Technology review: Smartphone cameras bring add-ons into focus

Ollo clip

Almost without realising it, most smartphone owners have potentially powerful digital cameras in their pockets. Now a wide range of new accessories, including add-on lenses, tripod mounts and remote shutter releases, are unlocking the full digital imaging potential of the handsets.

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Olloclip 4-in-1 Photo Lens (Rating 4/5)

The digital image sensor on Apple’s iPhone 5 and 5s models is not the most sophisticated on the market, at 8 megapixels, though still capable of taking good pictures and video clips. But I have been testing Olloclip’s new 4-in-1 photo lens, which aims to turn the iPhone camera into a much more versatile and enjoyable tool.

As its name implies, it comprises four new lens adaptors that slip over the top corner of the iPhone to cover the built-in lens. It costs $70 (£60 in the UK).

The new lens set keeps the fish-eye and wide-angle lenses from Olloclip’s 3-in-1 lens set, and adds two macro lenses for ultra close-ups by multiplying image size by 10x and 15x. I had great entertainment using the two macro lenses to take close-ups of snowflakes on the window pane, the fuzz on the ageing fabric of my jeans and the sharp end of a pin.

The Olloclip 4-in-1 itself is an ingenious package, which the company says is made of aircraft-grade aluminium and precision coated glass. The fish-eye lens on one side unscrews to reveal the 15x macro lens beneath, while on the other side, the wide-angle lens unscrews to expose the 10x macro lens.

The fish-eye lens is fun to use for both still and video photography, while the wide-angle lens is excellent for taking pictures of big objects or large groups of people in a tight space when you cannot step back enough to get a wide view.

Joby GripTight mount

Joby’s compact GripTight Mount

Two small plastic lens caps – which are, sadly, a bit too easy to lose – protect the glass lenses and the kit comes with a small pouch made of microfibre fabric that you can use to clean the lenses. An adapter enables the Olloclip to fit snugly on to the thinner fifth-generation iPod Touch.

In use, the Olloclip covers the iPhone’s on/off button but this does not really matter because you will only want to keep the Olloclip in place when taking pictures. More annoyingly, the Olloclip, like most competing lens kits, does not fit over any of the iPhone 5 cases, so I often left my protective case off – not a good idea for the accident-prone. Olloclip does, however, sell its own Quick-Flip case for $50 (£45) which has a corner that rotates out of the way to make room for the Olloclip lens and becomes a dedicated shutter release.

I like using a dslr (digital single-lens reflex) camera or a ruggedised point-and-shoot for taking pictures on holiday or if I want top quality images that can be blown up. But I had fun using the Olloclip 4-in-1 and recommend it for anyone who wants to experiment with iPhone photography for a relatively low cost.

Mefoto Sidekick

MeFoto’s more sophisticated SideKick360 smartphone adapter

While testing the Olloclip, I also realised the true value of table-top and full-size tripods because even the slightest camera shake is amplified by a macro lens adapter. Since smartphones generally do not have built-in tripod mounts, a tripod adapter is necessary too. My favourites include Joby’s compact GripTight Mount ($20/£13) with a flexible Joby table-top tripod, and MeFoto’s more sophisticated SideKick360
smartphone adapter, which costs $49 (available only in the US). Both screw on to a standard tripod and have adjustable arms to grip the phone. The SideKick360 can hold it in landscape or portrait mode and rotate through 360 degrees.

Another useful device is a remote shutter release that further reduces smartphone camera shake on a tripod: now you can take individual and group selfies without being a contortionist. I have been testing the Hisy wireless smartphone remote, which works via Bluetooth and, unlike many of its rivals, does not require a separate app. Costing $25 (available only in the US so far), it is very easy to use. Once paired with the iPhone or other smartphone, you just press the button in the middle to snap a picture.

Planet of the apps

What it is: Camera+, $1.99 for the iPhone, $4.99

Why you should try it: There are thousands of camera apps for the iOS devices, but Camera+ is one of the best. Not only does it have more features than most of the photography apps, it is also easy to use. The latest version launched recently includes a host of improvements and refinements that help users take better pictures, edit them and add special effects – and then manage and share them online.

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