Straight Shooter or Accessory Nut

There are tons of mobile accessories out there for photography, primarily lenses that can clip onto or attach to your phone via a case. The question is: should you use them?

When I was a DSLR shooter, I had a variety of lenses and accessories (filters, flash, that sort of thing) for my Canon camera. It was not at all unusual to have a big camera bag full of stuff slung over my back with a tripod in tow when I went shooting. Many of my camera-toting friends also have smaller camera bags for those days when they want to pack with purpose and take only what they need. 

When I got into mobile photography, as my book will tell you (shameless plug), I still had my Canon stuff and held onto it for a few years before finally getting rid of it. When I shot with my iPhone, I enjoyed the simplicity of it and the lightness of just carrying a single capture device. It was so much easier on the old back. Although I had no issue with using a variety of lenses and such on my Canon, I flat out refused to accept the idea of putting an add-on lens on my iPhone. It just wasn’t happening. I felt it tainted the integrity of mobile photography. My thought was that if you wanted to use extra lenses in photography, use a traditional camera.

When add-on lenses first hit the mobile scene, well I really didn’t know when that was because I wasn’t paying attention closely enough. My attention was consumed by the world of apps for editing, processing, or creating works of art on my iPhone. I was also building on my social network of mobile photography buffs (mostly on Instagram), those like-minded people I’ve come to know. I guess I could say I was too busy to worry about accessories. 

I’ve learned over the past few years that using add-on lenses on a phone really is a thing, and it’s a thing that I’m now into. There are plenty of choices out there in the mobile photography space for lenses, and the quality of some of them is very good. My lenses of choice are from Moment. There are others, as I said, and some of them are more expensive, which may qualify them to be of better quality, but Moment lenses are excellent quality for the price. No, this isn’t a review of Moment lenses, nor am I trying to sell you on them, that’s just what I use and I thought I should include why.

My reason for writing this piece is to enlighten you on the use of external lenses for your mobile photography so you can decide if it’s a possible avenue you may want to take in your photography. So, why WOULD you want to use a lens over your phone? Quite simply, to expand on your image composition and photographic style. Lenses change the angle of view from what your phone normally gives you.

A wide angle can take a “normal” wide angle view and turn it into a wider view or even give it a fisheye look, whereby you can get more of the scene in the frame without having to back up. This not only changes the angle of view, but it changes the way you shoot any given scene. It makes you think a little more and opens up your mind to a new level of creativity. Placing a wide-angle lens over the already wide angle camera of your phone is a great way to include some interesting foreground in a landscape photo or give an interesting perspective to some architectural photos. 

Above: This is an outdoor Amphitheatre and the iPhone camera can get most of the seating area (the curved lines covered in snow) in the frame.
Below: With the Moment Wide (18 mm) lens attached to the wide camera on the iPhone Xs Max I was able to get much more of the seating area in the frame.

One of my favourite lenses is the Macro. When I started shooting with one of these lenses, I felt like I was experiencing a whole new world. I could get lost in my backyard for an hour and not even realize how much time had passed by. I see things from a completely different perspective, and putting the Macro lens over the 2x camera of my iPhone enhances this experience even more. The shallow depth of field in macro work makes it challenging to get the shot you want but when you get it right, it’s very rewarding. Some camera apps like Camera+ 2 have a Macro mode and I believe some Android phones have a macro mode built in but they don’t get as close as a lens and they are just digitally zooming so the image quality is not as good. 

This small droplet of water was captured with my iPhone 6s (so no iPhone Tele to take advantage of) and the Moment Macro. I’m always amazed at how much detail comes out in an image like this. Look at the tiny hairlike… things to the right of the droplet, and what appear to be spider eggs on top of it. You just can’t get that with macro software.

Moment has a new (as of the time I write this article) 58 mm Tele Lens that is very clear and sharp, edge to edge. The two-camera iPhones have a wide angle and the 2x telephoto. The wide angle is 28 mm on the 7 Plus, 8 Plus and X but changed to 26 mm on the Xs and Xs Max. Obviously, the telephoto cameras on these phones are simply two times the focal length and produce decent photos, but the aperture isn’t as large as the wide angle and they need more light to allow for a fast enough shutter speed to capture a sharp image. The caveat is that the image quality suffers because the camera needs to use a higher ISO value, which produces more noise. Apple’s Camera app will use a magical combination of both cameras to produce a telephoto image if there isn’t enough light for the smaller aperture to do the job on its own. This is where the Moment Tele comes in handy. I put it on the wide angle of my Xs Max and the focal length is very close to the 2x camera. I don’t know what the actual focal length becomes in this situation but I’m sure the answer is out there. 

