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Reader Experience and Concerns: Sony Service and Reliability

Update 11 Aug 2015: Sony has a Pro service program.

Update 24 Aug 2015: Johnny at Sony Pro Support contact emailed me and asked me to forward his contact info to affected Sony customers. I have do so for all persons on this page.

Paul I writes:

With all of the interest in the Sony A7 series, and the expected arrival of even higher resolution full frame bodies, a recent experience has raised serious concerns about continuing with the Sony system. I’m writing you because of your excellent work on discovering and calling attention to the shutter vibration problem in the A7r.

I recently was in Iceland, where the temperatures were close to 32° F (0 ° C). I had purchased a Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS Lens, which I thoroughly tested before the trip. The lens immediately and consistently exhibited the following behavior when used outdoors, where it was always used in the manual focus mode: After a few minutes of use, when attempting to focus I would hear a “clunk” and the lens would go out of focus. At times it would make a high-pitch whining noise. Once this happened it was impossible to focus until the power was turned off and back on, at which time it would work for a minute or two before doing the same thing. This was not an intermittent problem, but happened every day during 10 days of use.

When returning I called Sony, and was informed that Sony no longer had their own warranty service. The only option was to send the lens to Precision Camera in Enfield, CT. Precision’s web site shows that they service multiple brands. The lens was sent to them with a clear explanation that the lens only malfunctioned at temperatures around 32° F. The lens was returned with a note “Checks out OK.” They stated they cleaned it. I called and asked if it was tested at 32° F, since it always has worked normally at room temperatures and consistently failed when cold. The person answering the phone had no idea. Furthermore, she refused to transfer me to a technician, supervisor, or anyone with technical knowledge.

I then called Sony, who said I could send it back to Precision, but had no idea if they could test it at temperatures in which it failed. Furthermore Sony would not transfer me to any supervisor or anyone with any technical knowledge. Eventually the situation was settled after multiple calls to customer service by Sony taking back the lens and refunding the purchase price.

Based on my experience, I have to consider Sony bodies and lenses as disposable. How can we invest in a professional grade system if there is no company support? I welcome your thoughts.

DIGLLOYD: Only last week I heard another story like this firsthand from a friend (camera body failure), and if anything it was more shocking to the point of total ragged incompetence—the service from Sony is a bad joke clusterf*ck.

My purchases for Sony compatible E-mount will be the Zeiss Loxia and Zeiss Batis lenses (maybe an exception for the Sony/Zeiss 35/1.4 Distagon ZA), since Zeiss supports and services those. Then the only “screw” you can get is on the Sony camera body itself, so you buy 2 or 3 and understand what you’re dealing with.

The way I see it, Sony is a gadget company that understands next to nothing about photography or what a pro or serious photographer needs (hardware and software and service/support); they do a fantastic job on sensors and putting cool parts together, but it ends there.

There, now I done it—Sony shooters with their ego melded into their camera can rage at me just as much as Fujifilm X shooters. :;

If I were traveling overseas and particularly to Iceland or Antarctica or Nepal or any relatively remote place, I’d be nervous as heck taking Sony gear. That is, unless I had 3 or 4 bodies and multiple lenses—lots of redundancy. Which defeats the small and light thing. And that even leaves aside the questionable build quality, particularly the toy lens mount not to mention weather sealing and the too-small form factor with tiny shitty buttons most of which are a female dog to operate in the cold and/or with gloves.

Rather, I’d take the trusty Nikon D810 (two bodies) along with Zeiss manual focus lenses (maybe not all MF lenses, but several key focals, because they have never failed me, and they have manual aperture rings even if the lens CPU chip should fail). I regularly shoot in below freezing temps in the mountains, including snowstorms, and never has Nikon or Zeiss failed me.

My comments above are NOT a conclusion based on anecdote; for that some statistics would be needed. At least one reader has already leaped to that idea, far beyond what I wrote, and missed the main point: that a camera system is a system including the camera itself, the lenses and (most important of all) service and support and usability under one’s shooting conditions (I cannot operate the Sony with gloves on without frustration, for example). Having shot many Nikon digital bodies outdoors since the D1 appeared, my confidence level in all aspects of operation, reliability, service/support is very high. Ditto for Zeiss. But it is not statistical.

