Review: Polaroid 10X Zoom Lens + 16X Zoom/220X Microscope Lens for iPhone 5/5s
iPhones were never designed to accommodate add-on camera lenses, but that fact hasn’t stopped developers from coming up with all sorts of alternatives, complete with their own mounting systems. Olloclip has been one of the leaders in such lenses, but up until this summer focused primarily on 3-in-1 wide-angle, fisheye, and macro lenses — a pattern it broke with an impressive 2x telephoto lens in July. Today, we’re looking at the brand-new Olloclip 4-in-One Photo Lens, which builds on the original model, as well as two lenses from an unlikely source: Southern Telecom, operating under the Polaroid brand. One is the Polaroid 10X Zoom Lens for iPhone 5/5s ($70, aka PCAPCA1200), and the other is the 16X Zoom Telephoto Lens + 220X Microscope Lens for iPhone 5/5s ($70, aka PCA1300). Although they all have the same MSRP, they’re entirely different lenses from one another, varying as much in functionality as in build quality, optics, and pack-ins.
Two points need to be made up front regarding all three of these lenses. First, they were all built for the iPhone 5 rather than the just-released iPhone 5s, so users of the newer, slightly wider rear-lensed iPhone 5s may notice soft or vignetted corners, particularly if the lens’s alignment is off by a bit. Second, like virtually all of the other lens attachments we’ve tested, none of these lenses will work with standard iPhone 5/5s cases. The Polaroid lenses each come with thin, cheap-feeling plastic shells built primarily to integrate a dodgy plastic screw-based mounting system; Olloclip’s latest lens still attaches to the corner of a bare iPhone, or one with the separately-sold hard shell Quick-Flip Case attached. Understanding these compromises will help you to avoid some disappointment — and realize that your iPhone may be drop vulnerable when you’re taking pictures.
Unlike Olloclip, which sells you nothing more than lenses with an iPhone corner mount and a drawstring carrying bag, the Polaroid lenses are bundled with extras. Each includes the aforementioned black case, a small desktop-ready tripod, lens caps and an extra mounting ring. The plasticky 10x zoom lens also comes bundled with a spring-loaded plastic iPhone clamp that attaches to the tripod — a necessary part to attach the iPhone to the tripod — while the substantially metal 16x lens instead attaches to the tripod with an included metal ring, the iPhone floating behind it.
Despite our other concerns below, it needs to be said that the 16x lens actually feels pretty good: substantial, with a smooth subject distance dial ranging from 30cm to infinity, and metal threads for attachment of a plastic 220x microscope lens attachment with an integrated hood. If everything else in the packages felt as durable as the 16x lens’s body, these two kits would be heavier, but otherwise a lot more appealing.
With the exception of that one lens, all of the other pieces in these packages feel inexpensive: just good enough to be functional, not good enough to feel like high-quality accessories. The 10x zoom lens looks and feels almost like a toy. All of the plastic lens caps tend to fall off, the tripods feel hollow, and the lenses have plastic manual focusing rings that alternate with detachment points on their barrels. As a result, you might think you’re adjusting focus, only to be accidentally removing one piece of the lens. Additionally, both of the lenses thread into the back of the thin plastic shells in a manner that makes you wonder how many attachments, detachments, and accidental bumps the shells will withstand. These issues would be unforgivable if not for the “disposable camera” expectations set by the Polaroid name.
Unfortunately, the results we saw from both lenses can be summarized in two words: soft and distorted. Putting aside vignetting in the corners attributable to the iPhone 5s’s wider lens, images snapped with the 10X and 16X lenses showed significant geometric distortion — pincushion distortion, such that straight lines appeared to bend inwards towards the center of the images. Automatic focusing on even the rapid-fire iPhone 5s was virtually unachievable without significant manual focus assistance, and even then, results were spotty; it was hard to tell from the iPhone’s screen whether a shot was truly in focus or not.
With the 10x lens, pictures of nearby objects were all but uselessly soft, while distant objects could be manually focused to become sharper but not particularly good. The samples we show here have no need for 100% crops because they were just too soft and distorted to be usable, except as amateur spy photography.
The 16x lens was similarly mediocre optically. Manual focusing through the iPhone 5s remained a challenge, though when we lucked out and were able to get the focus right, the images were fairly sharp away from the center of the image; distortion and vignetting remained issues. We couldn’t get the 220x microscope magnification lens to work properly, though: no matter what we attempted to focus on, at any distance, with any combination of manual adjustments, all we could produce were unusable blurs. This isn’t to say that using this lens attachment is completely impossible, just that having tried almost every lens released for past iPhones and many lenses released for pro-grade DSLRs, we couldn’t figure out how to get this one to focus on anything close up, far away, or anything inbetween.
While Polaroid’s brand isn’t exactly synonymous with high-end photography, the results we saw from these two lenses were pretty disappointing — the geometric distortion was particularly below what we’d consider reasonable expectations for 10x and 16x lenses, and we weren’t thrilled by the overall user experience of messing with manual focus to achieve less than thrilling results. The only offset is that the lenses are relatively inexpensive given their zoom capabilities, with real in-store prices at places such as Urban Outfitters and Polaroid’s web store falling somewhat below the $70 MSRPs. We wouldn’t recommend buying either of them, but if you’re looking for toy-caliber lenses and willing to accept the risks noted above, you’ll gain capabilities that the iPhone 5 and 5s don’t have on their own.