If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em: That seems to be Sony’s motto with its newest digital-imaging product, a camera that looks like a lens and physically attaches to your smartphone to snap prettier photos.
The result is a semi-camera that works awkwardly with the smartphone and is pretty useless without it. So, congrats to Sony! You’ve made me realize the value of a traditional digital camera again, because I’d rather use both a smartphone and a separate digital camera on occasion than cobble the two together.
Let me back up a bit. Last month, Sony introduced the Cyber-Shot QX10 and QX100. The QX10 costs $250 and is meant for a more casual consumer, while its superior counterpart costs $500 and is aimed at photo enthusiasts.
These are technically digital cameras. They have image sensors and a shutter button, and they take photos. But they look like cylindrical lenses, and lack some of the basic elements of an actual digital camera — namely, a viewfinder, advanced image controls and a flash.
That’s where your smartphone comes in. Using a Wi-Fi hotspot that’s created by the lens-camera, you wirelessly pair the lens with an iPhone or Android smartphone (Sony says it should work with most Android devices). That smartphone effectively becomes your camera view screen. Captured photos go right to your smartphone camera roll.
So, you might think that a nifty lens-camera that takes high-quality, immediately shareable photos is the perfect answer to the mediocrity of most smartphone photos. Let’s be clear, these are good cameras. They take nice photos, especially the QX100, which captures rich colors and offers a shallow depth of field. It’s the lens-cameras’ usability — or lack of it — that’s a killjoy.
The QX10 has a 10x optical zoom and an 18-megapixel image sensor that bests almost all sensors in smartphone cameras and has made an appearance in some earlier Sony point-and-shoots. When powered off, it’s about the size of a paperweight or maybe a tobacco tin, fitting okay in the palm or pocket.
The QX100, meanwhile, is heavier and bulkier than the QX10. It has a 3.6x optical zoom and a 20-megapixel sensor, which is four times the size of the sensor in the QX10. It’s the same one that’s in Sony’s popular RX100 II digital camera, and it helps these cameras take excellent photos in low light.
The QX10 and QX100 work with a tiny microSD card, which is where full-resolution images are automatically stored. You can adjust the settings within the accompanying PlayMemories Mobile app, so that smaller photo files are stored on your iPhone. The expected battery life of both lens-cameras is 220 shots per charge.
And both lens-cameras shoot full HD video, although in my experience, these weren’t saved to the camera roll on my iPhone. I had to manually transfer the clips from the microSD card to my computer.
I took these lens-cameras with me on a trip to Sonoma, Calif., with friends. They definitely fit better in my bag than a chunky DSLR camera. I downloaded Sony’s free, proprietary PlayMemories Mobile app on an iPhone 5 and a Samsung Galaxy S4 without issue. When I turned on the QX10, it created a Wi-Fi hotspot that popped up in the settings menu on my phone. Pairing the lens with my smartphone was also painless.
Then I clipped the lens-camera to the back of my iPhone, using a nail-breaking, spring-loaded clip. I opened up the PlayMemories Mobile app. And there you have it: A smartphone transformed into a digital camera with a large sensor.
It’s not that simple, though. After shooting a few images, I would put the “camera” back in my bag or on the table (it sits awkwardly on a flat surface, by the way), and when I took it out again, I’d have to reconnect the lens-camera to the app. Sometimes the two disconnected while I was shooting.
Or I would physically disconnect the lens-camera from my smartphone, and upon arrival at our next stop, go through the whole process of connecting one of them again. So, while the lens-cameras are a lighter load to carry than a bigger-bodied camera, it was annoying to have to go through all that just to frame up a shot and take a picture.
On a bright, sunny day, the lens-cameras offered less benefit than they did in dark lighting situations. But in dark environments you don’t have the option of using a flash. Sony says that future versions of the PlayMemories Mobile app could allow you to access your smartphone’s built-in flash, but for now, there is no flash.
And you can’t view your photos in the PlayMemories Mobile app as you’re snapping away. You have to exit the app and go to your phone’s camera roll for this.
I also noticed that using either lens-camera for an extended period of time would drain my smartphone’s battery. During a long day in wine country, my smartphone died before the lens-camera did, so I aimlessly snapped a few photos with the QX100. That’s right, no view screen to look through. (These, as you can imagine, were pretty terrible photos.)
At some point during my testing, it occurred to me that the occasions on which I wanted to use the lens-camera were exactly the same events I might bring a digital camera to: A weekend trip, a celebratory meal, an upcoming wedding. Call me a sucker for quality, but beyond the day-to-day or standard night out, I still might consider a camera.
At the same time, smartphone cameras really are improving. The new iPhone 5s, the Nokia Lumia 1020 and newer Samsung Galaxy smartphones, among others, all have good cameras. For many people, these are enough.
And there are some photo wonks who get really crafty with smartphone camera accessories like the $69 Olloclip kit. If you slap one of these low-tech add-ons over the tiny lens on the back of the smartphone, it can help transform so-so smartphone pics into images of wide-angled or fish-eyed beauty.
Camera makers are trying a whole bunch of tactics right now to convince consumers they need better digital-imaging products than just a smartphone, and I commend Sony for its radical approach to this. In concept, it’s actually sort of cool, and maybe future iterations will nail it. But, for now, I’ll pass on the lens-style camera.