Having never owned an SLR or DSLR camera it goes without saying that professional photography isn’t in my repertoire. Truth be told in days past the preference for a solid, water-proof digital camera that was essentially child and life-proof was the winning option. Smartphones began to include cameras that gradually became “good enough” for most people, and since the phone was always on my person and always charged such that I could make/receive phone calls, it became the only camera I ever used. The compact camera went back on the shelf and before long gathered dust.
Even for a photo-newbie such as myself, it’s hard to ignore the difference in quality with jelly-motion video, fuzzy low-light stills and no usable zoom functionality on my smartphone and one is left wanting for the better quality stills and video that compact cameras can provide. The problem has changed recently and is now no longer just about the quality - we have become addicted to instant sharing. For most people there’s little question that posting an image to Facebook that was just taken moments ago, of the family bushwalking or at a party or a soccer game, is gratifying and creates a feeling of connectedness with your friends and extended family. Also backing up of photos to “the cloud” automatically such that if your device is damaged or lost, your memories aren’t, is invaluable (try that with a compact camera). Geotagging of photos was once a niche activity but now with phones carrying a GPS in them, it’s yet another way of indexing and sorting our ever growing number of photos and most compact cameras still don’t come with a GPS.
Enter the Sony QX10 and QX100 ‘camera accessories’ for smartphones. These devices are essentially a lens, sensor and mounting attachment with no viewfinder or camera body. They connect via WiFi/NFC to your smartphone and can take compact camera quality photos but use your Smartphone and all the aforementioned features (GPS, Cloud backup, Instant Sharing) for $250 and $500 respectively (recommended retail: USD). It seems like a great idea but let’s just hold back a second and think this through.
If you’re going to spend $500 on a QX100 why not buy any one of the approximately $500 DSLRs from Nikon or Canon that would deliver better performance and more long-term flexibility overall? For that reason, let’s focus on the lower-end model as it is the most likely to attract the non-professional or perhaps non-professional-asprining photographers among us (including myself).
The QX10 is essentially a Cyber-shot DSC-WX150 without its body so let’s compare its vital statistics, with the WX150 figures in brackets following the QX10s1.
The QX10 has a 630 (same) mAh battery that’s good for about 220 (240) still photos or 25 (29) minutes of video. It records video at 1440 x 1080p @ 30 fps (1920 x 1080p @ 60 fps) and takes stills at the same resolutions. The QX10 lacks a flash (unlike the WX150) and the QX10 is about $150 USD cheaper than the WX150 was when it was on sale. The QX10 weighs 3.7oz [105g] (4.1 oz [116g]) and has dimensions 2.4"H x 2.5"W x 1.3"D [61.8mmH x 62.4mmW × 33.3mmD] (2.2"H x 3.7"W x 0.9"D [55.9mmH x 94.0mmW x 22.9mmD])
To summarise, the QX10 costs comparatively $150 less, weighs 10% less, is about 1/3rd smaller but also lasts 8-12% less time before the battery goes flat. It also doesn’t shoot at full HD resolution (width) or anything greater than 30fps and you begin to see what was sacrificed for the smaller packaging. If you’re resolved to carrying a second device in order to take better photos then why not go back to a compact camera? It doesn’t take up much more space, lasts longer and has fuller features.
Let’s consider some alternatives that could bridge that gap and give us the best of both worlds. If you already have a camera but want the instant sharing and connectivity advantages then the Eye-Fi Pro X2 costs $100USD and can be used in a multitude of cameras for connecting them to an iOS device for transferring photos and so on but not for camera control. The CamRanger is pricey at $300USD and it effectively does the same “bridging the gap” between iOS devices and DSLRs (Canon and Nikons if you’re already the owner of one of those). Then again if you are truly interested in having the best of both then this gives you the QX10/100 functionality without compromising on the quality of the camera. Just get your wallet/purse out because it’s going to hurt.
That’s well and good if you’re a higher-end photographer, but what about me? A pricey but not ridiculous option could be the Samsung WB800F Compact Digital Camera that has WiFi built in and also records in full HD, has excellent zoom capabilities and so on for $500USD. Sharing photos with any of the above options won’t be as straight-forward as if they were taken on the device itself or via the QX10/100 however, but it will work with no too much more effort.
The next question is how much better is the QX10/100 compared to leading smartphone built-in cameras? The two phones that are generally accepted as having the best image quality in the current marketplace are the iPhone 5 and the Nokia 1020. The recently announced (and shortly to be released) iPhone 5S camera looks even better again but it will still battle for it’s place at the top with the 1020. Apple have focussed on pushing the optics as far as possible in a small form factor, then using image processing and light wavelength matching flashes for image improvements whereas Nokia have gone for the more mexapixels in a slightly thicker form factor that allows for a usable digital zoom2. There is no doubt that the optics in the QX10 will be better than these phone cameras, but the overall image quality won’t be significantly better3. The more photographers that test this, the more we’ll know in the coming weeks.
The problem with the QX10 and QX100 is simple: in order to be an attractive product their specifications and quality must equal or exceed the specifications of the leading smartphones to which they are attached and to at least equal the specifications of equivalent standalone cameras. If they don’t achieve this then they have no reason to exist. If you want better pictures and can’t afford/justify a DSLR then invest in a compact camera - you will get better value for money and image quality. If sharing matters to you, pick a compact camera with WiFi or use an Eye-Fi card - it’s not as well integrated but it will work.
If Sony improve their next generation of QX10/100s such that they can take full HD resolution video, have better battery life and perhaps include their own flash, they will become a more enticing option. For the moment and for the majority of people these ’lens cameras’ simply don’t add up.
It’s worthy of note that the WX150 is last-years camera and is no longer available for sale. ↩︎
In my experience digital zooms are essentially useless producing grainy, horrible photos, however the Lumia 1020 samples that I’ve seen are quite good. ↩︎
Comparisons can be made between the iPhone 5, Nokia 1020 and QX10 as we can equate the QX10 with existing WX150 images. ↩︎