid-range level at entry level prices), a mid-range level and a pro-level, full-frame offering. The a99 II was only released last year and the a68 came after that. There are rumours of an a77 III so it does not look like Sony are abandoning the A-mount. Sure, they want consumers to jump on E-mount mirror-less and so are not exactly pushing for new sales in A-mount. But they do seem to want to keep their A-mount base happy with enough to keep a simple upgrade cycle alive. For now anyway.

And, if you are like me who only upgrades their camera every 5 or 10 years, then there is nothing to worry about being in A-mount. There will always be some wonderful Minolta lenses available in the second hand market and Sony’s current crop of lenses cover most situations. Who knows, perhaps prices of lenses will drop the more people consider the mount dead? Even if Sony do not make another A-mount camera again, I still have the a77 II and the a99 II to upgrade to in the future. And Sony’s second hand camera prices seem to look very attractive the moment a model goes out of production.

What about those lenses then? Well, as I mentioned before, there is all of the legacy Minolta glass that can be bought dirt-cheap (as well as higher end Minolta lenses that still hold a heavy price tag), there are the Sony and Zeiss branded lenses which cover everything you could possibly need and there are still all of the 3rd party lenses from the likes of Sigma and Tamron (who may or may not stop producing lenses for A-mount). Anyway, if you own a Sony A-mount then how can say no to a Minolta beercan at $50 a pop?

As an aside, this is a brief run down of what else I considered before ending up choosing the a68:

sony-a-mount-dead-400d-sigma-50500-2

Canon 400d, Sigma 50-500mm

A second hand a580. This was the last of the traditional DSLRs that Sony made and by all accounts, it was a fantastic camera. With a 16mp sensor it was also very good at high ISO. Its auto-focusing system was fast and accurate and it could auto-focus whilst shooting video. It wasn’t a great seller for Sony but I think that was because a) they didn’t market it well and b) at this point in time their camera lineup was very confusing and diluted. Downside? It is now very long in the tooth and only available second hand. Sometimes they show up on Ebay or Amazon for a good price but compared to other old Sony DSLRs, it is a more rare find. I almost decided on this simply because it would have been a huge step up from my a100. My desire for shiny and new prevailed over second hand in the end however.

A second hand a77. This is a pretty old camera now but is still used by many a photographer out there. It offers micro focus adjust which means you can apply focus tuning to individual lenses and the camera will remember the settings. There were a few complaints about the low light capabilities of the a77, but personally I am not that concerned with such issues. It is solidly built and offers weather sealing and a magnesium alloy body. The only thing stopping me from purchasing this camera was the fact that the a68 is newer and can be bought brand new and under warranty. But by all other accounts, I would say it may well be a better camera than the a68.

A Nikon d3400. Brand new and shiny and on a different day, with a different temperament, I may well have plunged for this and the two kit lenses giving a range between 18mm and 300mm. The lenses are pretty decent for kit lenses and have image stabilisation built in. The camera itself is said to have an impressive sensor (made by Sony) and is, by all accounts, the best budget DSLR on many review sites lists. But I have no experience with Nikon and the total outlay would exceed that of the a68. I also have a soft spot for Sony and would prefer to stay with (a dying?) system I know more about. But it was a close call and I wouldn’t put anyone down who decided to go the Nikon route.

A Canon EOS Rebel T6i / Canon EOS 750D. Also brand new and all shiny. But before I delved in too deep with any Canon research I thought back to when I had my 400d and Sony a100 side by side. I always preferred the feel and ergonomics of the Sony. It felt like a better tool to use even if there was no perceptible image quality differences. So the thought of buying another Canon just did not bring a sense of excitement to my shopping experience.

Sony E-mount a6500. Also brand new and very shiny. This is the future of photography in my opinion. Mirror-less cameras are fast, compact and are able to utilise adaptors to fit pretty much any lens system on the planet. So jumping ship to Sony would not be such a financial burden when you can keep all of your current Canikon lenses. However, despite how fantastic I think this camera is, I cannot justify the high price. Maybe one day, when the prices drop as newer models hit the market. But for now, there is no way my wallet (or wife) would let me get away with purchasing such a lovely camera. I have no doubt in my mind that at some point in the future I will end up on the E-mount bandwagon. And if truth be told, unless the other camera companies do something to catch up with Sony, I think many Canikon users will be doing the same. Only time will tell. All I know is, as an A-mount user Sony will “helpfully” make my transition seamless.

Whilst I am waiting for my shiny new camera to arrive I will continue to use my trusty old a100. After all, I am still very happy with the image quality it provides me. But now that I have opted for something newer and, by all accounts, better in every way, I cannot wait to see what I have been missing all these years. Once again I will have two cameras to call my own only this time, for the first time in my life, I will have a backup camera that is compatible with my primary camera. All those years ago I chose wrongly and ended up with two incompatible systems. But thank god i did because if I didn’t, I may well have never experienced what it is like to shoot with a Sony camera. And whilst I hear all the Canon and Nikon folk laughing their heads off at such absurdity, I say this to you – I will see you all at the E-mount counter in a few years time as we all go mirror-less and purchase the relevant E-mount adaptors for our [insert preferred brand] lenses.

Happy shooting!

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Former designer of bar and pub interiors and founder of Man Cave Hideout. Currently living in Africa working on a safari lodge lounge and bar area.

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