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Sony's silent camera takes on high-end Canon and Nikon SLRs

Video analysis system makes presence felt by making big Olympic decisions

The Sony Alpha quietly made its presence felt at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. (Photo by Hirofumi Yamamoto)

TOKYO -- Sony, which has rarely been the first choice among professional sports photographers, has a new weapon it is wielding against Canon and Nikon as it fights for a larger slice of the high-end camera market.

Its mirrorless picture-taker has a big advantage in that it does not make the sometimes irksome shutter noise single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras are known for but is capable of delivering high-quality images.

Nikon and Canon have almost evenly split the high-end camera market between themselves, but if the Tokyo Olympics is any indication, Sony is growing its presence in this segment with its Alpha mirrorless camera.

Some of the photographers at the Olympics and Paralympics were surprised to look around and see that 20% to 30% of the cameras capturing the action were Sonys. The company's gear was particularly noticeable during Paralympic events like goalball that rely on sound.

Sony for the first time during an Olympics set up a professional service booth in the main press center. (Photo by Takaki Kasiwabara)

SLR cameras make a noticeable sound when shooting due to their mechanical shutters. This can make them annoying, especially when shooting in environments that demand silence, such as in the middle of a golf swing or at the start of a track race.

Mirrorless cameras do not have mechanical shutters. They continuously transmit an image to the photographer who then electronically, and silently, snaps photos without the telltale shutter click.

Initially, Sony's mirrorless camera was targeted at beginners. But the company had bigger ambitions and sent engineers to sporting events around the world to gather feedback from professionals. This feedback helped Sony improve the Alpha's image quality, continuous shooting performance, data processing speed and other features.

"At this point," said Masaaki Oshima, deputy head of Sony's camera division, the Alpha's "performance is in almost no way inferior to single-lens reflex cameras."

Sony in 2020 worked with Associated Press photographers. This year it has been working with photographers from PA Media of the U.K. and Ireland. Both agencies are steadily making greater use of the Alpha.

"I can take pictures even during quiet moments," said Kazuyuki Ogawa, a freelance photographer specializing in parasports, "and even when there's a lot of movement the camera automatically focuses on the person. There are a lot of photos that I couldn't take without the Alpha."

The outlook for the digital camera market is not bright. With the spread of smartphones, the market has shrunk to 20% of its peak size, and Sony's camera sales have remained around 400 billion yen ($3.6 billion) for the past few years.

Now, however, mirrorless camera prices are increasing, making it easier to make continuous profits. Canon and Nikon are also taking on the mirrorless market. Canon lent some of its yet-to-be-released models to photographers at the Tokyo Olympics.

Some photographers at the opening ceremony were using Sony's mirrorless camera, a gadget initially meant for beginners. (Photo by Hirofumi Yamamoto)

While Sony's Alpha was turning heads in Olympic photographer pits, some of the company's other imagery equipment was busy making big decisions.

In the 55th minute of a scoreless semifinal men's soccer game between Japan and Spain, Japan's Maya Yoshida appeared to unfairly bring down Spain's Mikel Merino, who was going after a cross near the Japan goal. Yoshida was whistled for a foul and issued a yellow card; Spain was awarded a penalty shot.

But the Spanish team's golden opportunity to take the lead did not come. The officiating crew instead huddled around an off-field replay monitor that showed Merino being fairly tackled and accidentally kicking Yoshida, causing himself to fall.

The technology that helped the officials reverse their call that day was provided by Sony. In fact, Sony's video analysis system helped officials make the right call at about 10 events, including tennis and track and field.

The system comes from Hawkeye Innovations, a British company that Sony acquired in 2011.

At that semifinal soccer game, which Spain went on to win, 1-0, roughly 10 high-performance Hawkeye cameras were placed around the field. One of their tasks was to instantly determine when or if the ball crossed the goal line.

In the U.S., all Major League Baseball stadiums since 2020 have used Hawkeye equipment to measure pitchers' fastball velocity and other metrics. At each of the 30 MLB stadiums, 12 cameras track the ball, bat and players. They even record in 3D the athletes' skeletal movements, allowing for measurements such as the height of a pitcher's elbow when he releases the ball.

"We want to develop new data analysis and visualization tools to help athletes improve their competitiveness and increase the ways for fans to enjoy sports," said Taro Yamamoto, vice president at Hawkeye Asia Pacific

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