Smartphone photography is a bit of a polarizing topic, here on DearSusan : some photographers herald it as the definitive solution for close-up, spontaneous, huge DOF explorations, while the arrière-garde argue that they’re perfectly happy with their large bodies (cameras, that is) and super lenses. I personally fall in both camps.
Well now, there may be a unifying solution. It comes from Zeiss, who else, bringing with it the promise of jaw-dropping optical yumminess while bolting on to your ever-present friend, the Smartphone. It’s called the ExoLens, and consists of an exo-skeleton designed to hug your phone and hold a lens over the phone’s inbuilt camera.
My daughter recently bought a similar bolt-on lens systems for her OnePlus 3T phones. A Holga-like fun addition that creates the sort of edge blur you expect from a toy camera and which, let’s be honest, is a lot of fun. Zeiss’s positioning is … different. More … serious. The photograph below (from the ExoLens website) illustrates this point quite clearly. The lenses look like they are polished from diamond by Astraea and a held together by parts that would look at home in a Koenigsegg.
Is this all marketing hype ?
Nope. To me, this is a niche game-changer, with a small target audience that will adore it.
So, a parcel turned up a few days ago, sent by the great people at Rivolier (Zeiss representative in France) and it felt like they’d mistakenly sent me a baby Otus. Inside the parcel, 4 Exolens boxes : one bracket for iPhone 6/6s, one wide-angle lens, one macro lens, one telephoto lens.
Unboxing followed, somewhat bewildered. Yes, unboxing. Some have questioned the price of these accessories. And I’ve yet to assess image quality. But in terms of packaging and build, you’re clearly getting your money’s worth. This is clearly not toy territory.
In fact this isn’t even usual photo lens territory. The Tele Exolens, while small, is built like a Milvus. Which, for those who’ve never seen one, means heavy and beautiful. Full metal jacket. Large glass elements. Aspheric design. T* coating. The whole shebang. Immensely desirable. Here’s another photograph from the website.
The front of the barrel is roughly 40mm (1.6″). 50mm (2″) with the metal hood. And – wait for it – the lens cap is brilliant. On my MacBook Pro, the above photo is roughly 10:9, 10% over real life size. Adjust according to your dpi resolution 🙂
However, once past the very positive first impressions, it’s hard not to question the rationale for this lens system.
1) Image quality is never going to be good
Let’s face it. What you’re buying is a real lens. Something like a downsized Milvus 50/1.4 (a brilliant, brilliant lens, by the way). It’s heavy. It’s expensive (by phone standards, dirt cheap by lens standards, and for what you are getting). And, although my shock at seeing these things has prompted me to start writing before any testing, I have no doubt quality will be excellent.
But … Isn’t the final quality of the image tied to the quality of the lens inside the camera ? If so, what’s the point ?
The ExoLenses can’t possibly be optimised for a specific smartphone camera. That would render most of the available mounting brackets useless and would imply a redesign for every new smartphone release.
Here’s what Oliver Schindelbeck, master brain behind the ExoLens system, explains :
The basic parameters of smartphone cameras (Viewing angle, aperture, entrance pupil, sensor size) do not vary so much. The Exolens lenses are afocal systems and we calculated our lenses to fit to the maximum most of these parameters. Therefore the Exolens lenses fit to most of the existing smartphones from optical point of view. The limiting factor in most cases is the mounting of the lenses. We need a very precise and sturdy mounting system to guarantee the image quality (…) afocal photography allows to cover a range of different parameters.
2) But who on earth wants to carry heavy lenses for a Smartphone ?
Well, it’s all relative. The lenses feel large and heavy compared to the plastic toys on offer elsewhere. If you’re worried about carrying 3 Otuses in your bag, don’t be 😉
In fact, the largest is not half the size of my tiniest lens, the C-Sonnar 50. It’s only compared to usual phone accessories that the size is noticeable.
Plus all 3, and the bracket, come with dedicated textile pouches. So, it’s quite conceivable to shove all this into a tiny town bag and carry along a tiny, high quality 16-56mm + macro system with you at all times rather than rely on digital zoom. All for less money than an entry-level compact with crappy ergonomics.
And that does make sense. But …
This one’s a biggie. There are a few mounting brackets available for the most common phones on the market. And, yes, they seem built out of something from Wolverine’s claws. But some people will inevitably fall outside that range. Like me, with my Samsung Galaxy 6. Oliver tells us that a “Sturdy and precise mounting system that aligns the lens in the exact position“ is important and that “Unfortunately in the Android world the variety of phones is too big to offer solutions here.“
So, if you’re listening, Samsung, Google, HTC, LG, OnePlus … (yeah, right) please take note : if you want to compete on photo-related arguments, maybe you need to take serious third-party add-ons into consideration.
If you’re not the owner of a phone compatible with one of the brackets, cases or edge clips provided (see website), you can test your patience by holding the lens in front of your phone’s camera.
But I wouldn’t bother. It’s pretty easy to live-view when you’re centering and when you’re decentering but it’s a very hit (orchid, above) and miss (daffodil, below) affair. With plenty more of one than the other 😉
Since my phone isn’t physically compatible with the mounting bracket, co-author Philippe took on the hard task of making photographs with his iPhone 6 and providing his insights, below …
The promise is simple: a trio of add-on Zeiss lenses for smartphones. What Zeiss do is deliver “other” focal lengths than the native one. One wide, one long-ish, one for macros.
