Can Sony's Mad Scientists Fix Digital Photography?

Digital photography has been getting weird for a while, but this might take the cake. Sony has just unveiled its newest and arguably weirdest photography hardware experiment yet: a pair of devices that turn a smartphone into a much more powerful full-fledged digital camera.

By latching onto its backplate like a giant squid, that is.

Unlike popular mobile photography accessories like the Olloclip lens, Sony's new creations, the Cyber-shot DSC-QX100 and Cyber-shot DSC-QX10, don't use a phone's camera at all. In fact, their squid-like knack for wrapping themselves around a phone is just a way for them to siphon off a smartphone's mobile network while turning it into a big viewfinder. The QX10 and QX100 both look like someone just lopped off the lens off of a DSLR and set it loose. And in many ways, that's pretty much true.

The QX100 and QX10 look like lenses, but they're actually standalone cameras sans viewfinders, mounting on your phone and using its connection to share photos. The $500 QX100 is basically Sony's popular high-end compact RX100 II model stripped of a camera body. The $250 RX10 is the more casual consumer model, offering a smaller sensor and smaller price tag to match. Both will hit shelves on September 25, and they've already drummed up plenty of pre-order buzz on Amazon.

The (Awkward) Space Between 

For any photographer who had high hopes for Samsung's Galaxy Camera, the QX10 and QX100 are intriguing—albeit very odd—little shooters. A bodyless camera that acts like a souped-up iPhone accessory looks weird, but it's pretty cool if you think about it. 

Sony admits that the new line is aimed at enthusiasts—after all, who else would buy a $250 or $500 device that scratches such a specific itch? But in a world where we can zap an iPhone photo to the world in seconds, the desire to shoot and share pro-quality photos online with ease burns bright. The QX10 and QX100 might just be proofs of concept, but they have a clever take on the tension between casual and serious photography. 

The Eye-Fi wireless memory card was a cool early solution to this, but in my experience the device is buggy at best—and a potentially unreliable SD card is anathema to any sensible photographer. Samsung's Galaxy Camera tackled the same issue last year, though disappointingly didn't offer a compelling boost in image quality. Zany lenses that clip onto the iPhone abound, but they can't conjure extra pixels or invent beautiful bokeh.

Sony Isn't Afraid To See What Sticks

The rise of mobile photography and the rocket fuel of the Instagram craze has left many traditional digital camera makers totally confounded. Unlike the Polaroids of the world, Sony has a pretty solid record of keeping up with the changing times. For camera makers, keeping pace with a fast-evolving industry isn't easy. With smartphones, most notably the iPhone, boasting cameras that can go toe-to-toe with the pros at low resolutions (think Web and Instagram), photography as an art and an industry has been flipped on its head over the past five years.

But Sony just keeps pulling tricks out of its hat. The company's compact RX100 took everyone by storm, pairing a big sensor with a svelte little body perfect for travel. (It's so good that real photographers are even willing to give it a nod.) And Sony's NEX series of mirrorless interchangeable lens shooters garners consistently high marks. 

The potential Achilles heel here is Sony's "PlayMemories" app. From my experience testing Sony cameras in the past, the hardware is nearly always there, but the software can fall a bit short. Hopefully Sony has learned its lesson from its awkward early days of compact experimentation. After all, the company is clever when it comes to cameras. 

Sony's smartphone hardware may not dominate, but the QX10 and QX100 are clever little trojan horses into mobile—and a fun experiment for photography enthusiasts anxious to bridge the gap between their passion for quality and the instant online sharing of the Instagram age.