Going beyond the iPhone camera - testing out some additional lens options

The iPhone 7 Plus has an excellent camera. But can we make it better?

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Is the iPhone 7 Plus's dual-lens telephoto camera the right one for me?

Image: Apple

My quest for a phone with decent photographic capabilities, something I thought I had completed with the now obsolete Lumia 1020, continues.

In its latest swerve, following advice from photographer friends, it's taken me to the iPhone 7 Plus, with its dual-lens telephoto.

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I'd experimented with dual lens last year, looking at the Huawei P9, which used different sensors behind each lens to mix black and white and color imaging. Apple, too, is using different camera modules, but with a different aim: one for standard wide angle photography, and one for telephoto, replacing the familiar digital zoom with a hybrid that mixes optical and digital. It's also able to use the two lenses to give you synthetic depth of field effects for portraits, though this mode is still in beta.

One experiment I've been trying out is using additional lenses to go beyond the standard features of my phone.

Results have been mixed, and it appears to be best to avoid universal lenses, designed to support more than one type of phone. They may be jacks of all photographic trades, but they're clearly the masters of none.

I took a selection of different lenses and lens kits on a walk on a cold winter afternoon, down by the River Thames. It was crisp, clear and sunny, ideal weather for photography. Playing with the iPhone 7 Plus' native camera modes I was quickly impressed with the results - right down to using the hybrid 10x digital zoom to get surprisingly good photographs of aircraft on approach to Heathrow airport.

PNY 4-in-1 Lens Kit

PNY's 4-in-1 lens kit seemed to be a good idea. A set of magnetic lenses could be used with either a clip or with stick-on magnetic fittings that could be added to any phone or case. Sadly, however, despite reasonably good optics, for me the lenses were let down by PNY's choice of fitting technology.

First I tried them out using the magnetic fittings on a Lumia 950XL, as the lens pre-dated the iPhone 7 and its camera module, and so didn't have suitable magnets. Here the glue used to stick the magnetic ring to the phone quickly failed, with the ring slipping off-center. Initially I wondered if this was due to the materials used by Microsoft, but I had the same problem with a second ring on a Samsung Android phone.

After that poor start, I decided to try using the clip fitting. Resembling giant clothes peg, it's intended to clip over your phone, securing a lens to the camera. Unfortunately, that means it's also covering some of your screen - and on the iPhone 7 Plus it's covering some of the on-screen camera controls.

I was able to take a few photos, though the clip made it hard to ensure the lens was centered over the phone's camera. Problems ensued when I tried to change lenses; the magnetic ring on one lens coming un-glued and remaining stuck to the clip's magnet. That made it impossible to use other lenses -- and back in the office it took two of us and a selection of different tools to remove the magnet from the clip.

The Wandle via PNY wide angle lens

A photograph of the Thames and the Wandle taken with PNY's wide angle lens. Sadly it's let down by poor fit due to a hard to control lens mount clip.

Image: Simon Bisson

The overall impression of PNY's offering was disappointing. While image quality was reasonable, it was hard to position the lens clip correctly, and the failure of the lens magnet after just a couple of uses made it hard to trust PNY's choice of connector.

Telephoto lens adapter

I also bought (for about $17, which should have been warning enough!) what was described as a telephoto lens with a universal adapter. It's a common kit, and you'll find it on most of the Chinese gadget websites.

When my parcel finally arrived, what I actually received was, yes, an adapter that fitted my phone and allowed me to connect what turned out to be a monocular. It was hard to tighten, and the pads that held it onto the phone managed to cover various controls on most of the hardware I tried it with.

To make things worse, the lens was held on with a friction grip, and as soon as you tried to tighten it, the adapter would shift away from the phone camera.

Chinese smartphone zoom kit

An unwieldy adapter and what turned out to be a cheap monocular make this Chinese smartphone zoom kit utterly useless.

Image: Simon Bisson

The result was an unwieldy and awkward hybrid that ended up more often than not with the monocular falling off, or the adapter shifting so it wasn't lined up with the phone lens. All-in-all it was a failure. When it "worked", the result was a fuzzy, awkward image, with a lot of black as it didn't match the aperture of the phone camera.

Still, I now have a small telescope.

Olloclip

Way back when, the last time I had an iPhone, I had a set of Olloclip lenses that fitted over the phone to give me a macro, fish-eye, and ultra-wide angle lenses. The folk at Olloclip have continued to work with their lenses, and sent me a set for the iPhone 7 to try out.

Olloclip lens kit

Olloclip's iPhone 7 kit comes on a neat carabiner holder that doubles as a pocket tripod.

Image: Simon Bisson

Compared to the other lenses I tried out, these were superb. A well-designed clip carefully placed them over both front and rear cameras on my 7 Plus, making sure that they were in the right place to use the default camera. The lenses are reversible, so you can flip them to work with the 7 Plus' telephoto lens, ideal if you're using one of a new generation of camera apps that can address the iPhone's dual cameras separately.

Olloclip's core lenses comprise a ultra-wide angle, a fisheye, and a macro lens. Alternate options add a 2x telephoto or a set of macro lenses for close-up work. The default core set is more than enough for most users, and come with a simple tripod that doubles as a lens carrier with a carabiner. The ultrawide gives you 120 degree views, while the fisheye expands the camera field of view to nearly 180 degrees.

Three shots of Wandsworth Park and the Thames.

Three images of the same section of Wandsworth Park and the Thames: (a) Olloclip ultra-wide angle (b) Olloclip fisheye (c) iPhone 7 Plus camera without add-on lenses.

Image: Simon Bisson

I rather enjoyed playing with the 15x macro. Its compressed field of view allowed for interesting effects, while it let me zoom into the tiny landscapes in the moss on a wall or to explore the surface of a PC. All you need to do is unscrew the fisheye lens, and you're ready to go.

Macro image of moss on a wall

An Olloclip 15x Macro shot of moss on a wall.

Image: Simon Bisson

This isn't the cheapest solution, but it is one of the most effective. My only caveat is that it works best without a case, so if you prefer to keep your phone protected at all times you'll have to wait for Olloclip to bring out a new version of its case for the iPhone 7, currently due to ship in March.

So the Olloclip lenses remain in my jacket pocket, ready to go wherever I go. They're light, easy to carry, easy to fit accurately, and above all, work extremely well. That's my photographic needs sorted, all that's left is to spend time exploring the various photographic apps in Apple's Store.

Read more about the iPhone 7 Plus

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