The 10 Best Phone Camera Lenses
Award-winning Image Quality
Adapters that cost close to $100 for a single lens just a few years ago now come as one in a set of three for under $30.
The lenses on our list attach to your camera with the greatest of ease, simply snapping into their spots like a paper clip.
One of the most impressive films in to come out of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival was shot almost entirely on an iPhone 5s. That, alone, garnered the film a tremendous amount of attention, especially considering how good the footage looked. When most people hear the claim, they picture the filmmakers holding forth their iPhones like tourists capturing a street performer in Time's Square, and the process couldn't be further from the truth.
The film, Tangerine, was, in fact, shot on an iPhone, but the iPhone in question was tricked out with a fancy app, a steadycam for fluidity in movement, and a rather expensive experimental 1.33 anamorphic lens adapter. The filmmaker, Sean Baker, even said of the lens, "To tell you the truth, I wouldn't have even made the movie without it."
If you really want to take your cell phone photography to the next level, to get cinematic quality video, gallery quality images, and astronomically beautiful pictures from space, among other things, you need to augment the lens at the back of your phone with more than just a pinch zoom.
The lenses on our list attach to your camera with the greatest of ease, simply snapping into their spots like a paper clip. Once in position, they'll bend the light heading into your phone's camera just before it gets there, giving you either a wider field of view (labelled wide-angle or fisheye) a tremendous amount of zoom (labelled as telephoto, or with a magnification multiplier), or occasionally the ability to get unbelievably close to your subject without it going out of focus (labelled macro).
The best part about these lenses is that competition to come up with the best, least expensive technology has driven the quality way up and the costs way down. Adapters that cost close to $100 for a single lens just a few years ago now come as one in a set of three for under $30.
Zooming Toward A Choice
When you pinch to zoom with a cell phone camera, you're using something called digital zoom. You may remember seeing both optical zoom and digital zoom specs listed on the last digital camera you bought before our phones stole the entire market. Optical zoom refers to the actual movement of lens elements to bend and magnify the light before it hits your sensor. Digital zoom essentially just crops in on whatever resolution the sensor has already captured, reducing the quality of your images as you pinch.
Digital zoom essentially just crops in on whatever resolution the sensor has already captured, reducing the quality of your images as you pinch.
Any of the telephoto lenses on our list, including the telescopic and microscopic lenses, are optical enhancers, so the resolution of your image remains at its highest constant. The wide-angle lenses also maintain complete resolution, but there wasn't a threat to your image from going wider in the first place.
Choosing from among these sets will have everything to do with how you want to affect your image and what you want to shoot. I wouldn't recommend the microscope attachment for your next selfie, for example.
Most casual camera phone shooters would do well with any of the triptych clip-on lens adapters, the sets of three that include a fisheye, macro, and telephoto enhancement. These sets ought to satisfy the needs of anyone looking for a little enhancement without spending too much money.
The more specific the tasks you need tackled by some of these attachments, the more you're liable to spend on them, and the more limited their usage outside that task will be. The telescopic attachment is great for astronomical photography or for spying on your neighbors, but it's useless on anything that isn't a minimum distance from your camera. The microscopic attachment is probably the coolest thing on our list, and it would be a wonderful addition to any science classroom, but it wouldn't do to Instagram your brunch with it.
Old Glass, New Class
Lenses predate the invention of the camera by millennia. As long as there has been the written word, there have been stones carved and polished to allow readers with aging eyes to magnify and decipher smaller text. These lenses also proved useful in starting fires when they concentrated beams of sunlight onto a small pile of kindling.
These lenses also proved useful in starting fires when they concentrated beams of sunlight onto a small pile of kindling.
It was these single-element lenses that adorned the first cameras developed in the 19th century. Crude as they were, the lenses produced a lot of artifacts, as well as a significant amount of field distortion. By the late 1800s, however, photographers and lens manufacturers had begun to combine lens elements to cut down on distortion and to create clearer images that allowed more light to pass onto the exposure surface.
Fast forward another century, and the cell phone age is in full swing. Right there alongside it, the digital photography revolution roils on, and before long the two worlds collide, as several phone manufacturers integrate simple cameras into their cell phone bodies. It starts out seeming like a novelty, but by the time the first iPhones hit shelves in 2007, phone cameras begin to look like serious contenders among casual photographers.
The camera industry responded by trying to make everything about their systems smaller, going so far as to do away with the reflex mirror in their most expensive and prestigious models, with Canon and Nikon notably holding out against the tide. They'll come around, eventually, but by then everybody will have a good phone and a better set of lenses like these for it.