A decade ago today at PhotoPlus Expo in New York, Sony announced their professional still photography program – The Sony Artisans of Imagery.
Today, Andy Katz, Cristina Mittermeier, David McLain, and I celebrate a decade as Sony Artisans. Me Ra Koh would join us early the following year to round out our group. It’s been far more interesting than any of us could have foreseen.
It at all started with a call from Kayla Lindquist in early 2008 asking if we were interested in a Pro Program Sony was launching to support the fullframe camera they were developing.
All I knew of Sony was I had seen their 85mm F1.4 and 135mm F1.8 ZEISS lenses at the Sony product table at a show in Miami where I was speaking. I also learned they were quickly becoming the leading sensor manufacturer – making sensors for other DSLRs like Nikon.
I was shooting Hasselblad H1 with a Leaf Aptus digital back at the time. Because of the the cost of medium format digital backs at the time, nobody owned a second back-up back. Everyone who shot medium format digital relied on a 35mm DSLR as their back-up camera and I was never happy with the look I got from my back-up DSLR. The lenses didn’t match the quality of my medium format glass and the shadow detail was crunched compared to the dynamic range of medium format.
All I wanted from a DSLR was a great sensor and great glass. I was ready to give Sony a try.
A couple weeks before the WPPI 2008 Tradeshow, Mark Weir sent me a Sony a700 with 85mm F1.4 and 135mm F1.8 Zeiss lenses to get my feedback. I was extremely impressed with the glass. When Mark told me that a 24-70mm F2.8 Zeiss lens would soon added, that sealed the deal. As a portrait photographer, those three lenses covered 99% of my needs.
2008: Start with a Great Sensor and Great Glass
New York Yankees Hideki Matsui photographed with Sony a700 and Sony 135/1.8 ZA
We were asked for feedback on the camera for the engineering team developing Sony’s first fullframe camera. In my experience at the time, the only “feedback” camera manufacturers wanted was “tell us how great we are…”
I took a different approach.
I made a list of 20 Things professional photographers would expect from a high-end DSLR. My list included things like “The camera should feel solid as a brick in your hands”, “Start with a great sensor and great glass”, “Don’t crunch the shadow detail or over-saturate the RAWs”…
The moment I hit “send”, I was certain I’d never hear back from Sony.
To my surprise, I did hear back. That fall, just before PhotoPlus Expo I received a pre-production a900 to try out for a few days.
At PhotoPlus Expo, I sat down with members of the Sony engineering team including Hirokuni “Rocky” Miyai who was on a field rotation in the San Diego office. Rocky’s words remain etched in my mind:
“What Did We Do Right?”
“What Did We Do Wrong?”
“What Should We Do Next?”
I’d never before had a camera manufacturer actually want my opinion – but that became the norm with Sony. It’s been a symbiotic relationship. Sony engineers have developed many innovations like Eye AF that I could never have dreamed of. But at the same time they’re looking to exceed expectation they are always listening for ways to improve their cameras based on user feedback.
Many of suggestions made by readers in the comments on this website are channeled their way.
2009: Ditch the Medium Format
I started shooting a pair of Sony a900 cameras and Sony 24-70mm F2.8, 85mm F1.4 and 135mm F1.8 Zeiss lenses. I kept my medium format Hasselblad gear and figured I’d use the Sony a900s as back-up. But I quickly realized the Sony RAW files not only gave me the quality I needed but without the medium format digital headaches like mid-shoot camera shutdowns. When photographing a busy athlete or celebrity, the shoot is often over if you have to stop to reboot the camera. Not having that worry about that allowed me to forget about the gear and give my undivided attention to the person in front of my lens.
In the Spring of 2009, Artisan director Kayla Lindquist approached me with a dream shoot. Would I be willing to fly out to LA to photograph actors and musicians during Oscars Week for a project The Creative Coalition and Sony were doing to support arts education and funding in America? Hell yes…
I’d have between five to fifteen minutes to shoot a portrait of each star. Then they’d write a message of what the arts means to them in a notebook. Three portraits into the project we all knew we’d hit gold and our “three day shoot” stretched into 18 days over the next year and a half.