My wife took this photo of me with my iPhone Xs Max using Portrait Mode in the Apple Camera app. Just a straight forward shot. Note the bokeh in the background. The Xs and the Xs Max, when in Portrait Mode, have the ability to change the “f/stop” from f/1.4 to f/16, thus changing the blur in the background. It’s a computational way of altering the depth of field, and it can be done before or after the shot. This shot was taken with that feature at its default setting of f/4.5.
This one was with a Moment Tele over the iPhone’s wide angle camera. I asked my wife to move to where I would look the same size in the frame; I wasn’t concerned about how much the Tele brought me closer, just the way it showed compared to the Portrait Mode image. This also illustrates how the Moment over the wide angle will look somewhat similar to the 2x camera of the iPhone.
I got my wife to shoot this photo to compare the background blur to the one in Portrait Mode.

The three images in the gallery above are to illustrate how the Moment Tele can change the dynamics of the scene without moving an inch. This is where the Tele would be an asset at a concert or sporting event. Again, the iPhone’s telephoto has a smaller aperture so it will not get as much light for a bright image compared to the wide angle camera, but on a day with ample light, like the day I shot these – even near dusk – it’s a non-issue.

The Moment Tele, when placed over the iPhone’s 2x, or telephoto camera, naturally produced a little more background blur then when over the wide angle camera. This is because the optics are different from one camera to the other, and the aperture goes from f/1.8 in the wide angle to f/2.4 in the telephoto. This is generally not possible in the Apple Camera app because of the way, at times, it uses both cameras to produce a telephoto image. I use Halide for most of my work, especially when using a lens over the cameras because it allows me to manually select the wide angle or telephoto camera without worrying about the camera software trying to utilize both cameras together.

So I’ve mentioned wide angle, macro and telephoto, and I’ve skipped fisheye, but that’s like wide angle, just really wide and more like a GoPro. Besides, I don’t have a fisheye so I can’t speak on it or show examples. There is one that I do have and that’s an Anamorphic lens that I use to shoot video. It gives that wide, narrow view you see when you watch a movie that has black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. The Anamorphic from Moment also produces lens flares akin to what you see in a J.J. Abrams movie. It’s pretty cool. Prior to owning this lens I would shoot with the Wide lens and create the crop in FiLMiCPro, an app made for shooting video on the iPhone. When it comes to video, if you’re just shooting something for casual viewing, like family activities or an event, using the phone without a lens would be fine; these add-on lenses are more for doing stuff with a purpose, especially in film making. 

The natural panoramic look of the Moment Anamorphic lens.

I think you can tell by now what side of the fence I’m on in the “use” or “don’t use” camp when it comes to add-on lenses. I definitely use them. In fact, I have a case, also from Moment, made specifically for carrying my lenses and other stuff. But to answer the question, “Should you shoot with add-on lenses attached to your Phone?”, well you certainly don’t have to, and I know lots of people who prefer not to, but if you want to explore the possibilities of creating something different from the masses, my answer to that question is a definite “yes!”

My name is Greg and I’m an accessory nut. I love having options when I’m out shooting. I don’t consider myself to be overly creative, but when I have my lens kit with me, my mind is always working a little extra, looking for ways to make a shot more interesting. I’ve always taken a photographic approach to mobile photography and I suppose the desire to use different lenses on my phone stems over from my DSLR days even though I resisted at first. 

If you don’t have any accessory lenses for your phone, think long and hard about how much you’d use them before buying, because the good ones will cost you some hard-earned money. But, if you do take the plunge, I’m sure you’ll love using them. Do your research. Look at as many different lenses as you can find. Read the reviews. Don’t hesitate to contact the manufacturer if you have any questions about their products. If you have any questions about the Moment line, drop me a line on Twitter and I’d be glad to help out. You can find me on there as @mcmillan_photo

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The Gap is Getting Smaller

There’s always been a divisive gap between the two major forces in the art of photography. For decades we’ve seen and enjoyed the traditional camera style, now known as DSLR photography, and in recent years, the growth of mobile photography has been very difficult to ignore. Its popularity has taken off to where it has all but obliterated the point and shoot market. But still, there are some differences of opinion with regard to the integrity of mobile photography.

DSLR makers like Canon and Nikon have some amazing cameras, but the speed at which they upgrade with new models seems slow for some of their customers. I’ve heard professional photographers on some podcasts talk about features they want but don’t understand why the manufacturers can’t, or at least aren’t, adding them to their camera lineup. I’m sure it’s not easy to make the “best” camera on the market.

