A detailed look at the pros and cons of cameras that can be attached to the back of a mobile phone
One of the major problems that camera manufacturers have is that much of the core snapshot market, which in the past has been the source of most of their profitability, is these days taken by mobile phones. With camera phones now taking more-than-acceptable shots for the social-media distribution channels (which have replaced the old postcard-sized print), the market for compact cameras has shrunk over the past few years.
The more enterprising camera companies have been looking for photographic alternatives. One of the more interesting of these is what its inventors, Sony, calls the ‘lens-style camera’, which now has three models – the QX1, QX10 and QX100 – in its range. The design concept for the lens-style camera is that it is a ‘lens’ that you attach to the back of a mobile phone to create something that looks like a traditional camera with a big lens. Presumably, the idea behind it is that a big lens looks somehow professional.
The lens-style camera is actually a complete camera without the usual screen-based user interface. Instead of an LCD display on the back, the photographer uses the display on their smartphone or tablet, and the camera communicates with this using Wi-Fi. When Sony first announced its lens-style cameras, especially the QX1 interchangeable-lens version, it seemed to be a very interesting product for those who wanted a specialist camera, but who didn’t want to develop the whole thing from scratch. With a digital camera stripped to the bare bones, and manufactured in a very compact package, the basis for many clever applications seemed to be there. Unfortunately, taking a closer look at the specifications revealed the camera not to be so easy to hack, due mainly to the fixed firmware controlling its functions. I was waiting for a Sony equivalent of the Magic Lantern hack firmware that can add custom functions to Canon cameras (or the similar hacks for Nikon and Panasonic cameras).
However, it now seems that won’t be necessary. In February, Olympus announced its Air A01 interchangeable-lens camera. At first sight this appears to be a Micro Four Thirds clone of the Sony concept, but closer examination reveals one subtle and crucial difference – Olympus is making the application programming interface available, allowing those with embedded programming experience to tailor the camera to function according to their needs. This camera thus becomes an instant solution for a host of specialist applications that previously have required expensive specialist cameras.