Review: Sony ILCE-QX1 SmartShot Camera

It was early in 2014 when the following thought crossed my mind:
“Why is it necessary that for digital photography, I do not only carry around a lens and an image sensor, but also a GPS, a large touch display, a complex microcontroller – all in all, things that a smartphone owner tends to carry with him anyway? Highly impractical for many reasons.”
It seemed I wasn’t the only one with that train of thought, and some people even had found a business case here: September the same year, Sony announced a solution to that – a series of lens/sensor/WiFi interface combinations that could then be used as a high-quality digital camera together with a (Android or iOS) smartphone.
Their QX product line includes a total of four devices: there’s the simpler QX10, the QX30 sporting a wide-range zoom, the QX100 with a larger image sensor and a Zeiss Sonnar telelens, and then there’s the QX1, all of them sporting sensors in the 18-21MP range.
The QX1 differs from the other models in some more or less relevant aspects. First of all, it’s the only one that provides RAW format images (for whichever reason). Then, it’s the only one with an APS-C-size sensor. It also excels in the shutter speed domain (1/4000-30 seconds). Most important of all: it doesn’t have a lens, rather a Sony E-mount. I decided to get this one.
Looking at the available lenses for this mount (mainly from Sony and Zeiss), I picked two zoom lenses: the SPL1650, which is also offered as a kit lens, and the SPL55210.
Looking at the crop factor of roughly 1.5 for APS-C, this gives us an effective range from 24mm, the focal length where wide-angle surrealism starts, to 75mm to be able to shoot portraits. The other lens then covers 82.5 to 315mm – a tele range sufficient for the typical amateur application.
Note that the QX1 also supports video recording in full HD at 30fps. However, this is beyond the scope of this review.

General Considerations

For me, it was very clear from the beginning that useability would be a prime factor for this solution. For normal photo cameras, the user interface has to this day essentially been taken over from pre-electronic-era devices, extended with a large display and a menu system. Here, some very important aspects – not only the display and menu system, but also the viewfinder – had been moved to a device that normally wasn’t even connected physically or logically to the camera. So you would need to electronically and maybe mechanically link them and be ready quickly.

First Impressions, First Steps

The QX1 (let’s call it camera from now on for simplicity’s sake) comes together with a battery (according to specs good for 400 photos), a flange to mount the phone to it, an adapter for that to be able to angle the phone away, a handle if you decide to not mount the phone to it, and a supporting loop.
For charging the battery, as well as for connection to the computer, a micro-USB connection is used (cable or charger not supplied). The camera accepts both microSD and Sony’s MemoryStick cards for storage (and it more or less requires a card – more on that storage concept later).
The kit lens at minimum...
The kit lens at minimum…
...and at maximum focal length.
…and at maximum focal length.
Putting together the camera, the kit lens and the phone flange, my first thought was “it’s small!”. After all, we’re competing here with mirorrless cameras, and this thing comes out with measurements of ca. 9×7.5cm – it would fit into a pouch for a smaller compact camera even with a not too large phone.
To be able to use it, you first need to install a Sony app on your phone (or phablet, or tablet) called PlayMemories Mobile. Installation worked seamlessly for me, and establishing the first connection was as easy as holding the phone close to the camera with NFC active, upon which the camera powers up and establishes a WiFi connection.
There's a beauty in that colour reproduction.
There’s a beauty in that colour reproduction.
Once this has been done, you’re ready to shoot.

User Interface, Functionality and Menu Structure/Workflow

Let’s start with the camera: in addition to the on/off button, it offers one button to activate/extend the flash and one for the shutter. There’s also a small LCD display showing battery, memory card and WiFi status.
For lenses, it depends if you’re using an automated motorzoom, automated or manual lens. The motorzoom kit lens has a lever for zoom operation and a ring for varying functions, while to non-motorized zoom of the telezoom lens has the zoom operated with one ring and another one used for focus in manual focus settings.
The app on the phone is taken up to the largest part by the viewfinder. There’s a button for setting the mode (different full-auto modes, aperture and shutter priority and fully manual), access to the menu in the lower left, a button to bring up the view of the last photos on the bottom right (or top right in landscape), and a big button for the shutter, surrounded by a ring to adjust various settings if not already automatized, such as aperture, ISO setting, EV etc. The selected parameter is displayed next to the shutter button, and upon clicking on it, it opens a kind of circular slider to quickly and precisely adjust the parameter.
The telezoom at 210mm (315mm equivalent) wide open
The telezoom at 210mm (315mm equivalent) wide open
Everything that is not either mode or setting those parameters is hidden in the menu, which makes use of screen real estate very inefficiently when photographing in landscape. There’s several options which you will often only adjust once (like image format or shutter sound), but there’s others which you might adjust more often – like switching to manual focus, and this will have you moving to an impractical menu every time.
All in all, there’s no option for customization. If I’m comparing this to my old Zoom C5050 compact camera from 2002, I had the option to store several user presets and then activate them quickly with the mode selector. I could also control one parameter of choice with a user-definable knob on the camera. Now this was in a compact camera from 2002, so why isn’t this possible for a system aiming at the mirrorless market and released in 2014?