This is a very exciting time for photography in the mobile space. The cameras in the current line of phones are obviously the best they’ve ever been and the competition among phone makers is getting fierce. It’s not a megapixel war like we’ve seen in the DSLR space, but rather a battle to see who can get the best image quality from these very small lenses and sensors. I would guess that releasing a phone with a camera that has a larger lens opening than the others is one of the bigger checkboxes on the list of features for these companies, but that can’t be an easy endeavour technically because of the physics involved.

As an iPhone user and one who follows Apple more closely than I do any other tech company, I can’t fairly speak about the technology in devices by Samsung, HTC, LG, etc., but I can say that these phone makers do have their loyal customers who are passionate about their phones. Photography brings out some of that passion because photography is art, and art is an expression of one’s vision. For me, the iPhone produces images that best suit my vision and artistic style.

So, what is this gap that’s getting smaller? For one, it’s the ability to tell whether a photo was taken with a DSLR or a mobile device. People have been questioning me on this for a couple of years now which is a testament to the iPhone’s ability to produce a good quality image. And I think it’s worth mentioning that these little cameras in our beloved phones have their limitations. Some of these limitations can be overcome thanks to the expert app developers out there who have been blessed with the creativity and intelligence needed to supply us with the tools needed for the job.

The concept of “computational photography” has come to light recently with some phones having the technical ability to read and perceive depth in an image. This is a huge advancement for mobile photographers. Research tells me there is way too much to discuss here other than the technology used in this process is called “light field” or “plenoptic” whereby the camera reads the light field of a scene including the direction in which the light rays are travelling.¹

Apple introduced this technology in the iPhone 7 Plus with Portrait Mode, which uses both the wide angle and telephoto lenses to gather enough data from a scene to create a depth map and use that information to produce a photo with a sharp foreground and a nice bokeh in the background. The only other device on the market that uses a form of Portrait Mode, that I know of, is the Google Pixel 2. I believe Samsung has a feature where you can select the focus after the shot, but this is not promoted as a form of Portrait Mode. The Pixel 2 also performs its magic after the shot, most likely because it only has one lens, but it does an impressive job at creating a portrait with a soft background. I may be a bit biased, but I think the iPhone does the best job with Portrait Mode, and it does it all live with a preview of the scene before you take the shot.

I mentioned app developers earlier and how they help us overcome some of the limitations of mobile photography. This brings me to what I see, at least in my experience, as the one app that closes the gap closer than any other to this point: Focos. Yes, that’s how they spell it and it does a fantastic job with how it allows us to select a point of focus after the shot, as well as, get this, change the depth of field in a way that is similar to changing the aperture of a conventional camera lens. For this to work, the photo needs to be taken on an iPhone with the dual lens system in Portrait Mode. There are third party camera apps that shoot with the depth information available from the two lens configuration, but I’ve found those files don’t work in Focos.

Focos has a lot more to offer as well to make the app more fun to explore and use, but you have to pay for those features either by a subscription, which is reasonable until you decide to renew this subscription year after year, or there is a one time fee that enables all the features of the app forever. I’m not a fan of the subscription model so I went for the gusto and paid for the whole thing.

So let’s take a look at Focos and how it helps bridge the gap. I took a photo of a pair of Dwarf Alberta Spruce trees in front of my house after a fresh snowfall using Portrait Mode on my iPhone 8 Plus. The image on the left is how it looked as it was taken with the tree in the foreground in sharp focus and the background showing the nice bokeh that Portrait Mode offers. Before Portrait Mode, the iPhone could only give us an image with a very large depth of field, even with the small aperture housed in these little lenses, and that’s all thanks to physics, which is also something I couldn’t begin to talk about.

Foreground FocusDistant Focus

 

Changing the focal point of the photo is as simple as tapping the area you want in focus, and for the photo on the right, I tapped on the tree in the background.

 

 

 

 

This next feature is where the real magic of FocAperture Slideros happens.  The slider under the image is how the “aperture” can be adjusted. When I rest my finger on the slider, a graphic of an aperture ring appears with a value below it. I don’t know how the aperture value is calculated or how closely it resembles the aperture of any conventional lens, but as I slide my finger across the screen to adjust it, the value changes in increments of 0.1, so if anything, Focos gives us some very fine control over the depth of field. The fine adjustments here can only be made possible with computational photography because the way an aperture ring works in a conventional lens is that with every single adjustment of the aperture, the lens lets in half or double the amount of light. This changes the dynamics of the image exposure to where you have to adjust the shutter speed or the ISO to compensate for the aperture change in order to get the same brightness in the photo. Focos is merely altering the depth of field when you make a change with this slider.

