I see the ads for smart phone lenses on Facebook almost every day. You click on the link and you read an article that says their telephoto smart phone lens has “been tested, and found to equal or exceed the photos produced by such top makers as Zeiss, Leica, Nikon, Canon and Sony.” It is all utter nonsense of course, meant to fool clueless people into spending $56 or more on a poor quality lens that they could buy for as little as $4.00. So I decided to buy one of these lenses on the cheap and do my own comparison test.
The ads make amazing claims with impressive photos. Who needs a $2,000 or $6,000 pro level DLSR when you have one of these? The truth is every experienced photographer knows these plastic lenses can’t possibly take the photos in the ads and articles. And I will show you why in this lens test.
FYI, it doesn’t matter what company is running the ads, or the name they give to the lens, or whether they say the lens is 8X or 12X. They buy lenses for about $3 each from China, give the lenses whatever fancy name they want (HyperZoom HD, HD Zoom Pro, LuxHD450), and mark the prices up sky high (usually $59 but as high as $224 the last time I checked).
The articles are accompanied by a lens test chart that has absolutely no documentation to back it up. They make up a fake German engineer who supposedly designed the lens, show you photos that were actually taken with pro level DSLRs (not the lens they’re selling), and hope people are gullible enough to buy it all, hook, line, and sinker. It is all a scam to get you to pay a lot of money for a cheap, poor quality lens that you could get for a lot less money.
Now, on to the lens comparison test. I did not apply any digitally sharpening to any of these test images so you can see the actual sharpness, or lack there of, that you get right out of the camera.
My first stop was at a local park where I could set up with a stop sign 50 yards away in one direction and a porta-potty 100 yards away in another direction. I also photographed a sliver of a waning moon and a squirrel in my back yard.
I put the 12X telephoto lens on my iPhone SE, mounted my iPhone on a professional grade tripod (Really Right Stuff tripod head and Gitzo tripod) using a sturdy Square Jellyfish smart phone to tripod adapter. The ads and articles show this lens being used handheld (which doesn’t work very well) but I wanted to do everything I could to take the best quality photos possible.
From the same location I also took photos of the stop sign and porta-potty with a Canon 7D Mark II camera with a Canon EF 100-400mm Mark II lens. For some photos I also used a Canon 1.4X Mark III teleconverter.
This is the view of the stop sign over the top of my tripod mounted iPhone and 12X telephoto lens. (I deliberately blurred the face of the young man who sat there through most of my test shoot.) To give you a sense of the angle of view, this photo was taken at a focal length of 47mm.
I took a number of photos, tweaking the manual focus ring on the lens to get the best possible image. The iPhone would fight with the lens to try to get the image in focus. I could see the image jump back and forth on the phone’s screen. The iPhone can’t focus the image unless you manually focus the telephoto lens first. This was a pain to do. Every time I would turn the stiff manual focus ring on the lens, the lens would twist out of alignment with the built in iPhone lens. To keep it from doing that I would have to grip the back of the lens with one hand and turn the focus ring with the other hand. Even doling that, the lens would still slip a bit and I would have to re-align the telephoto lens over the built in iPhone lens.
From a practical point of view, this means this lens is worthless for tracking a moving subject like a flying eagle. You can’t possibly hold this lens with two hands and manually focus on a flying bird. The flying eagle photo in the ad for this lens is totally bogus. As a side note, the same goes for the sports photos that accompany the ad/articles for this lens. Totally misleading. The sport photos in the ad/articles were actually taken by professional photographers with professional DSLR gear. I know because I tracked them down.
This is the best photo I created with the 12X telephoto lens. As you can see, even at a distance of 50 yards this isn’t anywhere near the magnification that you see in the photos in the ads/articles.
The “12X” in the name of the lens is totally meaningless. With a zoom lens 12X would mean the longest focal length is 12 times longer than the shortest focal length. Canon’s 35-350mm lens is a 10X zoom lens. But this camera phone lens is not a zoom lens. With binoculars, 12X power would mean the view in the binoculars is 12 times bigger than your unaided human vision. If we compare binocular power to a camera lens, a 50mm lens on a full frame DSLR is generally considered to be normal or 1X power. 12X power would then be 600mm (12 times 50mm). I compared the field of view of this 12X telephoto phone lens with a zoom lens on a full frame DSLR. The actual effective 35mm equivalent focal length of this lens is just a bit over 300mm. That would make the actual power of this lens about 6X (300mm divided by 50mm). You can get more magnification by digitally zooming with the smart phone (you are actually digital cropping the image), but the result as you shall see, is lousy image quality.
