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Olloclip, iPro lenses for iPhone are great camera accessories

My usual Bates Hall test shot using iPhone's built-lens.

My usual Bates Hall test shot, using the iPhone's built-in lens.

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Updated: March 14, 2012 11:12AM

Recently, Nikon announced their new D800 SLR. It boasts image quality similar to those of medium-format film cameras and a resolution of 36.2 megapixels. That’s unprecedented in any camera that wasn’t designed to be operated by a spy satellite.

But hey! Your phone’s camera is pretty darn good, too. Really! There’s absolutely no need for you to feel inadequate in any way.

Yes, I’m being sarcastic. You’d have to be some sort of replicant to read the specs of the D800 and not start leaking bodily fluids from your head at a prodigious rate, wouldn’t you? There’s a widespread argument that phone cameras are so good that the standalone camera will inevitably become extinct. What nonsense! Camera sales are indeed declining but I think that’s simply the result of consumers offloading a popular form of picture-taking — the casual, careless snapshot — to a different device. Despite steady and significant improvements, phone cameras still only thrive under those kinds of shooting situations in which expectations are low and the photos aren’t really that important.

Put it this way: twenty years from now, when your daughter is looking at the photo you took with your Blackberry at her first soccer game, do you want her to snort and think “Yeah, I think it’s great that my Mom was willing to spend five seconds taking a distant, poorly-exposed low-resolution picture of my goal before she switched her attention back to the messaging app”?

Your failure to bring the heavy weaponry to life’s extra-special moments will instill in your child the kind of deep-seated resentment that inevitably leads to a lower-back tattoo. I have your best interests and those of your children in mind.

Okay. I needed to get that off my chest. I am now spiritually cleansed, and fully prepared to write about a couple of nifty wide-angle lens kits for the iPhone 4 series. Cameraphones have many physical limitations and it’s the lack of a wide-angle option that probably hurts your photos the most. The iPhone’s LED flash is weak, but it’s better than nothing; the lack of a grip with a mechanical button is a matter of comfort, not necessity; and in low-light environments you can steady a phone against a solid object if you can’t mount it on a tripod.

Even the lack of a telephoto lens isn’t terribly heartbreaking. It’s always possible to crop the picture down or even (*gahh*) use the digital zoom to fill the frame with your subject.

But you really do need a wide-angle lens. If you can’t fit the entire scene or the entire group of people inside the live preview and you’ve backed away as far as you can go, you’ve only got one solution left. You have to start asking people to step out of the frame. Congratulations: you’ve just turned a lovely birthday dinner into some kind of reality show in which four of your friends receive roses and the rest walk away from the camera crying and screaming.

I’ve spent a couple of weeks playing with Schneider Optics’ iPro lens kit and the Olloclip. They’re both very good and worthy of a recommendation. They’re just designed for two different kinds of photography.

The lenses

The iPro is designed much like a conventional interchangeable lens system. The kit includes a wide-angle lens and a fisheye that provides a circular 160-degree view. They’re bayonet-style lenses: they click firmly into a mount on a special case that your iPhone needs to wear. When the lenses aren’t in use, they stow safely inside a screw-together cylinder that’s sturdy enough to protect them against any degree of abuse. The cylinder also screws into the iPhone case and can serve as a handle (to stabilize video), or provide a standard tripod mount.

The Olloclip is clever as a mongoose. In your hand, you can easily mistake it for a tiny monocular. It looks like a pair of lenses pointed in opposite directions and separated by a narrow gap. Click the Olloclip onto a corner of your iPhone (for best results, choose the corner with the camera lens in it) and the Olloclip holds on securely. One side of the Olloclip is a wide-angle lens which doubles the iPhone’s natural field of view. To shoot fisheye images, pull the Olloclip off and flip it around.

And the Olloclip has a third trick: if you unscrew the wide angle lens and expose its rearmost lens element, you can shoot macro photos at 10x magnification, from less than an inch away from the subject.

The Olloclip and the iPro work with any iPhone 4 or 4S. You’ll need to adapt a little, however. Neither of them allow you to use your own phone case and the Olloclip fits so snugly around the iPhone that an unusually thick screen protector will get in its way.

