I’m always looking for a new way to take pictures. For the longest time, the only camera I needed was my trusty-but-bulky Canon DSLR. This meant I had to sling a bag of lenses on my shoulder, and at the end of a day I’d come home with a card full of RAW files and have to slog through a few hours of editing.
When I bought a Fujifilm X100S, a powerful compact with a DSLR-sized sensor inside, it became the only camera I wanted to carry around. Then I got an iPhone 6, which had a camera that was finally good enough to make me want to leave those other cameras at home. I started modifying it with various lens attachments, and editing and sharing on the fly in apps like VSCO Cam and Darkroom.
Now, my usual photo workflow includes a little bit of everything. I’ll shoot with my phone when it’s convenient — but my favorite way to take, edit, and post pictures is to use a camera with Wi-Fi or an EyeFi card, sending photos over to my phone for editing and sharing. But this process is often slow and unruly, and I’ve been looking for something better. If I can scratch together $599, I think I’ve found it.
This is DxO's first hardware, and it's great
DxO, a company best known for developing a rating system for image sensors, made a camera to solve just this problem. It’s called the DxO One, and it plugs right into any Apple device with a Lightning port. It’s the company’s first attempt at hardware, and I hope it’s not the last, because it’s rather exceptional.
The One is a rounded-off rectangle that measures about 1 inch wide by just under 3 inches tall, and it weighs less than an average smartphone. There’s a tiny OLED touchscreen on the back (for switching between shooting photos and videos), along with a trap door for charging and the microSD card. On the front there’s a sliding lens cover that, when pulled down, turns the camera on.
On top of the camera is the two-stage shutter button. It’s springy, but it gets the job done. And on the left side of the DxO One is a swiveling Lightning connector that flips out when you pull the lens cover down all the way to the bottom of the camera.
Using the Lightning port is a big part of the DxO One’s appeal because it saves you all the steps of transferring images from your camera to your device. To start, the DxO One app will automatically open as soon as you plug in the camera. (You do have to be on the home screen, though.) As you’re shooting, the camera gives you a live, high-definition feed of what it’s seeing, and will serve up the pictures you take in real time, just like any other digital camera.
The ability to work through the Lightning port makes the One a very convenient camera to use, but the physical connection feels a little loose. It’s fine when you have both hands on, say, your phone and the camera, but shooting with the One by just gripping the camera is a dangerous act. On my first day with the camera I was being a little too confident with it, and when I turned my phone the camera slipped right out and rattled around on the floor. (The good news is the DxO One can, apparently, withstand at least one drop of about 5 feet.)
The DxO One is a photographic powerhouse, considering its size. Inside the housing is an f1.8 lens that is sharp and great for low light photography, and it has a minimum focusing distance of just 20 centimeters. It has a battery that will last you more than 200 shots, or a few hours of heavy use. But what really makes the DxO One unique is it uses a 1-inch sensor. The camera is hardly bigger than a GoPro, and yet it has the same size sensor as what’s found in the Sony RX100, or in Nikon’s J1 and V1 cameras, or about two and a half times the size of the sensor in an iPhone 6.
The DxO One is capable of shooting 20.2 megapixel DNG raw and JPEG images, as well as 1080p video. (It can even shoot slow motion at 120 frames per second, although it’s limited to 720p.) Since Apple devices can’t display DNG or RAW format images, the camera will flash a JPEG preview on your device so that you can review what you shot. These can take a second or two to render, however, which slows down the whole experience and could cause you to miss moments — especially if you’re trying to capture something that’s moving fast. (DxO says a burst mode of about 8 frames per second is coming in a software update.) And whichever format you shoot in, the camera defaults to saving a JPEG on your phone every time you take a picture, but you can — and probably should — change this.
Even with those limitations in mind, shooting with the DxO One was some of the most fun I’ve had taking pictures in recent memory. A lot of that comes from being able to just throw the camera in my pocket — any pocket, really. (This thing even fits comfortably in a shirt pocket.) Not only was it always on me, I didn’t hesitate to bring it with me on a long bike ride, when I normally would have thought twice about slinging a camera around my neck. The fun also comes from the ways you can shoot. Much like cameras with tilting LCD touchscreens, you don’t have to exclusively use the One at eye level. Because the lightning connector can pivot about 60 degrees in either direction, you can hold your device and the DxO One as low as your belt or as high as your arms will reach and still be able to line up a shot.
This made it particularly great for street photography. My favorite thing to do with the DxO One was to carry it at the hip and shoot as I walked through the streets of New York City. You can even use the camera when it’s not plugged into a device, if you want to be really inconspicuous with your shooting. The camera’s 32mm equivalent focal length is wide enough that it’s hard to miss your target, even if you’re shooting blind, but isn’t so wide that it’s hard to make out what you were targeting. Each day I was able to take (great) photos walking to, from, and even on the subway that I never would have bothered to attempt with most other cameras.
Where the DxO really shines is when you’re shooting a subject close up, particularly in low light. The f1.8 lens does such a good job separating subjects from the background that photos at this aperture really pop. But if there’s one issue I have with the image quality it’s that the camera’s software removes too much noise during the conversion to JPEG. I’m fine with this in extreme low light situations — a handful of shots I took at a bar at ISO 10,000 were far better than anything I could have gotten on my phone — but when it happens at lower ISO speeds, the effect is unpleasant and makes otherwise sharp images look a little bit muddy. (The camera also offers a mode called "SuperRAW," which is a proprietary format that uses four separate raw images to reduce noise in low light.)
On the left, a raw DNG file shot at ISO 10,000. On the right, the compressed JPEG that the DxO One processed and sent to my phone.
While the hardware is great, the DxO One would be pretty useless without decent software. But the app that DxO has made is excellent, and would be one of the best-designed photo apps on iOS even without the camera accompanying it. Settings such as ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and exposure bias are all quickly accessible on the left side of the screen, while small bubbles on the right give you access to the different PSAM modes and things like flash control. It's fast and simple, and there's more on the way here as well — DxO says features like manual focus will be added down the road.
From the app, to the image quality, to the ease of use, I was really floored by how much fun I had with the DxO One. But in the end, it’s probably not going to disrupt how I take most of my photos, and it’s hard to see how it could disrupt anyone else’s. It’s a device that’s really made for photo enthusiasts like myself, but at $599, even most enthusiasts will have to think twice about making a purchase.
In fact, that amount of money would get me a long way toward upgrading my X100S to something with faster, built-in Wi-Fi, a bigger sensor than the DxO One, and maybe even some lenses to play with. If you’ve been trying to find the right balance between extreme portability and great image quality, this might be the perfect camera for you. But mirrorless cameras keep getting smaller, and it won’t be long before phone cameras catch up. Hopefully by then, we’ll have an even better, cheaper DxO Two.