I’m of the opinion that, more often than not, taking photos can be a particularly frustrating experience.
If you’re looking for simplicity and go into a photo opportunity equipped with nothing more than your phone’s camera, you might be disappointed in the quality of the image it returns.
If you’re looking for quality, you might find yourself lugging around gear that begins to feel like a burden, distracted from the moment you were once trying to enjoy, instead of to simply capture.
As someone who is always looking for devices that will balance ‘quality’ with ‘simplicity’, I was immediately intrigued by a little piece of tech called the DxO One, a small but incredibly powerful camera that uses some interesting tricks to make your experience as great as possible.
The DxO One is a connected camera, meaning that it utilizes your iPhone to offload some of the bulk traditionally associated with even the most compact of point-and-shoots. The main benefit and change is the lack of a real display on the camera — instead of having a screen to take and view photos, your iPhone becomes that screen, all thanks to a small lightning connector hidden inside the camera’s compact body.
Slide the lens cover open and the device automatically powers on. Slide that lens cover a bit further than its normal resting point and its lightning connector flips out of its resting place flush against the DxO’s exterior. Plug the camera into your (unlocked and open) iPhone and the companion app automatically opens, letting you take photos without missing a beat.
Simple, just like I like it.
Alone (and it can be used alone, without an iPhone), the DxO One feels like an incredibly strange device. Though the company advertises this ‘standalone mode’, there’s no doubt that this is anything but the optimal way to take photos. Without being able to see what you’re shooting or choose what the camera is focusing on, the quality of the photos will almost always be subpar.
But when connected, the experience changes completely.
When taking photos through your iPhone’s screen and the DxO’s lens, the experience feels remarkably like the iPhone’s own camera app, only enhanced in a number of ways that photographers will no doubt appreciate. That’s because this camera, in comparison to the iPhone’s excellent but limited offering, is fairly remarkable. For those interested in the tech specs, the camera is a 20.2 megapixel camera with a ‘CMOS-BSI’ sensor, and the small-but-powerful 32mm lens comes equipped with an f/1.8 aperture. For those not interested, the photos feel brighter, the foregrounds feel sharper, and the backgrounds feel full of that creamy, beautiful blur that, for many, defines a ‘professional’ photo.
The DxO’s app is just as important as the camera’s hardware. The app looks fairly similar to the iPhone’s own camera app, only loaded up with pro features. An array of customizable settings lines the left-hand side of the screen, and tapping any item yields the fine-grained controls you might expect: shutter-speed, aperture, ISO, exposure, focus controls, and white balance. Tap on any one of them and out pops another (semi-transparent) pane, which allows you to slide dials up and down to shoot the photo you desire.
The DxO’s software menu also allows you to set the camera in a variety of modes, taking both photo and video, with the former allowing for a variety of modes: ‘Auto’, ‘Scene Modes’ for sports, portraits, landscapes, and night, and the ‘Advanced Modes’ of program mode, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, or full manual. In the top-right corner of the screen, a settings menu can be opened to allow even further control. A user can choose either ‘single shot’ mode or a timer, whether or not to use the phone’s flash (I would suggest you don’t), JPEG, RAW, or ‘SuperRAW’, and much more. Helpfully, these settings allow you to set both a maximum ISO value and a maximum exposure time — settings I’ve desired but found missing from quite a few professional cameras I’ve used.
Once everything is set to your liking, each setting is helpfully displayed on screen. At the bottom of the screen you’ll find the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and an exposure meter, while at the top you’ll see your focus and white balance settings, along with a battery indicator. This is in addition to the DxO’s own small OLED display, which shows the device’s battery life, your chosen camera mode, shutter speed, aperture, JPG or RAW, and how many photos can be stored before the camera becomes full.
Speaking of storage, the photos can be stored on either the iPhone itself, a microSD card, or both (which I heartily recommend, as saving the photo can prove spotty on occasion), and pulling up the ‘camera roll’ will feel fairly similar to anyone who’s used to navigating the iPhone’s own photos app (though it lacks some of the finely-tuned details of Apple’s own software design).
