Review: Digital King Wide & Macro + 180 Degree Fish-Eye Lenses for iPhone 3G + 3GS
There's widespread agreement that the cameras on Apple's iPhone 3G and 3GS are marginal by absolute standards, but good overall compromises given the physical sizes and other features offered by the phones: attempting to "fix" the output of these cameras with software generally involves filters and artistic changes rather than real improvements in pixel quality, while accessories such as add-on lenses have been less common. Griffin did release a noteworthy 3G close-up-enhancing Clarifi case, and Meritline sold an all but disposable plastic strap-on wide-angle lens for the original iPhone, but there's little doubt that real progress requires changes on Apple's end, inside the iPhone, rather than third-party hacks.
That brings us to an expensive new set of add-on lenses from Digital King and Japanese developer Toda Seiko, called “Wide & Macro” ($45) and “180 Degree Fish-Eye” ($89), which use a different mounting technique from their predecessors. Toda Seiko developed an adhesive and magnetic attachment system that sticks a magnetic ring to the back of your iPhone 3G or 3GS, enabling you to attach and detach each lens with only the most minimal alignment work. The problem, and one that we’d find unacceptable for our own purposes, is that this adhesive mount needs to go on the back of your unencased iPhone and basically stay there. Digital King’s packaging notes that the adhesive is high-bonding and needs to be placed correctly; at that point, your iPhone has a black and silver mount stuck to its back, jutting out.
Assuming you’re willing to use this sort of mount, all you need to do is pull the twin lens caps off of either of the lenses, hold the smaller end of the lens near the iPhone, and watch as the magnet pulls the lens into place. Once you’re sure that the iPhone’s integrated lens isn’t being overlapped by the edges of the add-on, you’re ready to shoot.
With the Fish-Eye lens, you suddenly go from capturing something akin to a 35-millimeter field of view to a 180-degree field of view, with circular edges apparent on the iPhone’s screen to indicate the perspective distortion.
By comparison, the Wide & Macro lens more modestly increases your iPhone’s field of view to something in the 20-millimeter range without anywhere near the geometric distortion of the Fish-Eye.
A surprise is hidden in the Wide & Macro lens. Try to take a picture with the lens at the same close distance as the iPhone 3G or 3GS camera and you may notice a small improvement. But the lens is actually meant to be unscrewed into two pieces, removing the wide-angle portion and leaving a far smaller lens labelled “macro” on your iPhone.
Though it seems crazy and somewhat impractical for many macro shooting purposes—basically, anything alive—the mini macro lens enables even the focally challenged iPhone 3G to produce centrally sharp pictures at a distance of roughly 1 inch, an impossible feat for the unassisted lens given that it can’t even produce sharp images of objects 3 or 4 inches away. If you don’t mind getting just that close to your subject, and having a relatively small area to bring into focus, the macro lens does a good job.
Aside from the mounting system, the problems with both wide lenses are significant and obvious from our photos: we tested them on the iPhone 3G and 3GS, and in short, every additional degree of width they add to the unassisted iPhone 3G and 3GS lenses is blurry. Whether or not you’d deem the extra imagery uselessly blurry or merely unfortunately blurry is a matter of personal taste and a question of what you plan to do with the images thereafter, but as photographers, we found unappealing the idea of adding a big circular ring of haze to shots that would otherwise be sharp or nearly sharp from edge to edge. The best that can be said for the wide lenses is that the images don’t look horrible when they’re radically downsampled, but they really don’t look very good, either. Even the macro-only lens starts to show blurring at its edges, though the improvement it brings to the center—offset by the super-close distance required—is considerable. Digital King’s results might be more impressive if budget-priced pocket digital cameras weren’t as advanced as they are today.
So our feelings about these two accessories aren’t very positive. It’s hard enough to imagine spending $45-$89 for lenses of this sort, but we wouldn’t even consider shelling out cash for add-ons that produce blurry results; the macro lens alone at a lower price might have been more appealing, but it’s bundled with the blurry wide lens, offering little advantage to the consumer. By combining a case with a part-time lens, Griffin had the right idea with Clarifi, which was more reasonably priced and provided a complete, thoughtful solution for users needing both protection and camera enhancement. Digital King and Toda Seiko’s lenses deliver comparatively less impressive overall results at a higher price while compromising protective options for the iPhone 3G and 3GS. Both products are worthy of C ratings; consider them only if you’re willing to part with a few bills to get wider but even more marginal-looking photos from your iPhone, or need short-distance macro functionality quite badly.