Anne Hathaway | Sony a900 | 24-70mm F2.8 ZA
Samuel L. Jackson | Sony a900 | 24-70mm F2.8 ZA
Kerry Washington | Sony a900 | 24-70mm F2.8 ZA
Alyssa Milano | Sony a900 | 85mm F1.4 ZA
Taraji P Hensen | Sony a900 | 24-70mm F2.8 ZA
Spike Lee | Sony a900 | 24-70mm F2.8 ZA
Kelsey Grammer | Sony a900 | 24-70mm F2.8 ZA
Adrian Brody | Sony a900 | 24-70mm F2.8 ZA
Elliott Erwitt | Sony a900 | 24-70mm F2.8 ZA
2011: Is Mirrorless Ready for Prime Time?
My first actual job shooting mirrorless came when I made my prime-time debut photographing celebrity portraits of The X Factor Finalists with SONY NEX-5N. I would only have 2-5 minutes to photograph each contestant. The results would appear on Prime Time TV. No pressure, right?
In addition to shooting their portraits, I’d give a few pointers to the contestants so they could see how easy it was to get great professional results with a camera small enough they can take it with them everywhere.
Check out Season One’s Episode: ‘One of Ten Voted Off’ of The X Factor (USA) for these portraits of Melanie Amaro, Josh Krajcik, Chris Rene, Marcus Canty, Rachel Crow, Drew, Astro, LeRoy Bell, Stacy Francis and Lakoda Rayne.
2013: Mirrorless Goes Fullframe
Suddenly mirrorless got real. Kayla Lindquist and Mark Weir contacted me to see if I was interested in testing a new fullframe camera that Sony was about to announce. It came in two versions but all they would tell me was they would be sending me the high-resolution version aimed and studio and landscape photography and that nothing about the camera could leak out before the announcement.
Mark expected that I’d use it for a studio portrait, but I always like to push things in ways they aren’t designed so I told them I’d like to take the camera to Haiti for a few days.
It was exactly the type of camera a WISH I had back in the 80s when I covered Haiti for the Miami Herald. Plus I knew that no one in Haiti would give the new camera a second look. Of course I still taped over all the logos just in case. Sony a7 & a7R were announced a week later. These are among the images I posted.
Since the FE 35mm F2.8 ZA was the widest native lens available before the a7R announcement, I also packed a couple M-mount lenses with a Leica M to Sony E adapter.
2016: They’re Real and They Are SPECTACULAR!
The Sony FE lens lineup has grown very quickly in five years. The most-requested lenses since the a7/a7R announcement were 24-70mm F2.8 and 85mm F1.4. When Sony finally announced them, they received the new top designation of ‘G Master’ combining both exceptional sharpness and beautiful bokeh. Once again I was given a chance to shoot with the new G Master glass and show images I shot at the worldwide announcement. Where better to do that than New Orleans?
2018: Sony Makes a FE 400mm 2.8 it’s a BEAUT!
Sony finally made a FE 400mm F2.8 GM OSS and it’s the lightest, sharpest and fastest focusing four-hundred-two-eight ever made thanks to ground-breaking lens design featuring XD Linear Focus! Expect more long fast glass to follow, but paired with the FE 1.4X & FE 2X converters this is a great start!
From our original five members, Sony Artisans of Imagery has grown to 40 Strong. Have a look at their amazing work featured on Alpha Universe.
In addition to Kayla Lindquist and Mark Weir, I’ve made great friends at Sony including Neal Manowitz, Mike Fasulo, Matt Parnell, El-Deane Naude, Jen Geddy, Jen Sugarman, Michaela Ion, John Bruehl, Johnny Pham, Daisuke Goh, Mike Bubolo, Amy Koppmann, Jason Mantell, Ben Manlove, Glenn Weinfeld, Rob Shelly, Van Nguyen and Amanda Arrick. Cheers to the next time we can hang out!
Hirokuni “Rocky” Miyai is now Deputy Senior General Manager for Sony Interchangeable Lens Cameras.
He’s Still Listening.