For all the dials and customizable features, the DxO is a fairly minimal one-button affair. Users can choose to either use the software shutter on the iPhone’s screen or the single physical button on top of the device to start shooting. The lightning connector’s grip on your phone is slightly adjustable, allowing you to angle the display slightly up or down with a 45-degree angle. Disconnecting the DxO from the iPhone is handled smoothly, with the camera’s view disappearing and the camera roll being pulled up automatically. Turning the DxO itself off is as simple as it gets: simply slide the lens-cover shut, and the device powers down.
I would be remiss to talk about a camera in 2016 without talking about its ability to take a good selfie, and many will be overjoyed to hear that the DxO comes ready to assist you in taking a more beautiful front-facing photo. As the lightning connector works regardless of orientation, simply connecting the camera with the lens facing the user means that the device will be ready to go to take a picture of you and your friends.
The hardware itself is an understated and beautiful piece of technology. There’s no arguing that the design of the DxO One is inspired by Apple’s own iPhone 6. But the device is anything but a ripoff, feeling more like a love-letter to Jony Ive and company. The color of the top-half of the device is undeniably space gray, and the opposite half’s black side perfectly matches the iPhone’s front black glass screen.
The company name is listed in an understated manner on various sides of the camera, and in small print around the lightning connector reads the small note: ‘Designed by DxO in Paris and San Francisco’. A small red dot aligns with a black dot on the rotating-lightning port, ensuring that you don’t try to push the connector back in when it won’t fit if you’ve been using it in an adjusted mode.
For all of the simplicity of the camera, it’s still a piece of hardware, and a ‘first-try’ from DxO at that. Users will surely experience a glitch or two, and every step of the process would benefit from more speed and a more responsive feel. Turning the camera on, the DxO’s OLED display stays black for a very short but still disconcerting amount of time, making me constantly wonder if the device is dead after heavy shooting. That battery is, of course, one of the more unfortunate aspects of the small gadget, with the power running down quickly throughout a day of use.
The DxO One utilizes a power-saving mode to try to keep the user from running down the battery through carelessly keeping the camera open when it isn’t being used. However, even this can be a nuisance, with the camera often going to sleep when you’re waiting for the shot you desire. That being said, changing the ‘camera timeout’ from the default 30 seconds to two or five minutes should be enough for most people to keep from being frustrated time and time again.
The camera’s autofocus is fairly fast, but slower than some might be accustomed to. It can also be finicky, failing to properly focus in on your subject on occasion. The DxO’s manual focus is by no means bad, creating a small enhanced square in the center of the frame to allow for finer control, but I would imagine that most people will never use this setting and rely entirely on the camera’s ability to focus in.
Here are some sample images to give an idea of what the DxO One can do.
There is also no doubt that this device should be considered a full-fledged camera, and anyone hoping for a price-break because of the diminutive size will be heartily disappointed. With a cost of $479 at the time of writing, this is priced to compete with a high-end point-and-shoot, not a camera gadget. Though I think the price is worth it for the quality of the tech gained, the cost will likely bring the DxO One out of impulse buy range.
Apple recently announced major upgrades with its camera technology inside of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, but I would argue that, even still, the quality of photos from the DxO One is far and away better than anything the phone can produce on its own. Apple knows how important aperture is, and is going through great lengths to artificially create a low depth of field effect. I’ll be curious to see this develop in the future, but the fact remains that the iPhone’s small camera is simply not ideal for all situations, and DxO is here to help you capture the images that even the latest and greatest iPhone simply cannot.
On the whole, I find myself reaching for the DxO One surprisingly often — and even more pleasantly, I find my non-tech-loving wife doing the same. Never one to pick up a ‘full-fledged camera’, she happily pops the DxO One in her bag on a trip to the beach or while out with friends, and that may be the absolute best use-case for a camera like this.
Time and time again, I have heard friends and family complain about one of two things. Either they wished they had brought a better camera on their travels, or they wished they would have used the camera they brought along but ended up leaving behind in the hotel room due to its bulk and inconvenience.
If you’ve ever found yourself in one of these two situations, the DxO One might be a solid solution.