The trend of people turning to their smartphones to capture photos and videos shows no sign of slowing down. But a related trend is picking up momentum, as well: More smartphone photographers are looking for ways to improve the quality of those images. One way is to use a wireless accessory that connects with your phone or tablet, providing you with a larger sensor and better lens than anything built into a mobile device.
Sony started offering its smartphone accessories in 2013. The company's Wi-Fi QX-series lens-style cameras, such as the Cyber-shot DSC-QX10, have sensors, processors, memory card slots, and batteries—they are full-fledged cameras—but they connect wirelessly to your mobile device so you can compose photos on the LCD.
Yet Sony didn't stop there. The company also offered a second type of camera, or more specifically, a Wi-Fi camera mount: The DSC-QX1 has a large APS-C-sized sensor and accepts the E-mount interchangeable lenses used on Sony mirrorless models. That hardware can dramatically improve image quality, since it's better than what's available on any smartphone.
Today, Olympus announced its own contender in this market, the Olympus Air, a 16-megapixel wireless mount for interchangeable lenses that's compatible with both Apple and Android devices via a mobile app called Olympus Air Central (or OA Central). The new product will ship in two configurations—with a 14-42mm lens ($500) and in a mount-only version ($300). Unlike Sony's QX1, the Olympus Air has a slightly smaller micro four-thirds image sensor. It will accept lenses made for both Olympus PEN-series mirrorless cameras and Panasonic G-series mirrorless models. The Olympus Air connects to devices via both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. (The QX1 can only connect by Wi-Fi.)
I've had some time to test this new Olympus model, which is supposed to get into consumers' hands in July; here's what I found.
Set up and ergonomics
Before I paired the devices, I had to charge the Olympus Air using a USB cord hooked up to my computer. I also needed to insert a microSD memory card. One minor issue I had was finding the slot: You need to pry open a thin, shell-like cover on the back of the device.
To pair the Air to my phone (I used an Apple iPhone 6 Plus), I had to download a beta version of the Olympus OA Central App. The app then did a decent job of walking me through the process of pairing the device with my phone.
One thing I really liked about this camera was that it was lightweight and felt good in my hand. I used a 14-42mm lens, which is also lightweight and small. But if you're using some of Olympus's large lenses, I could see the package being a bit awkward to hold, unless you mounted the lenses on some sort of tripod.
The back of the camera has an adjusting bracket that can accept just about any phone. (You can't attach a tablet to this camera, but you can use one; the two devices can sync without being in physical contact.) The bracket set the phone at an angle, for easy viewing when holding the camera above or below you.
Shooting photos and video
Once I had the Olympus Air paired with my phone, I found shooting to be very easy. The camera has a large gray shutter button on top, which works for both still photos or video, or you can tap the virtual shutter button on your LCD. When using the Mode dial mode on the app, you can select various shooting modes, just like on a mirrorless camera, including full auto, program auto (P), aperture priority, shutter priority, full manual, and video capture. It also allows you to adjust the metering, ISO, resolution, drive (single or burst), face detection, and other settings. You can tap the screen to set your focus point, but I didn't find this as easy to do as I would have liked. I had to tap several times to readjust the focus.
Like all mirrorless cameras, the Air lets you capture high-quality RAW files as well as JPEGs. But according to the company, the Air doesn't include all the technology and features you'll find in one of the company's mirrorless Pen cameras. For instance, it lacks a built-in flash, mechanical image stabilization, and dust reduction. Some lenses have image stabilization built in, which is a way to get around that shortcoming.
Using the Olympus OA Central mobile app
I found the design and versatility of the app appealing. (Note, I only tried the iOS version.) In addition to the Mode Dial setting, which lets you use and set the camera using many manual settings, you have access to other modes: Art Filter gives you access to lots of Instagram-like filters; Color Creator lets you dramatically alter color and tone; Photo Story provides several preset layouts to create a narrative; Clips lets you stitch together short video segments to make a movie; and Genius generates six versions from one photograph. Most modes worked pretty well, although I didn't think the Genius mode offered enough variety, in terms of the types of images the mode created.
Unfortunately, the app tended to freeze up quite often. In some cases, it lost its connection to the Wi-Fi signal, and once it shut down altogether. But this was a beta app; the glitches may be solved by the time the devices ship to consumers in July.
Highs, lows, and bottom line
Overall, I was impressed with the design and depth of the mobile app. It had a clean, easy-to-use interface, but allowed you to use the camera in many ways. Additionally, I liked how the product itself was designed: It's small and lightweight, but still felt sturdy. However, I was disappointed with with the consistency of the app, though the problems may be fixed for the next update.
This is a pricey device. However, if you're looking to boost the quality of the photos and videos that you capture with smartphone or tablet, the Olympus Air is an option that holds a lot of promise.
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