Salim M writes:

I meant to email about this earlier, but your current user feedback post provided a good context. In your email you suggested users to pack D810 for Antarctica, Iceland, etc.

Actually, I would recommend the D800 or D800e instead. I have had problems with image corruption on D810 when temperature is dropping to 10 or more below Celsius. I noticed the problem when I upgraded to D810 and took my new camera back to a trip to Minsk Belarus. At first I assumed it was a problem with a card. But then I tried different cards.

The real objective result was when shooting with my old D800e side-by-side with the new D810 in the Canadian Rockies last Christmas. In a cold day 20-30% of images were getting corrupted on the D810 where as there were no issues on my old D800e. This was not a single day occurrence or limited to just one type of card.

Upon meeting another group of photographers in that trip, I also heard similar anecdotal stories. Point is, for real cold weather (though costal Iceland rarely gets that cold) the old D800e might perform better than the newer D810.

DIGLOYD: that’s troubling news, confirmed Nikon battery and Sony and Lexar cards. However, I’m waiting to see a raw file and see for myself, because the claimed corruption is a screen shot in Adobe Bridge, which could just as well be a bug in Bridge or the video card, etc. The term corruption means that the file structure is damaged, or there is damage to actual image data. A bad preview (particularly in Bridge) is not proof of any corruption, particularly when the camera itself shows no issue (as Salim M confirms).

Update: the D810 file is badly corrupted with massive color streaking (nothing odd about the exposure, ISO 100 at 1/400 sec). The only program that handles this correctly is RawDigger (it posts an error alert), but ACR and Nikon Capture NX-D must be faulted for not reporting any issue at all.

The coldest I have shot the D800E has been ~ 23°F, the coldest for the D810 ~ 28°F.

Roderick W writes:

Interesting your comment on Zeiss CPU failure possibility. I have had the CPU fail in two Zeiss 21 mm f2.8, both replaced free by Zeiss, and last week the CPU in my 55 mm Otus failed. I am debating whether to do without my everyday lens for 3 weeks or go on with it as a ‘Non CPU’ lens. Not a big deal on a Nikon 800E.

DIGLLOYD: I’ve had no CPU failures and I own most all the ZF.2 and ZE lenses. I wonder if the camera body is involved. With Nikon, the lens can still be used (aperture ring) even if the CPU fails (another reason to prefer Nikon). At least here in the USA, service is excellent and fast.

Ken C writes:

Anecdotes are all very well – not entirely worthless, that is – but, as ten minutes with a search engine will demonstrate, there are anecdotes about all makes of camera. Is there anything that could be called data about the failure rates of different brands? As a current Sony and Olympus user who has previously owned Canon and Fuji cameras, I have so far had marginally less trouble with the Sonys than any of the others (ie, none versus not much). This, of course, proves nothing whatsoever, I may be just lucky, but I don’t see that your post gives me much by way of reasons to think so, and if there are such reasons I would like to know them.

At this point I am not finding in my heart of hearts any inclination whatsoever to rage at you, only to express a certain mild puzzlement at the vehemence of your conclusions against the apparent paucity of your evidence. I also think you mix up two subjects – reliability of equipment and quality of after sales service.

While the latter – your main subject – is undoubtedly important to professionals, it is surely not much of a reason for taking several camera bodies to remote places. And out of 100 people taking two Sony bodies to Antarctica (your chosen number for Nikons), how many do you think would end up regretting not taking three or four – and what might the figure be for the person taking two Nikons? I mean that as a real question, against my working assumption that all makes, even Sony, are actually pretty reliable.

DIGLLOYD: The “mix up” is actually the only relevant issue and by intent: one shoots a system, which includes reliability and service and support. All camera gear can fail, hence redundancy is key. A NYC pro who takes one camera body to an expensive shoot won’t be a pro the next day. And when the gear does fail, how good is the support. The “mix up” is the point; I’m not Lens Rentals here—I worry about a camera failure in the field, which has happened exactly once for me with the Nikon D1x: shutter failure some years ago. Leica by contrast (M240) has shown me many lockup failures in the field (remove the battery and things recover at least).

All true about anecdotes. Statistics would be needed of course. But Ken has misread my intent—I am (primarily) making the main point about the total system, of which support is (for me), a key priority. Which in fact is the first sentence of my response to the first email—about the poor support and service. I follow on with my own experience with Nikon. It’s worth reading what I wrote for what I wrote and not inserting invalid assumptions, e.g., “nervous as heck” is not a statistical claim.

