C. David Tobie: A Look at Sony’s Unique New Camera-Phone Lenses
Sep 2013 10

Look out Old Paradigms

It’s not often that an innovation in photography is so unusual that it deserves the phrase “paradigm shift”; but Sony’s new QX series SmartPhone Lenses are exactly that. Previously it has been possible to attach lenses of assorted qualities and sizes to smartphones. But, no matter how good the lenses were, the results were limited by the resolution, speed and overall capabilities of the tiny sensor in the phone’s camera. Sony’s new QX10 and QX100 lenses are about to change all that.

Look Ma, No Screen

In addition to offering higher quality lenses than most phone photography add-ons, these lenses come with their own larger sensors. The lenses are, effectively, freestanding point and shoot cameras. However, instead of having a lens-on-camera form factor, they contain the lens and sensor components in a lens-shaped device, with a mechanism for attaching to a smartphone or tablet, which provides the viewing screen, and the touch screen for controlling the camera by way of WiFi.

Photo Courtesy of Sony Electronics

Look Out Point-and-Shoot

Where will such devices fit in the ever-shifting universe of digital photo and video? They will certainly compete heavily against the already troubled category of point and shoot cameras, both because of their size, and because they can be “upgraded” to a larger, higher resolution, or better calibrated screen as a free side effect of purchasing a new phone. The $249US QX10 is targeted at more casual users, with a more compact size, a smaller sensor, slightly lower 18mp resolution, and a longer, consumer-style, zoom range.

Photo Courtesy of Sony Electronics

Look Out Mirrorless

The larger $499US QX100 is intended for more serious photographers, with slightly higher 20mp resolution, a larger sensor, nearly the size of 4/3 mirrorless camera sensors, the Zeiss brand name on the front, and a shorter 3.6x zoom capability, resulting in fewer optical compromises. So here we have a camera taking aim, not at consumer point-and-shoots, but at advanced 4/3 format mirrorless users.

Look Out GoPro

Both cameras shoot video as well, putting them into the GoPro category, and, like their still functions, much exceeding the quality of what the camera-phone would produce with its own built-in camera. There would even be the potential to risk only your lens, not your phone, and to gain remote control capabilities, by putting these image stabilized lenses into a quadcopter, and using your smartphone to shoot arial photos or video, while using the same, or another, phone or tablet to control the copter.

Look Out For Paparazzi

The decoupleable nature of these new lenses means that the photographer could be back-to the subject matter, making adjustments and shooting images or video on the touchscreen, while only the lens was facing towards the subject. This makes for great candids, but also has much opportunity for abuse.

Don’t Look Out Yet, RAW…

There are limitations to these lenses, which are worth noting. One will be the lag wireless communication causes between live view and shooting, as well as in video. Another will be the bit depth and file formats used. While still images can be captured up to 5,472 x 3,648 pixels, they will be in Jpeg format, at 8 bits per channel sRGB. This means the advantages of shooting RAW (which 4/3 and other mirrorless cameras can do) will be lost here. Even highend DSRLs currently shoot only Jpeg-grade video, so the loss of RAW capabilities there is less of an issue. Sony MemorySticks are supported, but so are MicroSD cards, so users are not chained to Sony’s proprietary media format. The Lithium battery used is estimated to be good for 200 still images; that will vary with conditions, but is much lower than we are used to in most other camera types.

Look Out Canon and Nikon?

Will these lenses be a flash in the pan, or the start of something big? It’s always difficult to answer such questions in advance. But it is interesting to note the similarity to Microsoft losing its market position by focusing on the PC market, and missing the move to mobile. Here, companies like Canon, who are “focusing” on the DSLR and Dedicated Video markets, and not making much effort in the Mirrorless field, could be undermined by a major move towards this type of wireless lens/bring your own touchscreen type of technology.

Look Out Internet

Wireless is making its way into DSLR cameras. But this type of solution is even more synergetic. Using one of these rigs, any image you shoot could be processed with mobile editing apps, and posted to the web locations of your choice almost instantly, with no more effort than posting your camera phone images.

Look Out for Your Color

As image quality and size on mobile devices continues to improve, the need for color management for these images grows. Datacolor has recently expanded their color-managed SpyderGALLERY viewing app to cover Android as well as iOS. As third parties begin to take advantage of the ability to integrate Datacolor’s color management capabilities into their own viewing, shooting, and editing apps, better color will become more widely available in mobile photography.

Look Out for Yourself

Should you be a first-generation owner of one of these new lenses? Only if the value or pleasure you get from owning it now, and using it now, can justify the cost. Otherwise, waiting to see whether the fad flops, or the category matures, will allow a more balanced, affordable, choice later on. But to those used to DSLR pricing, or even Mirrorless pricing, these products certainly look like fun impulse purchases.

Look to the Future

It’s not inconceivable that in the future, devices based on this concept could take over a good portion of the still and video shooting categories. Think about the Video Field Recorder and Display devices now being attached to DSLR and Dedicated Video rigs. It’s not too much of a stretch to attach an HD lens/sensor directly to such a device, instead of hooking the display/recorder to a big rig.

C. DAVID TOBIE has been involved in color management and digital imaging from their early development. David has worked to see affordable solutions put in place for graphic design, prepress, photography and digital imaging, and then taught users how best to utilize them. He has consulted internationally for a wide range of color-related companies, and is best known by photographers for his writing and technical editing of texts and periodicals for the photo industry such as Mastering Digital Printing, and Professional Photographer magazine, and his seminars on color and imaging at photographic workshop around the globe. David is currently Global Product Technology Manager at Datacolor, where he develops new products and features for their Spyder line of calibration tools. His work has received a long line of digital imaging product awards including the coveted TIPA award, and a nomination for the Spyder line of calibration tools. Much of David’s recent writing can be found at his photography blog: cdtobie.wordpress.com, and his samples of his photography can be seen at: cdtobie.com.