iPhone Imagination: Schneider’s iPro Lens System Advances Smartphone Cinema
I love my Apple iPhone. Really love it. I’m never without it—quite literally. I’ve got 266 apps on my phone currently—and no, they’re not all versions of Angry Birds. A large portion of my apps are industry-related, tools used in the scope of filmmaking and cinematography.
Yes, I’ve got Angry Birds on there, too.
As much as I love my iPhone, however, it’s never something that I would consider a legitimate photographic tool—although it certainly has the horsepower to take some impressive pictures. Several short films, including one by Oldboy director Park Chan-wook called “Night Fishing,” have been shot with an iPhone. Although the internet was alive with rumors that cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC, shot moments of The Avengers on an iPhone, those rumors were not true, although I suppose it is only a matter of time before an iPhone makes a cameo playing a motion picture camera in a major film.
Apple isn’t very forthcoming with the actual specs of the iPhone’s camera. I did some digging and exploring and found that my iPhone 4 has a 5 megapixel camera (2592 x 1936 pixels) at 1.75 µm pixel pitch. The camera is a 1/3.2” 4.54 x 3.39mm sensor. It’s got a fixed aperture of f/2.8 with a 3.85mm focal length lens. The video portion of the phone shoots 1280 x 720 HD at 30 fps.
Although it’s not an ARRI Alexa or a RED EPIC or even a Canon EOS 7D, it is a pretty beefy little camera that slips into my pocket and travels with me everywhere. I carry a little point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot SD1300 IS Digital ELPH whenever I travel somewhere I think I might want to document, but when I’m not carrying a camera, I still have my iPhone. Need a little video of a location scout? Want to shoot a few snapshots of a location or framing or something that inspires you? Take out your phone and roll/snap away.
It’s hard to outright dismiss the little camera inside this major appliance in my pocket. There are problems, however. The focal length is fixed—even though the iPhone 4 features a 6x digital zoom, that’s really no different than cropping/zooming in post. In fact, most post tools will interpolate the image better and give you better cropping/zooming results than you can get in-camera. There’s also the problem of stabilizing this little guy. Shooting smooth video while hand-holding a camera the size of a deck of cards isn’t likely to happen easily.
When I heard Schneider Optics was producing a high-quality lens set for the iPhone, I admit I laughed. I thought it was a joke. Why on earth would a company like Schneider produce a set of lenses for a phone?
Well, it’s no joke. The iPro Lens System is a little kit that comes with a plastic case that snaps onto the iPhone and an extension handle that doubles as a carrying case for the lenses. I tested two of the three available lenses: a wide angle and a nifty fisheye.
The case itself feels a little cheap to me, as does the handle/lens case. It’s molded plastic, but if I were picking this case up off the shelf for my phone, I’d put it back. That doesn’t mean there’s anything particularly wrong with it; it just feels cheap. The handle is also molded plastic. It screws into the case with a small threading at the tip of the handle.
Attaching the case is a little scary. The fit is tight and you have to snap it into place. Removing it is even scarier. There is even a special, very specific instruction sheet in the box that illustrates how to remove the case from your phone.
“IMPORTANT!” the card reads. “To remove your phone, attach the handle to the side opposite the volume/mute button. Flex the case downward slightly while pushing up on the phone through the opening in the back that surrounds the Apple logo.” That’s right, you’re using the handle as a lever to pry the phone out of the case. It’s a bit disconcerting the first couple of times. I kept expecting something to snap. I was relieved to find that, as awkward as this procedure might be, it works like a charm.
Although the handle has the same kind of cheap plastic feel, it’s really an ingenious MacGyver/Transformer design.
When you unscrew the base of the handle, you find an itty bitty lens hidden inside. The lenses mount to the handle and to the phone’s case with a three-leaf bayonet-type mount—a small twist and they’re firmly in place. It feels a little funky at first, but it’s a solid mount that keeps the rear element well away from the glass of the phone’s actual lens. The same bayonet-type mount locks the lens in place in its little home in the handle.
A second compartment, which also unscrews, stores the second lens.
Going further, the base of the handle features a 1/4-20 threaded hole to attach it to a standard tripod. Alternately, you can unscrew the tiny threaded screw in the tip of the handle and that has a 1/4-20 threaded hole in it as well to connect the case directly to a tripod without the rest of the handle.
It’s difficult to thoroughly test a lens that is added on top of another lens, as you’re limited by the performance of the main system, and adding more glass is only going to reduce overall quality. With that in mind, I did the best I could to demonstrate how these little lenses perform.
I started with the wide angle attachment, which gives the iPhone an approximately 35 percent greater field of view. I noted only the slightest reduction in contrast and resolution at the center of the lens; off to the sides, however, the wide angle attachment adds fairly significant barrel distortion, and there is a significant fall-off in contrast and resolution. On paper this is a serious problem, but in reality it has a very pleasing quality that reminds me of a Holga or Lomo camera system. It has a cool quirk that looks pretty sweet, the kind of thing that made Instagram popular.
Further, I was really surprised by the flare quality of this wide angle attachment. It exhibited a wonderful, multi-element flare that the iPhone does not have at all. You get a wonderful ping across the frame without significant veiling flare washing out the image or reducing the contrast too much.
Switching lenses, I can see a lot of uses for the fisheye, especially if you shoot action sports. If you’re out shooting skateboarders or BMX bikers, this little lens can turn your iPhone into a really powerful visual tool. There is, however, significant vignetting from the 165 percent field of view; you’ll see the sides of the lens itself in your frame.
The handle doubles as a mini-stabilizer, helping you to hold the phone a little bit steadier, but it’s not long enough to really alter the center of gravity. I found it not quite as useful as I wanted it to be.
The system is really well thought out. It’s very easy to change lenses without putting the phone down.
Schneider’s sales pitch is, “Take professional-grade photos. Where you take your iPhone.” I have a tough time considering these images “professional grade.” I think the iPhone itself has a great little camera, but nothing I would ever consider professional—and no matter how exceptional Schneider’s lenses might be, they’re never going to change the base system. The lenses have their own quirks and characteristics, which is probably what you’re looking for if you’re shooting with an iPhone, even before you click over to Instagram to apply your favorite degraded look.
I would have loved to have tried out the telephoto lens—that’s normally more of what I’m looking for with my iPhone—but that lens didn’t come with the kit I received.
In order to really take advantage of this tool, you’d have to keep the Schneider case on your phone at all times and store the handle in a pocket so you can whip it out when needed. I wouldn’t like this as my everyday iPhone case, though; I don’t feel it provides enough protection and it’s not necessarily comfortable in the hand for normal iPhone use.
The Duo Kit, which I reviewed, includes the case, handle, and wide angle and fisheye lenses; it retails for $199. I think that price is just beyond the impulse purchase of owning this kit just in case it came in handy. If you were doing a lot of shooting with your iPhone, then $199 is a great price for these lenses ($105 for the 2x tele lens or $299 for the tri-lens kit, which features a longer handle to hold the third lens). For me, if it were $99, or even $124.99, I might be more inclined to say ‘Why not?’ and add it to my arsenal. At $199, I’m going to think twice until I know I really have a need.
Product: Schneider Optics iPro Lens System
Pros: Great overall design, MacGyver handle/lens case, great flare quality to the wide angle lens, lightweight.
Cons: Reduction in image quality, awkward case attachment/detachment.
Bottom Line: Although I wouldn’t really call these professional tools, they are great creative devices that add flexibility if you’re shooting with an iPhone. Price point is just beyond the impulse buy into the range where I’d have to have a specific need before purchasing.