Article Updated: 26 Feb 2018
When you wish there is an easy way to turn your phone into DSLR
Mobile phones are always with us. And their camera. But sometimes, you simply wish you had your DSLR or faithful compact with powerful lenses and sensors in your pocket, for those unrepeatable and memorable moments.
Mobile lens attachments are another approach that tries hard to fill-in that gap and turn your mobile phone into a more serious photography tool on-the-go.
Upfront, these popular lens attachments are not going to replace neither your DSLR nor your brand new compact digital camera! They can only help you in certain situations, and you should definitely think of them as gadgets, than some semi-pro equipment.
Main reasons for this are 3 simple facts:
1. You are still using your phone’s optics and sensor (very important factor), so the end result will be limited by the quality of original optics and camera system hardware and software.
2. Lens adapters come in different price ranges and forms, the cheap ones we are discussing here today are not serious equipment (despite the way their manufacturers represent them). They are “slow” (in photographic terms), have plenty of uncorrected amount of distortion, and may interfere with phone camera’s focusing system in some cases. Also, if not mounted properly, or you accidentally move them around the original lens, you will see a nasty dark circle or partial shade.
3. The entire construction (phone + lens adapter) is less physically stable and compact than a dedicated compact camera (or DSLR). Particularly, if you use long tele lens adapter(s), with cheap tiny plastic clips to attach them onto the phone, you’ll understand what we’re talking about! (more on this later in the article).
In any case, we have purchased two sets of these lenses, the price of under $10 dollars for HD Super Wide 0.45x / Super Macro 12.5x model (ther’s also very similar one) (single lens) with 37 mm lens thread, 37 mm inverted for macro and 49 mm filter thread for wide (so, you can attach 49 mm filters on top of it), and around $15 for a complete mini set (fish eye, wide, macro and tele conversion adapters) plus mini-tripod and smartphone stand — each on their own tells the story by itself, but still, we were curious to try them, and the results are mostly acceptable. Mostly.
Let’s take a look.
APEXEL 0.45x SUPER WIDE / 12.5x SUPER MACRO LENS HD 37 MM REVIEW
Unboxing & Mini Review Video:
The HD 37 mm wide/macro combo is a more serious product, and the price of around $10 (with shipping) tells you that it is more “professional” equipment in comparison to the mini-lens version sets, which costs as much as this “single” lens alone.
The HD lens comes in a dedicated package, surrounded by the sponge, plus small bag so you can easily carry it with you. It is bulky, but not too heavy, as we’ve thought it would be. Acceptable, for the large 37 mm diameter, a major selling point.
- 0.45x Wide Lens (large diameter with 37 mm top thread)
- 12.5x Macro Lens (large diameter with 37 mm top thread)
- Lattherete cloth carrying bag (very decent quality)
- Soft lens cleaning cloth (for dust & fingerprints)
- User Manual
Lens is reasonably sharp, passes enough light through, and you should generally not have any problems photographing well lit rooms and landscapes with it.
Please ignore the pink cast in our photo, this is not because of the lens attachment, but our camera’s auto white balance issue.
There is a noticeable amount of barrel distortion, something you have to expect at 0.45x wide multiplication factor and at this price range, but distortion can be easily fixed in Photoshop, for example.
Of course, at this price point, it is even great that lens does not do any distortion correction by itself, because that would mean at least few additional things: lower glass quality and more weight (for example, another brand Aukey offers similar wide lenses with minimal distortion, but at the expense of lower resolution at the corners and visible smearing, plus 3 times higher price!). Weight here is of a highest concern, as we are mobile and wish to keep the extra luggage at bare minimum!
Macro Mode Examples Video:
Macro adapter with 12.5x magnification is actually a back ring in WIDE combo set, so you need to unwind the top part to get it. It is the highlight of the HD set, as we were really impressed by the macro shots quality!
The sharpest focus and biggest magnification is achieved around 4-5 cm from the subject (getting closer our phone could not properly focus), so this is actually good, given that with most miniature macro lens adapters you need to get ridiculously close (around 1-2 cm, casting nasty shadows and what not).
There is also very little distortion in the image, which is another plus for the macro lens adapter.
One important benefit of the lens with large diameter is the fact that in certain phone/tablet models with the LED flash positioned close to the lens itself, LED flash DOES NOT get covered by this add-on. This means that you can still use it, which is extremely useful and important for macro shots!
This feature is unusable in WIDE mode for two reasons: (1) subjects are usually far away to benefit from the flash; (2) WIDE lens mode acts as a focusing lens to the built-in LED, so, instead of a broad light source you will get one very bright spot and sparse illumination in the rest of the compositing frame (not desirable effect at all).
Overall, we are satisfied with this lens, of course, not even close to budget DSLR’s optics in terms of quality, but very decent and better than expected.
