What Sony’s gridline update tells us about the future of cameras: Digital Photography Review

Sony’s gridline update adds up to four customizable grids to which users can color code and apply transparency masks.

Photo: Sony

Earlier this week, Sony announced a $150 update to bring custom gridlines to its Alpha line of cameras starting March 2024. The a7 IV will be the first camera to have access to the update, with others likely to follow soon after.

You may have noticed the news that users will soon be able to create and import up to four customized original gridlines, which may help portrait, commercial and business clients produce large batches of consistent images. For example, Sony cited the need for school portraits that require the same head position across hundreds of photos.

But there’s one thing the initial news missed.

Gridlines aren’t the story here. Even the snark of poking fun at this being a ‘boring’ update isn’t the story here. The real story is what this means for the future of camera firmware and feature updates.

Years from now, will we look back at this as the camera industry’s BMW heated seats moment? The beginning of a new era of microtransactions and subscription fees to unlock an a la carte selection of features on our cameras. If you want to unlock 100fps burst mode, will you need to pay to unlock it the same way Mercedes requires $1200 to unlock higher output from its EV engines?

This isn’t a first for Sony. It had a similar model to charge users for camera features such as time-lapse and multiple exposures through its PlayMemories camera apps. Sony stopped shipping cameras with PlayMemories support in 2016, and earlier this year, it formally announced the app store would be closing down.

With the gridlines announcement, the concept of charging users for individual feature updates is back.

In the realm of video, we’ve seen manufacturers position pay-to-play video-centric add-ons as a way to avoid making still photographers pay for features they don’t need. Panasonic charged GH4 users for V-Log, Canon charged 5D IV users for C-Log and EOS R owners for stop-motion. But it’s not a standard practice for still photo camera updates.

In 2015, Panasonic became one of the first manufacturers to introduce paid video feature updates, when GH4 users were offered V-Log for $100.

Photo: DPReview

Similar to the video argument, Sony has suggested that custom gridlines aren’t a feature most users will need. In essence, it says custom gridlines are aimed at a very specific use case – business and commercial clients – so it’s not depriving the average user by charging for the feature.

Whether you accept the rationale or not, it does present a potential slippery slope and opens the door to asking users to pay to add features to their cameras. Further, in our commercial shift toward subscription models for everything from software to entertainment, does paying for upgrades also open the door to subscription models? And, if upgrades are tied to a purchaser, what happens if we want to sell or pass our camera on to a friend? Will the paid-for features be allowed to transfer to a new owner?

Perhaps this $150 feature update isn’t a thing to roll our eyes at. Perhaps it’s our wake-up call as camera lovers and consumers. Following BMW’s announcement that it would charge $18 every month to unlock heated seats, consumers spoke up, and BMW backed off this idea, so use your voice.

We contacted Sony for comment but did not hear back in time for this report.

Sony Press Release

Sony Electronics Announces Custom Gridline License Available for Alpha Camera

BodiesVarious camera bodies starting with the Alpha 7 IV, etc.

SAN DIEGO – Nov. 28, 2023. Today, Sony Electronics announces a new custom gridline license planned for the Alpha 7 IV[1] in March 2024 onward, and more camera bodies[2] in the future.

The new license offers the ability to import up to 4 customized original gridlines. The gridlines can be displayed on EVF (electronic viewfinder) and LCD (Monitor on the rear of the camera) when shooting which makes for easier, more consistent images. For example, staff at schools, photo studios, theme parks, cruise ships, malls, etc. will now have the ability to update their cameras with ease and utilize this tool for quick and precise, more professional shots. Imported customized gridlines are replaceable and color gridlines are available. Once gridlines are registered, it can be displayed with HDMI output as well. After shooting, users can check the images with the grid lines overlayed on EVF and LCD.

“The ability to import customized gridlines into a mirrorless camera is an essential feature for all of our photographers to capture images consistently,” says Frank Lombardo, National Photography Manager for Inter-State Studio and Publishing. “These simple gridlines keep head sizes the same for all our products and improve our production time. They also allow us to know where the edge of print will be during capture.”

“With a focus to improve both the consistency and quality of school photography, this advancement is a great foundation to a platform geared for volume photographers across the globe. Sony’s commitment to continually innovate along with their unparalleled support aligns perfectly with Strawbridge Studio’s, Inc. mission to provide the best picture day experience for schools across the country,” says Nic Davidson, Director of Photography of Strawbridge Studios, Inc.

“Sony’s commitment and support for this industry is unprecedented, from their support in student photography across the US to their training of future photographers and videographers and now, developing a camera system that will radically change the volume photography space for years to come,” says David Crandall, the Executive Director of School Photographers of America (SPOA).

“Now anyone can make a pattern, import it, then change and improve it to their liking. The possibilities are endless – simply rotate the four favorite patterns you need for the job at hand. Sony gives us real practical solutions, allowing the School, Sports and Volume Photography industry to produce better, more accurate compositions. The ability to import any four graphics, then scroll between them makes our jobs easier and results better than ever before,” says John Rak, member of the School Photographers Association of California (SPAC).

Not only can this be utilized as gridlines, they can also be used as partially filled transparency masks. In addition to school and sports photography, Sony has positioned this to be used for businesses such as cruise lines, theme parks, nature photography, ID photography, dentistry, and CG photography. Sony hopes that this custom gridline feature will help improve the creativity and work efficiency of photographers in a variety of industries.

The license will be available at a suggested retail price of $149 USD through the Upgrade and License Management Suite at https://ulms.sony.net as of Spring 2024.

[1] A license must be downloaded from Sony’s camera upgrade website: pro.sony/ue_US/digital-imaging/custom-gridline and installed in the camera.

[2] Future compatible models will be announced through the web site below: https://pro.sony/en_ME/digital-imaging/

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