Plugged In: Phones getting much smarter with cameras

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Smartphones once had a reputation as handy devices with wonderful screens but low-quality photos suitable only for web postings. That was due to the limitations inherent to the tiny imaging sensors and lens able to fit into a smartphone’s thin case. Olympus, Sony, DxO and Panasonic have radically challenged that conventional wisdom.

Rather than trying to change smartphones, they’re leveraging a smartphone’s strengths. Smartphones usually have great screens, a reasonable amount of versatile internal computing power and excellent connectivity.

Illustration 1 Sony QX100-20

Illustration 1 Sony QX100-20

Sony pioneered the transition in late 2013 with its QX10, QX30 and QX100 camera modules. These incorporated a separate, 1-inch sensor, an internal battery and memory card, and a variety of permanently attached zoom lenses into a moderately compact, cylindrical package that electronically connected to a variety of smartphones via standard Near Field communication hardware. As with Olympus’ more recent AIR camera module, Sony’s QX products need not be physically attached to a smartphone, only near enough to communicate electronically. This week’s Illustration 1 shows a Sony QX100, with its relatively large size evident.

The QX100 is Sony’s flagship model, using the same sensor and good-quality Zeiss lens as Sony’s very popular RX100 II compact camera. The QX100 had more manual control capability than the less-expensive QX10 and QX30 models, which also substituted a more generic Sony lens for the higher-grade Zeiss zoom built into the QX100.

Although first to market, Sony’s QX series did not live up to expectations for a variety of reasons, including allegedly slow performance, physically large size approaching that of the compact cameras that it sought to replace, and an inability to save files in RAW format. Given Sony’s good engineering and tenacious marketing, I would be surprised if the QX models were allowed to simply fade away, rather than be replaced by more modern designs. Sony, after all, has a manufacturing cost advantage because it makes the sensors used by every other vendor in this market space.

At nearly $500, the original QX100 model is somewhat obsolete and not a good value, particularly as it cannot save files in RAW format, an odd omission for a device derived from an enthusiast-grade camera with good RAW capabilities.

Illustration 2 Olympus AIR-20

Illustration 2 Olympus AIR-20

Olympus recently started marketing its open-specification AIR smartphone camera module in the U.S. The Olympus AIR also works with a smartphone through Near Field electronic connection, with an accompanying smartphone app controlling the AIR’s functions and the smartphone screen acting as the viewfinder and controller. Illustration 2 shows the basic Olympus AIR camera module without any interchangeable lens attached. As with the other products discussed this week, the AIR is a complete digital camera body, lacking only the viewfinder screen and touch controls, for which the excellent capabilities of a smartphone are substituted.

The AIR includes a standard, large-sensor Micro Four-Thirds imager along with an internal battery and memory card. As long as you are within phone control range, the AIR module can be separately held, attached to a tree or fence or mounted on a drone. Unlike the Sony QX series, the Olympus AIR is built from the start as an interchangeable-lens camera taking standard Micro 4/3 lenses. Olympus recommends its highly compact, light 14- to 42-mm EZ electrical zoom lens, a decent quality zoom lens, as the best optic for an AIR, but any Micro 4/3 lens can be used. The advantage of the EZ zoom is that a remote user can zoom the lens and change image size with the remote smartphone app. That makes it suitable for making photographs obtainable only when the camera is unobtrusive or remotely controlled, such as wildlife photography.

Olympus’s AIR module uses a relatively large Micro 4/3 sensor that’s twice as big as the 1-inch sensors used by all other products discussed this week. Neither the Olympus AIR nor the Sony QX series and the DxO products discussed this week include any form of image stabilization hardware, a potentially serious limitation on low-light photography. The AIR can mount very bright, wide-aperture prime lenses, though, and optionally save photos in an RAW file format. All of these features make it very attractive to more serious photographers, particularly those who may already own some appropriate Micro 4/3 lenses. At $299 for the basic camera module, or $499 including the EZ zoom lens, the Olympus AIR has good versatility and a fairly good price to feature ratio.

Illustration 3  DxO One-20

Illustration 3 DxO One

The final smartphone camera module is from DxO, a Paris-based software manufacturer. The DxO One is a 1-inch-sensor camera designed specifically for iPads and iPhones in close cooperation with Apple. The DxO One, shown as Illustration 3, uses an approved “Lightning” connector to attach directly to an iPhone or iPad, with up to 60 degrees upward or downward tilt. The DxO One includes a fixed, single-magnification prime lens with a moderately wide-angle field of view and a bright, f/1.8 maximum aperture.

Like the Olympus AIR, the DxO One can save files in RAW format for better post-processing. The One cleverly uses that to expand its low-light capabilities to a very high level, better than most digital SLR cameras using large, APS-C sensors. DxO does this by taking four RAW images in quick succession and combining and processing those four images directly in the camera module to reduce random image noise by averaging each pixel over the four separate files. I expect that we’ll see greater use of these techniques by other vendors in the near future.

The DxO One has the slick visual appearance and easy operation expected of Apple-specific products combined with the high-end image processing software of its parent company. The Olympus AIR, on the other hand, is quite a bit more versatile, uses a significantly larger sensor and remotely controlled zoom lenses, and can work with a variety of smartphones. Sony’s QX products are ready for replacement. Given Sony’s excellent engineering capabilities, a QX replacement might well become the new flagship product among smartphone camera modules.

Finally, it’s worth noting in passing that Panasonic has announced it will sell its CM1 smartphone in the U.S. The CM1 is basically a thin, 1-inch-sensor camera to which smartphone features have been added. Unlike the other products discussed this week that attempt to improve the photo quality of other-brand smartphones, Panasonic’s CM1 takes a more direct approach, building a smartphone in which a built-in, large-sensor digital camera is the outstanding feature.

  • Remember to enter Soldotna’s two photo contests, with nearly $1,000 in cash prizes and publication in the Redoubt Reporter. For more information, visit www.artspaceak.org.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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