Let’s face it, I was more than skeptical, because I couldn’t see how mounting glass in front of my iPhone 6 was going to make it other than what it is, a very average camera-phone, as high-end smartphones go (Pascal’s Samsung Galaxy S6 runs rings around it, both for IQ and UI/creative software). But it could conceivably make it worse, as many add-on lenses do on high-end camera systems.
Up to now, I thought if someone has the “right” idea on how implement real camera IQ on a smartphone, it is Sony with the Qx and DxO with the One. Meaning putting a real camera with APS-C sensor onto the smartphone. The Sony bombed, and I can’t say that I’ve seen the One set the world on fire. Thus the Zeiss sounded like a bad idea: bound by the limitations of the iPhone 6 IQ, and further burdened by the weight (and cost) of the Zeiss add-ons.
To be honest, to a large degree, I have to eat my own words. I still don’t understand how, but the fact is, my iPhone with Exolens delivers vastly better IQ than without it. Not just marginally better, vastly. It definitely puts it in the Galaxy S7 category in many ways, and ahead of it in some ways. Astounding, shocking even…
More specifically, and here I am talking about the wide and the long lens add-ons, because a shot with the macro add-on is so different from without it (its range is very close-up indeed) that the two cannot be compared, my phone has more dynamic range (its most frustrating limitation) and vastly better colors than without the add-on.
With such improvements, my phone’s ability to handle contrast and less-then-easy situations, just where it usually falls apart, is transformed. Pascal and I went to the Grau-du-Roi on a very sunny day. I took a few shots with the short tele mounted, and showed them to Pascal. He just went ”wow” at how the “system” handled the massive light and glare of a sunny day in Provence. He even asked me to re-shoot some scenes without the Exolens, just to make sure we weren’t seeing things, the way you do after too much rosé de Provence. Then he tweaked the image with a modicum of PP (30 seconds worth) to make it even better. The shadows are no longer just dark and colorless blotches, and the highlights no longer feel screechy. The picture is no longer a pain to look at. Many would consider it mildly attractive. And, remember, we are talking just about maximum contrast conditions, the sort of light that makes any smartphone cry “uncle”, and which is a challenge for any “serious” camera.
So, in a nutshell, look at the results, and I can’t see how you can fail to be a convert, as am I.
There is a catch, however. You know the story about things that are too good to be true …
The catch is the material implementation. The extra hardware takes a bit too much time and effort to screw and slide on. Then it can slip off all too easily. The extra weight makes the iPhone ridiculously top-heavy, making it impossible to keep it in my breast pocket where it usually sits. Because weight and finish-wise, the Exolens is real Zeiss. Metal construction and all the hallmarks of German quality, including a “convincing” amount of weight.
So, in conclusion, I find Exolens to be conflicted. A brilliant feat of optical wizardry that puts better IQ at the disposal of anyone who shoots iPhone 6 and 7 (you’re talking a 9-digit number of people!). But clunky implementation which, while not ruining a smartphone’s simple and elegant way to take pictures and zip them online, to my mind, makes carrying one or more Exolens around a less than attractive proposition.
From a scientific point of view, it’s hard to explain how a passive system (lens) can have an impact on digital aspects of photography such as dynamic range. But the fact are there. On every comparison we’ve made on the iPhone 6, shadows are less murky and highlight roll-off is more gentle. Colours are just better to look at. It’s possible this wouldn’t be the case on other cameras but we can’t deny what we saw with this one.
At the end of the day, there are 2 ways of looking at a product like this, if you’re interested in photography.
(1) You already own and use a camera and your Smarpthone is just your selfie accessory or a documentation tool. Forget about the Exolens system. It won’t make your phone better than your camera (except if that’s a few generations old and your phone is very recent). And you’ll probably not be interested anyway because “traditional” photographers tend to shun phone cameras.
(2) You started photography with your Smartphone and have outgrown the feeble possibilities of its digital zoom. You want to step up to a more mature system without breaking your back, the bank or the Smartphone shooting process. Or you’re convinced that Smartphone photography has something to offer as a complement to the more traditional approach but are reluctant because of the usual IQ issues.
In that second case, the Exolens system makes a lot of sense. The relative size and weight of the lenses (compared to the toy-category competition) and the asking price are less than a new camera.
With your bracket permanently attached to the phone and the lenses packed in their pouches in a bag, you’re just seconds away from a lens change at any moment (heck, that’s actually how co-author Paul carries and handles his Fuji / Leica / Zeiss kit). Although we can’t help thinking a clipping system would be quicker than a screw mount, changing your Exolens isn’t that much more cumbersome than changing a lens on a traditional camera and you never get dust onto your sensor. You save weight, a lot of money and retain the great screen, on the fly editing and social sharing capabilities of phones that somehow continue to boggle the minds of traditional camera makers in 2017 …
For a traditional generation of photographers, it probably all sounds ridiculous. For the younger person that wants to get into serious photography making no compromises in convenience or optical quality, it’s simply brilliant. You already know what camp you fall in. Or do you ? 😉
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