Below are two versions of the photo; one with the slider all the way to the left to where the aperture bottoms out at f/16 and the other to the right where the maximum aperture is f/1.4. The left image shows as it should with a small aperture opening, a large depth of field with most of the scene in focus. The image on the right has such a small depth of field that only a portion of the tree in the foreground is in focus, which is quite similar to the effect I used to get from my 50 mm Canon lens that had a maximum aperture of f/1.8.

focos4focos5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The iPhone X? Meh.

If you own an iPhone X or plan to get one, please don’t take my words to heart. This is just my opinion and it really doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what you think.

I finally got to see an iPhone X on display at the local Source store but they keep their Apple products locked to the panel so I can only use the screen, I couldn’t hold it in my hand. Here are my thoughts on the mere two minutes I spent with it.

I have to say I was not overwhelmed by it. Using it was a non-issue because I know enough about the X that I was able to navigate it like I’d had one for weeks. The notch? Admittedly far less intrusive than I expected, and yes, it is very easy to get used to that. I couldn’t try FaceID but I suspect it would work well as advertised.

I changed the wallpaper to match the one I’m using which is currently the purple, cloudy looking live wallpaper, and I also made sure True Tone was on and the brightness was set the same so I could get a good comparison between the two. The X’s whites were slightly whiter on the OLED screen but the colours themselves didn’t seem to jump out at me as much as I thought they would. Both screens displayed very well. I looked through the videos album in Photos to see what might be stored in this display unit, but I couldn’t rotate the device to watch it in landscape mode so I didn’t put too much time into that.

The photos looked great as expected and it’s always entertaining to see what other customers come up with in these display units when they try the front-facing camera. I didn’t bother trying a selfie with the TrueDepth Camera, I’ve done the selfie thing with my 8 Plus’s rear camera and pretty much know how it would turn out.

The bottom line for me is, and as nice as the iPhone X is, I’m glad I went with the 8 Plus because, for the difference in price, the extra features available in the X don’t do enough for me to draw me in. It would be nice to have the latest, new design but I’ve heard rumblings about FaceID getting hacked or fooled, however I don’t put a lot into things like that because they’re too inconclusive.

I’ve been on the “s” cycle of iPhone since my first one, the 4s, and this is an upgrade year for me. The 8 could have been labelled as the “7s” but I think the all glass design change was great enough to warrant the new monicker. Plus I think it will be the final iteration of the design we’ve seen since the introduction of the 6. The iPhone X style is what we’ll see next year and beyond until the next design change happens. The new designs are tempting when they come out but I like to wait for a year for the improvements. That being said, I might be in a pickle in two years if Apple decides to introduce a new design because the X in new now.

Milky Way – Attempt 1

When I sold my Canon gear I knew that going all iPhone with my photography would have its challenges. And boy, does it ever. One of my goals with iPhoneography is to get a shot of the Milky Way. I knew there was hope in achieving it because I saw a post about it online. It was done with an Android phone, the One+ One, by a chap named Ian Norman.

There was one advantage for Norman using an Android phone. He had the luxury of being able to make his captures in RAW file format, plus he had an app that would allow him to expose with an ISO setting of 3200; the iPhone 6s has a maximum ISO setting of 2000. That make a big difference when shooting the Milky Way.

I tried a couple of apps with my first outing. Knowing that Slow Shutter Cam has a Bulb setting, I went to it first. As soon as I initiated the exposure, the screen, which shows a live view of the exposure, had a strange grid of what looked like focus points possibly (I really don’t know what they were) and the noise was like nothing I’ve seen before. The image was completely unrecognizable. I knew then and there that Slow Shutter wasn’t going to be the answer.

Next up was Camera+. I’ve had great success with it shooting at night but with the ISO dialled down to the unheard-of 0.01 that it’s capable of doing. My night shots are pretty much noise free. Well, of course this wasn’t going to work of any type of astrophotography so I tried a shot at the highest ISO setting of 2000 for 30 seconds, but no luck. The image was just overblown to a white screen. I was beat. I knew it wasn’t happening that night.

I don’t regret getting rid of my Canon even after this catastrophic failure. I now know that the iPhone 6s just simply cannot get a shot of the Milky Way with anything I have onboard. I won’t give up though. And I may never get one with the 6s, but I still get a new camera, er, iPhone every two years so who knows, maybe the sensor in the next one will have the capability. Oh, and I know flat out that the quality of any type of night time sky shot I’m able to muster up isn’t going to be publish worthy. I just want to able to do it.

I was going to end this post with the previous paragraph but I don’t want to leave without posting some kind of photo so I thought I’d post one of the local shoreline. This is the type of shooting I’ve been doing more of lately and have had good success with. This was with Camera+ at ISO 2 for 15 seconds. Further editing was done in Photos on the Mac including the Intensify extension from Macphun Software.

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East Shore Boat Launch