Giving Your iPhone (Or Any Mobile Phone) Some Zoom
While it may be okay to use the digital zoom in the iPhone 4 in an emergency situation, we all know that optical zoom works best with cameras. In the case with the iPhone or other mobile phones or cameras without any optical zoom, you may do better not touching the digital zoom and just crop the image later and/or enlarge the area of the photo you want to zoom into later on using photo editing software (be it on your desktop or your mobile device).
What if you want optical zoom on your iPhone? You don't have many choices. The device was simply not built for attaching optional lenses and what is out there, is a kludge at best. Be that as it may, you still have options when it comes to adding lenses to your iPhone camera. One such option is a product simply named, 'Mobile Phone Telescope' by... by... well, believe it or not, I don't know. There is no manufacturer or company name on the product, the packaging, or on the included printed instructions. (It is sold by GSI on Amazon. See below for link).
Suffice it to say it is not made by Nikon or Canon or any other name brand camera supplier you can think of, nor Apple or another tech or related gear company. It may be a no-name product, but it also has a no-name price tag. I got it for just under $20 on Amazon: HHI Universal 8X Camera Zoom Lens with Mini Tripod Kit for Mobile Phones and Smartphone (Free HandHelditems Sketch Universal Stylus Pen). *Note: Since this initial review was written, there has been a new version for the iPhone 4/4S phones that includes a case that the lens mounts onto which I would recommend over this one for iPhone users: 8X Camera Zoom Lens with Mini Tripod and Special Case (Amazon affiliate links).
In the above photo comparison, the left side is me standing on an outdoor deck looking at a blue birdhouse, the right side is me in the same position with the 'Mobile Phone Telescope' attached to my iPhone looking at the same birdhouse. No digital zooming at all was used.
As great as the Apple iPhone 4 camera is, I wanted something that could get me closer to the subject when "sneaker zoom" and digital zoom would not do. It's always best to use "sneaker zoom" - in other words, zoom using your feet by getting closer to your subject, but sometimes you simply can't do this if you are shooting wildlife (i.e. wild birds) or the moon for example.
Let's take a look at this no-brand "Mobile Phone Telescope" which as the name says, can be used on any mobile phone, but I purchased it for use with my iPhone, so this review is going to be from the iPhone user prospective.
We start with the positives:
It is only $20. Seriously, not too bad for what you get. What do you get? You get a small 8X F1.1 Mobile Telephone Lens, with one lens cap (for the rear end of the lens, not the front), and a 'multifunctional lens base' - multifunctional because it also gives you a tripod mount in that base (but no tripod is included).
The lens is 2.75 inches long (7 centimeters). 8x and F1.1. There is what appears to be a focusing ring, but it is hard to tell if it makes any difference. The iPhone has its auto-focus, so it will be focusing on the subject regardless of the position of where you have the lens focus... at least that seems to be my experience. With that said, focusing can be a little iffy with this lens. My advice is to take several shots adjusting the iPhone auto-focus with each to ensure that hopefully one has the subject matter as sharp as you would like it to be. The lens has a windowed gauge which is there to guide you with your focus. At least that is my assumption as the printed instructions does not even make mention of this gauge. There is a tiny notch in the gauge that you can hardly see which will move when you turn the focus of lens from 3m to infinity. So I would set it for the approximate distance my subject matter is from the lens. 3 meters for close subjects (it's not a macro lens, so you can rule out getting closer than 3 meters to your subjects with the lens on) and 10, 20, 30, 40 meters or infinity for subjects further away.
It comes with a mount for your phone. You will need to secure your lens to your phone somehow, and this mount enables that process. As an added bonus it comes with a tripod mount in it (a threaded socket for a tripod. There is a photo of it at the end of this article). Which is good because you may need it. Any time you are using a zoom on a camera, it increases the chances of getting a blurred image due to shaking. It's less of an issue when there is plenty of light, but when you enter lower light conditions, you will need a steady hand taking photos with this lens attached (due to longer exposure times).
In the photo to the upper right, is the lens base aligned to the iPhone's camera lens prior to attaching the telescope lens.
The lens base (mount) allows you to adjust and lock down the lens wherever your camera may be located on your phone. To attach the lens, you simply turn 'screw' it into the mount until it snaps into place (basically a little more than a 45 degree turn). Then you need to adjust the mount up and down and left and right to be sure the lens is centered over your camera lens on your phone.
It also comes with a lens cap for the rear of the lens. This is the lens that is more exposed than the front lens and is more likely to be scratched if left uncovered. So it's advantageous that they (whomever they are) included a lens cap. The front lens is deep enough insetted in the body of the lens that it is less likely to be scratched, but beware that doesn't stop dust and other debris from getting on it. Several images I took with the lens had visible debris or dust on the lens visible in them.
