Smart phone photography has come on in leaps and bounds with ever-increasing camera resolutions and a wealth of editing options available preinstalled, or in apps. The physical size of camera units has to be kept very small though, in order to fit into your slim mobile, and tiny sensors can't take in as much light as their larger counterparts.
The Sony QX100 smart lens hopes to bridge that gap by providing your phone with a 1-inch sensor, together with a large Carl Zeiss lens and a 3.6x optical zoom. The lens has all the components of a normal compact digital camera, except a display. It instead connects to your smart phone over Wi-Fi, letting you compose your shot on screen separately to the lens, and allowing you to instantly edit and share your shots using your data connection.
It works with any Android or Apple device using the Sony PlayMemories app and can be picked up now for £399.
Should I buy the Sony QX100 Smart Lens?
If you absolutely crave top image quality but still want to be able to edit and share snaps immediately from your phone, the QX100 is worth checking out. Its big sensor and high quality glass gives better photos than a normal smart phone can achieve, and its screenless design lets you shoot in more creative ways than you can easily do with a standard camera.
It certainly won't suit everyone. If you want instant-on shooting and better battery life, Sony's RX100 compact camera is a better bet. It has the same sensor and lens as the QX100, but has its own screen. You don't have to tether it to your phone and you can pick it up on Amazon for a little under £400.
If you want good image quality but don't want to spend so much, there's a smaller version available, the QX10. It has a physically smaller sensor, but packs a 10x zoom and costs a more reasonable £180.
In terms of its looks, the QX100 might be the most boring thing you've ever spent 400 quid on. It's simply just a plain black cylinder, looking just like one of the lenses you'd buy for Sony's interchangeable lens NEX cameras. It's 53mm long and 60mm wide -- slightly too big to fit into an average jeans pocket, but easy to drop into a bag -- and its 165g weight won't bog you down.
The body of the lens is metal, and feels well-built and should put up with a few knocks. On the top is the power button, with a shutter button and zoom lever on one side and a battery indicator on the other. A standard tripod screw thread sits underneath. What you won't find is a flash, nor is there a hotshoe mount to use an external flash so you'll need to stay in well-lit areas. The front of the lens is home to a manual focus ring.
Features and usability
The lens connects to your phone over Wi-Fi, which you can set up manually or let it do it automatically using NFC by tapping your NFC-enabled phone to the lens. I tried this on my Samsung Galaxy S4 and it worked well every time. Turning the lens on and connecting it to your phone does take longer than it would take a normal compact to get ready to shoot though -- if you have time to stop and compose your shot it won't be an issue, but for speedy snaps, your phone's camera will be the better option.
A removable back panel lets you clip the lens to your phone like a normal camera, but the Wi-Fi connection means you can simply hold the lens anywhere you want, which I found to be the most enjoyable way of shooting.
It allows you to easily experiment with different angles and low-level shots without having to crouch down on the ground. It's also brilliant for holding high above your head -- to take pictures of crowds perhaps -- but still being able to frame your shot with your phone.
You can use the lens with any Android or iOS device, but you'll need to download the Sony PlayMemories app first. It's this app that gives you control over the camera and its settings -- you can't use your phone's existing camera app or shoot using apps such as Instagram or Snapseed. (At least, not yet.) The app itself is straightforward and lets you switch easily between shooting photos or video, change quality settings or tap to focus.
It'll automatically transfer the images to your phone either in full resolution, or in a reduced size, for quicker sharing. You can then go about applying all kinds of vintage-style filters and posting it to any social network you've ever signed up for.
The app isn't perfect though. For one, the shooting modes available include Program Auto, Intelligent Auto and Superior Auto -- that's three separate automatic modes, each of which sounds like it's the best. It gives no indication as to why you should choose either one, and the guidebook didn't elaborate on what these did either.
Secondly, as you're not able to shoot with other apps, you're not currently able to use the lens to do things like time-lapse photography or shoot wide, sweeping panoramas.
At the core of the QX100 is a 1-inch, 20-megapixel image sensor. That's physically much larger than the sensor you'd typically find inside a smart phone, and bigger also than the sensor inside the QX10. The larger the sensor, the more light it's able to take in, resulting in a more evenly exposed image overall. It's the same sensor and Carl Zeiss glass found in Sony's RX100 digital camera, which achieved great results in our tests, so I wasn't surprised to see it perform well here.
My first shot of this building in London's Borough Market is very evenly exposed, with no details lost in the bright sky, and only the darkest portions beneath roof being lost to shadow, which should be expected. The level detail is excellent too. Check out the fullscreen version and zoom in to the bottom right of the image -- you wouldn't find that sort of detail on a normal smart phone camera.
My second shot, still in Borough Market, again shows brilliant detail on the fine brickwork around the archway and has done a good job of capturing the scene, given the lower light under the bridge. There's a small amount of motion blur when you look full screen, caused by me moving. Take a moment to pause to compose your shot and they turn out much more crisp.
This shot of people at a cheese stall has come out a little dark, but that's easily fixed -- there's no actual detail lost to the shadows, it's just a little underexposed. I'm particularly keen, however, on the candid nature of the photo, which is more easily achievable using the QX100 -- although do make sure you're careful about where you're taking such pictures and who you're taking them of.
This building outside the market is evenly exposed, but the sky behind is a little overexposed and washed out. I was shooting in Intelligent Auto mode, but switching to Superior Auto achieved better results.
Superior Auto mode, I believe, activates an HDR function that combines multiple photos of differing exposure into one well exposed scene. It's certainly done a better job with the sky, and the contrast on the building looks great too. The multiple photos are taken extremely quickly, so there's no noticeable motion blur -- or 'ghosting' -- from the moving vehicles.
You can switch to an aperture priority mode that lets you turn the aperture down to f/1.8 for some extreme depth of field photos. I put this to the test on this rack of Boris bikes, where you can see the sharp focus on the front bike is emphasised by the out of focus background.
This shot of wet autumn leaves also shows the great level of detail the lens can capture.
It might have a chunky body, but the QX100 doesn't allocate much of that space to its battery. Sony reckons you can get up to 110 minutes (taking approximately 220 photos) from a single charge, which is a third less than the 330 photos you'd be able to snag on the RX100.
It's not a particularly impressive prediction, so I wasn't surprised when I found it to run down quickly when I was out taking my test shots. If you're a keen shutterbug you'll need to be very careful about exactly when you're firing it up for your shots if you want a whole day of shooting.
It does at least charge over USB, so you could grab yourself an external battery such as the Mophie Juice Pack Duo, which will give it a boost throughout the day. If you're using the QX100 for your holiday snaps, you'll certainly want to charge it every night -- as well as your phone, whose battery will also take a battering when you're connecting over Wi-Fi.
With its 1-inch sensor and big expanse of high-quality glass, the QX100 smart lens is able to capture the sort of photos you wouldn't normally be able to get from a standard smart phone. Its battery life isn't great, however, and the relatively long time it takes to start shooting won't appeal to those of you who want to snag quick shots.
If you crave the best image quality but still want to use apps like Instagram to quickly share your photos to social networks, the QX100 is worth considering. Otherwise, the RX100 -- which contains the same sensor -- will provide a more hassle-free photography experience for your holidays.