To get a better idea of the image quality of the stop sign photo, this is the middle of the above image viewed at 100% on screen (actual pixels) magnification. That is the same as looking at a digital image with your favorite software and blowing it up on screen to 100%. This image, as you can see, is soft.
What happens if we photograph the sign again and use the digital zoom built into the iPhone?
This is the result.
This is what the center of the image looks like at 100% actual pixels magnification. It is very soft.
Now let’s repeat this test with the Canon DSLR and 100-400mm zoom lens. This image is much sharper and provides a lot more magnification.
This is the center of the Canon 7D image at 100% actual pixels magnification. This is sharp. You can actually see the little hexagonal segments that make up the surface of the sign.
Now let’s add the 1.4X teleconverter.
The center of the image at 100% actual pixels magnification. Even with the teleconverter this image is still sharp.
I took the letter S from the 100% actual pixels magnification of both lenses and put them side by side. Despite what the ads say about the camera phone lens being equal to or better than lenses for DSLRs, there is absolutely no comparison. The DSLR lenses win hands down.
On to subject two, the porty-potty. I picked it because it is twice as far away as the stop sign (100 yards), and it has smaller letters to compare.
This is the best porta-potty photo without using the iPhone’s digital zoom.
This is the best porta-potty photo using the iPhone digital zoom.
This is the Canon photo with the 100-400mm lens.
This is what happens when we add the teleconverter.
The ads and articles feature nice large moon images on the smart phone screen. Of course the moon photo wasn’t taken with a camera phone lens. When I got my camera phone lens in the mail the moon was not full. It is just a sliver on its way to becoming a new moon, but I still wanted to do a size comparison.
Here’s my best camera phone lens moon photo with no iPhone digital zooming.
And this is what happens if we throw in smart phone digital zooming. The moon is no where near the size of the moon in the ad/articles, and the moon is looking very mushy.
Here’s the moon at 100% actual pixels on screen magnification. This is sad.
And this is what the moon looks like with the Canon gear at 100% actual pixels magnification. Despite the stage of the moon and less than ideal light, you can still see craters and seas on the moon.
My last subject was the most difficult, wildlife. As you know from the discussion above, thanks to the manual focusing issues it is just about impossible to take a great picture of a flying bird with this camera phone lens. So I opted for squirrels. That doesn’t work so well either. They just don’t stay put. But I tried. Hand holding a smart phone and manually focusing with one of these lenses is a serious problem. Before I could get a decent focus on the the squirrel it would move.
This is my best shot before the squirrel took off. I don’t think National Geographic is going to come calling any time soon. At least not for this kind of image. This squirrel is only 25 feet from the camera phone lens. Compare this to the size of the far away eagle in the ad photo. That shows you just how ridiculous the ads are.
When I finally gave up in exasperation and grabbed my DSLR and lens, the squirrel left. So I can’t show you a comparison shot with the same squirrel. The day before I took the telephoto lens iPhone photo for this article, I saw a squirrel in the same tree and grabbed a shot with the point and shoot camera I happened to have with me.
Here’s the telephoto lens iPhone photo at 100% actual pixels magnification.
Here’s the Canon 280HS point and shoot photo. It’s reasonably sharp but not super sharp. But it is still so much better and easier to use than the 12X telephoto camera phone lens.
The conclusion is obvious. The ads and articles by the people selling these smart phone telephoto lenses are just plain wrong. Lenses designed by the major manufacturers for DSLR and ILC cameras are far superior. These cheap, Chinese made, telephoto lenses for smart phones are disappointing.
The prices you pay if you click on one of the links are outrageous. The only reason I can think of to buy one of these lenses is to prove to yourself how bad they are. Or maybe you want to set up a personal challenge to overcome the obstacles and somehow create a semi-respectable image. If you really want to try a set of four of these lenses (you get the telephoto lens plus a fisheye, wide angle, and macro lenses), go here .
The good news is there are much better smart phone lenses out there. I happen to prefer Olloclip but there are other good options. Check out the links below and the other articles in this series.
Be sure to read the sequel to this article: Don’t get ripped off! Part Nine. Comparison Test Two: 8-18X Telephoto Phone Lens vs 12X Telephoto Phone Lens.
Apexel Set of Four Camera Phone Lenses – This is the set of lenses I bought at Amazon to get the telephoto lens for this lens test.