More Topics

Improving my iPhone photos with ShiftCam's lens case

ShiftCam's tracked-lens fittings make adding extra capabilities to an iPhone camera a snap.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

I used to carry a pocket camera everywhere I went. For many years it was a 110 Instamatic camera that came free when collecting enough cans of fizzy pop. Then it was a classic 35mm pocket camera, before I switched to my final film format APS. When digital came along I was a quick convert, using Casio, Canon, Ricoh, and Nikon devices for when a DSLR was too big. It was easy to throw a small camera in my backpack and be ready for anything. 

That was a long time ago. I can't remember when I stopped carrying those cameras with me, though I do remember writing an app to take MMS messages sent to an email address and turn them into blog posts back in 2003. Phones quickly replaced traditional cameras and, as they got better, became a regular part of my documenting the world around me. I've written many thousands of words over the years about the computational photography techniques they use to get the most out of their sensors, and about additional lens kits that take the phone camera in new directions.

SEE: Top 10 iPad tips (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

I recently picked up an iPhone 11, as it had been a while since I'd looked at a modern iOS device. It might not be the top end iPhone, but its two camera lenses give you a reasonable set of options, with a standard lens for most photographs and a wide-angle lens for landscapes. Combined with iOS's machine-learning powered image stacking and with its various built-in processing tools, the iPhone quickly became my pocket photography companion. 

As always, however, I wanted more. So when I got the chance to look at ShiftCam's lens system, I decided to give it a go. I started with the 3-in-1 multi-lens case, which comes with the guiderails needed to add additional pro-quality lenses.

ShiftCam lens case

The ShiftCam 3-in-1 lens fitted to the case.

Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

ShiftCam takes an interesting approach to working with the iPhone's multi-camera array. Where other systems have awkward clips that need to be aligned to each lens as needed, ShiftCam starts with a phone case, with a cut-out around the camera bump. Guiderails with stop bumps accept the bundled lens array or any other of ShiftCam's lens carriers. 

ShiftCam mounting rails

The mounting rails for the ShiftCam lens modules are built into the case.

Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

The £79.99 basic 3-in-1 set for the iPhone 11 contains two lenses for the iPhone's default 12MP wide angle lens: a 180 degree fisheye and a 10x macro. The third lens in the set is actually a circular polariser for the ultra-wide lens, which should help with landscape photography on bright days. They slide over the camera module, clicking into place. You can leave the lens slider in place, as a cover protects the lenses. 

Using a fisheye

ShiftCam's fisheye lens really extends the field of view.

Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

It's a good, easy design to use. I found myself using the macro lens more than the others; with London under lockdown I've not had the opportunity for much photography beyond the plants and insects on the roof terrace. However, quality is good, with the click-to-place slider making sure that the lenses are aligned with the phone camera module. There's no fiddling with adapters, just slide the lens into a place, and take the photograph.

Using a macro lens

Using the 10x macro.

Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

The polarising filter sits over the ultra-wide lens and has a knurled rim. Rotate it to change the angle of the polariser to get the best effect when photographing landscapes. You can use it to improve contrast on brightly lit objects, and to reduce reflections in water or windows. It'll also give interesting effects when photographing LCD screens.

SEE: iPhone 11 Pro review: Apple scores near perfect 10, thanks to battery life, cameras and phenomenal performance

ShiftCam's lenses are a useful extension to your iPhone's capabilities, especially when you start experimenting with ultra-closeup macro photography. The iPhone's large screen makes it easier to choose where to focus, and you can quickly get very good results.

The basic lens sliders can be extended with a set of professional quality lenses, the ProLens series, with excellent optics. These work with both the front camera using a bundled adapter and the main rear camera module.

Comparing a ProLens and the standard lens module

The ShiftCam ProLens is a lot bigger than the standard module.

Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

I was sent the £84.99 10x macro lens, which while it has the same magnifying qualities as the default slider lens, has a much better focal length and depth of field, and a useful hood that can help control the items you're photographing. Bring a flower into the hood on a windy day or use it to stop an insect getting away from your lens. I've found it a good guide to where to put my phone for the best shot, and it helped me capture some of my best bug shots, on invertebrates trapped in the bath (one of the delights of living in a Victorian home). As it's a macro lens I didn't try it out with the front camera; I'm not really tempted to take selfies of the inside of my nose!

Plume moth macro

A macro image of a plume moth on a rainy window.

Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

To be honest, it's been a lot of fun tracking down various beasties to photograph without leaving the house; from moths to centipedes and spiders. Not to mention the tiny 'zillas on my desk!

The lens screws into a slider with fittings for both iPhone 11 cameras. I found it worked best with the standard wide-angle camera. Slide out the default lens set, slide in the ProLens carrier, and start shooting. Along with the macro lens there's a long-range macro, a telephoto, wide angle, and aspherical options. They're not cheap but are well worth considering for advanced phone photography.

Godzilla minifigs

The ProLens 10x macro has a better depth of field than the default. 

Image: Simon Bisson/ZDNet

I've been impressed with the ShiftCam system. It's easier to use than my previous choice, and the case-based approach ensures that there's no fiddling with lens positions. It's simply a matter of slide, click, and shoot. If you're chasing a spider around a small roof terrace, it's a lot easier than the alternatives and you've got a much better chance of taking the shot.

After all, that's all that matters: getting the picture you want, when you want it.

Editorial standards