- Reasonably lightweight
- Very sharp & bright glass
- Good WIDE / Excellent MACRO quality
- Very mild corner softness / fuzziness in WIDE mode
- Reasonably stable on phones with camera located at edge (corner)
- Noticeable barrel distortion with WIDE lens adapter mode
- Large lens = Less portability
- May or may not cover built-in LED Flash (depends on device model)
Overall Rating: 4.5 stars / out of 5
APEXEL MINI LENS SET: 0.63x WIDE + 15x MACRO + 198 deg FISH EYE + 12x TELE
We have also purchased another set, more compact in size (except enormous 12x tele zoom lens), and the expectations about the quality of this kit were much lower. Did it deliver what was promised? Read to find out.
- 12x optical zoom lens (non stabilized!) + dedicated mounting clip
- 0.63x miniature wide zoom lens (combined macro + special adapter attachment)
- 15x miniature macro lens
- 198 degrees fish-eye lens
- Phone Holder (Tripod Mount)
- Thin cloth carrying bag (very cheap / low quality)
- User Manual
12x Tele Zoom Lens
This is the main selling point of the entire set. Or, at least, it was in our case :) We really hoped to gain some decent zoom on mobile phone, as this is usually the most desired feature in the field. To be completely honest, we have mixed fillings about it.
First, if you carefully analyze our test sample image below (all resolutions are 100% original in the final composite), and do some basic measurements and calculations, you can confirm that the zoom ratio is actually more like 8x instead of advertised 12x (~ 8.25x to be more precise). Why is this lens advertised as 12x zoom is beyond us, as this is clearly easy to verify… Still, 8x zoom is actually, very useful, on the other hand, especially for this price!
We’ve noticed that fake zoom specification of cheap tele zoom lenses is not limited to this model only! In fact, it is apparently a very common thing among manufacturers from China! Of course, good quality lenses are expensive and you can immediately be suspicious if something in the range of $15-$30 claims to have a high magnification factor above 12x-18x.
After careful analysis of screenshots taken from other YouTube videos, and photo examples posted by other users, we can conclude that practically all lenses produced by Apexel, Panda and other brands have smaller zoom magnification in reality by 20-50%, and in some extreme cases by up to 80%!
- 18x Apexel Universal Zoom Lens = true zoom ~ 14x (for others 12x-15x depending on brand/manufacturer)
- Various 35×50 / 40×50 / 50×60 / 60×60 Handheld Outdoor Optical Monocular = true zoom ~ 6x-12x (depending on brand/manufacturer | keep in mind there are also honest manufacturers/brands which correctly mark their products!)
Second, there is no optical image stabilization (OIS) at all! At 12x zoom tele, this is a HUGE deal. The image in your screen will be shaky, hard to focus and follow the subject(s) (if in motion), and even if you shoot still objects, you will need plenty of light to capture any decent photo.
Ok, even in the compact cameras market you can find plenty of ultra-zoom and medium-zoom models without OIS, so what? Well, this is true (Fuji, Olympus back in the old days, to name a few), but we are heading towards the next argument and major negative point: physical stability and compactness of entire setup. The clip mounting system, despite the slightly longer thread and dedicated / special clip, still sucks big time! Particularly, if your phone’s camera is located at the corner, you’ll notice how easy it is to accidentally or unintentionally move or even drop it completely off the phone! We dropped it 3 times this way already! Yikes!
The lens is simply too heavy in comparison to phone’s body, and just has a tendency on its own to slip and fall off. Not good. Not good at all. There are newer designs on the market (apparently, manufacturers finally realized the problem), so the new tele mounting lens comes with a holder (similar to the one pictured above, like in ubiquitous selfie sticks), but this time have the entire support system built around it, instead of one tiny clip. It comes with a doubled price for an 8x zoom model, too (but it is worth it!).
Not the last on the list of issues, there comes the manual focus ring. While the ring functions simply as a distance adjuster of the outer lens, the problem is you will have to adjust it frequently for optimal image sharpness. At one end focus is set to around 3 meters, and around infinity at another. Depending on your camera’s DOF (depth of field), you can get away with certain ranges (say up to 5 meters, 10-30 meters, and infinity), but you will still have to adjust it occasionally. And, here comes again our physical stability issue to hunt us like a worst nightmare! You simply CAN’T do it comfortably enough without making the entire lens with clip slip around your phone, and eventually cause it to fall off. Grrr $#%^$@!
In terms of optical quality, it is a mediocre glass. Purple fringing is everywhere, and at that zoom level, with cheap lens, fairly expected. Another issue is pretty noticeable pincushion distortion. Probably can pass unnoticed with landscapes and smaller objects, but for city scapes and buildings it will scream all over the image.
