Review: ExoLens PRO with Optics by ZEISS Wide-Angle Lens Kit
The iPhone's camera has been steadily improving with every new model released, and many now consider it to be among the best smartphone cameras on the market; in fact the iPhone has entirely replaced our traditional point-and-shoot cameras in recent years. However, like many photography enthusiasts we have to admit that the fixed lens can sometimes be a limiting factor — even with the new iPhone 7 Plus dual lens system — resulting in a market for a range of external lens solutions to help take iPhone photography to the next level. The latest new entry onto the iPhone lens scene is ExoLens' new ExoLens PRO with Optics by ZEISS Wide-Angle Kit, built on a partnership with the venerable German lens maker to bring its extremely high-quality glass to bear in the world of iPhone photography.
The ExoLens Pro wide-angle kit provides a single 18mm equivalent ZEISS Mutar 0.6x Asph T* wide-angle lens that attaches to the iPhone using a machined aluminum edge mount. A set of five rubber inserts provides an appropriately secure fit for any of Apple’s 4.7” and 5.5” iPhone models from the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus through to the iPhone 7; an iPhone 7 Plus insert is not currently packaged in the kit sold in retail stores, but ExoLens will send one to customers free of charge upon request (iPhone 7 Plus compatibility wasn’t originally planned, but ExoLens created the additional insert in response to customer feedback). The lens also sports a patented ZEISS T* anti-reflective coating, and an included aluminum lens hood can also be attached to the front of the lens for protection and to help reduce lens flare. Rubber lens caps cover both ends of the lens when not in use, and two soft carry pouches are also included for the lens and mounting accessories.
The edge lens mount offers a more versatile and unobtrusive mounting than the bracket previously used in the ExoLens’ Professional Photography System for iPhone 6, which involves inserting the rubber sleeve appropriate to your iPhone model, sliding it onto the corner to cover the camera. and then screwing the lens onto the mount. The M13x0.75mm thread provides cross-compatibility with other lenses, and a cold shoe accessory mount on the top of the edge mount lets you attach additional lighting and audio accessories. The edge mount also has a key ring loop to allow you to carry it on your keychain.
Not surprisingly, the biggest problem you’ll run into with ExoLens’ edge mount is case compatibility — there basically is none. This isn’t a problem if you don’t normally use a case anyway, but otherwise you’re going to have to live with popping your iPhone in and out of its case whenever you want to use the ExoLens system. That said, ExoLens isn’t unique in this regard — most other lens systems we’ve looked at suffer from the exact same issues, at least partly due to the necessity of mounting a lens properly and securely onto an iPhone. ExoLens now has a lens-compatible case for the iPhone 7, but it appears that iPhone 7 Plus users are out of luck, for now at least.
At $200, the ExoLens wide-angle kit is one of the most expensive options we’ve seen, coming in at twice the price of the Olloclip Core Lens Set, which includes three lenses versus ExoLens’ single wide-angle lens. However, as any serious photographer knows, good lenses are never cheap — and this one is ZEISS glass, so it’s really a classic case of getting what you’re paying for. The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus have fantastic cameras by smartphone standards, so if you’re looking to take the best pictures possible, there’s no point in “downgrading” your iPhone camera by clipping an inferior lens onto it.
To put it simply, the image quality on the ExoLens ZEISS wide-angle lens is the best we’ve ever seen in an iPhone lens attachment — by a considerable margin, in fact. While other lenses sacrifice details and sharpness, not to mention adding edge distortion, chromatic aberration, and vignetting, photos taken with this ExoLens ZEISS lens showed virtually none of these problems. With other lenses, we could usually notice a difference in quality between using the naked iPhone 7 Plus camera and shots taken with an add-on lens, but this was definitely not so with the ExoLens ZEISS lens; in fact were it not for the obviously wider angle of view, it would be hard to tell we were using an external lens at all.
That said, even leaving the price aside, the ExoLens kit isn’t without its drawbacks. For one thing, it’s definitely not a small or light lens — in fact it’s the heaviest and most obtrusive one we’ve used. At 91 grams, it’s nearly half the weight of an uncased iPhone 7 Plus, and we found the weight made our iPhone feel a bit off-balance until we got used to it. Of course, good lenses require good glass and proper focal distances, so we’re not entirely surprised. However, we don’t think there’s any way you’ll want to walk around with this lens permanently attached to your iPhone, so even if you don’t use a case, you’ll still need to deal with threading and screwing the lens onto the mount whenever you want to use it, and it’s worth mentioning that we found lining up the threading to be a little bit finicky at times. Further, if you’re an iPhone 7 Plus user, the edge mount covers the second “telephoto” camera lens, which means that if you want to take 2X shots or use Portrait Mode you’ll need to remove the mount entirely, not just unscrew the lens. All of these factors will understandably leave you asking yourself whether you’d just be better off purchasing a separate point-and-shoot camera rather than carrying around an external lens that’s almost as expensive; while the benefit of being able to take pictures directly on the iPhone can outweigh the inconvenience it’s still definitely a trade-off that can go either way depending on your specific needs.
ExoLens’ lens systems for iPhone users have come a long way since we last looked at the company’s Professional Photography System for iPhone 6 two years ago — thanks to the ZEISS glass now used in its lenses, the company’s iPhone photography offerings have gone from being merely a more expensive alternative to products like Olloclip to a lens kit that is best in its class for optical quality. Of course, the price has also been increased to match, so you have to be really serious about iPhone photography to justify the expense and additional complexity of this kit. Photographers looking for the very best optical quality possible from an expansion lens will be getting their money’s worth here, but it’s fair to say that most casual iPhone photographers will be served well enough by less expensive competing options that provide multiple lower-quality lenses for considerably less money. The ExoLens PRO with Optics by ZEISS Wide-Angle Kit provides exceptional optical quality, but at a price that will only appeal to serious iPhone photographers.