Getting into the details: the QX workflow

The typical workflow when using the QX1 is like this: once you take a photo, the image is stored on the camera’s memory card, with the available options being JPEG standard, JPEG hires and JPEG hires+RAW. At the same time, the image is transmitted to the phone as either a small-format (1.8MP) or large-format JPEG, where it’s stored in a folder of your choice.
About the only way to get something out of focus: zoom in, full aperture, focus on something close.
About the only way to get something out of focus: zoom in, full aperture, focus on something close.
For me, this works perfectly, as I simply store the small-format images in the same folder that my phone’s camera also uses, and which also gets linked to Google (Alphabet?) Photo, so I have everything in one place.
The photo’s memory card gets backed up from time to time (remember, with current memory cards, you can take well over 1000 pics before the card runs full), and I can then use those high-quality versions of the photos for printing them, while already making a first choice on my phone or tablet.
There’s however a simple way to jeopardize that simple workflow, and that is by simply interrupting the connection while one (or, in case of a quick succession of shots, several) picture(s) get transmitted. One way is to prematurely press the “off” button on the camera, the other one is to accidentially quit your app on the phone. While in both cases, the image is not lost (it’s still stored on the camera), it doesn’t get included into your phone-based library. An option to transfer those interrupted transfers would be a big improvement.

Getting Out To Play

I then started to go out and take a few shots during the next few days. Note here that while I enjoy photography, I’m not anywhere near to being a professional (or even highly experienced) photographer, so some in-depth topics may well not be covered here with the required level. That also means that I didn’t take some specific shots to test the limits of the system, rather just ran around and took a few shots.
Landscape with the rather stepped-down lens.
Landscape with the rather stepped-down lens.
Another thing worth mentioning is that when we look at examples, those will tell us at least as much about the lenses as they’ll be telling us about the camera – but you know that.
What I really enjoyed from the beginning was how the setup (meaning connecting phone and camera everytime) is done. Yes, it’s slightly more cumbersome than just taking your compact camera and shoot away, but essentially, you quickly put the phone into the camera’s holder, press a button and start an app, and you’re good to go.
A thing that is a big difference to a normal camera is the display’s lag: we all know that a display on a digital camera is slightly lagging compared to an optical viewfinder. Here, the lag is really considerable. I’m not that affected from it, as I’m typically shooting inanimate objects or portraits, but this will without doubt force you to establish an approach where you essentially shoot “blindly” by pointing the camera and not looking at the display, but at the target. And of course, adjusting focus while following a fast-moving object thus becomes an impossibility.
Speaking of adjusting focus, I really miss something to replace a focussing screen properly.
Plants - and Boke.
Plants – and Boke.
Plants - and Boke.
Plants – and Boke.
At 16mm, distortion is quite visible (and that's what we want).
At 16mm, distortion is quite visible (and that’s what we want).
Speaking of lag, the fact that you have a button for the shutter (with the usual “soft press for autofocus” functionality) on the camera also means that shutter lag is not a problem.
Another thing I noticed is that it took me some time to find a way to hold this phone-camera-lens assembly properly. While SLR cameras had at one point many decades ago started to add that practical hand grip on the right side, and your typical compact camera doesn’t need something like that because it’s so light, here you first have to find a way to properly hold the thing. I personally found that the best way to hold it is to either hold the camera in the left hand like I would support a rifle, this way being able to press the shutter with my thumb, and operate the display with my right. Of course, with a large lens, the left hand then alternatingly moves forward to support the lens. All in all, something that needs to get used to, but something I had gotten used to really quickly. Speaking of supporting: the camera of course offers a flange for putting it onto your standard camera tripod.
Two further non-standards of using this (or any) camera: first of all, you don’t need a phone to be able to shoot: you can just turn the camera on and operate the shutter, and this works. It will, however, require either luck or experience to be able to shoot meaningful photos this way.
The second option is to use the phone, but mechanically detach it from the camera. This way, you get a remote viewfinder (and shutter), meaning you can take self portraits very well, and without a self timer. Or think up other funny applications, that were possible before – only either not with that image quality, or without costly accessories.

