The iPhone 6 is, of course, a phone. It’s a computer in your pocket. And it actually has a very good camera. The photo and video capabilities of the 6 are quite a step up from previous models. It has remarkably good image quality, along with burst mode shooting, 240fps high speed video, and a panorama mode. Apps can extend the functionality in some very interesting ways. And then there's all those filters. It's no wonder that iPhone photography (or iPhoneography) is exploding in popularity and stock agencies like Alamy are looking to develop the market.
But one limitation of having such a small camera is that the lenses are fixed. In regular photo mode, it’s roughly equivalent to a 30mm lens on a full-frame DSLR. (It's equivalent to a longer focal length in video mode because it uses a tighter crop, in part to allow extra room for stabilization.) Yes, it's possible to do digital zoom, but that's functionally the same as cropping and discards valuable sensor resolution. So what do you do if you want to use, say, a wide-angle lens or get in closer to the action with a telephoto?
You can't swap out the iPhone's lens, but you can snap on lenses over the top. The OlloClip is one popular option I've previously reviewed. ExoLens has now come out with a new alternative, pitching itself as professional series lenses.
The ExoLens Exo 6 is designed specifically for the iPhone 6, and it won't work with other models (including the iPhone 6 Plus). It consists of two lenses: an ultra wide-angle lens that captures a 165° view and a 4X telephoto. There's a lightweight exoskeleton bracket to hold the lens securely in place. There's no need to use a special app or make any other adjustments, and the lenses work in all the regular photo and video modes on the iPhone 6.
I've been putting the ExoLens for iPhone through it's paces out and about in Washington DC. So here's my hands-on review.
What the Lenses Do
To give a quick illustration of what the new lenses do, here's a shot with the regular iPhone 6 camera without the ExoLens.
This is with the ExoLens wide-angle lens.
And this is with the ExoLens telephoto lens.
Here's another example. This is the standard iPhone 6 view.
This is with the wide-angle lens.
And with the telephoto.
As you can see, both lenses offer fields of view that are significantly different to the built-in iPhone lens.
Using the ExoLens system is very easy. There's no need to fiddle with tools, and there's really only two parts: the bracket that slides over the iPhone and a lens that attaches to it. In seconds, you're good to go.
The bracket isn’t tiny—it fits over about half the surface area of the back of the iPhone—an exoskeleton—but it is solidly made of machined aluminum, and cutouts keep it lightweight. It fits snugly—they’ve clearly put a lot of effort into making the fit right. But it's important to note that it won't work with your case.
In a nice touch, the bracket includes a 1/4" socket in the bottom so you can attach it a tripod, suction cup, rotating timer for timelapse, or anything else with a 1/4 inch thread. It's essentially an integrated tripod mount.
There are special cutouts in the frame so that you can still use all the phone's buttons. One thing you can't use is the flash--the bracket covers that over.
The lenses screw into the bracket. They’re solid and well made with glass elements and an aluminum lens barrel. Together, the combination locks tightly and feels solid while still being lightweight.
The kit includes a lens hood for the telephoto lens, as well as front and back lens caps. There's also a small pouch that will fit the lenses but not the frame.
Wide-Angle Lens in Action
The wide-angle lens has a 165° field of view, which is much wider than the built-in iPhone lens. That has all sorts of interesting applications, whether you just want to include to include more information in the photo or set up dramatic perspectives.
In a lens this wide, barrel distortion is pretty much par for the course. The effect is that straight lines are bowed, with the effect being exaggerated as you get closer to the edges of the frame. Barrel distortion isn't not necessarily a problem, and can even be a virtue, but it's definitely there. The lines in this photo, for example, are straight in real life but curve quite a lot.
There's also what I'd consider a more serious issue of blurriness at the edges of the frame. This is also pretty much inevitable with a lens that's being snapped on over another tiny lens. Other snap-on lenses like the OlloClip also have this issue. While the center of the frame is sharp, it drops off quickly at the edges.
If you're posting photos to Instagram, which a square crop, or shooting video, with its tighter crop, this isn't going to be much of a problem at all because the problem areas will be cropped out almost entirely. But you'll notice it if you're shooting regular photos.
Here are some close-ups to show how the sharpness varies across the frame. This first shot is the original:
Enlarging the center of the frame shows that it's sharp. You can see individual snowflakes.
But if you go to the edge of the frame you get quite a lot of blurriness.
It's generally a symmetrical issue, but I did run into instances where it wasn't. I was initially confused by this photo when I took it. The statue at far right was a lot less sharp than the one at left:
Since I was standing dead center between them, it wasn't initially clear to me why. It wasn't until I looked closely at the lens itself that I discovered the problem: it had become ever-so-slightly misaligned with the iPhone's built-in lens. Because the iPhone lens is tiny, the smallest amount of misalignment can have a significant effect. And it turns out that, as snug as the bracket fits the phone, it's still relatively easy for it to slip just slightly one way or another. Once you're looking for it, it's an easy issue to fix. But you just have to be looking for it. Here's a version with the problem corrected.
