Thursday, 26 September 2013

A Whole New Idea: Half a Camera

Unfortunately, the good idea ended with the concept. By the time the poor QX100 reached the production line, it never really had a chance.

Oh, wait — you want to know what it is?

It’s the answer to a long-simmering problem. Digital cameras take excellent photos, but aren’t good at transmitting them. Cellphones are great at sending pictures — but aren’t very good at taking them.

Sony’s masterstroke: Why not create a weird new half-a-camera that contains exactly the components that a cellphone camera lacks?

It could have a lens that really zooms. It could contain serious, professional “glass” — a Zeiss f/1.8 lens, with the quality, multiple glass elements and light-passing capacity that cellphones wouldn’t have in their wildest dreams. It could have manual controls, optical image stabilization and a tripod mount.

Above all, it could have a huge sensor, the digital “film.” This sensor could measure one inch diagonal — over 40 times the size of a cellphone’s sensor.

A large sensor gives you delicious amounts of detail, true colors and exceptional clarity in low light. A big sensor means less blur, because the shutter doesn’t have to stay open long to let in enough light.

Megapixels, on the other hand, aren’t a very big deal. Even so, Sony’s semicamera could offer 18 or 20 megapixels — enough for even giant prints — compared with the 5 or 8 megapixels on your phone.

So that’s what the QX100 ($500) is. There’s a half-priced junior version, too. More on that in a minute.

The QX100 is the craziest-looking camera you’ve ever seen. Even on close inspection, you’d swear that it’s just a lens. Not a whole camera — just a lens, like maybe one from somebody’s S.L.R. camera. It’s a black cylinder, 2.2 inches long, 2.5 inches across.

Somehow, into that space, Sony has crammed most of a camera. There’s a 3X telescoping zoom, with a zoom lever. There’s a real shutter button, a battery, stereo microphones and a memory-card slot.

There is not, however, a screen, because your phone already has a huge, really great one. So between this lens thing and your phone, you have all the elements of a top-notch photographic machine.

The QX can snap onto a plate bearing rubber-lined grippers. They’re spring-loaded so that they can firmly grip your phone. That’s right: You can actually attach a $500, semiprofessional zoom lens to your cellphone and take some truly excellent pictures.

To communicate with your phone, you install the clunkily named app, PlayMemories Mobile.

If you have an Android phone, and it came with an NFC (near-field communication) chip, you now just tap your phone against the QX100. That gestures “pairs” them and opens the app, ready for shooting.

If you have an iPhone or a non-NFC Android phone, things get trickier. You’re supposed to connect your phone to the private Wi-Fi hot spot generated by the QX itself — which, in this case, has nothing to do with the Internet.

Once you have everything set up, the phone’s screen acts as the lens’s viewfinder. Using touch controls on your phone, you can zoom in and out; take a picture by remote control; and adjust the exposure, automatic and program modes, plus aperture priority mode, manual focus and white-balance options. It all works, although the camera takes part of a second to respond to your phone taps; you should not expect pinpoint timing with your zooming or shuttering.

The QX100 is based on the best pocket camera ever made, the Sony RX100 Mark II ($750). (The Mark II is the successor to the previous best pocket camera ever made, the RX100; the Mark II offers a tilting screen, Wi-Fi transmission to your phone and even better lowlight photos.)

In other words, the QX’s pictures are truly terrific. Samples accompany this article online.


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A Whole New Idea: Half a Camera

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