So overall as far as the positives go, it does what it sets out to do. It will give you an optical 8x zoom (non variable) to your mobile camera phone at a fairly inexpensive price. It is good for those situations when you need to get closer, but can not, and you rather not use the digital zoom.
Now the negatives:
First let me preface this by saying that this product was made to fit any mobile camera phone. It was not designed specifically for the iPhone. Some of the negatives is simply due to the iPhone's physical design.
So with that said, the first negative is what it takes to mount the lens on the iPhone with its camera all the way off in the corner. The lens base has to be positioned right over the camera lens on the phone and in the iPhone's case, that means dangling off the corner of the device. As opposed to another mobile camera phone where the camera may be located more in the center of the device. It makes for some awkward fumbling to get the base situated on the corner edge.
Because you have to place the base all the way on the edge of the iPhone, it means when using the tripod mount, your iPhone is going to be a bit unbalanced due to where the center of gravity falls when mounted to a mini tripod (I would imagine this would be less of an issue or probably a non-issue altogether when using a full-size tripod, but do you really want to carry a full size tripod with your iPhone?).
Also because you have to be on the very edge of the iPhone, it means the clamp part of the base will be pressing your volume controls on your iPhone. The instructions suggest using other side of the clamp that does not use as much space to avoid touching controls on your device, but this is not possible with the iPhone as the lens mount needs to slide out to center itself over the camera lens and that can only be done by using the base in the way which it will interfere with your volume controls of your iPhone. It's a good thing there aren't camera apps that uses the volume controls for camera functionality... at least not any more (Camera+). I've already noticed some wear on the rubber cushion of the clamp from it being against the metal buttons of the iPhone.
I am glad that the base does fit over my Apple Bumber case on the iPhone. Unlike another tripod mount I have the iPhone that requires me to take it off before using it. But be careful. You want to make sure that lens is flush with the iPhone, I noticed with the Bumper on, it can be askew. Perhaps this is what caused some 'tilt-shifting' in some of my tests with this lens.
In the photo to the upper left, notice the gap between the iPhone and the mount. This is unwanted, be sure to make it flush against the iPhone, especially if you are using a case like the Apple Bumper case. The photo to the right shows the iPhone flush against the lens base.
Also because of all the fumbling that goes on trying get the base on the phone, and then centering the lens over the camera on the iPhone, it may mean you will miss your shot. Today I was shooting something without the lens, but I had it my pocket. Suddenly a squirrel hopped along by about 15 feet away. If I had the lens on, it would had been a great shot, but I didn't. I also knew by the time I mounted the lens on the iPhone, the squirrel will be gone. Sure enough that was the case.
Perhaps of a more serious note than the mounting issues is the quality of the images with the lens on the iPhone. You can get some quality results, but as I said earlier, it may entail taking several shots and testing the focus. Also you want to be sure the lens is centered or you will see part of the lens housing in your shot.
See the photo to the left. The horizontal lines in the garage siding is slightly distorted (curved) towards the top and bottom of the image. The door and side of the garage (vertical lines) are distorted towards the top and bottom of the image as well.
The other issue is one of lens distortion. There is some lens distortion. Sometimes it is worse than others. I think if you take shot while moving the iPhone, you are more prone to it. You can see it the LCD display while moving the iPhone with the lens attached. I took a shot of a bird in flight in which I had quickly moved the iPhone to get the shot and you can see mass distortion in the background. I took another shot using the tripod with the iPhone obviously not in motion, and there is some distortion around the edges of the image. Keep your subject matter centered in the middle.
In the photo to the right, I tried to capture a bird in flight by quickly moving the iPhone and it resulted in severe distortion as you can see from the lines in the horizontal background. Also note the dust or debris visible on the lens above the bird feeder on the left.
In the photo to the left, the image of the birds nest in a tree is ruined by not having the lens base properly aligned to the center of the camera lens on the mobile phone. You may be able to crop it out later, but try to save yourself the trouble.
Remember, by attaching a lens of this type, it will reduce the amount of light getting into the iPhone camera lens. Not a real issue outside in the middle of the day, but as the sun sets, it is something to be aware of while shooting (resulting in grainer images in lower light).
The image to the right shows the tripod threaded socket on the lens base. This will fit any standard tripod. Though because of the positioning of the camera lens on the iPhone, it is a bit unstable on a mini tripod due to the weight distribution of the iPhone.
So even with the said limitations and problems, it's not a bad deal for only $20. An inexpensive tripod mount alone for the iPhone might cost half that or more. If you are aware of its limitations and only use it when you really need it, I think it is well worth the price. It's small enough to keep in a pocket. If you feel you have the need for an optical 'telescope' lens, go for it.
The following images were taken with the iPhone using the 'Mobile Phone Telescope' (on an iPhone 4).
All photos by Louis Trapani © 2011