There's some chromatic aberration with the wide-angle if you shoot at-risk scenes, although it's largely masked by the blurriness at the edges of the frame anyway.
Telephoto Lens in Action
The telephoto lens adds 4X magnification. If you're looking to get closer to the action, whether that's wildlife, the kids playing soccer, or the detail of a famous landmark, 4X magnification is a pretty useful amount. You still get to use all the resolution of the full sensor without cropping, but the subject is much larger in the frame.
The telephoto lens has quite a strong pin cushion effect that bends version lines inwards. In both these examples, the columns are actually straight.
While these photos demonstrate the issue well, it's not necessarily something you're going to run into often. In general everyday shooting, it's not nearly so noticeable. If you get people's faces near the edges of the frame, they'll be slightly widened, but not so much that it's especially noticeable. And if you're using something like Lightroom to process your images, you can correct it manually.
Something to be aware of too is that shooting with the telephoto under some conditions requires some adjustments in your shooting technique. The iPhone's video function includes built-in automatic stabilization. That's why your hand-held videos have much less of the tell-tale shaking that should be there. The phone uses algorithms to create a smoother image. But the algorithms are tuned to the perspective offered by the standard built-in lens and doesn't work as well with the telephoto lens, where even the smallest movements are amplified. So you'll probably find that video footage shot hand-held with the telephoto isn't quite as smooth as you might be used to seeing on the iPhone.
For similar reasons, shooting still photos hand-held with the telephoto lens, especially in darker scenes, needs an extra-still hand. The iPhone's automatic calculations for minimum shutter speed to keep the photo sharp are based on the standard lens and doesn't factor in the extra shaking effect of a longer telephoto. In normal daylight shooting the shutter speed is generally much faster and you'll never notice it, but if you're shooting in lower light you might end up with some blurry photos.
It's also worth clarifying something here. Some of the ExoLens marketing material refers to a “4x Telephoto Zoom lens.” To be clear, it’s not a zoom lens. My guess is that they use that word because for many photography novices it implies the same thing as telephoto. But it’s a fixed telephoto lens at 4X magnification. You can’t zoom in and out optically. You can of course crop the image digitally, but that’s different and not related to the lens.
But overall it's nice to be able to get in closer to the action and fill the frame with the subject.
Things to Watch Out For
- The bracket is only compatible with the iPhone 6. It won’t work on an iPhone 6 Plus or older models.
- The ExoLens is not compatible with the iPhone 6’s built-in flash. It covers it over, so you’ll want to turn the flash off to avoid any unwanted side effects.
- It’s only compatible with the back camera (ie. the one on the opposite side to the screen).
- With the telephoto lens, the lens cover doesn’t fit over the lens hood, so it’s one or the other.
ExoLens Exo 6 vs OlloClip for iPhone 6
I recently reviewed the OlloClip 4-in-1 kit for the iPhone 6. In broad terms, they’re aiming to do much the same thing—extend the lens options on the iPhone 6.
There are similarities, but there are also key differences between them. If a telephoto lens or a true circular fish-eye are important to you, your decision is basically made for you--only one or the other offers those features. Similarly if price is a major issue; with a recommended retail of $129, the ExoLens is significantly more expensive than the OlloClip at $79.
Lenses. The lens offerings overlap but are more different than the same. Both have a wide-angle lens, but their others are quite different. The ExoLens has a 4x telephoto. The OlloClip doesn’t have a telephoto, but it has a circular fisheye and two macro lenses of varying magnification. There is a kit version of the ExoLens that includes a macro lens (available here).
Convenience. A core feature of the OlloClip is its convenience in taking it with you. It comes with a docking clip and a lanyard. It’s also significantly smaller for fitting in a pocket. The ExoLens comes with a pouch to hold the lenses, but that’s about it. It's not heavy, but it is much larger than the OlloClip if you're putting it in your pocket.
Quality. The ExoLens pitches its lenses are its professional series, and overall its build quality is better than the OlloClip.
The Bottom Line
If you're looking to extend the lens options of your iPhone 6, the ExoLens is well worth looking at. It's certainly a good option if you're looking at whether it's worth buying a separate point-and-click camera just to get more lens options.
So long as you're realistic about the image quality, it can really open up all sorts of new creative opportunities. And if you're shooting for Instagram or recording video, you'll probably avoid the major image quality issues anyway.
The whole package is very well made. And most importantly, it's fun to shoot with.