The photo industry never ceases to surprise us. This week…
You might have seen this video.
Hipster dude with the new Sony QX-100, which breaks the traditional paradigm of camera body+lens by building the sensor into the back of the lens housing. Images are beamed to a smart phone via WiFi. With the same optics and sensor as Sony’s very popular RX-100II, this camera lets you take pictures of puddles of water and cats behind stone walls. Then you can use the PlayMemories app to share directly to Facebook and get 32 likes.
Despite poo-pooing the technology in August, I decided to give the camera a try because I admire the creativity.
I have traditionally shot with Nikon DSLRs for over a decade, but in the past year, I’ve opted for the Sony RX-1 when I travel because weight has become my prime consideration. I excitedly took my RX-1 and QX-100 to different cities to try it out. At one stop, I showed it to members of a rival camera manufacturer’s professional service team. They complimented Sony for originality using words like “interesting” to describe the unit, but let’s face it, unless the thing takes good pictures, being “interesting” isn’t going to help anyone.
The QX-100 is a little larger than a tennis ball and built primarily of plastic. I attached the handstrap because I was deathly afraid of dropping it – Sony isn’t really known for build quality and durability. This is no magnesium-bodied Nikon DSLR. The unit has no display and the only controls are a zoom lever and a shutter button. In order to really know what’s happening, you have to pair the unit with the Sony PlayMemories app on your smartphone. This requires you to first connect with the unit’s WiFi network, then the app searches for the unit, and hopefully it pairs successfully. The process was clunky at best, as was the software, which subjected me to frequent crashing.
Because of this, I decided to test the camera without the phone. I zoomed out to the widest focal length and rotated my hand to guess at a level horizon. Initially, the sensation of taking photos without having any feedback was exciting – it was almost like shooting film and awaiting for prints, except I couldn’t even see what I was framing. Sure, I occasionally got some artsy tilted horizons, but if you’re trying to shoot level, and you’re off by a few degrees, you’ll inevitably lose a chunk of picture area by straightening and cropping. Additionally, the lack of a display means you have no idea of your exposure settings.
The hardware is solid. Good optics and decent sensor yield pretty good pictures under normal lighting conditions.
The QX-100 features a Zeiss lens, but as you might expect, the $500 unit can’t compete with its $2800 RX-1 big brother in sharpness, aberrations, or exposure. Here’s Hannah photographed at 29mm 1/1600 at f/2.0 in aperture priority.
Here’s the same shot on the RX-1.
And 100% crops:
The RX-1 has a 24MP sensor compared to the 20MP QX-100, but more significantly, the unit did a better job at properly exposing the scene and doesn’t suffer from purple fringing. This comparison is apples and oranges, but it does give you an idea of the wide chasm that still exists between the high and low-end of digital cameras.
As a point of comparison, here’s the same scene shot with an iPhone 5.
The QX-100 does a better job of not blowing the highlight on the right side of the WTC. Undoubtedly, the dynamic range of the sensor is better than the tiny iPhone sensor, but it also quite a bit more underexposed. The iPhone is much more contrasty, and I suspect that this is intentional on the part of Apple to make the photos “pop” as much as possible.
If the camera is paired with your smartphone, the images are automatically downloaded into your camera roll, which means they are available for photo apps like Instagram. If having an optical zoom or a higher quality sensor are important for your Instagramming, then you might find the QX-100 to be fairly convenient. I imported the previous photo into Instagram and threw a filter on it to produce this little number.
The QX-100 will only shoot JPG, which is a showstopper for RAW purists like myself. The auto white balance is pretty good, if not a slightly warm.
There is no macro control, but the wide aperture allows you to get a shallow depth-of-field with a nice bokeh.
Low light performance is solid for such a compact form factor.
I can’t really fault the quality of the photos for the price range, and given that the QX-100 shares its guts with the RX-100. But to really use the camera, you need to pair it with your phone which drains the battery and provides a pretty awful user experience because of the stuttering video feed and the propensity for the software to crash. Carrying the unit by itself reminded me of running around at weddings with a 2nd lens and no lens pouch on my belt. It always felt like I had one too many things to carry. And if you clip the camera onto your smartphone, the unit is so big and unwieldy, you might as well carry an RX-100. Can you imagine answering the phone with a huge lens sticking out of your ear?
Being able to immediately share an image through the phone is pretty cool, but the difference in image quality (particularly when you’re degrading the image with filters) is negligible. And more point-and-shoots are WiFi-enabled, and have bigger batteries which means you won’t be as worried about running out of power.
I give Sony props for trying something new. But the traditional camera shape not only has historical precedence, but practical precedence as well. You want a viewfinder/screen built into the camera, and you want dedicated software that allows you to quickly start up and take photos. The QX-100 fails in this regard, and the convenience of WiFi and occasionally being able to hold the unit above your head while looking at your phone isn’t enough to overcome its shortcomings.
The QX-100’s main competition, as I see it, is your phone. But the inability to shoot RAW and the lack of a flash give it no distinct advantage over increasingly powerful cameras like the iPhone 5s and Nokia 1040. If you want that larger sensor with optical zoom, you’re better off getting a compact, dedicated camera. And if not, then your phone will likely save you many moments of frustration.
Verdict: Nice try, but no cigar.