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Living with Photography: On Sony's "Lens Cameras"

By Norman Chan

My thoughts on what Sony got right and wrong with its new "Lens-Style Camera" products.

It was one of the worst kept secrets going into this week's IFA conference in Berlin. Almost a month ago, photos and light details began to show up on photography rumor sites. The photos showed what looked like electronic zoom lenses--stubby conical pucks--attached to a then-unannounced Sony Xperia smartphone. The leaks pegged these devices as "real" camera lenses for smartphones, replacing the meager lens and sensors that are constrained by the size of the smartphone (Lumia Pureviews included). On our podcast that week, I argued that this idea didn't make sense--adding a full-size camera lens to a smartphone eliminates the advantage of shooting photos with a phone instead of a dedicated camera--namely its immediate availability and relative portability. I formed that opinion without having used the then unannounced products, but got a chance to try them out in a Sony briefing shortly after. Now that the Sony QX series cameras are officially announced, I can finally share my thoughts.

First, let's cover all our bases by going over exactly what this new product line is and how it works. The QX series is launching with two models, a high-end DSC-QX100 and an entry-level DSC-QX10, priced at $500 and $250, respectively. The QX100 will have the same 1-inch sensor as the excellent RX100 Mark II, and the QX10 has a smaller 1/2.3-inch sensor but a 10x optical zoom. While these products look like detached lenses, they are autonomous cameras, meaning they will work alone without having to be tethered to any device. Inside the conical shells are a lens, camera sensor, battery, microSD card slot, and even quarter-inch screw socket for mounting onto tripods.

The fact that they're self-contained and smaller than any comparable-quality camera is the point, says Sony. Unlike the budget fixed-lens cameras that have DSLR-shape bodies that new photographers seem to like, the form of the QX series cameras goes in a complete opposite direction. It pares a camera to its bare essentials: lens, sensor, battery, and storage. Sony imagines users angling the camera in new ways to take photos from vantage points that would be cumbersome for DLSRs, compact cameras, and even smartphones.

So how does this new line relate to smartphones? Well as you may have noticed, the QX cameras are missing one important component for photography: a way to see what you're shooting. There's no LCD or viewfinder display on the back of the QX cameras, so that's where the smartphone comes in. The QX cameras are equipped with NFC and Wi-Fi, and use the former to automatically negotiate a connection with a smartphone to launch Sony's PlayMemories app (QX is compatible with both Android and iOS). It's through this app that you're able to get a live view of what the camera is seeing, adjust manual controls, and remotely capture photos without hitting the QX cameras' shutter button. The cameras only shoot JPEGs (no RAW), and full-res photos can be sent over Wi-Fi to the app, with a range of about 15 feet.

In the demo, pairing a camera with the phone app took about five seconds (after failing twice), after which taking photos with an Xperia phone looked just like remote shooting with the NEX-5r or Canon 6D. Keep in mind that since testing those Wi-Fi features on those cameras, I almost never use remote shooting in real day-to-day photography. the bracket that snaps the QX cameras to phones is a bundled accessory, which is only necessary to give the illusion that you're shooting with a "regular" camera.

I didn't get to take the QX cameras out of the meeting room, so I still have no idea how useful this new formfactor will be in the real world. They're small enough to fit into a jacket pocket or purse, but definitely not in jeans pockets. But the point isn't just about portability, it's about changing the way we think about camera formfactors (much like the Lytros). In that sense, The QX series is a real innovation. and also the natural evolution of what compact mirrorless cameras did to make us rethink the DSLR form-factor. Improvements in optics, electronics, and battery power mean that a good camera doesn't have to be a physically large one.

But that's also where I think Sony's QX series misses the mark, in combining the two parts of cameras that don't need to go together.

If I was designing a "lens-camera" I would actually never have a lens and camera sensor permanently attached. The entire appeal of DSLRs and interchangeable mirrorless cameras is that you have a high-quality sensor that you can pair with a whole lineup of lenses. In my mind, a camera's three most essential parts are its lens, sensor, and viewfinder. The latter two is what composes a camera "body," while the lens is separate. That's why I think that the QX series should have been a new line of mirrorless bodies that are just camera sensors with a viewfinder on the back. These pucks--which Sony could update every year with higher quality sensors and higher-resolution LCD panels, would then connect to a new line of lenses with manual aperture and focus controls. Instead of making consumer spend money on new QX lens+sensor units every few years, photographers would choose the sensor+viewfinder unit that suits their budget and then spend money on lenses--just like how the DSLRs and MILC business models work today. Yes, you could give it Wi-Fi and tethering capabilities for remote shooting and file transfers, but take the smartphone out of the essential lens-sensor-viewfinder equation and make the "lens-camera" a truly self-contained unit.

In essence, what I would design is a digital equivalent of a director's viewfinder. That would be truly revolutionary.