I’d lay odds that a dual camera Nikon shooter is likely to do better than a dual Sony. But I wait to hear from someone who has traveled to Antarctica and has much practical experience on the cold-weather subject, Kevin Raber of LuLa.

Roger Cicala of writes:

DIGLLOYD: How do Nikon/Canon/Sony camera bodies and lenses fare on reliability/repair?

We haven't crunched those numbers anytime recently and it's a really big job that may not get done until the end of summer.

I don't think we see a significant difference in camera reliability. Lens reliability depends much more on type of lens than on brand. As you'd expect, a 70-200 f/2.8 image stabilized lens fails quite frequently. A non stabilized prime much less so, etc.

I don't know that we've had enough sample size to say Sony lenses fail more frequently with a huge comfort level of accuracy, but my gut says they do. I can say without hesitation, though, that Sony lenses are much more likely to be deemed "not financially feasible to repair" by factory service than the other brands, but that probably has more to do with them having their repairs done at Precision Camera than anything else. Sony's are probably have more significant sample variation than the other brands too.

Not much help I'm afraid, but it will probably be months before we have specifics.

Only Sony and a few m4/3 lenses use the electromagnetic focusing system. I don't know if that might contribute to a low temperature failure like was described, but it's certainly worth investigating.

As an aside, we've now had 8 Sony lenses sent in to Precision for failure to focus, all sent back as financially not feasible to repair. All were repaired by us by simply regluing the components in the electromagnetic AF slider back together. It's not a simple repair in that it takes an experienced tech 45 minutes or so to disassemble and and another 30 to reassemble, but certainly not "financially not feasible".

DIGLLOYD: Most likely, few users shoot cameras in sub-freezing temperatures, so that question is tougher to address.

Milton M writes:

I had a very similar experience with a Precision Camera repair of my Sony a7R. I had the misfortune of having the USB connection to the camera go intermittent in the middle of a firmware update. This bricked the camera -- totally dead and unresponsive. Sony said the only alternative was to send the camera to Precision Camera for repair. I specifically asked Precision Camera to check out the USB connector on the camera and the USB cable (which I included with the camera). $400 later, I got my camera back with the firmware re-loaded. The included Explanation of Repairs made no mention of any testing or repair of the USB connector or cable. I called Precision Camera to ask about the USB connection, and after about 1 minute of ringing, Gail answered. She told me that the USB connector had "probably" been replaced. I told her that for $400 I wanted to be CERTAIN that the USB problem had been corrected, and asked to talk to the repair technician. Gail told me that the technicians were in another building and that it was not possible to transfer me. I then offered to wait on the line while she contacted the repair technician, and she said she could not do that either. She said she would check with the technicians and call me back in 2 days. She didn't call back. Pretty dismal customer service IMHO. I called Precision Camera back the next week. This time (after another minute of phone ringing) I talked to Charlene who was much more helpful. When I asked about the USB connector, she put me on hold to check. (I can only assume she checked with a repair technician!). A few moments later, she told me it had been replaced.

The larger question here is: why did the USB connector on a Sony a7R camera that was only 1 year old fail, especially since I rarely ever use that connector? I had updated firmware through that connector a couple of times, but I mostly use an external charger to recharge the battery, so the USB connector was certainly not overused for charging. I'm wondering if others are having problems with Sony's USB connectors. It' enough to drive a person to film!


Update: Here is "the rest of the story" concerning the $400 bill to repair my Sony a7R after it was bricked due to an intermittent USB connection in the middle of a firmware update. I sent a letter to Mr. Kazuo Hirai, President/CEO of Sony in Tokyo requesting reimbursement for my repair bill from Precision Camera. My letter was forwarded to Ms. Carolyn Hayes, Consumer Relations Manager, Office of the President, Sony of Canada Ltd. I received a phone call from Ms. Hayes to let me know she was researching my problem. After researching my repair with Precision Camera and with Sony's technical support, Ms. Hayes offered to reimburse me for half of my repair cost. I am quite satisfied with this offer. Kudos to Sony's customer relations!

DIGLLOYD: Ummm... why should someone buying a $2000 camera have to send it to a 3rd-party vendor for any level of service? See my comments above about Sony being a gadget company—Sony doesn’t get it. At the least, there could be some kind of +10% of price warranty offering that would result in a camera exchange or some such thing.

