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The new lens camera inspires Ihnatko to buy Sony a beer

Oh, Sony. Let me buy you a beer. I’ve no idea if your new “lens cameras” are going to be any good, or even practical, but I love the fact that you’re actually making them.

The QX-10 and QX-100 are called “lens cameras” because when you open the box and pull out the thing you’ve just paid $250 or $500 for, respectively, you might think you’ve only bought a lens for a Sony NEX camera. But no. They’re self-contained cameras with 18 and 20 megapixel image sensors, power optical zooms, image stabilization, advanced signal processing, and memory card storage.

Yes, I did leave out any reference to a color screen or anything that lets you see what the hell you’re photographing. These cameras don’t need one. Because you’ve already got your smartphone.

It’s a whole new concept. The QX-10 and QX-100, despite their “real camera” components, are fundamentally designed to be used as smartphone accessories. Your iPhone or Android device has all of the resources that a fab camera user interface needs (a huge screen, multitouch) as well as the network hardware and app libraries that make a modern camera fully relevant. With all of those resources already in your pocket, why buy second, inferior copies of all of those components? Why not buy just the “real camera” parts that your smartphone is missing?

These lens cameras are right in step with the consumers’ modern relationship with picture taking. People appreciate the characteristics of a quality photograph that only a “real” camera can deliver: sharpness, high-resolution, and strong color and contrast which capture the subtle interplays of light and shadow. They always have, they always will.

But their ideal version of photography also includes “eye-grabbing images” and “easy sharing.”

They like the sort of things that only phone cameras can do. Digital art filters make photos look crazy, but never dull. And a photo belongs on social media and sharing sites seconds after you take it and think “My friends and family would love to see it.” It doesn’t do anybody any good during the two or three weeks it spends on a memory card, waiting for you to dump your photos into your desktop library and remember that oh, right, little Skeezix looked adorable three weeks ago holding up the pit viper that he’d just killed.

The new Sony cameras communicate with your phone via WiFi. They include an adjustable clip that lets you mechanically attach the lens to your phone and handle the combo like a familiar camera-like object.

But no electronic connection is required. The app’s commands to the lens and the transmission of photos back to the phone are all handled wirelessly. If your phone has NFC, when you tap the lens to the phone the app will automatically launch and prepare for shooting.

The 100% wireless connection means that you can see what you’re shooting even if your eye is nowhere near the lens. You can hold the lens up in the air over a crowd’s head with your left hand while holding the phone in your right, previewing the image and clicking the shutter at chest level. Or, you can leave the lens on the porch railing a foot or two away from your bird feeder, and snap photos from your kitchen window without scaring away the wildlife.

I love this idea, in theory. Instinctively, I think the QX-10 is closer to the right idea than the QX-100, despite the fact that the senior model has a larger image sensor (the same one as Sony’s RX100 II camera, in fact) and will almost certainly take much better photos. The QX-10 is much thinner and easier to stick in a pocket: it’s a 1.3” hockey puck instead of a cylinder. At $250, it’s also half the cost of the QX-100 and thus easier to contemplate as a phone accessory.

I’m also continually trying to figure out just how highly a cameraphone user values image quality. Judging by the phones that they buy, and the sins against God and Humanity that they inflict upon their photos via Instagram, I’m guessing that the answer is “not very.”

It’s possible that these two lens cameras are addressing a narrow market. They’re of obvious appeal to people who appreciate “real camera” image quality; who see mobile apps (sharing, editing) as an important part of the process; and who don’t mind carrying another thing with them. But these same people could tick all of those items off the checklist by buying either an affordable pocket camera with wireless mobile connectivity built-in, or by adding WiFi features to their existing pocket camera with a $50 (and up) Eye-Fi Mobi SD storage card.

Are they destined to be “step up” cameras for people who’ve been shooting with phones all of their lives and who don’t want to leave an environment that’s been giving them decent results?

Sony clearly has a clever idea here. The iPad was a clever idea, too. It was initially dismissed by many people who only had access to the specs and the video that Apple released three months before it hit the market, and formed their opinions without having ever touched the thing. Under those limitations, it was easy to see the iPad as nothing more than a PC that used a touchscreen instead of a keyboard and a mouse.

Once everybody had a chance to spend some time with the real thing, however, most of those doubters appreciated that the iPad is in fact a whole new kind of computer entirely.

So you can imagine how much I’m looking forward to trying these out. Is it a lens accessory for a phone? Or is it an exciting new articulation of the whole idea of photography? We’ll see.

Either way, yes, I want to buy Sony a collective beer for making the QX-10 and the QX-100. I’m a fan of technology and it often frustrates me that I rarely see products that challenge the accepted dogma of familiar tools.

Throughout the 20th century, nearly every consumer camera needed to be designed around the limitations of strip film. Lenses changed, bodies changed, styles changed, sizes changed. But the camera always needed to be an isosceles triangle with a lens at the vertex point and a film spool at each of the base points.

With the elimination of film, all bets were off and a hundred alternative designs became possible. In the early days of consumer digital cameras, we saw flat cameras, pistol-shaped cameras, cameras where the lens pivoted independently of the body, and cameras where the lens and image sensor could detach completely. Whee!

But soon, the whole industry had a meeting. By the time the coffee and donuts had been cleared away they all agreed that digital cameras should just look like film cameras.

There’s some wisdom to that. The classic camera shape is the result of a hundred years of ergonomic testing by millions of photographers … many of whom needed to be able to take good photos while being shot at and running away.

But why give up trying new ideas? When the camera industry releases yet another device that looks like a 1960s 35mm rangefinder, is is saying “No, we’re fine; camera design was perfected during the Johnson administration and any change to that would only scratch the paint of perfection”?

Maybe they’re simply saying “Consumers are jerks and they punish us every time we try to sell them something they aren’t instantly familiar with. Oh, tech writers, too. They’re jerks, too. And they’re mean and sarcastic.”

Yes, that’s true.

I’m sorry.

Let me make it up to you by buying you that beer. Bring the camera.