If you frequently use your phone camera to take pictures, but have felt that they’re a bit limited compared to dedicated cameras, you can improve your phone photography with separate clip-on lenses. These lenses enable you to take pictures that, a few years ago, were only possible using dedicated cameras with additional lenses. We’ll take a look at some of these lenses with image samples for them. There are lots of lens manufacturers for phone lenses. The ones I have used for most of the pictures that follow are by Aukey [PL-A1].

Wide angle lenses for capturing more in the frame

A wide angle lens has a shorter focal length in comparison to other kinds of lenses. Consequently, more of the view gets captured in the frame. This can result in some fantastic pictures and it can be quite handy for any scenario where you want a wider angle of view. The shorter the focal length, the wider the angle of view, as seen in the following image[1].

Example of focal length

Relation of focal length to wide angle

As you can see, the first image has the widest angle of view. This is not just useful for taking pictures of landscapes, it’s also extremely useful if, say, you want to take group photographs (by maintaining enough distance so the people near the edge of the frame don’t appear distorted). Now, you might think ‘Wait, I can just walk a few steps back and get everyone or everything in the frame and fix that problem’. But it’s a bit harder to just take a few steps back and fix that problem, say, when you’re 30,000 feet up in the air, and want to take a picture of the landscape from the airplane window.

Airplane Window picture

Up in the air from the window of a Boeing 777-300 ER by a Moto G3 using Aukey’s wide angle lens.

The most extreme wide angle lens is the fisheye lens, sometimes having a field of view of nearly 180 degrees. The following image demonstrates the difference between a fisheye lens and a wide angle lens with comparatively smaller field of view.

Wide angle lenses

(L to R) No lens, wide angle lens, and fisheye lens.

Macro lenses for capturing great detail at extremely close range

Macro lenses have the capability to reveal detail not obvious to the naked eye. Most phone cameras by themselves cannot focus on an object at extremely close distances in the way that a macro lens can. The very first image of this page is an image taken using the macro clip-on lens. What you’re seeing is one of the LED lights of a USB powered LED lamp. Here’s another one, taken with a monitor screen as light source.

A loonie

A loonie (Canadian dollar) taken using Aukey’s 10x macro lens.

Telephoto lenses for bringing distant subjects closer

Telephoto lenses have longer focal lengths. A telephoto lens can give the illusion of you being closer to the subject. It can do a great job of isolating a subject far away and is commonly used in sports as well as wildlife photography. Also, if you’ve been looking for a way to get shallow depth of field from your phone without having to resort to editing apps that add noticeably fake depth of field to your pictures after they’re taken, telephoto lenses can help you accomplish that. There are several telephoto lenses now available for phones as well.

Anamorphic lenses for cinematic video recording

Maybe you want to shoot a film and get it to Sundance Film Festival, like the film Tangerine, but have no access to expensive cameras or the money for the endeavor. So what do you do? Tangerine was shot using iPhones and an anamorphic adapter. They used the one made by Moondog Labs (the only company that makes this type of an adapter for phones at the time of this writing), which might be what you are looking for. Note that you might need a separate mounting system to make the anamorphic adapter 37 mm thread work with your device. To check the full compatibility list, click here. To see the lenses in action, watch this kickstarter video from Moondog Labs and you will see the video examples of the output from the lens.

What does an anamorphic lens do?

An anamorphic lens is sort of like a wide angle lens in that it captures more in the frame, but the difference lies in the aspect ratio [relation between the width and height of the video] and the way it handles the image on the sensor, as it squishes more of the view on to a 4:3 sensor. You can then stretch it [“de-squeeze”] to make it wide using software.

Anamorphic explanation

(L to R) Without anamorphic adapter, with anamorphic adapter, and finally, the result after de-squeezing the image/video

So, more of the field of view gets captured without any cropping. Additionally, images taken using a wide angle lens tend to be warped. In contrast, anamorphic lenses just compress the image horizontally in a non-wide aspect ratio and then you decompress or de-squeeze the image to a wide aspect ratio. Maybe you like horizontal flares and oval bokeh (bokeh – the property of blurred parts of an image, for example, notice the spherical bokeh from the farthest lights in the very first image on the page). The following image[2] will help understand bokeh:

Bokeh Example

1 – With no bokeh
2 – With synthetic bokeh
3 – With Gaussian blur

And in feature films, you might have seen horizontal flares like in the image that follows[3] :

Lens flare

Horizontal lens flare by an anamorphic lens

You can get this easily with an anamorphic lens, and when coupled with a good phone camera and a stabiliser, you can raise the quality of your videos significantly.

Below are some more samples taken using Aukey’s lens kit.

Image credits:

  1. Jcbrooks, shared on Wikimedia Commons.
  2. BenFrantzDale, modifications by cmglee, shared on Wikimedia Commons.
  3. Pkisme, shared on Wikimedia Commons.