Update: the refund is some solace and shows that Sony responds to valid concerns... good!

Why does Sony shit the bed for its products? A product is the hardware + the software + service and support, ergo Sony doesn’t sell products, but science-fair projects (grand prize in that regard). The software updater carries risks and there is no service and support. To this day I have not flushed my money down the Sony camera body toilet, if only from seeing the massive devaluation of Sony gear in a matter of months. But my Nikon D810 will hold residual value of significance for quite some time. Still, soon I’ll be forced to buy some kind of Sony camera body to offer the lens coverage I need to do.

Jorge Torralba writes:

We must be thinking in parallel.

By the way, I need to update my rant. Sony is refunding my the purchase price since they did not have any in the warehouse to replace it with.

DIGLLOYD: I did like the A7 II (reliability concerns aside), but I’d put Sony purchases on hold pending a new “crop” of cameras.

Kevin Raber of writes:

I have been to Antarctica 12 times and I have never had a camera failure. I have seen my share of others but I have not experienced anything related to weather. I had a screw come out of a Canon 5D MArk II and lock the mirror. Luckily I had s pares with me. In my travels to both polar regions and very cold weather elsewhere I have been fortunate to experience no problems. Batteries die a lot quicker but I am prepared for that by having numerous spares and in real cold weather batteries are kept on an inside parka jacket pocket with a heat pack. Many times batteries that does come back to life after warming up. Most failures I have seen can be related to moisture or condensation. Good practices regarding moving gear in and out of cool (cold)places to warm more humid places should be followed. I have seen this failure type in warn humid weather going into air conditioning as well as cold outside weather moving into warm indoors.

I shoot with just about every camera there is. I own Nikon D800e’s, Sony A7 II, Olympus OMD and Fuji X-T1. Plus an arsenal of lenses for each system. I have taken all of these systems to harsh environments and they have all performed without issue. So, I must a lucky one. My experience with service when needed has been OK. Fuji so far has been the best when something has to be sent in it comes back quickly.

In 2013 and 2014 I shot in Antarctica with the Nikon systems doing two trips to Antarctica and one to the Northern polar circle. I came back with superb images and no issues at all during the trip. This past February I took the Fuji X-T1 and the Sony A7 II to Antarctica and both performed great no failures at all. I have also taken the Phase One systems (DF+ and IQ180 back) to Antarctica and other cold environments and that system worked well except for very fast battery drain.

DIGLLOYD: lucky indeed!

K S writes:

I’m writing to you about a current experience with Sony and Precision Camera. I contacted the former due to failed parts on my camera. Unlike other users who’ve had to pay out of pockets, my protection plan was a wise decision (I never really cared to test how these camera and lens manufacturers define as ‘weather sealing’). After having sent in my body (Sony A99) on the 17th of June to PC, I had to pull teeth to get answers from people. Documents I sent and authorizations for repair were ignored/went unheeded for up to 3 days. I expected to have it completed by the 4th of July weekend, but the lady on the phone suggested I borrow someone’s camera after leaving me a voice mail saying it’ll probably be done by the 4th of July.

What’s worse is that I had a customer service rep hang up on me today after telling me that they had to have Sony manufacture spare parts for them and ship them from overseas to complete my repair (I think that any competent manufacturer keeps parts around for repairs when their cameras are still serviceable). Her estimated date of arrival for the parts is July 24th before the repair process starts. Total time from receiving equipment to starting repairs? Upwards of 30 days. Repairs are another 5-10 business days and there’s no overnight or two-day shipping.

I’m not someone who makes a full time living off my camera body so I’m not a top tier customer, but contracting repairs out to a group (who I think) look worse than amateurs makes no sense. Innovate on the products, but keep the support pipelines fed and active. I think Sony might not be able to keep up its momentum if it ignores the support infrastructure. The latest update after a 20 minute call with Sony support about half an hour ago is that they’ll escalate the issue and have customer relations reach out to me in 24-48 hours.

As much as I love your coverage of, and dislike hearing the precise and accurate criticism of Sony, for the A7 line and beyond, I think Sony is setting itself up for failure. Innovation paired with adequate support might be their only way out and I hope you continue your honest coverage to bring some perspective into how Sony is neglecting to do what it should to keep itself relevant and active. Take care.

