If your smartphone doesn’t have a trio of lenses (like the iPhone 11 Pro), you might be tempted to purchase a snap-on set. These allow you to add telephoto, ultrawide, and fisheye focal lengths to virtually any smartphone camera. But are they worth the money, or should you upgrade your phone instead?
How Do Camera Lens Add-Ons Work?
Lens add-ons attach to your smartphone’s camera lens and increase or decrease its focal length. Most smartphones have at least one wide-angle lens. The one on the iPhone 11 is equivalent to about 26mm on a real camera, which is a bit wider than the human eye.
Lens add-ons can give you more photographic possibilities when your phone doesn’t have additional lenses built-in. Telephoto lenses might double or triple your focal length (and, thus, zoom level), while fisheye lenses are so wide, they cause straight lines in your shot to appear curved.
If you’re a fan of smartphone photography, aftermarket lenses allow you to go beyond what’s possible on your stock device. There are even some clip-on lenses you can mount to the front of your device to take super-wide selfies or make fisheye FaceTime calls.
At the cheaper end of the spectrum are the pocketable plastic lenses you can clip on or off, as necessary. It’s not unusual to find multiple lens options in the same clip-on system. You’ll find hundreds of these one-size-fits-all options on sites like Amazon, Wish, or AliExpress.
Then, there are the “professional” clip-on systems, made from more robust materials, like glass and metal. Some of these require a purpose-built case, which ensures the lens lines up properly and remains in place.
These pricier options can be much bigger than the simple clip-on lenses. Many of them also come with a carrying case and lens caps to keep them safe.
Finally, some mounting systems don’t come with lenses. Rather, they’re intended for use with SLR and mirrorless lenses from manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, and Sony. These only make sense if you already have an arsenal of lenses you want to use with your smartphone.
You can spend anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred on a lens add-on system. Unfortunately, none of them quite come close to a native, built-in telephoto or ultrawide lens, like those on the latest and greatest smartphones.
Snap-On Lenses Have Limitations
A camera lens add-on is only as good as your smartphone’s primary camera lens. That is to say, any images that pass through a lens add-on must also pass through the existing lens on that Apple or Samsung (insert the manufacturer of your device here) phone.
This is a stark difference to a mirrorless or digital SLR camera system. When you change the lens on a modular camera, you’re swapping out the only piece of glass in front of the sensor. So, the image quality is as good as this lens allows.
If your smartphone’s camera is already of questionable quality, a lens add-on isn’t going to clean up the images—even if you spend a lot of money. Expect the same soft details around the edges, and glare or flares in places you don’t want them.
Adding to this, a smartphone camera is also bound by the core limitation of its sensor. The sensor ultimately governs image quality by limiting how much light can make it into a single exposure. Larger sensors, like those found on full-frame cameras, have much better native low-light performance. They also offer more overall detail, since a greater surface area is used to capture a scene.
Another drawback of lens add-ons is their size—some of the larger ones protrude significantly. Smartphones are often favored by street photographers due to their inconspicuous nature. If you slap a lens on the back of it, you lose the reason so many embrace smartphone-photography in the first place.
Lens Add-Ons Have Legitimate Uses
By now, you’re probably thinking lens add-ons are a waste of time and money, but that’s not necessarily the case. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
Cheap clip-on lenses are a lot of fun, and many of them are priced accordingly. You won’t be winning Wildlife Photographer of the Year, but you might snap some fun images you can look back on in years to come.
If you’re fond of the lo-fi aesthetic or own a Holga camera, you’ll probably love the inconsistencies you get from shooting with a cheap clip-on lens.
Apple has made a play to convince people they can shoot high quality film like videos on their phone.
Their latest Shot on iPhone (XS) campaign features Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs taping his teammate Mitch Marner. Airs tonight in US and Canada. pic.twitter.com/DypX3kWLow
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) April 10, 2019
Some smartphones and tablets (particularly the iPhone and iPad) are used for filmmaking. Entire indie films have been shot and produced with iPhones, while other filmmakers use tablets, like the iPad Pro, to capture B roll and cutaways. A broader range of focal lengths can only expand these horizons.
This also applies to livestreaming—after all, there’s no easier way to broadcast video on the internet than with your smartphone.
You Get What You Pay for
The cheapest lens add-ons are made from plastic. Because they aren’t glass like real lenses, images will be soft and glare will pose an issue. Plastic is also soft and tends to damage quite easily, which will further reduce image quality.
Some of the cheapest lenses might even interfere with autofocus, especially if you’re trying to focus on a subject toward the edge of the frame. The image will always be sharpest in the middle. Plastic is also a bad choice for overall image quality, contrast, and color reproduction.
The more expensive lenses are made of glass and metal. The best will have little to no effect on image quality, while some of the midrange options might be a little soft, particularly around the edges. Systems with tailor-made cases ensure the lens won’t move around or slip, and ergonomic grips are designed with shooting in mind.
One of the longest-running smartphone lens manufacturers is Olloclip. The company’s latest offerings also use high-quality glass and metal construction, but at a steeper price than previous products. A basic clip and lens will run you around $100, while a set of three lenses and a clip is just shy of $200.
Arguably, the best lenses available for smartphones are made by Moment. They’re made of high-quality materials to ensure the best possible image quality. You’ll pay at least $70 per lens, with mounting brackets and cases costing more.
Perhaps the best solution is to use adapters for existing 35mm lenses, although they’re incredibly unwieldy when loaded up with anything larger than a simple kit lens. Since smartphones are light and thin, there’s nothing to counterbalance the heft of a full-size lens barrel. However, the image quality is unparalleled, and a tripod makes shooting much easier.
You can get an EnCinema SLR Lens Adapter Kit for between $80 and $300, depending on which mount and adapters you need. There’s also the Beastgrip iPhone rigging system that allows you to mount a range of lenses (including the smaller, purpose-built kind).
These systems might belong in the pocket of someone who wants to use a smartphone for production work, livestreaming, gonzo journalism, or even independent filmmaking.
Apps Can Provide Big Benefits, Too
Sometimes, all you need to make your smartphone photography shine is the right app. A proper “manual” camera app that provides control over things like aperture (depth of field), ISO, and exposure time can yield great results if you know how to use it. You can learn to use your smartphone manually or, for even better results, how to shoot in RAW.
Similarly, for filmmakers, apps like FiLMiC Pro (iOS, Android) can unlock the full potential of your camera in a way stock apps cannot. FiLMiC Pro can be used to control camera parameters manually, pull focus, record at higher-than-stock bitrates, set custom white balance, and more. These apps are cheap compared to the price of a fancy lens set.
Finally, there’s also something to be said for using stock camera apps with built-in ultrawide lenses. Smartphones like the iPhone 11 apply image correction to remedy visual distortions introduced by wide focal lengths (like curved straight lines). This is another reason your device’s built-in lenses are almost always your best choice.