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Sony's Lens-Style Cameras: Last Gasp for Point-and-Shoots?

Point-and-shoot cameras are dying — or seen another way, they have become, like so many other things, another smartphone feature. The old photographer's adage says that the best camera is the one you have with you, and for more than half of all cellphone owners in the U.S., that’s a smartphone.

After years of camera makers trying to defend their turf, Sony has broken ranks and gone over to the smartphone side with two new models called lens-style cameras, the $250 QX10 and $500 QX100. All the electronics required to make a digital photo are slapped onto the back of a lens barrel, which in turn clips onto a smartphone and connects with it through Wi-Fi and an Android or iOS app. (Which is separate from the app for the phone's built-in camera.)

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Real zoom for smartphones

The lens cameras offer the one thing a smartphone (probably) never can — a zoom lens. The $250 QX10 provides a whopping 10X optical zoom with 18.9-megapixel capture. The $500 QX100 Premium offers 3.6X zoom, but in a very high-end image-making package. They also provide electronics that cellphone makers can only dream of — or dismiss as too bulky and expensive — large, high-end sensors (up to a one-inch, 20.2-megapixel chip in the QX100) and advanced image processing. Coupled with the large-aperture lenses (as big as a gaping F1.8), they can shoot in very low light and likely achieve some of the artsy shallow-depth-of-field effects found, for example, in portraits.

It's an odd setup, however, especially when you feel the heavy lens pulling a smartphone downward (especially pronounced with a smaller phone such as my iPhone 5). The spring-loaded clips hold the lens tightly to any size phone, but it's tricky to hook the lens onto some smartphone models (the Sony Xperia model the company used for a demonstration) without the clips squeezing the power, volume or other buttons on the sides.

But the image results should be satisfying. The preproduction models I tried had difficulty focusing and metering in bright light, but there's reason to think the final versions will shine when they go on sale later this month. The $500 QX100, for example, is the business end of Sony's $750 well-regarded RX100-M2. Review site said of the RX100, "We have very few concerns about the RX100's image quality" — for both stills and HD video. And the M2 version should improve upon that.

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Beyond point and shoot

In fact, with their high-end specs, Sony's lens-style cameras, especially the QX100, scarcely count as point-and-shoots and are closer to advanced pocket cameras that photo enthusiasts carry. However, Mark Weir, one of Sony's camera experts, told me that the models are aimed at people who until now have shot only with smartphones and aren't interested in a traditional point-and-shoot. It may be a stretch to assume that people who don't know any better than smartphone photo quality will decide that they need and should pay for this image upgrade — especially for the $500 QX100 and maybe even for the $250 Q10.

Still, Sony's plan, though not perfect, is less clunky than other options to marry a "real" camera and a phone. Many cameras now have Wi-Fi to send photos to a smartphone: Canon, for example, made a big splash in August to introduce fairly modest updates of its point-and-shoots, the main upgrade being Wi-Fi. But you have to lug around an entire camera, which is bulkier than Sony's lens-style models. 

Samsung has come from the other direction, building a full camera onto the backside of a smartphone with its Galaxy S4 Zoom. But its image quality is less than stunning,  it's quite bulky, and Samsung is not bringing it to the U.S. Furthermore, it requires you to always lug a camera around.

Still, it's unlikely there will be a lens-style camera in every pocket the way point-and-shoots were a few years ago. Sony's models, despite the company's target audience, are likely more for people who take photography seriously — almost all the time. But at up to $500, the lens-style cameras are pricier than more-capable entry-level DSLRs, including Sony's own models such as the new, $400 Alpha a3000. Since the lens-style cameras are extra gear that shooters have to plan to bring along, perhaps they'd rather go all the way and take a small SLR instead. 

But even if photography lovers bring along Sony's lens-style cameras, they are clearly opting for the relatively big guns, not for what a basic point-and-shoot offers. The real point-and-shoot is your smartphone without the Sony camera attached.

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