Both kits take decent photos and they’re well-built. Unlike other kits, these lenses present themselves as true optical components instead of cheap plastic image effects.

That said, any add-on lens that’s designed to sit in front of a camera’s built-in optics has unavoidable limitations compared with one that can focus directly onto an image sensor. The iPro and the Olloclip create photos in which there’s a central disc of clarity surrounded by a vignette of ever-worsening soft focus. The effect was barely noticeable when I shot a close subject (such as a tea tray that had been set right in front of me) but it prevented me from taking satisfying photos of broad landscapes and exciting interior spaces. It didn’t matter whether I was shooting indoors in sunlight, or if I steadied my iPhone on a tripod: the edges of the scene were always too soft.

(For those majestic scenes, your best bet is still to make a composite of individual photos with an app like AutoStitch Panorama from Cloudburst Research.)

Which works best?

Which kit takes better pictures? It depends on your priorities. The photos I shot with the Olloclip tended to have a wider disc of sharp focus than the ones I shot with the iPro. But iPro’s photos show far less barrel distortion; straight lines were consistently straighter.

And which one is more convenient in actual operation? It’s another split decision. The Olloclip is a snap to use. Click it on, click it off. Want to switch from the wide-angle to the fisheye? Flip it around. Done. I was also pleased with the Olloclip’s dual lenscaps, which allowed me to walk with the lenses attached to my iPhone without worrying overmuch about smudging or scratching the lenses.

When I used the iPro, I wished I had three hands as I transferred lenses between the storage handle to the phone and back. And maybe I don’t want to keep my iPhone inside a plastic case all the time, you know? The iPro’s case fits so tightly that it discouraged me from removing it until I knew for sure I wouldn’t be using the lenses again for the rest of the day.

But that’s the iPro’s advantage as well. The case is locked onto the phone and the lens is locked onto the case. It’s just not possible to ever bump the lens out of alignment and ruin a shot. The Olloclip clicks on tightly and never showed the slightest hint of falling off . . . but if you’re not careful you can nudge it just slightly off. Naturally, I encountered that issue as I shot videos, which is when I tend to be moving around and adjusting my grip on the camera as I shoot.

The Olloclip as a terrific choice for “casual accessory” use. It’s for those moments when you wish you could get the whole group into the photo or the video, or the whole Thanksgiving table into your Instagram shot. The iPro is for people who shoot with a job or a purpose in mind. If you shoot and post lots of video from the iPhone, the iPro is exactly what you want.

The prices of these lens kits certainly support that “casual/purposeful” conclusion: the Olloclip is $69 and the iPro kit will run you $199.

I plan to keep right on mocking those people who insist that standalone cameras are becoming extinct. But that said, the iPhone 4S camera continues to make me very, very happy. Last year, I shot two family Christmas card photos with it. Ideally I would have used a “real” camera for something so important, but the only camera I had at hand when the two Decisive Moments arrived was my iPhone. And though the photos could have been better, they were certainly good enough.

That’s the Win of the cameraphone: you can take a decent photo even if you didn’t plan ahead.

Okay, but if you can remember to slip an accessory lens into your pocket before you leave the house . . . why not remember to slip a real camera in there instead? Well, because unlike a standalone camera, an accessory lens is perfectly happy to stand by in your bag or alongside your car keys for days and weeks without demanding to be recharged.

Plus, I’ll grudgingly admit that phone pictures have become a distinct category of photography. In public places, your phone offhandedly says “No biggie, I just want to take a casual little snapshot of this beautiful plate of sushi before I move on.” Whereas a an SLR or even merely a decent pocket camera yells “I AM TAKING PHOTOS. YES, EVERYBODY, PLEASE NOTE THAT PHOTOS ARE BEING TAKEN HERE, NOW, BY ME, THE PHOTOGRAPHER WHO DECIDED TO BRING A CAMERA IN HERE.”

This often leads to negative interactions with the venue’s staff, your friends, and otherwise disinterested bystanders.

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