DIGLLOYD: What a noxious approach by Sony. Every customer deserves good service, but ultimately every customer can vote with the wallet: support those companies that deliver a product, not just a gadget in a box.

This sort of stuff makes me unhappy about supporting Sony (buying Sony products), a point I made back in December in On Sony; nothing has changed. But while I don’t really want to buy any Sony products given Sony’s behavior (including a very unpleasant experience back when I was reporting on Sony A7R shutter vibration), I am going to buy the Sony A7R II because it is very popular and covering such things is my business. And, as long the camera works properly, it looks to be a fine camera (albeit with the various flaws I’ve pointed out more than a few times). But I dread having to get it serviced.

Recently, I sent a Canon lens in for adjustment. I got prompt and courteous professional treatment, and while my unusual position in the industry may have made it go faster, I’ve generally heard very positive things from pros about Canon’s professional services group (CPS) —Canon “gets” it.

Greg M writes on 7 Aug 2015:

I bought the Sony RX1 for $2800 or whatever when it came out. The focus system has gone out three times now. Suddenly neither the autofocus nor manual focus work at all - making the camera useless. They charged me $700 to repair it the first time.

Then I got the extended 4 year warranty and they fixed it free the 2nd time. Now its gone out again.

I went down to the big Sony store in South Coast Plaza (in Costa Mesa near LA) and they informed me that they were closing the store, and also they are no longer handling repairs - they referred me to Precision Camera - which seems to have no record of my warranty. They are also hard to reach on phone at times. I want to confirm with them before shipping my expensive camera to them. Its very surprising because Sony is the last company I would expect to do this - especially with no warning or notification.

DIGLLOYD: I’m not surprised at all based on all the other emails—Sony service is shameful. This is a serious business issue for Sony that will damage their business over time. Worse, it is my view that it derives from deeply embedded and troubling ethical and cultural issues that permeate the company.

Mitch Z writes:

I quote your latest response before adding my own:

"DIGLLOYD: Sony service is shameful. This is a serious business issue for Sony that will damage their business over time. Worse, it is my view that it derives from deeply embedded and troubling ethical and cultural issues that permeate the company."

This is laughable, not because of what you said but because these are almost the exact same words I used while talking to the head of the Sony Vaio unit at COMDEX in 1998. And his reaction? He completely blew me off, even though I was there as an official desktop/laptop representative of a Fortune 200 company at the time.

And why did I say it? Because we were purchasing Sony Vaio laptops by the hundreds (an upper-level executive decision, because they were "cool" and the in-product at the time), and we had quite a few of them that required repair -- which meant that they had to be shipped all the way back to Japan, a round trip process that usually took about six weeks or more to complete. And no status updates; no self-shipping boxes; nothing. Yet we could get all of those things as well as a guaranteed 3-day turnaround with IBM laptops, or -- even better -- same-day on-site repairs with Dell laptops.

Yet Sony has continued with their shameful support policies and managed to remain a viable business in the 17 years since then. Will they ever change? I very much doubt it.

DIGLLOYD: a cultural change is very, very difficult.

Joshua D writes:

Lloyd, I have attached a image to show you the "speed" of a simple problem with my A7 II camera. I am having the shutter button replaced (it was sticky). Well they have to order parts so its been a few weeks. Nikon on the other hand had never taken longer than 4 days because they have real in house service.

I have attached a image of the focus camera status.

Delay in basic repair of Sony A7 II camera due to “waiting for parts”

[Update 14 Aug 2014 from Joshua]

You may be interested to know they could not fix the camera and are now offering me a new replacement unit. Sony contacted me about this I never got a email from precision camera about it.

DIGLLOYD: I don’t fault Precision Camera for not having parts: if Sony is not going to operate their own service centers, the vendor they choose ought to have all common parts on hand, and no part should take longer than a few days in any case. What happens 2/3/5 years from now? These very expensive Sony ILCE cameras are throw-aways most likely. The A7 II above is only about 10 months since its release. What will it cost once the 1 year warranty expires?

Now, suppose the lens mount is warped slightly (invisible to the eye, say 20 microns on one side). Will Precision Camera have have the sophisticated gear and know-how to make it plane parallel to the sensor? Nikon and Canon do.

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