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Photography

How to Use Your iPhone Like A Pro: Hardware Add-Ons

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This post is part of a series called How To Use Your iPhone Like a Pro.
How to Use Your iPhone Like A Pro: Manual Photo & Video
How To Use Your iPhone Like A Pro: Post-Processing

The iPhone is a great camera. I’ve shown you how to get the most out of it using third-party apps. Even still, it has some limits as a camera: a fixed lens, no tripod mount, and the built-in microphone is terrible. In this tutorial, I’ll take you through some of the hardware add-ons that can turn your iPhone into a serious picture-making tool.

Better Get a Better Lens

The iPhone has a fixed-aperture 4mm lens. The 5C has an aperture of f/2.4, and the lenses in the 5S, 6 and 6 Plus have apertures of f/2.2. Accounting for the small size of the iPhone’s sensor, this works out as equivalent of a 30 or 35mm lens on a "full-frame" SLR camera.

35mm is a great focal length. Traditionally, it’s the focal length used by photojournalists and documentary photographers as a "wide normal" lens. It gives a semi-wide field of view that’s perfect for capturing street and real-life scenes. This is one of the reasons it is the focal length your iPhone’s camera emulates.

35mm isn’t perfect however. If you want to take portraits or have something fill the frame, you need to get close to your subject. For some things this is fine, but there is a reason sports and nature photographers use 400mm lenses: sometimes it’s just not possible. At the opposite end of the spectrum, 35mm is at the very edge of what can be considered wide-angle. If you want to capture the full breadth of a scene you normally need something with a focal length shorter than 24mm.

A number of companies have started producing lenses that mount over the iPhone’s built-in lens . These add-on lenses give you a lot more flexibility with the kind of compositions you can make. They are great for both photographers and videographers.

olloclip telephoto
The olloclip 2x telephoto lens and olloclip mounting system. Image: olloclip.

Originally launched on Kickstarter, olloclip was one of the first companies to produce add-on lenses for the iPhone. They offer two sets of lenses. The first is a 4-in–1 set that comes with fisheye, wide-angle, 10X macro and 15X macro lenses. The second is a telephoto set that has a 2x telephoto lens and a circular polariser. The lenses mount to a clip that attaches to the top of your iPhone. The 4-in–1 is available for all models of iPhone. The telephoto set isn’t available for the 6 and 6 Plus yet but I’d imagine it will be soon.

photojojo lenses
Photojojo's lens set. Image: Photojojo.

Photojojo also offer a very similar collection of lenses. They have fisheye, super-fisheye, wide-angle, 2x telephoto and circular polariser lenses available. Their lenses mount to a magnetic plate or ring that attaches to the back of your phone using an adhesive.

Both olloclip’s and Photojojo’s lenses are high quality. I prefer olloclip’s mounting system but the Photojojo lenses are slightly cheaper for a full set. Photojojo's super-fisheye is a personal favourite. With either set, you’ll get the most use from the wide-angle and the 2x telephoto: they have equivalent focal lengths of roughly 24mm and 70mm, respectively. Along with your iPhone’s standard 35mm equivalent lens, with these two add-ons you'll be able cover a broad range of photographic situations by changing focal lengths.

A Little Support: Tripods and Mounts

You can take great photos by hand holding your iPhone, especially when you use an app like Manual to control your shutter speed. Taking great video without support is much harder. If you’re serious about getting good footage with your iPhone you'll need a tripod.

One of my favourites is Joby’s GripTight GorillaPod Video. One of the reasons the iPhone is a great camera is because it’s easy to carry everywhere. If you are bringing a big tripod you might as well bring your DSLR, right? A GorillaPod is really light and portable. The flexible legs mean you can attach it to something and get a far more stable camera platform than you’d expect from a small tripod.

joby gorillapod video
Joby's GripTight GorillaPod Video in action. Image: Joby.

I travelled for a month with a GorillaPod during the summer and was able to get some great long exposure shots. The GripTight Video model comes with magnetic legs and a pan-tilt head. There are two sizes so it fits every model of iPhone.

If you do want to mount your camera to a regular tripod, there are countless adaptors available. I like the Glif by Studio Neat. It’s simple, well made and attaches to a keychain. It’s easy to keep in your photo bag so when you’re on shoots and you want to use your iPhone to capture video, or a time-lapse, you can easily mount it to your tripod.

More Stable Motion 

Shooting static video with an iPhone is easy if you use a tripod, but sometimes you need to do motion shots. The Steadicam has been the standard in Hollywood since it was invented in 1975. In 2012, they brought out the Steadicam Smoothee designed for portable cameras like the iPhone and GoPro. With the Steadicam Smoothee you can shoot video with dynamic camera movement without having to worry about camera shake. If you want to get smooth motion shots without resorting to huge rigs, a stabiliser is the only way to do it. At the moment it only works with the iPhone 5C and 5S but a 6 and 6 Plus version is in development.

For hand-held recording, the GorillaPod again comes in handy. The flexible tripod makes a very convenient grip. For increased stability try this: point the legs into your chest, hold the phone with both hands, and push the top of the phone up into your chin. You won't be able to see the screen, but with four points of contact you'll get much more stable shot. This is a great trick for walking shots.

Magic Microphones

The biggest barrier to making high quality movies with your iPhone is not the quality of the video footage but the quality of the sound. The iPhone’s built-in microphone is fine for phone calls but it just can’t capture high quality audio, especially if there is any ambient noise. Fortunately, the iPhone has great support for external microphones. Any that output sound through a standard 3.5mm jack should work.

rode videomic go
The RØDE VideoMic GO. Image: RØDE.

In a previous tutorial I mentioned using your iPhone and a RØDE smartLav microphone to record sound for your DSLR. While the smartLav won’t work very well if you’re recording the video with your iPhone—the mic cable isn’t long enough—a different RØDE mic will: the RØDE VideoMic GO. The VideoMic GO is a lightweight and portable shotgun microphone. It is orders of magnitude better than the iPhone’s built-in microphone and, because it’s highly directional, won’t pick up as much out-of-shot ambient noise. If you want to use your iPhone to film interviews or documentary footage, something like the VideoMic GO is what you need.

Conclusion

You can get some amazing shots with your iPhone if you use it properly, however there will always be things it cannot do unaided. In this tutorial I’ve taken you through some of the hardware add-ons available for the iPhone that make it possible to do things you otherwise couldn’t. In particular, the external lenses from olloclip and Photojojo really expand the type of images and video footage you can capture.

If you think I’ve missed any important iPhone hardware add-ons please let me know in the comments.

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