- 12x zoom lens (8.25x in reality)
- Falsely Advertised Zoom Ratio
- Large & Heavy (weights 63 grams with clip)
- Noticeable pincushion distortion
- Very high chromatic aberration (purple fringing)
- Hard to center / dark corners if not perfectly positioned
- Hard to rotate manual focus ring while mounted on phone
- Clip mount system completely inappropriate (physical instability)
Overall Rating: 2.5 stars / out of 5
Addendum: We are aware of the fact that after all the negative points, 2.5 stars sounds too generous for this lens. And this is true, from a DSLR perspective, even bundled with basic kit or budget lenses, image quality (IQ) will blow away this piece of junk :) However, we have to factor all things in and make a final judgement: this particular lens can never replace anything close to a DSLR with proper zoom lens, but it will have some use. It is infinitely more compact and convenient to carry around and in some cases (such as landscape photography) it will serve it’s purpose rather ‘ok’. In the end, price of the gadget tells you all that you need to know ;)
0.63x Wide Lens
This is probably the best piece in the whole set. Both in terms of performance (optical quality) and usefulness. Being miniature and lightweight, the wide lens will give you that much needed space to cover more area in your landscapes, buildings or family reunions (so, even your long-hated aunts, uncles and relatives can fit into the family portrait). The lens is extremely lightweight, with clips system now completely appropriate, and you’ll easily maneuver with phone or tablet to take awesome shots.
In terms of optical quality, it is decent, however, noticeable barrel distortion is present here (fully expected). Still, this is a wide angle area and even compacts have noticeable distortion here, so nothing out of ordinary. If distortion is something you simply cannot live with, avoid this add-on at all costs!
- Easy to attach / detach
- Acceptable Image Quality
- Noticeable barrel distortion
- May or may not block built-in LED Flash (depends on device model)
Overall Rating: 4 stars / out of 5
15x Miniature Macro Lens Examples Video:
It is useless for low-light occasions simply because you need to get very close to the subject — around 1-2 cm (at best) to get a proper focus, and still the shot success will be put in question, because of the shadow cast from the device itself, making it hard to avoid high ISO ratings from the camera.
However, IF you have near ideal conditions, a plenty of light (e.g. daylight or artificial source form a side or back of the subject), you can actually achieve HIGHER macro zoom ratio than that from a HD lens set above!
In fact, this higher magnification zoom factor is more pronounced in newer mobile phone models with higher aperture and wider angle coverage.
Again, useful only in very bright conditions (e.g. sunshine or daylight), or in less ideal setups with tripod or improvised support.
- Easy to attach / detach
- High macro magnification
- Moderate macro distortion
- Good/Great macro lens sharpness
- Requires plenty of light
- Blocks built-in LED Flash (on certain devices)
- Requires to be close to the subject (1 cm min — 2 cm max)
Overall Rating: 4 stars / out of 5
198 degrees Fish Eye Lens
Fish Eye lens is a very interesting add-on for mobile phones and tablet cameras, in general. First of all, this is not something readily available for digital compact cameras (at best, some manufacturers offer 0.7x wide and up to 1.5x tele conversion lens adapters for specific models). And in DSLR world, basic fish-eye lens costs at least several times than this entire set here. This lens provides approx. 0.3x focal length multiplication factor.
We’ve noticed that the viewing angle is much lower than advertised 198 degrees, more closer to 160-170 degrees at best. This is because this lens, like all the other lenses above, has a fixed magnification factor (around 0.3x empirically deduced), which means that this also depends on your device’s camera lens characteristics, as well. So, you might get lower or even higher viewing angle. It all depends, really.
It is more of a curiosity flick, than anything else. And, for this exact reason, we will not criticize it much, as we are well aware of the entire aspect of glass quality, manufacturing difficulties and alike. Still, it makes a cool thing to play with. ‘Instant Fun’ results are guaranteed :)
Because of large capturing angle (198 degrees > 180), it is almost certain your photos will have a dark circle around them, and if not positioned properly, it will appear off-center. This is simply because now you will be able to see ‘behind the scenes’ (behind your camera) to a certain degree, and depending on the position of phone’s original lens and properties, you may capture the edge of device (phone, tablet) itself. Additionally, this will effectively limit your 198-degrees FOV (field-of-view) to something much less (e.g. to 180 degrees at best).
- Easy to attach / detach*
- Instant Fun results :)
- Blocks built-in LED Flash
- High distortion and poor corner image quality
- Does not have dedicated mounting clip :(
- Shares the same mounting clip with macro & wide lenses
Overall Rating: 5 stars / out of 5
Mini tripod is another disappointment in this set. It is way too light to hold any serious phone or phablet reliably (weights only 30 grams!), and we tested it once in windy conditions with 12x tele lens mounted on — it was a nightmare! We constantly had to hold it for the legs, to avoid everything falling down and apart. Thankfully, we had our old original PRACTICA mini-tripod, which is exactly 4 times heavier than this toy, and much more stable (that model is not perfect either, but for the given price and in comparison to this model — it is!).
Overall Rating: 2 stars / out of 5
Phone Holder Accessory
Phone Holder accessory is pretty standard, seen in many selfie-sticks around (it is the same thing). We already broke one by accident, our large tripod fell onto the ground, and the holder was the victim – the plastic bottom side (with the mounting screw) completely shattered into pieces.
There are better and more robust phone tripod mount holders made of hard plastic or aluminum alloy, but they cost 10-20 times more. Given the price of under $1, they perfectly serve the purpose.
Overall Rating: 4 stars / out of 5