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Sony QX30 - can this lens camera replace your smartphone?

Tom Morgan
19 Dec 2014
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We took Sony's unique QX30 lens camera on a trip through Winterville to see if it could replace a smartphone as your camera of choice

Smartphone photography has come on leaps and bounds in the past few years, but even the best handsets can't compete with the larger sensors found in compact cameras. Last year Sony tried to marry the two with the QX10 lens camera, a smartphone accessory that uses the same sensor as the company's compact cameras for significantly better image quality, but unfortunately in practice it was rather clunky and not worth the effort over using your smartphone. Sony han't given up though, and is back with a vengeance in 2014 with two new models. We've already given our verdict on the QX1, but this week Sony gave us the opportunity to put the QX30 through its paces, to see how it compares to a smartphone when it comes to low light photography.

The QX30 is essentially a 20.4-megapixel, 1/2.3in camera sensor squeezed onto the end of a 30x zoom lens, which then clips onto your smartphone. That sensor is significantly larger than the 1/3in sensor found in Apple's iPhone 6, which should let it capture more light and therefore more detail. The 30x optical zoom will undoubtedly give it the edge over smartphone cameras when it comes to long-distance shooting too; apart from Samsung's Galaxy K Zoom, there are no handsets with an optical zoom that can compete.

The specifications look impressive on paper, but the QX30's ability to replace your smartphone camera altogether will depend entirely on how it handles when out and about. With that in mind, read on to get our first impressions from an evening of shooting at London's Winterville Christmas faire.

Positives

You get a lot of attention - there's no escaping the WX30's bold looks, especially when bolted onto the back of your smartphone, but we were still surprised at the number of people that approached us while we were shooting. Most just wanted to know exactly what it was, but others were intrigued with how it worked and whether it could take better photos than their current smartphone. A few even asked where they could buy one.

Low-light performance - smartphones are great for spur-of-the-moment photography, but the ultimately fall short in low light because of the small sensor size. That isn't the case with the QX30, thanks to the larger sensor which can capture far more light per shot. You can also boost ISO sensitivity further without introducing noise, to the point that you can get usable images from near total darkness (as long as you have a steady hand, at any rate). Even better, the QX30 has a tripod mount, meaning you could lock it in place and take long exposure images - which is practically impossible to do on a smartphone and get good results.

Greater manual control - Out of the box, most smartphones don't give you much control beyond focus and, if you're luckly, exposure lock. Third party apps might add a few extra controls, but ultimately you're limited in terms of long exposure, fast action shooting and sensitivity. Not so with the QX30; you get full shutter speed, aperture and ISO sensitivity controls, meaning you can get creative with your images. We particularly liked being able to capture movement with slow shutter speeds, something that can't easily be done on a smartphone - it lets you take exciting and interesting images like the one below.

 Even handheld, the QX30 can produce some impressive results at low shutter speeds

Connectivity and app are greatly improved - Connectivity was arguably one of the biggest issues with the original Smart Lens concept, but Sony has improved in leaps and strides for the QX30. This is crucial, as without a viewfinder on the camera itself you're reliant on your smartphone's screen to frame photos. The QX30 creates its own Wi-Fi network to connect to both Android and iOS devices, which reduces the delay between camera movement and onscreen reaction to barely perceptible levels versus Bluetooth. Android phones with NFC are particularly quick to connect, but once we'd tapped in the setup code it was still fast on an iPhone. The connection doesn't end when you lock your handset, so the viewfinder is instantly available when you next unlock the phone. Closing the app completely forces the phone to reconnect to the camera when you next open it up, but this typically only took three or four seconds. Long enough to miss spur-of-the-moment photos, admittedly, but not so long that you're left twiddling your thumbs.

Versatility - Of course, the QX30 is just as versatile as its predecessors, meaning you can unclip it from your phone and raise it above your head, or into places you couldn't go with a regular camera but still get a live viewfinder on your smartphone. Can't see over the crowd at a gig? No problem, just unclip the camera and raise it aloft. Want to take a photo of yourself in a scene, but don't like selfies? sit the camera down then trigger the shutter remotely from your phone.

Negatives

No Flash - As much as the QX30 performs brilliantly in low light, as long as you have a steady hand or a tripod, we still missed having a flash. We had to bump ISO sensitivity to capture images that would otherwise have been flash filled photos, otherwise risk introducing camera shake, whereas with a smartphone we would have just snapped away. It's particularly frustrating knowing you have a perfectly good flash on your smartphone, but the QX30 isn't able to use it. There is a pop-up flash on the QX1 Smart Lens, which uses interchangeable Sony NEX lenses rather than a fixed zoom lens, but this costs significantly more than the QX30.

 A flash would have helped eliminate some of the green colour cast from this indoor shot

Fiddly physical controls - For all of the QX30's simplicity, we're slightly perplexed how Sony messed up one of only three physical buttons on the camera. The shutter button is simply too sensitive, frequently taking shots when we were only trying to half-press to set the focus. It was such a problem that we ended up switching to using the onscreen shutter instead, tapping where we wanted to set the focus. This might not be an issue for smartphone photographers, as they are used to using the screen for everything, but for digital camera converts it's an annoyance.

Goodbye pockets - If you're anything like us, your smartphone practically lives in your pocket until you need to use it. Once you clip on the QX30, however, that's no longer an option. It's simply too bulky to fit, meaning you have to carry the phone/camera hybrid around all the time. That might mean you're less likely to miss a fleeting moment, but it's inconvenient if you have other things to carry, or don't fancy constantly waving your expensive smartphone around in public.

Battery life - Finally we get down the elephant in the room. The QX30 is entirely reliant on your smartphone's battery, and will drain it faster than if you were using the phone by itself as it needs a constand Wi-Fi connection. We had to stop shooting towards the end of the night because our smartphone had drained down to 20%; admittedly it wasn't fully charged when we started the shoot but it certainly drained faster than if we'd have just used the phone to take pictures. Without a phone, there's no way to see what you're pointing the lens at, meaning you could miss the angle or fail to focus correctly. You can't change any of the control settings from the camera either. You could pack a portable battery pack to be on the safe side, but it's an added expense. The QX30 has its own internal battery as well, which is good for around 200 shots. Unfortunately, that simply isn't long enough to last a full day of shooting. 

Conclusion

Having reviewed both the original QX10 and the interchangeable lens QX1, we were prepared to write off the QX30 as another fun but ultimately fiddly camera that wouldn't replace our smartphone sensor. However, we were seriously impressed with its flexibility and performance in low light. We achieved results that simply wouldn't be possible on a smartphone, even if you add a multitude of third party apps. It clearly works well in certain situations, and even though it has plenty of shortcomings we would happily bring it along for nights out, evening walks and whenever we wanted more from our photos than simple snapshots. At £250, however, you'll still need to be pretty serious about photography to justify adding this to your smartphone.