And Getting It Back

Once you’ve shot your load of pictures, you typically move them to a computer. The most simple way to do that is to connect the camera via USB and then use the PlayMemories program for your Windows or Mac computer. This software is mostly a viewing/archive tool with some very basic editing capabilities added, and it also works with the generated RAWs (ARW format). Speaking of those RAWs: there’s another program called “ImageDataConverter” which is a very basic RAW editor. Not with your Lightroom or even UFRaw functionality (and alas, it seems that UFRaw as of now does not support this format fully), but it essentially gets the job done for your basic RAW-processing tasks.

And the Result?

Of course, when looking at the resulting images, we’re talking as much (if not more) about the lenses as we’re talking about the camera – and in this case here, most of the photos were taken with the SPL1650 kit lens.
My first impression has been a thoroughly positive one, taking aside the cases where some of the automatic programs for exposure and focus didn’t get what I was trying to do. Even working with those tricky situations like off-center motifs, against-the-sun situations or “dark tunnel into bright day” settings, the camera was able to find the right choice in the majority of situations. One thing that I didn’t find to be working all the time was the focus following moving objects, and there was even one situation where it didn’t properly adjust in a rather simple portrait situation.
What captured my attention more, however, was that those pictures all look the way I want them to. One factor is how the colours appear, especially in the case of the 1650 lens, and I had at some point when looking at other reviews suspected Sony to run tricks with the image processor, but this lens does this also when combined with cameras from other manufacturers.
Colours again...
Colours again…
A nice street sign in Würzburg (colours again)
A nice street sign in Würzburg (colours again)
Add to that a high sensitivity to light of the entire system and a convincing focus depth (so much in fact that it’s sometimes a little tricky to get your boke effects), and I know that I’m happy and am also looking forward to build a combo with some other lenses, maybe one of those nice Zeiss primes for the E-mount.
But enough talk, just look at those pictures – which are all the unedited low-res reference copy transmitted to the phone, not the full-res version.

So – is this for you?

There’s a lot of things to consider looking at this QX1 when you ask yourself if it’s your right choice.
Starting with the geometrical dimensions, this one is clearly without competition. With tech specs similar to Sony’s ILCE-5000, which was already introduced as the smallest in its class, the QX1 together with a phone is still considerably below that.
Full zoom: open aperture...
Full zoom: open aperture…
...and completely stepped down.
…and completely stepped down.
Looking at the price, the 5000 is more than 25% more expensive than the QX1, which, while being a considerable relative amount, is not the kind of difference that I’d assume would make or break a deal if you’re looking to get into an area where you can spend more than ten times of those savings for a high-quality prime lens alone.
For me, those space savings are really acceptable, even if it means that I have to quickly link phone and camera everytime I want to shoot properly, and I also had to learn a new way to hold my new camera.
It’s also nice to see that both Sony and Zeiss already offer a good choice of lenses, and don’t underestimate the Sony products here – after all, it’s the Minolta-Konica legacy lurking behind that name.
Again playing with the wide-open lens.
Again playing with the wide-open lens.
For the way I work, having now all of my pictures in one workflow directly via my phone is a big improvement, and one of those that will actually motivate me to do more serious photography, so a big plus, if only a very subjective one.
The shortcomings I’ve identified have mainly to do with the user interface. Not being able to control aperture on the lens if I want to, not being able to have some user presets available quickly, and having to dive through a cumbersome menu to turn autofocus on or off are definitive minus points for me.
The biggest downside, however, is one where you need to decide if it’s relevant for you: the considerable lag of the “viewfinder” on your phone: I would assume that this could very easily be a dealbreaker for many, while I consider it only a minor nuisance, considering the things I shoot.
All in all, this is a fantastic thing if you always have a smartphone with you when you’re taking photographs, if you can live with a display with a considerable lag, if you want a high-quality optical system, all that in a very small packge, for a very competitive price, and for added bonus also want a streamlined workflow for both your phone and camera photos.
If not, then maybe any mirrorless camera will be a better choice for you.
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