As of today, the single biggest problem aftermarket iPhone camera lenses face is case compatibility: roughly 80% of iPhone users use cases, and third-party lenses all but invariably require direct attachment to a large swath of uncovered space around the iPhone’s rear camera. But these lenses sometimes have other problems, such as impractically large physical sizes, poor optical quality, or laughable prices. Carson Optical’s new ML-515 LensMag Magnetic Lenses for iPhone 5 ($19) suffer from the first issue, but not from any of the others. The only question is whether you’ll actually find their functionality practical.
Whereas most of the third-party iPhone lenses we’ve tested seek to expand the iPhone’s camera from a roughly 30-millimeter-equivalent field of view to wider or even fisheye perspectives, the ML-515 set goes in the opposite direction, transforming the iPhone 5 into a myopically macro camera. One of the two lenses promises 10x magnification, but the iPhone 5 can only focus with it upon an area around an inch in each direction—just about right to sharply render a single key on a typical keyboard. The other lens promises 15x magnification, focusing sharply on an area that’s perhaps a quarter-inch in each direction, around the size of a single letter on one key. Beyond the tiny fields of view, you’ll need to hold your iPhone an inch or less away from your subjects, and keep very still, lest you lose focus.
On a positive note, the optical results you’ll get from these lenses can be pretty amazing. With the 10x lens on, you’ll see details in currency that you’d never noticed before, and the 15x lens will reveal imperfections in the inking of Apple Keyboard keys that looked previously looked perfect. Apart from snapping shots of damaged circuit traces or similarly microscopic subjects, though, users will struggle to find good real-world applications for these lenses, particularly given close-focus challenges.
The photos above show the 10x and 15x lens, respectively, with the same object—a $5 bill. Below are the 10x and 15x lens, respectively, showing the tiny details they capture in flowers. Note that the blue flowers are each roughly thumb tip-sized and the yellow flower’s center was smaller than the tip of an adult pinkie finger; these are the full frames captured by the iPhone 5, merely scaled down; thanks to the lens and iPhone 5 sensor technologies, they capture reasonable rather than awesome pixel-level details.
It bears mention that photos of flowers will only be revelatory in detail if you’re still, unimpeded by wind, and interested in capturing a stamen or petal rather than a full bloom. People and large objects will come across as blurry glows unless you’re literally right next to them and looking for blemishes, rather than the beauty of their totality. Carson’s packaging shows the lens being used to inspect a $100 bill indoors, and that’s about right for its functionality.
The ML-515’s saving graces are the low $19 price point and semi-convenient iPhone attachment system. Carson’s choice to sell these lenses in a cheap set with a hard plastic carrying box was smart, and thanks to integrated magnets that bond with materials inside the iPhone 5, installation of the otherwise plastic frames is simple as aligning the lens with the rear left edge of your iPhone and letting go. While ML-515 blocks the rear microphone, it does leave the flash open, assuming you want to fire it at a target an inch away. There’s no case compatibility whatsoever, but for now, that’s a fairly common (though still annoying) limitation of iPhone lenses.
All in all, ML-515 merits a limited recommendation. The functionality it offers as a camera accessory is nearly as niche as lenses get, which will truly restrict its appeal to a very specific subset of users. However, budget-conscious photographers looking to exploit the mysteries of very small objects will find that this set offers solid value and relative ease of attachment, albeit with new focus distance and area challenges unlike anything they’ve experienced on the iPhone 5 before. We certainly wouldn’t recommend these lenses for most users, but if you want to explore ultra-macro photography on the cheap, this is a fine way to start.
Company and Price
Company: Carson Optical
Compatible: iPhone 5